It all started with a couple of guys and a Dodge minivan.

When Todd Belveal, Bill Diffenderffer, and a group of their buddies decided to plan a golf trip, they had a lot of things in mind. Going around in a car that resembled what they carted their kids to soccer practice in was not one of them. Unfortunately, they had little choice. When they arrived at the airport, they received whatever the rental car company had on hand.

Being entrepreneurs by nature, Belveal and Diffenderffer saw an opportunity in their annoyance. After conducting a bit of basic research, they uncovered that ninety-seven percent of all airport car rental service in the U.S. was controlled by just three companies. As a result, there was little competition--and the level of service showed it, with price typically being the only factor influencing people's choice about which company to use.

They decided to take on the giants.

Despite tremendous odds, their startup Silvercar has quickly commanded attention. Not only has the app-based rental car service become available in five out of six of the biggest airport markets in the U.S. in less than two years (with five additional markets on the way), it is experiencing around one thousand downloads per day. With a massive infusion of capital from investment partner Austin Ventures and with the addition of CEO Luke Schneider (formerly CTO of Zipcar), the company is poised for massive growth.

What is the secret to this scrappy upstart's success?

Silvercar certainly goes to great lengths to provide a valuable service. All users get a swanky Audi A4; the app-based system ensures the absence of long lines; and each car is equipped with free Wi-Fi, in-dash GPS, and Sirius XM Radio. But if it were only about adding some extra high tech features to their cars, Silvercar would not have taken off as quickly as it has.

At its core, Silvercar allows its customers to tell a more attractive story about themselves than their larger competitors do. While someone using a traditional rent-a-car doesn't know whether he'll be a minivan guy or a sedan guy, a Silvercar user knows he can see himself as an Audi guy...by default. Whereas a traditional rental customer may be stuck with little more than a pair of windshield wipers and a roadmap, Silvercar users know they will be able to show up to the world as tech-savvy travelers.

There's a lesson in all this for anyone looking to compete with bigger, more powerful competitors: Making an investment in the creation and packaging of a product or service that facilitates the stories customers tell about themselves is a strategy that will pay for itself many times over.

Published on: Jun 23, 2015