Before even being called Colleag, our small French-Swiss startup had another life and you have to cross the Atlantic to find its origins.
Indeed, in 2014, Pierre Emmanuel BAUD chose to immigrate to Los Angeles to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure in the automobile industry.
You know those Volkswagen vans? Yes, those hippie buses that are so popular today, with some selling for over €150,000… (no, this is not a joke). Well, the last survivors in the world are on the West Coast of the US. So, in 2014, Pierre Emmanuel packed his suitcase and headed to the USA to find these vans and ship them to Europe, where his former partner was in charge of restoring and selling these buses.
However, after a year, several signals indicated that building a sustainable model around that business would be difficult, pushing him to look for a plan B. He didn’t have to search for long because three days after setting foot in LA, and with limited resources, he tried to find a solution for long-distance occasional carpooling. BlaBlaCar? Not available in the United States. Zimride? A service exclusively for students enrolled in partner universities. And the rest? Well, nothing, nada, zilch.
The idea was always there. It’s not easy to take the leap of starting a startup when you’re an immigrant with a precarious visa in the global hub of digital innovation. Pierre Emmanuel simply felt out of place, like he didn’t belong.
Then, in the Spring of 2018, he received an email. « Your application to Cleantech Open has been approved. » Cleantech Open is the prestigious MIT accelerator specializing in green energy, primarily focused on highly innovative engineering products. Our model had caught their attention. That’s when the small team in charge of Colleag got busy transforming an idea into a fully functional digital platform.
But, what do you do when you have no money (like zero at all) ?
First, you swallow your own pride : Pierre Emmanuel created a GoFundMe campaign and asked for help from his « friends » on social media. He explained that he went to the USA because his previous French supplier had stolen €272,000 from him in 2013, and once in LA, he crashed on couches and even spent several weeks sleeping in a dressing room cabin without a shower in Beverly Hills. To his great surprise, he received contributions from acquaintances, long-lost classmates from the other side of the planet, and a large number of caring friends and acquaintances who helped him raise the $2,500 needed to get started. (Again, thanks to everyone who participated !). Then he swallowed his pride one more time and asked his family for support. It helped him see who didn’t like him, it was quite practical. And he buried his pride a third time when he borrowed a significant amount of money from a close friend…
In May 2019, we finally launched our carpooling service, RideSVP. Finally, we could engage with real users to whom we had been teasing for months. The reception was good, but the sustainability of the business model was too complicated. The efforts to convert two people traveling the same route on the same day at the same time for a commission of $2 or $3 were too significant. We needed to reach a critical mass threshold that seemed so high that this war, which had just begun, appeared to be lost in advance, especially without any marketing budget…
However, participating in events and promoting the solution sparked curiosity. Who are these French people who want us to share our sacred (= MF) cars with strangers? To our surprise, it was the large corporations that approached us to offer carpooling solutions to their employees for their daily commutes.
After two years of hard work to bring this project to life, we were told to reconsider everything (the model, target audience, and platform) after only 2 or 3 months ? HELL NO ! And to paraphrase the (excellent) movie « Lucky Number Slevin »: If someone calls you a horse, insult them. If a second person calls you a horse, insult them too. But if a third person calls you a horse, maybe it’s time to buy yourself a saddle.
So we started working on a daily carpooling model for companies that would be differentiating, innovative, and would allow eco-responsible daily mobility to be embedded in employers’ CSR commitments. We presented the concept at the 2020 CES in Las Vegas, and… we won the Climate Change Innovator Award ! It was a huge spotlight on RideSVP, and we started having concrete contacts. We had a pilot project in the works for April with a major movie studio in Los Angeles. And then in March 2020 : coronavirus, pandemic, lockdown, etc… Everything fell apart.
Prior to that, Pierre Emmanuel returned to his native Franche-Comté in June 2019, just a month after the launch of RideSVP. Life clearly didn’t cut him any slack during that time. Sick parents (very sick, in fact), separation, visa expiration, significant debts, fragile health — it was time to come back after grinding and struggling for five years. Only three days after setting foot on French soil again, he found the perfect job : Program Manager at Docks Numériques, a startup accelerator based in Dijon. They allowed him to work on RideSVP in the evenings and on weekends, and he used his vacation days for trips to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The experience he gained across the Atlantic allowed him to do quite well in that role.
When the pandemic hit, Pierre Emmanuel took the time to reflect on his past few months with constant questioning: Why assist project holders in their venture when he could spend that time on his own company ? In June 2020, they went for a mutual termination of employment, on good terms.
However, managing the pandemic raised doubts about the short-term legitimacy of entering the American market. Upon analyzing the Swiss and French markets, it became apparent that our collaborative home-to-work carpooling model aimed at companies in the same business area also made sense in France and Switzerland.
And for the past years, it has been a race: a new team (despite the presence of Antoine Lejeune and Gregory Fourel, two former members of RideSVP), a new name (Colleag), a new visual identity, the design and development of an entirely new tool that does not incorporate any elements from the previous platform, an incubator, new segmentation, strategies, financing plans, communication, partner search, employees, and so on… We’ve been through it all.
This allowed us to proudly and succesfully launch the commercialization phase of Colleag among industries with over 200 employees in Bourgogne Franche-Comté. In the meantime, it was crucial finding a model specific to Switzerland, instead of duplicating the French one. Which we did, and we are ready to launch our dedicated Swiss carpool solution in Septembre. The initial feedback has been very positive, so stay tuned for what comes next, including in a few weeks a brand new website for www.colleag.ch !
It’s been one hell of a ride ! Wish us good luck !