Nathalie Criou – Co-founder of RidePal

[quote style=”boxed”]Spend a lot more quality time with people – instead of textbooks, or theories. This is also what I like a lot about doing business and entrepreneurship. It is about solving very practical and real problems – and doing it with a great group of people.[/quote]

Nathalie Criou co-founded RidePal after previously working in marketing and product management in online services and analytics at Google, AdMob and Meebo. She graduated from the National Institute of Applied Science and Leeds University with degrees in Electrical and Electronics Engineering and Computer Science and holds an MBA from INSEAD. An experienced and dedicated sailor, she does both coastal and offshore racing, including the Pacific Cup from San Francisco to Hawai’i in 2008 double-handed, and is an active member of the sailing community, co-chairing the Sarcoma Cup regatta. A boat delivery from Hawaii to San Francisco in 2006 ended with a whale sinking the boat she was on. She is also the President of the non-profit organization BeatSarcoma and helped build one of the largest online sarcoma communities, with 23andMe.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on turning people’s daily commute into an experience they will look forward to – so they do not have to restrict their professional or personal horizons. A lot of companies are telling us that long-distance commutes are really getting in the way of their ability to recruit the best talent out there – and it has a costly impact on employee retention. Setting up their own commute operation is very costly and does not make sense for most companies, but we can make it easy and cost-effective for any size of company.

I also hate inefficiencies, particularly when they are harmful. In this case; we are talking about 50 to 80 percent of the active population driving to work every day in a single-occupancy vehicle – thousands and thousands of people going to the same place at the same time clogging highways and people’s lungs and emitting tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And all this because we did not figure out comfortable convenient, relaxing and productive ways for these people to commute – because driving their car is the least bad way to get to work.

Where did the idea for RidePal and shared luxurious commuter buses come from?

I worked for Google and my experience with the now famous ‘Google Shuttles’ was just incredible – it was truly life changing and I did look forward to my commute. In contrast, I worked for another company located near the Google campus which could not offer any commuter shuttles because it did not make any economic sense for them – my life was miserable. My car got broken into while parked at the train station, I would get bumped off trains because the bike car would be full and miss morning meetings.

I wanted to find a solution that made economic sense for small companies and offer individual employees a strong voice in designing a transit system that makes sense for them. In turn this should change people’s quality of life for the better.

What does your typical day look like?

I wake up around 6.30 and I briefly check my email to make sure that there is nothing urgent on our morning runs. After a little breakfast and getting through the latest news, I bike to work. It is a 20 minute ride and a great way to pump up a day. At RidePal I focus on product management and strategy – and that is about a third of my time. I spend time building specs for our engineering team, discussing User Experience ideas with a UI designer or looking at the big picture with an adviser.

I also spend a lot of time working with sales, and directly talking to customers. We have a lot of our customer meetings on a bus 🙂 – and I do ride the bus on a regular basis, catching up on emails over the bus’s wi-fi network. I record a lot of details and small things we can change to improve further on the rider experience.

Finally, I spend a lot of time growing the team – talking to people and get them excited about what we are building and the huge opportunity in front of us. There is a special coffee shop in San Francisco where we held a lot of our early interviews. It has now become a RidePal tradition, and I often meet candidates there.

How do you bring ideas to life?

A lot of the ideas about the service, as well as the pricing model came directly from our customers – we have a way for companies to start a new service. It is called a New Bus Kitty(tm) and that term was coined by one of the companies that we are working with. A problem all startups face is that we are very very resource constrained – we are never short of ideas and they come from everywhere. However, there are only very few ideas that we will be able to execute on in the short term. So we do two things – we log all the ideas into an online document which we review as a company during our all hands meeting so we can vote on them and prioritize them. We may pick a few to work on if they make the top of the list.

The ones we decide to work on will typically be realized in a collaborative manner – with one of the key functions taking the lead from a project-management standpoint.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I really like collaborative consumption – the idea that you can increase access by de-emphasizing ownership, which is after all a very small universe for most people. I can access thousands of movie titles with Netflix, courtesy of all the other Netflix users. It is very liberating. There is also something very democratic about it – the economic and political model of communism did not bring much happiness or satisfaction – this is a similar idea in principle but a much more sustainable expression of this ideal: the idea of communities of people around communities of assets – the big difference is that this time around it is built on platform that allows every individual to express his or her individuality. When a model can be built with strong economic and satisfaction incentives for all participants, I would think that it is much more likely to stay.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

As a kid I did some work on a mountain farm – if you are given the choice between looking after the cows or looking after the goats, pick the cows. Goats will eat your book and make your life miserable.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Spend a lot more quality time with people – instead of textbooks, or theories. This is also what I like a lot about doing business and entrepreneurship. It is about solving very practical and real problems – and doing it with a great group of people.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Talking to customers and having the highest bar in serving them – if you are working on a problem they truly care about, it is amazing how much time they are willing to give you to help you help them. It is easy to get caught in product spec, financial models and strategic plans. At RidePal, everyone is a ‘customer police officer’ – it is OK to train everyone else on a great customer experience. One of our customer support people scolded me one day because I had made a mistake in calculating the amount on an invoice which meant that we had to resend the invoice and we created inconvenience for the accounting department of our customer. She said ‘it is ok for this once and I will send the updated invoice (note that she owned that decision!) but can we make sure that it does not happen again? It is a really bad customer experience.’ I apologized profusely to her. She was so right.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Entrepreneurs are in the business of doing the impossible, or rather what a lot of people think is impossible, so you get a lot of ‘no, that will never work’ – It is a problem in that it can demotivate your team, and sometimes create a lot of unnecessary soul searching. It is important to believe in a vision – and validate assumptions as quickly as reasonably possible. None of the naysayers will know your market as well as you do – and all these data points from the markets will give you the confidence needed to keep going full steam.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Well, there is one problem that bothers me every day…it has nothing to do with transportation and it is pretty low tech…whenever I boil water in a stove top kettle and go about pouring it into a cup, I burn myself with steam unless I find a piece of cloth I can put between the steam and my skin. I’d love for a kettle that can protect the pouring hand from that steam…I bet that the billion+ or so tea drinkers will love that…

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

Wars. Introduce a financial market to support businesses and innovation so the economic and power incentives of peace time become more powerful than those of wartime – still using the same basic instincts.

Tell us a secret.

Santa Claus does not exist.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

Mint – great and easy to have all your financial picture in one place.

Netflix – I keep discovering gems I would otherwise never have been exposed to.

Wind and tide applications…but that’s just because I am a sailor.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I hesitate between Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky or Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Both can change the way one sees the world.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

I have to admit that I am not an active Twitter user…so I would not be able to answer that question

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Someone sent me a picture of a Dog Diary and a Cat Diary. Everything in the Dog Diary is ‘a favorite thing’ – whereas the cat counts the days of its captivity, indoor and plot to assassinate its captors and escape.

Who is your hero?

I am not sure I have one…

What is the best quality in an entrepreneur?

The ability to prioritize, distill what’s key in what is important…to keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible.

What advice would you give on life in general?

Life is not a dress rehearsal. Make it count. And do not wait to do what you most like doing.