In the shadows of global ride-sharing giant Uber, French startup BlaBlaCar has been thriving in recent years, ducking its bigger rival's legal hassles with a new strategy and a workforce seeking to change the mindset.
Frederic Mazzella used to wake up convinced he was ruining his career. There were other times, he says, "when I thought I was changing the world."
Today, those world-changing moments are clearly dominating his mornings. Since co-founding BlaBlaCar nine years ago, the 39-year-old CEO has seen his startup blossom into a blooming ride-sharing platform with 20 million members in 19 countries.
Today, BlaBlaCar is eyeing new challenges, starting with Brazil, "a huge country for us," Mazzella says. India, Mexico, Turkey and Russia - not to mention a dozen European countries- have already been BlaBlafied, so to speak.
"We're growing as fast as we can," says Mazzella, whose company is estimated at $1.5 billion (1.3 billion euros) and who believes opportunities to expand lie pretty much "wherever you have cars and smartphones."
Investors seem to believe that message. BlaBlaCar recently raised $200 million in venture funding to continue expanding.
But perhaps one of its biggest impacts may be at home, where the company is not only changing how French travel but may be helping to change French mindsets.
"The ecosystem for helping entrepreneurs and startups has evolved, laws have changed," says Mazzella, who credits the leftist government for helping to create a more positive atmosphere for doing business in France. "We have services that help entrepreneurs grow and get advice and access to capital. And the mindset of people has evolved."
Unlike ride sharing app Uber, which transports people within cities, BlaBlaCar is aimed for longer distance travel between cities. While Uber, which operates like a private taxi service, has faced a raft of legal problems - its low-cost UberPOP was banned in several European countries, including France and Germany- BlaBlaCar has ducked legal headaches because its drivers don't make a profit for taking passengers. The company takes 10-15 percent cut of ride fees, and members share travel expenses.
BlaBlaCar members post their experiences on the company's website and feedback is often positive.
"Cost sharing is a big incentive," says 27-year-old Charlotte Jurdieu from Alsace, who has been using BlaBlaCar for several years both as a driver and a passenger. "But you also meet really nice people that you normally wouldn't meet. It opens up horizons, and the trip goes faster."
While the average BlaBlaCar member is 33, older passengers are also signing up. Retiree Tica Julliard, 62, describes her first BlaBlaCar experience this year hopping a ride from her home in central France. "It was fantastic," she says of heading to Brittany with a young female driver. "When young people meet people like us, they think it's great."
BlaBlaCar's employees come from various countries and cultures, but share the same spirit of being passionate and innovative.
Passion and innovation
BlaBlaCar's Paris headquarters shares the trademark cubicles and dreary lighting of businesses worldwide, but they are telling differences.Like the pots of jam, Nutella and breadcrumbs scattered on its kitchen tables one Friday - the company hosts a weekly breakfast time for employees. Or the slogans plastered on its walls like "The member is the boss," and "We are passionate, we innovate."
Many of its young staff have international backgrounds and speak other languages.
"I think people from my generation feel we have possibilities now," says Franco-German Diane Prebay, the company's 26-year-old global public relations coordinator, who joined BlaBlaCar two years ago. "France is growing and we want to move forward and do stuff, and not just complain about what we could do better."
Mazzella says he's struck by the numbers of French university graduates now taking risks like himself. "They're applying massively to startups, when before they thought only of big companies for their future careers," he says. "The mindset has evolved."
Other startups echoed that sentiment. "Being an entrepreneur in France is infinitely easier than it was 15 years ago…there's a real change in mentality," Eric Carreel, president of a young technology company called Withings, told French business newspaper La Tribune.
But not everybody agrees. For 45-year-old Nasser Belkacem, changing careers this year from hairdresser to a self-employed hair consultant has been a bureaucratic nightmare. "People want change, but they don't dare to," he says. "Because they know it will bring complications."
But BlaBlaCar is focused on the possibilities. "Fail, learn, succeed," is another company slogan. Mazzella describes experimenting with six business models before finding one that worked. "The only way to learn is by trying," he says.