Interviews

Ridding The World Of One-Person Car Journeys

Ali Clabburn founded Liftshare before Google went live. A social media and sharing economy pioneer, he wants to stop us wasting passenger seats by inviting total strangers into our cars.

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Ali Clabburn founded Liftshare before Google went live. A social media and sharing economy pioneer, he wants to stop us wasting passenger seats by inviting total strangers into our cars.

Ali Clabburn hasn't made as much money as Mark Zuckerberg, but his social network was first. Here he talks about his business idea to extend the emerging sharing economy into motorised travel and a decade-long campaign to make the concept stick.

What is Liftshare?

By making it easy to match drivers’ empty seats with people heading the same way, we create memorable, affordable, fun journeys – all over the UK. Nearly 700,000 people have already joined the Liftshare network and over a million car trips are shared every month.

Why is it necessary?

Liftshare aims to create a world where sharing car travel is second nature – because it’s simple to do, costs less, and is more rewarding than going alone.

Car transport is expensive – and out of reach for many. Transport poverty is a real issue. 21 million people in the UK spend more than 10% of their income on transport. Many spend more on transport than on food.

Yet our roads are full of cars containing just one driver. So money is wasted, meaningful connections are missed – and every one of these trips could be spent talking, learning, and laughing.

Liftshare provides a more social travel experience, and makes more efficient use of transport to remove fumes and traffic.

For drivers:

Driving alone is a waste. It’s simple to share the journey with Liftshare – and you’ll meet interesting people, give something back to the wider community, and save money on fuel costs.

For passengers:

Finding and booking a lift with Liftshare only takes a moment. It lets you chat with a friendly driver, saves you money and hassle compared to public transport, and gives you more freedom to move around the country.

What’s your USP?

Our mission is for everyone to have someone to share a car with. Already 80% of journeys in the UK have at least one good match and many have lots more. Liftshare is your best chance of finding a match and covers all kinds of journeys – commutes, weekend trips, event travel any road trip.

We were pioneers in the sharing economy 17 years ago and are well trusted by individuals and hundreds of the UKs greatest companies.

Where did the idea come from?

My interest in sharing was sparked at an early age. As the youngest of four children, I grew up in an environment of enforced sharing! But as I reached my teens, I became aware of sharing on a broader scale – and recognised the immense potential of a global sharing economy.

"For the first three years, Liftshare did not generate any real income or salary"

A keen traveller, I often found myself experiencing the generosity of strangers in foreign countries, who gladly shared the little they had. It was very different from the counter-intuitive focus on ownership I knew back home. In particular, I was struck by the common sense of sharing transport – and the illogical approach to travel in the UK, with the single-occupancy car still being king.

I was impressed by the popular tuk-tuks in Thailand, the taxi-sharing I witnessed in Africa and South America, the social norm of hitch-hiking in New Zealand, and I realised that things needed to change in the UK. Whilst studying on a gap year in Germany, I discovered their organised car-sharing schemes – run from offices at local stations - which enabled me to travel round the country cheaply, making new friends on the way.

Describe how the business started and how it has grown to date

Determined to start a transport revolution in the UK, and help people overcome the increasingly prohibitive cost of travel, 23-year-old me founded Liftshare in my final year at university. In the early days, I also did a spell of early morning shifts in the Virgin Money post room, to cover basic costs and learn how Richard Branson keeps his team smiling. My sister had left home, so I squeezed into her old bedroom to set up this first office where – with the support of a handful of unpaid friends – Liftshare was created.

An IT-savvy friend set up the very first version liftshare.com website, aimed at matching people making journeys with others wanting to go the same way. It was way ahead of its time: launched before Google or Facebook, Liftshare was one of the world’s first social networks.

But the early days are often challenging and daunting for pioneers. Car-sharing seemed so obvious that many people disregarded it. Money was tight, to say the least. I had scant idea of how to use a computer and no idea of how to run a business.

Few people were yet familiar or comfortable with the internet, and creating critical mass proved less straightforward than I had anticipated. For the first three years, Liftshare did not generate any real income or salary.

"A low was when TfL cancelled their Liftshare scheme. At the time we had over 30,000 active members and they stopped funding it"

Funding my efforts to change the way we travel in the UK proved an almost insurmountable obstacle at first. Today Liftshare has a critical mass which cannot be found anywhere else, but the way to achieve this was not apparent in those early days. With a beginner’s enthusiasm, I planned to build membership through liftshare.com first audience: students and festival-goers.

I imagined 10,000 of them joining in year one, each paying £10 to make the website sustainable. On day one, I made just £40 – not even enough to cover travel costs. On day two, it became free, many more people joined and it has been free for individuals ever since.

We rapidly reworked the business model, so that Liftshare is now funded by businesses, communities, hospitals and universities. They pay to have their own bespoke branded lift-sharing schemes, with the option to access the huge public network of Liftshare members, giving users the best chance of finding others going their way.

driving alone

Ali Clabburn says it's always better to share driving experiences like this

The leading provider of car-share schemes in the UK, for over a decade Liftshare has been helping organisations such as Heathrow, Tesco and BT who recognise the impact a car-sharing scheme could have on their environmental credentials, parking issues and finances.

We recently agreed a commercial partnership with global marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi. Working with DigitasLBi, Liftshare has evolved from an online community which matches drivers with passengers, to a fully-fledged marketplace supporting online booking, cashless payments, peer-to-peer messaging and status updates. Our mobile app is now available to download on Android and iOS.

Nearly 700,000 people have joined the Liftshare network and over a million car trips are shared every month.

Is the sharing economy taking off? What’s the evidence for that?

Yes. These are exciting times. The whole spectrum of peer-peer ideas and ventures are exploding thanks to the amazing connecting powers of the internet and mobile phones. From P2P gifting (Freecycle), P2P lending, P2P sharing (Liftshare), P2P renting (AirBnB), P2P trading (Ebay), to P2P financing (Crowdcube). By collaborating and sharing individuals no longer need the old fashioned companies in order to accesss most services, they can get them from each other through these new platforms.

This taps into two social goals – the environment and sharing – do you think that increases chances of success?

Changing behaviours is not easy. If I and my team were not passionate about all the social benefits then we would not have put so much positive energy into building this wonderful company.

Even though most members join Liftshare to save money, they nearly all keep sharing because of the other social benefits and because they care about reducing their impact on the environment.

What has been you biggest high and biggest low so far?

High: There have been thousands – every time we get positive feedback from someone we’ve helped it makes it all worthwhile.

Low: Speaking to people who just don’t understand that sharing is not only a good thing but also an essential thing if we are to stop over-consuming on our little planet. If I had to pick one it would be when TfL cancelled their Liftshare scheme.

At the time we had over 30,000 active members, LondonLiftshare was the most successful scheme anywhere in the world and they stopped funding it. Seems odd to me when we read that London is the most polluted city in the country that they don’t want to make better use of all those empty car seats in the capital.

What would you like to achieve in the next five years?

As a social entrepreneur I want to solve a social problem, transport poverty, and so effectively I’d like to put myself out of a job. We’ve a huge amount to do if we want to get there in 5 years but Uber has shown that anything is possible.

What is your golden nugget/s of advice for people starting their own business?

As soon as you stop learning you need to change something. If you are not enjoying it then sleep on it. If you’re not learning or enjoying it then find something else to do.

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Ridding The World Of One-Person Car Journeys

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