Monday, January 30, 2006

A Better Mousetrap

Truly unique business concepts are pretty rare – most new businesses are either ‘me, too’ (yet another pasta restaurant) or are rather pathetic (setting up a new bookstore where your friends can recite their poetry.) As a result most businesses fail within two years, with the only people beating down the doors being creditors. Chiefly what lacks is imagination, either in running it or more frequently in the actual concept of the business (pasta and poetry). Which is why I am usually unimpressed with most new companies.

Kathy and I are huge fans of Fresh Direct – a new type of grocery store that delivers high quality food and produce. Fresh Direct is part of a re-imagining of what the internet can do for a business by taking the lessons learned from the first round (Pea Pod and other grocery home delivery disasters) and doing it right the second time. Hiring the right people and actually providing what people want in a service.

Last week I tried Zipcar for the first time. Several friends have raved about it, and the idea is quite brilliant – essentially renting a car by the hour instead of by the day. Car rental companies make more than 80% of their money at the airport from out of town folk renting vehicles. Surprisingly, no one until now has really gone after the other needs of people in their own town needing a car. I signed up for a $50 buck annual fee, and I paid ten bucks and hour for five hours to use a Toyota Scion to drive to New Jersey for work. It was a completely pain-free experience. The car even included an EZPass for the tolls, with the bills automatically added to my credit card bill. No fuss no bother. I loved it.

Kathy and I got rid of our only car because we can – living in New York has its benefits. Using a Zipcar makes our life now even easier. I wouldn’t want to get a car now if it was given to us for free. It was costing us eight thousand dollars a year just for parking and insurance. For how often we used it, we could have hired a Rolls Royce to chauffer us around. Still, our way can’t be a solution for most people in a country a fraction as dense as New York.

Ideas such as this are a step in the right direction for transit in this country. People are still stuck in a framework that mass transit should replace people’s cars entirely, but with the low density of this country that is utter folly. Mass transit systems, such as light rail and buses, should be designed to eliminate people’s second cars: The number of registered vehicles in the US outnumbers the number of households by over one hundred million. 225,000,000 vehicles. It’s going to be a lot simpler to get people to give up a second car in a suburban environment than to give up all of their cars.