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Covid-19 and BlaBlaCar’s unwavering commitment to innovation

It’s astonishing to think that the activity on the BlaBlaCar platform was close to 0 during the Spring Covid-19 lockdown. We suspended our bus offering, urged members not to carpool to limit the spread of the virus, and put most of our workforce on partial activity.

Despite cutting costs and having little to no activity on our platform, our team knew that this time of uncertainty was almost counterintuitively a time to accelerate innovation. BlaBlaCar being a tech-driven scale-up, we made the strategic decision to keep our Product & Engineering teams on at 100% and to over-index on our engineering and product vision even as our activity was at a standstill.

While the current context brings its challenges to the transport industry in the short term, we fundamentally believe that the value proposition deriving from our product & tech vision will be more relevant than ever. Here’s why:

Trust in our long-term vision

Our ambition is to be the go-to marketplace for shared road travel. We believe that, through smart-matching technology and best-in-class user experience, we can still go much further to optimise mobility and make it more efficient, affordable and friendly.

In a time of crisis, cards will be reshuffled, with impacts on short term growth or on the competitive environment. This can mean adjusting marketing tactics, the size & frequency of bus network deployment, or other spending, but it cannot affect the Product & Engineering teams and roadmap if you believe your long-term vision holds. It’s what we do now that will allow us to be ready with a top-notch and smart product experience when travel aspirations return.

Trust in the carpooling model

We believe that uncertainty favours organic, agile and less capital intensive C2C models such as carpooling, where the network adapts naturally. We’ve seen it with the French transport strikes in December 2019, when we recorded 2x more bookings on our carpooling platform and 20x more sign-ups on our short-distance carpooling app BlaBlaLines as the previous year. We’ve also seen it with the speed at which carpool activity picked-up post lock-down, exceeding demand in July by 16% in France and 4% in Spain from the same time last year. The strength of peer-to-peer platforms is that supply and demand can adjust instantly to exceptional circumstances.

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Our community also keeps growing rapidly: with several million new members each quarter, we need to sustain our scaling with a growing and agile R&D team that is equipped to scale our platforms and services. At the end of lockdown, we quickly resumed our hiring in engineering teams in order to accommodate the company’s growing reach across markets and countries.

Strong community dynamics

Our decision to double-down on engineering was also confirmed by strong community dynamics:

  • In a recessionary environment, affordability and cost-saving would be key features people look for. This is what we offer in a fair way across carpooling and buses.

With these factors in mind, there can be no slowing down in building the best multimodal product experience even if travel is on hold over the coming months.

Covid-19: A time to act fast, deliver, think big

Our team, already familiar with semi-remote, agile and dynamic working conditions, quickly reacted to the crisis with new product features. We also pursued our roadmap with little to no adjustments (as we believed it to still be relevant for when travel eventually resumes) and found some time to think and experiment outside the box.

Act fast — Our team quickly adapted our product to limit the spread of the virus. We introduced the following features and changes:

  • Reducing the allowed number of seats in cars to 1 or 2 (instead of 4).
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Deliver — With less activity on the road, we accelerated progress on our engineering & product roadmap:

  • We followed our obsessions: to consolidate our different services into one multimodal app, improve our smart pricing algorithm for carpooling, and migrate to the cloud.

Think big — We also found the time to innovate outside of our roadmap. During lockdown, our team organized a virtual hackathon to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. After a Call-for-Ideas internally and on social media, the hackathon led to 6 digital projects and the launch of BlaBlaHelp, a community app connecting Helpers with people who need help with running errands. In just 24 hours, 10,000 members had signed up for the app, proving the high demand for a community-driven service in a time of crisis.

All thanks to an agile team grounded by a strong culture and vision

The Covid-19 is an incredibly unique crisis, hitting economies and industries across the world — the travel industry being no exception. Having experienced 2 large crises hitting the tech industry (2001–2002 and 2008–2009), in the Silicon Valley and in European tech, I’ve learned the importance of building financial resilience for when things go south, acting quickly in emergency situations, and accepting that uncertainty can be the new normal.

At BlaBlaCar, we have a set of 6 principles that keep us grounded through big changes. Some speak to the importance of preserving resources for long-term growth (Be Lean. Go Far.), or of making bold decisions at the risk of being wrong (Fail. Learn. Succeed.), or of making fun a priority just as much as working hard (Fun & Serious). Each and every one of these principles is helping us navigate this crisis and evolve with it.

There is still a long road ahead: we’re learning to operate fully remotely and to develop a culture of asynchronous documentation, communication and decision-making. And we’re still coping with the uncertainty of the effects of Covid-19 on the transport industry.

But we’ve come a long way through this crisis. This is because we have been grounded by our strong culture making us agile and lean, supported by a phenomenal team that has kept its fun & serious spirit through it all, and obsessed by our long-term vision.

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