BlaBlaCar came into existence when its future founder wanted to get home for Christmas but found that all the train tickets were sold out.
He quickly began making calls to see if any friends or acquaintances were planning to make the trip by car, and that was when he realized that a lot of vehicles were about to make the same journey with nobody but the driver inside.
That was the genesis for BlaBlaCar, an online carpooling platform that matches users going to the same destination who want to save on costs by sharing a car.
The French company, founded by that frustrated passenger Frédéric Mazella in 2006, now has eight million users in 12 countries, according to the corporate website. Of these, more than one million use the service on a monthly basis.
Following this week’s taxi driver strikes across Europe to protest alternative transportation services, Vicent Rosso, BlaBlaCar’s director for Spain and Portugal, is keen to point out that his company has nothing to do with the kind of activity that has got the taxi sector up in arms.
Question. Are you in favor of new legislation for the transportation sector? What does BlaBlaCar want in this respect?
Answer. First of all, I want to stress that we have nothing to do with Uber [the alternative taxi company that has drawn the most ire by driving professionals]. The Public Works Ministry also made it clear in its release: we are simply a platform that helps individuals share travel expenses. From BlaBlaCar’s viewpoint, there is no need for new regulations. If new ones were passed, they would have to make it even clearer that ours is a completely normal activity, as is the case in France and Germany.
Q. What is the difference between BlaBlaCar and Uber?
A. BlaBlaCar is a social network of individuals who are not seeking to make a profit; our philosophy is about sharing. The average distance of our trips is 350 kilometers, so there is no such thing as short urban journeys for us, unlike Uber.
Q. You have repeatedly underscored that taxi drivers never protested against BlaBlaCar. But the National Federation of Bus Transportation (Fenebús) did. Why?
A. The owner of the Zamora-Salamanca inter-city coach line complained to Fenebús because students going home over the weekend were no longer using his services. In his first press release, he even got us confused with Uber. BlaBlaCar is just a meeting point for users who share the same journey and exchange information. We cannot force them to delete one another’s phone numbers or prevent them from getting together again to make the same trip.
Q. If that is your only role, where is the business for BlaBlaCar?
The French company, which was founded in 2006, now has eight million users in 12 countries
A. Since 2010 [the year that the company launched its Spanish operations] to date, we have made no money. But on April 1 we launched a pilot program that will gradually be rolled out to all users: we charge to reserve a spot in a car, as though it were a train or a plane. This is a good system because the user makes a commitment to the driver. In France, where we have our headquarters, this system began two years ago and is working really well.
Q. How are prices set?
A. Each trip has an average cost that we calculate based on the price of gas, tolls and fixed expenses for the driver, depending on the car. These rates represent the basis of an auction. Users see a green indicator to express that the price is quite affordable, whereas red indicates a much higher than average cost for the proposed trip.
Q. Is there no risk that the freedom to change the prices implies a for-profit spirit?
A. We have detected some users who make the same trip several times a day. If we find that they are using our website to start a professional driving activity, we kick them out. Around 35 percent of our staff in France works on customer service and detection of irregular behavior. The drivers’ reputation is created through user reviews following each trip. That is why it makes sense to keep your prices competitive.
Q. How many workers does BlaBlaCar have? Does the company turn a profit?
A. We have 125 employees, of whom eight are in Spain, although we want to hire two more this year. I cannot reveal turnover figures, but in France, where our model is more consolidated, BlaBlaCar is a profitable company.
Q. Who is the average user of BlaBlaCar?
A. BlaBlaCar is based on the use of the internet and the social networks, so most of our users are young: 60 percent are under 35, and 40 percent under 25. In Spain, most live in the Madrid region, while Valencia and Catalonia are the other two regions with the highest number of users.
Q. Do you think that Spain will continue to be a good market in the medium term?
A. Spain is one of the most cutting-edge countries in our network in terms of internet and social network usage. Our activity here has a wide margin for growth.