The web sharing economy is booming in the crowded streets of Paris

Walk down one of the narrow streets of Paris and there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon one of the world’s most sophisticated car-sharing networks. The Autolib electric car system — marked by the tiny, boxy electric Bluecars and the neon-hued electric car chargers — is run by a public-private partnership and currently has some 65,000 users and a goal to have 3,000 cars available this year.

But Autolib isn’t even the biggest car-sharing network in Paris. That would be the one created by upstart Drivy, which has around 10,000 cars and 115,000 users, according to Drivy’s CEO and founder Paulin Dementhon. The three-year-old Drivy, like its American peers Getaround and RelayRides, has created a platform that enables car owners to rent out their own cars to local drivers.

Autolib, the Paris electric car sharing network
Autolib, the Paris electric car-sharing network

Drivy is one of an estimated nine car-sharing companies operating in Paris. The competition has gotten fierce enough that recently, one competitor (BuzzCar) bought another (CityzenCar). BuzzCar, which has over 50,000 users who share 7,000 cars, was founded by Robin Chase, who also founded Zipcar.

Cars are just one of the types of things that Parisians are sharing using a new-style economic model that is called everything from  collaborative consumption to web sharing to the mesh. One of the earliest web-sharing companies Zilok, which enables users to rent out items like tools, is based in Paris.

Airbnb has a large user base in the city (I’m writing this from a Parisian flat rented on Airbnb). Airbnb’s Olivier Gremillon tells me that Paris is the company’s top city in Europe, and second largest in the world in terms of number of listings and number of guests. Over the past 12 months, Airbnb Paris has welcomed 200,000 guests in Paris, says Gremillon.

There’s so much action going on that a company called OuiShare has launched as part thinktank, part media company to track the local scene. They held a conference called OuiShare Fest in May in Paris that brought in 700 people.

Drivy’s founder Dementhon tells me during an interview at Drivy’s offices: “We [France] are the perfect country for collaborative consumption.” Gremillon tells me that he thinks “Paris and France are really leading the charge in the world of sharing economy.”

Why Paris?

One of the obvious drivers of at least the car-sharing economy in Paris is the city’s crowded streets and lack of parking spaces. It’s not just that traffic blocks the motorways at most times (which it does), but parking in the city’s winding streets is utterly impacted. I used an Uber to get to a meeting this week and it took double the time it would have taken me in San Francisco to drive across the city due to both traffic and small streets filled with parked, and double parked, cars.

The CEO and founder of Drivy, Paulin Dementhon
The CEO and founder of Drivy, Paulin Dementhon

It’s also expensive to own and operate a car in Paris. Gas, car ownership and driving on toll roads all take a lot of money. That’s one of the first reasons that people sign up for peer-to-peer car-sharing companies in Paris like Drivy, or BuzzCar, as well as ride sharing services like Blablacar. Car owners can help cover the cost of owning the car, and in the car-sharing schemes, drivers can rent out the cars for cheaper than it would cost to own. For ride sharing, the collaborative consumption economy can reduce the cost of driving.

Parking is also bad enough in the city that if there’s enough cars in the car-sharing company’s network, there’s good odds that one of the shared cars is pretty close to where the user is. Drivy markets its service as closer to where its drivers are (now that it’s got 10,000 cars signed up). There’s an inherent network effect once a company gets big enough. Autolib also has the added bonus of designated parking spots and one-way driving trips.

But beyond the crowded streets and the car-sharing opportunity, Dementhon thinks there’s something more inherent in the Parisian culture that is spurring the web sharing economy in the city. Paris has a well-off population, but is also a place that is relaxed enough to accept some of the messines that it takes to make web sharing work.

“We’re less square. We tolerate less organization,” says Dementhon. Anyone who’s rented a car from a car-sharing network (particularly right after someone has used it), or an apartment off of Airbnb knows what he’s talking about. It takes some getting used to and there’s a lot of things that can be unexpected, like less-than-clean cars and apartments, or quirky cars and apartment owners.

Lessons for the U.S.

Paris has such a vibrant web sharing culture that their American counterparts could stand to learn a thing or two from the Parisians. Blablacar found success with its ridesharing service, when that type of service has failed to take off in the U.S. Drivy also seemed to get its target market right faster than its American counterparts by focusing on day-long and multi-day trips, instead of looking to have its cars rented out by the hour.

ParisDrivy is now particularly focused on making sure its services — for cars and drivers that have problems — is robust and takes care of its users. Blablacar has also spent years developing services — from ratings to engagement to activities — that build trust in its community.

The car technology aspect has been secondary to the Parisian companies, while developing and taking care of their community has been the more important. Drivy hasn’t focused much on the automated tech aspect of its service yet. That’s in contrast to American counterparts Getaround and RelayRides, which have highlighted the automated unlocking and locking systems as major parts of their companies. Dementhon tells me that Drivy will definitely add the automated tech aspect soon enough, but is still looking at how things like IOS for cars change the game.

Both Blablacar and Drivy want to expand on their successes in Paris and grow their services across Europe, but are hesitant to rush into launching in the U.S. The reality is that Paris, and Europe in general, isn’t such a big market for an enterprising startup. Latin America might be more interesting to Drivy when it wants to grow. When they do expand outside of Europe, they’ll take what they learned with them.

We think web sharing startups and tech companies in Paris are interesting enough that we’re growing our coverage of that scene, as well as tech companies across London and Berlin. We’re holding our second annual Structure:Europe conference in London in late September this year, and we’re looking for startups to join our lineup.