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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Run Up to SB '13:
Nick Miller on Startups in the Sharing Economy

Nick MillerNick Miller is the CEO of Parking Panda — a service that enables parking space owners (both individuals and commercial lots) to capitalize on underutilized parking spaces by renting them to a community of drivers. On the flip side, drivers can save time and money by reserving a spot in advance and paying online.

The service is fully active in seven cities, including San Francisco and Baltimore, and nine new launches are planned for coming months in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and other major cities. I asked Miller a few questions about the ethos behind collaborative consumption and how startups such as his are faring.

Can you explain how Parking Panda makes transportation more sustainable?

There are two big things. The first is from a traffic perspective. In a city like Brooklyn, 40 percent of traffic congestion results from people looking for parking. If we can move people off the roads and into parking more efficiently, especially in a city like New York or around a big event, that’s less congestion and the associated emissions and fuel use.

Secondly, if you’re near a venue or in a downtown neighborhood, it often feels like there’s no parking available. In reality, it’s often a distribution problem. The most visible lots are totally sold out, but two or three blocks away there may be additional lots that are half-empty because nobody knows about them. So by more efficiently using these resources we already have, or even private driveways, we can avoid building additional parking structures.

You are among a young generation of entrepreneurs bringing collaborative consumption models to market. What makes this space so appealing, and how far can the movement go?

For one thing, lots of people are moving back into cities, and with that comes higher costs of ownership. To own a house or car in the city is a lot more expensive than it is in the suburbs. Plus, there’s a cultural shift underway toward experiential living, rather than ownership. People want to have cash available to travel the world and experience things, rather than own things. That movement has facilitated the growth of the collaborative consumption model.

If I can rent or own an apartment but share it with someone else for a month while I’m traveling — and stay in someone else’s place — it levels the playing field a bit. I can have a more transient experience of living without the high capital cost. So it’s part lifestyle and cost-efficiency, and it’s part community and experience.

Airbnb is the touchstone. Staying in a hotel is nice and luxurious — and sometimes it’s the best way to go — but staying in the spare bedroom of someone else’s house is a truer way to experience what a city is like and where people actually live, as opposed to the tourist areas.

It’s going to take time. Not everyone will immediately start sharing their home or car or parking space — or whatever it might be. But as people become more familiar with the concept and a younger generation comes up with it, the popularity will grow. So, there’s still a long way to go in the space.

Is it essential to build a core community of users at this stage of development, or is awareness to the point where new users will seek out the service for a single event or night out?

It’s definitely important to build a core community of users, and not just for Parking Panda, but for the broader sharing economy. As awareness with this economy and way of living grows, it will benefit all of the companies involved.

As Airbnb grows, for example, it makes it a lot easier for peer-to-peer car-sharing company Getaround to acquire new users. It makes things easier for us and for the next company in the space, too. Cultivating a core community will lead to word-of-mouth growth and a subset of users that will continue to push this form of economy forward.

From a marketing standpoint, how do you attract first-time users to a service such as yours?

Our business is a little bit different than many others in this space, because it’s a little more about the transaction and less about the community. That’s because you’re less likely to have a 30-minute conversation with the guy you’re renting a parking space from. So we can rely more on the traditional models for user acquisition, like SEO or SEM.

But for the more classic sharing models — the Airbnbs, or the Getarounds — it’s definitely a challenge. In many ways, building the community is the marketing strategy. Getting a loyal user base that will then spread it to their friends and family is the most effective thing. For these services to succeed, there has to be a high level of trust, and a referral is the best way to get it.

Plus, people aren’t Googling: 'How do I rent my neighbor’s car?' Or, 'How do I rent my parking space?' So, if you don’t hear it from someone you trust, you’re probably not going to discover it.

What is your percentage of repeat users?

I can’t share the exact numbers. But we’re getting good repeat usage numbers right now. We’re seeing a lot of people who will use the service for an event and then come back into the city for dinner and use it again. Also, business users, who come into the city every week or two, are using the service over and over again for the convenience.

We’ve also identifying a number of uses that indicate a lifetime user. If someone uses Parking Panda 2.3 times, there’s a very good probability that they will become a long-time user.

At SB '13 you’re on a panel addressing Data & Behavior Change — what is Parking Panda’s data teaching you about collaborative consumption patterns and users?

All collaborative consumption companies are addressing this issue of behavior change, which is a challenge. But interestingly, we have a user base that is somewhat older. Our average age is between 35 and 45 and tends to be the head-of-household type. They have money, but they are concerned with getting a good deal. And even more, they are concerned with convenience. They may be driving to a concert with their kids and don’t want to worry about parking. Or they’re heading to a business meeting in the city.

The youngest generation — while we do have users in that age group — tends to be more commuter savvy. They are more likely to live in the city and walk. So we’re finding the folks who are driving, and are most interested in the service, are a little older. As to gender, our users are pretty evenly divided, but skew a bit more towards female.

Is there an effective way to link a first-time Parking Panda user to another service like Airbnb or Getaround?

Definitely. There are simple solutions like Facebook, where you can advertise only to people who “liked” another sharing service. Plus, I think it’s great for us to actually work together. Parking and driving, for example, go together quite nicely. So cross-promoting one another, whether it’s in a fully integrated experience or in a cursory way, is a useful thing. We can write a blog post about a cool car-sharing company, and if they do the same thing for us, it’s an easy, targeted win in both directions.

Is there hard evidence that collaborative consumption models are picking up momentum and moving into the mainstream?

It’s difficult to say it’s hard evidence, but I think the sheer growth in awareness is evidence of the increasing trend. But if you want numbers, just look at Airbnb’s growth. In two years they’ve gone from a company that wasn’t even on the map to a company that is doing millions of reservations for space in people’s homes. I think that is the best indicator this industry is taking off and growing. I can point to our numbers as well. We did 75 percent more business this month than last.

We’re also starting to see governments adapt to these new systems. The City of San Francisco, for instance, is doing a good job of changing laws to allow these types of businesses to operate. City and state governments are typically slow to move. So, if they’re changing for a new kind of economy, it’s probably here to stay.

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