Leaders, Are You Thinking Big Enough? Zipcar’s CEO Has a Challenge for You.

Posted 09.25.2009

I’m taking some time to feed the mind this week by attending the Inc. 500 conference taking place in Washington, DC.  There have been some notable speakers on the agenda including Good to Great author Jim Collins and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The most thought provoking speaker I’ve heard so far is the CEO of Zipcar Scott Griffith.


By now, you’ve probably heard of Zipcar, the car sharing service that is sprouting up in metro areas around the U.S. and the world. (Maybe you’re a Zipster yourself.) Backed up with some great technology, the Zipcar model is pretty simple. You join the program for a modest annual fee.  When you need a car you reserve one online or on the phone. You walk to your car’s reserved parking space and unlock it using your Zipcard.  You drive away for a low hourly fee which includes your gas and insurance coverage. When you’re done, you park the car in its spot, lock it up and walk away.

Before you conclude that this post is an ad for Zipcar, let me explain what really rocked me about Griffith’s presentation.

He began by sharing what one of Zipcar’s co-founders told him when he was recruited to join the company in 2003.  The goal, Griffith said, was to turn a political movement (sustainability) into a big company. That is one big vision.The Zipcar mission – to enable simple and responsible urban living – is elegant in its simplicity.

Griffith and the Zipcar team are delivering on the vision and the mission. In his Inc. talk, Griffith noted that the majority of people in the world live in metro areas and on average drive their cars a few hours at a time for a few hours a week. In the United States, there are more cars than people and for the average U.S. family, the annual cost of transportation is 19% of household income. By using the car sharing service, the average Zipster is able to reduce their household transportation budget from 19% of income to 5%. Since the average household income of a Zipster is $80,000, they’re saving around $11,000 a year by using the service. Looking at the bigger picture, every Zipcar in service takes about 15 to 20 personal vehicles off the road and the overall fleet reduces fuel consumption by 32 million gallons a year. In case you’re wondering how the company is doing, they’ve gone from no revenues as a start up seven years ago to a projected $130 million this year.

In wrapping up his conference remarks, Griffith offered seven lessons he’s learned while leading Zipcar:

1.    Get the business model right.
2.    Use information as a competitive advantage.
3.    Keep it simple.
4.    Build a values based culture.
5.    Sell the steak, not the sizzle.
6.    Have a worldview.
7.    Innovate yourself along with your company.

All seven points make a ton of sense to me for leaders in both the private and public sectors. The ones that really have me thinking are the last two. I realized today that I have a big opportunity to think more about how my worldview informs the work my company is doing. My guess is that progress there will spur the personal and company innovation that Griffith calls for.

Which of Griffith’s seven points seems to present the biggest opportunity for you?  What difference could it make to focus on it?