Are You as Tuned In as Zipcar?

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach a group of new entrepreneurs (some not yet in business, some with a year under their belts) how to evaluate a business idea. We discussed the fact that, in the ideation process, there must be a filter by which ideas are judged and refined. Just as heating up gold purges the dross, an idea put under scrutiny can be seen for what is truly valuable, versus the parts of it that need to be cast aside to pursue more pure substance. During one of our sessions on idea refinement at the Cary Innovation Center, we spoke about innovators who had gone before them in various fields. One of the intriguing business models we bantered about was the Zipcar.

Zipcar entered my field of vision about three years ago when I went back to school to get my MBA at the #1 part-time program in the United States, Elon University. Situated near the student stores, and within a stone’s throw of the library and dining hall were a row of cars with the Zipcar logo emblazened on the side. There were assigned spaces closest to the buildings and I wondered what this was all about. A couple months later, we studied Zipcar briefly in an innovation elective class I was taking.

Later still, I read Tuned In and the upstart car rental business showed up again. Robin Chase and Antje Danielson recognized the opportunity while vacationing in Berlin and seeing a similar concept. When they returned to the States, they asked around and realized that there was latent demand for a rental car that would fit an urban lifestyle–creating a submarket for those who only wanted a car for a day, a weekend, or a few hours. The identified a target market of people who didn’t want the hassle of owning a car nor the inconvenience of dealing with the traditional rental car companies.

The authors of the book describe a six step process to create an offering that is a “resonator:”

  1. Find unresolved problems.
  2. Understand buyer personas.
  3. Quantify the impact.
  4. Create Breakthrough Experiences.
  5. Articulate Powerful Ideas.
  6. Establish Authentic Connections.

Without going into a ton of deal, suffice it to say that Chase and Danielson did all six with Zipcar. Of the six, the one I spent the most time discussing with my class of entrepreneurs was “Understand Buyer Personas.”  Basically, this is the concept of characterizing a group of people who share one or more challenges. When a company zeroes in on the concept, they use these personas to drive decisions in product design and development, marketing, and communications. Rather than the mass-produced single item method of the industrial revolution, this approach aims for customization to individual target audiences, the sum of which makes for a good business model.

Zipcar, according to the authors of Tuned In, appeals to the following types of buyers–

  • City dwellers who occasionally need to use a car for a few hours,
  • Mayors, city councilors, and police who deal with parking constraints in major cities, 
  • University administrators who wish to set up a car share service for students,
  • University students who occasionally need a car for a few hours, 
  • Landlords who might offer a car share service as a benefit for tenants, and
  • Business managers who might want to set up a car share service as a perk for employees.

As we discussed this profound market segmentation, my pupils (students) were really challenged to think through their own competitive positioning efforts. Even the mentors I had in the room (present company included) had a bit of a gut check as to how well we did this in our own businesses. How about you? Have you taken the time to really think through this in a way that many small business owners never do–at startup or later?


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