French ride-sharing unicorn BlaBlaCar retools branding and services for its second decade

 French ride sharing unicorn BlaBlaCar retools branding and services for its second decade

As Paris-based BlaBlaCar heads into its awkward teenage years, the startup is unveiling a new look and features designed to expand its utility and appeal to a greater range of users.

This mini reboot includes a branding campaign and a new logo that swaps its colorful, whimsical look for a more mature, serious image. But perhaps more critically, the updates will include some fairly fundamental improvements to a service that now counts 60 million users worldwide.

“We have to bring more convenience to passengers,” said CEO Nicolas Brusson. “Before, we were seen as cheap and cheerful and social. We want to continue to carry that image of being social. But today, we want to be seen as more mainstream, and something that is even more convenient.”

BlaBlaCar gets its name from the idea of strangers getting into a car for random meetings and conversations. Today, it is one of Europe’s most closely watched startup stories.

Initially conceived way back in 2003, and launched in 2006, BlaBlaCar has raised $ 335 million in venture capital, including a $ 200 million round in 2015 that still stands as the French VC record and that saddled the company with a $ 1.5 billion valuation. In the striving French Tech scene, BlaBlaCar has become the poster child for the ecosystem’s ambitions, proof that France can produce startups that become global winners.

But last year, it seemed BlaBlaCar’s success hit some speed bumps. The company had been focused for several years on aggressive international expansion, which led to huge successes in places like Brazil and Russia, the latter of which is now the company’s largest and fastest-growing market. But expansion also included stumbles in places like India, Turkey, and Mexico, where the company closed its offices, leaving it with operations in 22 countries.

This setback raised questions about whether BlaBlaCar had run out of steam, and whether it could ever achieve some kind of exit that would justify its massive investment.

There still appears to be no timeline for an exit. However, in an interview, Brusson was more focused on how BlaBlaCar plans to evolve. He said the announcements today were more than just cosmetic changes, but rather a sign of how the company hopes to leverage what it has learned in its first decade.

That begins with how people use the service. Until now, people booked a ride by listing the city they were starting from and the city they were going to and the date of their trip. To make a match on BlaBlaCar, a driver had to be going from the same two cities on the same day. The passengers and drivers would agree on a meeting place, which could involve the passenger getting on a train or bus or the driver to going out of their way to pick them up.

Given the evolution of ride-hailing and ride-sharing, Brusson said expectations are very different now from what they were a decade ago. For one thing, people expect to be picked up where they live and dropped off where they want to go without having to make several additional connections.

Brusson said the technology underlying BlaBlaCar’s platform will shift over the coming months to make that possible.

More importantly, there is enough intelligence in the platform and a critical mass of users to allow BlaBlaCar to start matching drivers with passengers who are only going on one leg of a longer journey, Brusson said.

So, for instance, a driver going from Paris to Lyon can be alerted that there are potential passengers in towns along the route who need a ride and who could be picked up with just a short stop or detour. This improved search function will allow greater access to residents in secondary towns, where there might not be any BlaBlaCar drivers originating trips.

“It’s going to enable lots of new connections; it’s almost exponential,” he said. “Every location in any country where we operate becomes much more highly connected.”

Of course, it’s also a means of expanding BlaBlaCar’s presence in its current markets without having to go hunting for new territories, which in the past has required either big up-front investments or the acquisition of a local competitor.

It also hopefully lets BlaBlaCar keep pace in the fast-moving transportation sector.

When BlaBlaCar launched more than a decade ago, the notion of doing a transportation startup was rather exotic. Today, the future of transportation is one of tech’s hottest topics, with disruption and innovation rapidly accelerating. That doesn’t necessarily mean BlaBlaCar needs to pivot, but it does necessitate some changes to anticipate new developments, such as autonomous vehicles.

Still, Brusson said that even after a decade, transportation services like BlaBlaCar are still in the early stages in terms of tapping into the opportunity that exists.

“No one has cracked the Holy Grail of really shared mobility,” he said. “Today, 80 percent of mobility is served by cars. I wish I could say that most of them are on BlaBlaCar, but it’s not true. Today, what we’ve done is to some extent pretty primitive. When you start introducing more technology, you can multiply the matching and the numbers of trips dramatically.”

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