For most of us, the only way to get to a show is to drive there. Even in my hometown of Boston, which has many fantastic small venues easily accessed by public transportation, the larger acts tend to go to car-only spots like the TweeterComcast Center some 20 miles south of town. Traffic into and out of the shows is a nightmare, and if, like me, you don't have a car, you have to bum a ride off someone. And never mind getting to shows at other places, like the Cape Cod Melody Tent or the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom.
Enter the internet. A slew of rideshare services have popped up to help riders like me find empty seats in cars going the same general direction--Rothbury listed 10 services on the festival website. But the problem is that until recently, none of them has focused on the music and events markets. Instead, most of them have been going after the commuter market or the casual rider group. But with so many options to choose from, no one service has gained a critical mass.
Pickuppal.com set out to change that earlier this year. After an initial success as the official carpooling site of Coachella, other events and touring acts quickly gravitated to the site. Pickuppal.com is now the official carpooling partner of the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, and All Points West. The site offers a turnkey, branded carpooling option to any festival or musician that wants to offer this kind of a service. I had a chat with founder Eric DeWhirst recently to see how things are going.
Jason Turgeon: You've had a long and varied career in web startups and the environment, but this seems like a bit of a new direction for you. What prompted you to get so interested in car-sharing?
Eric DeWhirst: I worked on doing the carbon accounting system for Natural Resources Canada. I got really involved in talking with all the scientists about planting more trees. What they were saying was what we need to do is focus on all this driving. My partner John called me up and said why don't we do this in a way that makes sense with the internet.
JT: There is suddenly a lot of competition in the car-sharing space online. Going after the music market makes a lot of sense, since it's one of the most common situations where people will be looking for a ride. How did you get into this segment of the market? Are any of your competitors actively targeting this same space?
EDW: Music is definitely one of our target verticals. Whenever people come in and out of a place, for casual ridesharing, we're focusing on it. To get two people who don't know each other to ride together, there has to be some kind of affinity, and if I know that you like the Black Crowes, too, you must be a cool dude. It's a big part of the push for tours and venues to geet people to rideshare. We think we can have a big impact here. I haven't seen any competitors cropping up with the zest that we have. We have a dedicated sales team that is contacting all the festivals and we're going after it pretty hard.
JT: You recently made your service 100% free for users. Most other car-sharing sites collect gas money for the drivers and take a cut. What's your new business model now that you don't have a revenue stream?
EDW: We're going to introduce advertising on the site in 2009. We're looking at partnerships with green advertisers and we think that that is our client base. We don't want a bunch of ringtone and punch the monkey advertisers all over the place. We dropped [the fee] because it's a barrier to entry. What we want people to do is to rideshare together. If we really do a great job and a lot of people do it, we're going to make a difference. Looking at more social networking stuff, linking them off to their facebook profile, then we can showcase that these are real people and you don't have to be scared of them. One thing that is not on the table is selling out our email lists. If we contact you it's because someone is looking to ride with you or once or twice a year we have some big announcement about the site.
JT: You've been working with Reverb, a great organization that's been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to cut down on fan travel to venues. How did you get involved with them? Are you working with them on any tours besides John Mayer and DMB?
EDW: It was a total cold call. They had talked with other people as well, but I talked with Elliot May and just laid it on the line. As far as other bands, yes [there will be some new partnerships], but I'm not allowed to disclose [those] just yet. What we're seeing is that people have talked about it, but said "OK, how are we going to do that?" To take the next step is kind of new territory for some of these groups. We're [also] talking with [Major League Baseball].
JT: What's been the biggest challenge to you in trying to get music fans to carpool?
EDW: There's a lot of people showing the intent and getting into it, but it's still a new thing. People are comfortable riding with other people they know, but they're getting used to riding with strangers. But there is an overwhelming intent. We have thousands of people registering and as they have positive experiences it's like a snowball. For some people it's because the band is telling them to do it, for some it's because they're younger and don't have the dough to drive out there.
JT: How many of these events have you done so far? Which have been the most successful?
EDW: Since Coachella, I would say that we've probably done 15 events off the top of my head. The most successful was Dave Mathews, then the Vans Warped Tour.
JT: How do you measure success? Can you share any numbers with me?
EDW: We measure people and miles saved. The stats [for Dave Mathews Band] as of [July 16] are 1395 registered fans [with a ] total distance of ride requests of 63,817 kilometers.
JT: Rothbury decided against using pickuppal because of perceived liability issues, and I've seen other comments on various sites expressing concern over the safety aspect of this service, especially for women traveling alone with strangers they meet through your service. How are you addressing this kind of safety concern?
EDW: We talk quite a bit in our blog about safety. We have a set of 12 guidelines that you can do. When we contacted Rothbury, we hadn't had anybody. But Coachella took a chance with us, and as soon as we had that, it was good enough for everybody else. Their legal department reviewed it and went through it and the reality is that there is no increased liability for the venue at all. Also, you usually go with your buddy or your girlfriend. It's getting those other two seats filled.
JT: The Magnetic Hill Festival just announced that anyone who wants to park on site must both use your service and pay a $10 fee. What if someone was able to line up a full car with their existing friends? Is there a way for them to print out a parking pass without going through the hassle of having all of their friends join pickuppal?
EDW: Magnetic Hill reserved 1700 parking spots for us. The only way to get in is if you use pickuppal. We're finding that people are really trying hard to pack their car. This is also coinciding with record high gas prices.[If a group has filled a car without pickuppal], they contact us and we do a little due diligence to see if they're legit. If they arrive at the gate with no one in their car, they'll be turned away, but otherwise we'll let them in. This not something you did a year ago. I know that people like Live Nation are looking at it too, with some pretty cool incentives. Front of the line in and out, that kind of stuff. And it introduces you to the concept of ridesharing for other purposes.
JT: Do you get to go to all of these events? What are some of the bands you've seen?
EDW: Well, I have a wife and three kids, so I don't get to do a lot of traveling to all of the festivals. Locally here I went and saw Primus and I saw the Black Crowes, and I'm going to see Oasis and Foo Fighters.
JT: Are you doing anything else musically that we should know about?
EDW: We teamed up with Gibson and for the Virgin Music Festival and said we want to give away a prize. We said you know what would be really wicked? A flying V. So we called up Gibson and we got them to give us some flying Vs. We're having a best rock star pose contest that people are going to vote on and the winner gets a flying V.
Thanks, Eric, for your time. Hopefully we'll start seeing a lot fewer cars at concerts and festivals over the coming years. Meanwhile, here's some footage a giant flying V. Enjoy!