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30 August 2018 | By Joe Marshall Interview

Ali Clabburn, Liftshare

How listening took the car sharing company from a student start-up to a sharing economy champion

Twenty years is a long time. In the past twenty years the mobile phone has become a part of all our daily lives, our shopping habits have been revolutionised by online payments and Google has become our portal to the internet. None of these things had happened in the August of 1998 when Ali Clabburn, Chief Executive of Liftshare.com, started an online car sharing service, to help fellow students get home at weekends.

“Google launched two weeks later,” he says. “We went live two years before PayPal, eight years before Facebook, about 10 years before Airbnb and 12 before Uber. A lot has changed in that time.”

Liftshare has moved on too. Today its commercial arm focuses on facilitating commuting and business travel, through a tailored online portal and app. And some of its clients, such as GSK and BT, are even rolling out its service to their international offices.

“Our first break came when we were approached by Glastonbury Festival,” explains Clabburn. “We set them up with a branded version of what we were doing. That was to help 100,000 people share journeys to a field in Somerset, it was quite a big transport challenge.”

The scheme was a success, and soon after, one user got in touch who worked for a local council to set up a similar scheme for businesses in their area.

“We set up our first company-based schemes in 2000. Being online meant we could tweak, learn and change things fast for our clients. We kept learning and adapting and quickly became market experts. Now we have clients like Jaguar Land Rover who have saved millions of pounds on car parking alone. They’ve got more than 5,000 people sharing lifts every day.”

Driving awareness and engagement

Liftshare is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a rebrand – a move that Clabburn feels will help increase public awareness, not just of his company, but of the wider benefits of sharing.

“Somebody described Liftshare as being one of the UK’s greatest companies that no one has heard of. Unlike some players in the field we haven’t raised billions to spend on marketing – instead we’ve been tinkering away in the background, helping lots of companies do amazing things.

“We put people at the heart of everything we do, so we wanted to make sure our brand reflected that.”

That people-first attitude is one that Liftshare has been keen to instil within its workplace as well as its membership. Productivity has surged in recent months, something Clabburn puts down to a more engaged workforce.

Liftshare’s head count is currently steady at 24, with each staff member generating the equivalent of more than 2,000 shared lifts per day.

“What we’ve found is that whilst our workforce numbers haven’t changed, our performance in many areas has more than doubled,” he explains.

Using an online survey, he tracks how employees feel about their work – and it has helped managers understand how to keep their teams happy, performing and enjoying what they’re doing.

“It has helped our retention rate, as well as our sense of team and shared focus.”

Based on emotions, as well as targets, the process has resulted in a more engaged and communicative team – that, importantly, are open to giving feedback on what will make both their work and home lives better.

Walks along the beach or river are regular and effective methods of teasing out new ideas. The office has benches outside for working lunches, in-house kitchens and they have team lunches every Monday. All designed to help communication across the team.

Sharing the solution

Engagement does not begin or end with Liftshare’s workforce. As a partner of the Norwich Sharing City campaign – in which the Norfolk city has set its sights on becoming the UK’s leading sharing city by the year 2020 – Liftshare is collaborating with other organisations in the local community.

“Having got much more involved in the wider sharing economy, it’s highlighted how sharing can solve so many of the social problems that cities face. Particularly somewhere like Norwich that, whilst beautiful, has lots of hidden issues around access to work, homelessness, and lack of inclusivity for people.

“Sharing could solve many of those challenges and if we could take some of the lessons we’ve learned from being in the sharing economy for the last 20 years and bring them into the public sector, I think we could make some massive changes.”

Clabburn has started to see the impact – with the Council onboard, events well attended and regular meet-ups focusing on problems such as food waste, housing or transport. And as a sign of the level of commitment behind the initiative, Norwich Castle has been lit up with projectors saying, ‘Welcome to Norwich, the Sharing City’.  

“There’s now a little army of people locally who are making things happen,” he says.

Being responsible

That desire to contribute to the greater good is strong in Clabburn, and it’s something he believes must remain a key component in the sharing economy.

Despite growing pains, he thinks the sharing economy is returning to its roots and focusing on what can be achieved for society through sharing – and he’s keen to impart that on any new business looking to stake a claim in it.

“In theory every sharing economy company should put the community at the heart of what they’re doing. Whether that community is a local, national or global one. Remember that your members are individuals and have individual needs. If you can be rooted in your community, you have a lot of feedback locally rather than online which can be beneficial to developing your products.

“Given that all of us are in a global race to crack the market, the ones who win won’t necessarily be the biggest or with the most funding, it will be the ones that learn the fastest. That doesn’t mean spending lots of money, that means going out there and talking to people and finding out what they value and are willing to pay for.”

It also means listening. For a while Liftshare grew so fast it lost touch with its membership; something Clabburn does not want to repeat.

“When you are small you monitor everything. At some point we found we’d stopped reading every email and started to automate things and that was a real mistake. Feedback is what drives us and every single email that comes in from a member now has one of the team look at it, reply and if it’s reporting a problem, we aim to solve it straight away so that problem doesn’t reoccur.”

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