Baby, You Can Drive My Car (Especially If It's a Hybrid)

In an age where many entrepreneurs are spending hours awake at night trying to find ways to market their firms as "social networking sites" to follow the popularity of companies such as MySpace and Facebook, it's refreshing to hear, "Please, what ever you do, just don't characterize my company as a social networking site."

With that moniker comes great expectations, says founder and seasoned entrepreneur John Stewart. People hear that and expect the service to be "fully laden with communications widgets," he said.

His recently launched company PickupPal, which could be described as a cousin of a social networking site, is more of a "transportation marketplace" that's about filling an empty seat in a vehicle and getting some compensation to the driver while reducing the number of cars on the road, he said.

Stewart, who holds degrees in geography and computer mapping, got the idea to create a Web site to encourage ride-sharing while stuck in traffic. He contacted former business partner Eric Dewhirst, who had built the Canadian government's first online mapping engine. Years ago, Stewart and Dewhirst co-founded a firm called Lasoo, which they sold to Yahoo in 1999. Their technology, long before GPS became mainstream, allowed the user to draw a circle, or lasso, on a map, type in keywords like "pizza" or "gas station" and their technology would identify the nearest relevant facilities.

Their paths had separated for about six years - Stewart was the CEO of a voice recognition firm in Toronto and then ran a shopping directory site out of Barbados from 2004 to 2007. Dewhirst meanwhile was busy creating the guts of a new mapping technology and instantly glommed onto the idea of PickupPal. Dewhirst is now PickupPal's chief technology officer.

The Toronto-based company has 10 full-time employees, roughly divided into thirds of programmers, search engine marketers and business developers. The site will be completely refurbished beginning next month. Stewart says the current site offers about 25 percent of what's coming.

Monetization of the site, which currently does not have any ads, will be included in the new version. The site will have banner and wireless ads and a Yahoo sponsored pay-per-click feed. If a user types in a city name like Philadelphia, that user will see travel-oriented advertisements.

The site's most popular feature, and one that Stewart is quite proud of, is its "eco rideshare" program. It's geared toward encouraging carpooling at events, festivals, corporate gatherings, marathons - or any kind of event that brings people together in one spot at one time in concentrated form.

"With fuel costs and environmental concerns, there's potentially thousands of these gatherings out there from soccer leagues to church groups" that would encourage ridesharing, said CEO Stewart, who worked for about six months on the site before launching it in January.

In addition to a slew of individuals who use the service, PickupPal has relationships with firms like Live Nation, which owns music venues and puts on large concerts and festivals. For example, when Live Nation holds events at the Comcast Center outside of Boston, it will encourage fans to carpool through PickupPal as a way to reduce their carbon footprint. PickupPal offers an "eco counter" that shows the amount of mileage fans drive and how much CO2 they've reduced by ridesharing to the Comcast Center. It also works with big-name touring bands such as ColdPlay and the Dave Matthews Band, which has offered VIP parking passes to fans' cars containing multiple passengers.

When the Web site launches its new version, individuals or local groups will be able to build their own eco ride-share programs and be able to better communicate with each other through PickupPal, which could then classify his "marketplace" as a social networking site.

Users tend to be in the 25 to 34 year old range, with drivers being 70 percent male and the passengers predominantly female. There's also a strong following among the college demographic for students looking to get home on the weekends. Regions that sport the most PickupPal users are "large cities with big real estate and poor public transit," according to Stewart. Many of the site's users reside in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Atlanta.

Stewart also plans an opt-in e-mail revenue stream and possibly will rent relevant e-mail addresses to Fortune 1,000 and 500 firms. "I'm sure car insurance firms would be very interested to get hold of our list," he said. "But we won't release any e-mails unless someone has said that's OK."

The company offers a ranking system based on a number of stars. Everyone as a new member of PickupPal starts at one star with five stars as the highest level. The ranking system is based on member feedback and overall use of the PickupPal system. So far, the firm has not heard of any questionable behavior that has occurred by partnering strangers in a car and the company's plan is to steer clear of putting forth any specific rules regarding that sort of thing so that it can't be held liable if something should go awry. The company offers a benchmark of a suggested fee when going from a Point A to Point B, but it's up to the driver and passenger to negotiate the price.

"We make it very clear in our user agreement that we can never guarantee that you'll have a great experience," said Stewart. "We're a service that matches passenger and driver and hopefully you're comfortable with the person you'll ride with."

The service, Stewart said, also works for smaller kinds of trips. For example, Stewart said he helped some parents track down their kids one time and one driver was able to help out someone who needed to get to the hospital. Additionally, people have helped each other move things, like a large piece of art, through PickupPal. Stewart said he is still waiting for the first PickupPal marriage and baby delivery.

The company, which is funded by its founders along with some money from friends and family, currently has 110,000 members in its first six months, and Stewart's goal is at least 1 million by this time next year to feel "really successful."

Stewart has strong environmental ties in his family tree. His mom, Christine Stewart, is a PickupPal member who is currently helping the firm with a run-in it's having with the Ontario government.

Christine is a former Canadian environment minister and an accomplished diplomat. She signed the Kyoto Accord on behalf of all Canadians. She's thrown her support behind PickupPal, advocating for the company as the Ontario Highway Transportation Board will consider whether to shut it down.

Bus company Trentway-Wagar challenged the legitimacy of PickupPal under Ontario's Public Vehicles Act and the transportation board has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 15. Christine Stewart said similar ridesharing groups who have appeared before Ontario's transportation board have been shuttered. The act defines the types of vehicles that can be considered "public" and whether they need special licenses to operate.

John Stewart sees the bright side of things: "There are 250 million private registered vehicles in North America and every day about 20 percent of those move from A to B. Selling a seat in your car may only reduce fuel consumption by 4 to 5 percent but reducing the amount of transits will have a much greater effect...If one out of 1,000 vehicles start taking a person or thing with them, then we're going to start making some progress and the Internet can leverage that. It's only a matter of time before PickupPal becomes a household name."

By Sharon McLoone |  August 26, 2008; 1:20 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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