How to Grow Sustainably

2021-05-18 -

What comes to mind when you think of sharing a ride with a talkative person? Quiet person? Your preference for companionship will dictate who you would most enjoy sharing a ride with. Enter BlaBlaCar —the world's leading carpooling company based in France.

BlaBla car is a ridesharing platform that allows you to choose your companions based on conversation preference.  In your user profile, you specify, "Bla" for a calm drive, "bla bla" for a moderate level of conversation and "bla bla bla" if you want to chat the entire duration of the trip. Hence the name BlaBlaCar.

Since its inception over 15 years ago, the ride-sharing platform has undergone several corporate developments, including 12 acquisitions, expansion in 22 countries with over 100 million users. It has secured over $400 million in funding. How did the company achieve all these milestones?

In this podcast, Tobias chats with Olivier Bonnet, the CTO of BlaBlaCar, about the strategy behind BlaBlaCar. The pair also discusses the company's short-term and long-term roadmaps, the complexity of route planning, and how writing helps associates at BlaBlaCar structure their thoughts.

Olivier’s Background

Before becoming the CTO of BlaBlaCar, Olivier was an Apple veteran. He started his nerd journey when he was just a boy back in the '80s playing classic Mac OS computer games. He discovered the thrill of coding early on. He studied engineering with focus on computer science. Always an Apple fan, he wanted to see what Apple was like on the inside and landed an internship there straight out of college in 2004. In 2012, Olivier moved from Paris to Apple's headquarters in California, where he was tasked with leading the Operating System teams to develop everything related to iCloud.

"My team was responsible for some of the parts of the operating system that were interacting with the servers, and so I actually, until I left Apple, I was really just on the client-side on the like operating systems part." He confesses that he had never written a line of server code until 2017.

What he learnt from Apple’s once-a-year shipping cycle

How you ship software determines your workflow. Apple ships on a yearly cycle - a huge release in September-October, with smaller mid-year release around spring. 4 features a year max. Meanwhile, BlaBlaCar ships software multiple times a day. For Apple, although things are changing slightly, Agile isn’t a thing. Anything that isn’t ready or will not be ready before the release date - is put aside for the next year.

This means that to deliver the results and meet the exact expectations of your users in, say, six months, you need to boost your internal, engineering, and product design culture. Every few months a meeting is held to see which features are on schedule. Anything that is not mature enough to be able to be released by the release date is shelved to the next year and its resources allocated elsewhere.

With yearly releases, there is less room for A/B testing - you need to throw your weight behind one option and stick with it until the next release date. Olivier said he learnt the power of a kind of discipline boost, ruthless prioritization front hat that yearly release culture. No matter what happens, it will ship on the date.

Sustainable Growth - unlike Uber

In recent years, many efforts at BlaBlaCar have been spent on securing funding and acquisitions to accelerate the company's growth strategy. But Olivier says that unlike Uber's playbook, where they want to grow rapidly and at any cost, they have taken a different approach.

"We've been actually building (our) strategy over multiple years, like growing the markets, making sure that we had the right amount of liquidity between drivers and passengers on the corporate side and then monetizing it, etc. So, that (has) actually been working very well for us."

He explains that although they have been taking just a tiny share on every ride, the company has been quite profitable.

On why they've acquired dozens of companies, Olivier says that two things inform this decision:

  • Expand to new locales - The play here, Olivier says, is to partner with smart people and leaders in different countries who can push the carpooling vision to help drivers share their costs.
  • Enter the bus market and become a multimodal company. For this reason, the company acquired several bus companies, including Ouibus and Busfor, to diversify its market to other modes of transportation beyond cars.

Staying focussed on your vision

"Today, it's easy to get funding. And so I think this is not just specific about us. But it's like: do we need to become public to fund ourselves? And at this point, no!"

"It's actually quite easy. We have a lot of growth, and we're able to get a lot of inbound interest from investors and fans. And so I think we might do this at some point in the future, but when we're ready and on our own terms."

"But again that's where having the discipline to build your vision year over year, step-by-step (comes in) -- and accepting that it will take some time… It takes time to build the right process, to build the connection, to build both people connection and systems connections."

"Thats where having the discipline to build your vision year over year, step-by-step (comes in) -- and accepting that it will take some time… It takes time to build the right process, to build the connection, to build both people connection and systems connections."-Olivier, BlaBlaCar

The Importance of everyone being on board the team’s vision

At Apple, everyone is just excited to be shipping software to a billion users. No one - or at least not Olivier - was spending time wondering if it was a top-down company. Everyone felt that they had the wherewithal to suggest new features to what they were working on. However the main features- the ones that made it to the keynotes- did require a lot of different teams so in that case, alignment and discipline were essential. But in general, Olivier was happy because he was doing what he loved - even if it was asked of him

Recent Technological Growth

Tobi asks Olivier about BlaBlaCar's secret sauce, somewhat challenging Olivier to explain the complexity of BlaBlaCar's technology. Olivier makes an attempt at explaining the company's complex technology:

  1. They migrated from an on-premise environment to Google cloud, all without disturbing users. It was a challenge to build new features while maintaining their services.
  2. They had to decompose the PHP Symfony mullets on which BlaBlaCar was built. This was due to the rapid growth and scaling of the company between 2012 to 2017. In 2017 BlaBlaCar realized they had scaled too quickly. They had not set up those central processes or teams, which are needed to keep scaling, to keep iterating, to keep innovating on that product. They decomposed that mullet by making sure that the different perimeters of the App are well understood, well maintained, and have a team that's dedicated to them.
  3. They had to build an app that offers the best customer experience in line with their new multimodal product. It was no longer the carpool-centric product they had started with, the company had evolved and the app needed to evolve too. "Evolving what was very much a C2C product of carpool sharing to a more diverse multimodal product. Even though where yes, carpool is still one of our big strengths, it has a lot of positive effects, but it's just one of the multiple legs that we are operating and. And Just one of the multiple types of supply that we want to provide to our users."’
  4. They had to create a new smart stopover feature which make it easier and more convenient for users to discover some of the short-distance trips on the App as an alternative to taking other means like a cab

"As a driver, I can publish a trip. I can enter what we call a manual stopover of, okay, along the way between Hamburg and Berlin, I know I will be stopping, or I know the highway goes near those cities. So if there are some people that I can pick up or drop off in those cities, I'm okay (with that), and I can do that."

Product Development Framework Similar to Amazon's

Taking it step-by-step helps keep teams disciplined and organized. At BlaBlaCar, the CPO and the product team have developed a product development framework similar to Amazon's.

  1. **Start with the PR **- if we were to roll this out to the world, what would we say about it? How would we put the spotlight on that?
  2. **Benchmark **- what are other, similar companies that are operating marketplaces like us? What did they do to solve that problem? What are the metrics we want to move? And what would be a success for this project?
  3. User Research
  4. Design Implementation
  5. Testing full specs

Olivier's tips to other CTOs:

  • You need to keep on writing if you want to articulate your thoughts clearly

  • As a leader, you need honest introspection

    His philosophy is to improve himself continuously. But you can only do that if you understand in-depth why you behave the way you do.

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