How is Ridj-it making the New England outdoors more accessible? Charging for it.

Nature-loving New Englanders are blessed with close proximity to some of the most beautiful mountains, lakes, and forests in the United States. And yet, a large number of city dwellers in Boston can only make it as far as the T and Commuter Rail can take them. The scenic vistas and the excitement of new adventures eludes them, even when they’re so close.

The fact is, you need a car to have the freedom to access the best of what New England’s outdoor culture has to offer. With outdoor access limited to those with their own means of transportation, many groups of people — such as international students, underprivileged youth, and more — are denied the experience of enjoying the countless activities that rural New England holds.

Ridj-it, a ridesharing and carpooling startup based in Boston, has set out to change that. Ridj-it is the creation of Ari Iaccarino and Rik Ganguly, two avid hikers who realized that there was a business and social-good opportunity to make the outdoors more accessible to underserved groups. We interviewed Ari to learn how Ridj-it got its start and some of they strategies they’re using to grow.

Can you share a bit about your background from before starting Ridj-it?

My friend and cofounder Rik Ganguly and I met when we were students at Marlboro College in Vermont. At the time, we thought we were too busy to engage with outdoor activities. It’s a very intense college — only 300 people — and there was a lot of pressure to get your work done. Other than playing soccer together, we didn’t connect until we both lived in Boston a couple years later. Rik was working in multiple sclerosis research, and I had just returned from Spain teaching ESL classes and hiking twice a week.

When we did reconnect in Boston we played soccer together again, but we also wanted a little bit of freedom from the city. Hiking was a good way to get out, and I wanted that same experience in Boston. Rik also wanted that, so we began hiking together for about 3 years together with friends. One day, we hiked Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains, and on the way back we realized, “There’s no easy way to get out here.” Really though, this is the story across America — constant desire to get out without affordable transport.

We started looking for a way to solve this problem, and we first thought of using vans, but that was too expensive. At the same time, people feel like the outdoors shouldn’t be monetized, so they don’t want to pay an exorbitant amount of money, but there were businesses in New York doing this by charging $400 for three months.

There just weren’t a lot of good solutions to make the outdoors more affordable, and seeing as I’m a public educator and Rik does healthcare analytics, we’re both very focused on accessibility at affordable prices. Learning, health, community, all of these aspects are important in the fields we’ve practice in, and we want to carry the same commitment to Ridj-it.

What does Ridj-it do differently?

Our rides cost $10-$30 for a five-hour trip. The cost depends on the length of the trip, how many people go, etc. We take a cut, but a large amount of what each rider pays goes to the driver. We’re also not a rideshare — we’re carpool.

The driver has a vested interest in the same destination and activity as the rider, and both will engage in the outdoors together. In addition, we also connect the carpool to small businesses that serve the outdoors, whether that be ski lodges, kayak rentals, ziplining establishments, and even groups like the Trustees of Reservations and Massachusetts Audubon.

Essentially, we realized that there are a lot of people who don’t have access to the outdoors because they can’t afford it, or don’t know what’s out there. We have a very diverse group, as internationals make up a good portion of our users, but our local users also range from various racial and economic backgrounds.

We’re opening up the outdoors to people who can’t afford a car or just can’t find another reason to have one beyond escaping the city for a bit. We’ve now provided that for them, and many adventurers talk about how happy they are that Ridj-it fulfills this need they have.

What marketing tactics have had the greatest impact on your growth?

We started in May 2016, and we tested Ridj on our friends and gathered data to answer two big questions: How do we capitalize on existing outdoor culture and how do we create new culture?

Those were — and are — the big questions we continue to answer. The culture of accessing the outdoors…you’d think it’s inviting, but in fact, it’s a closed, expensive, and elitist experience.

First we contacted outdoor Meetup groups and told them that we’d organize all of the carpool, as organizing one on Meetup is an unpredictable experience that generally results in tardiness, flakiness, or complete absence. The leaders of these groups still didn’t want to do take advantage of our services, so they refused.

Again, they didn’t want anyone to monetize the experience, yet they were willing to leave others out of the experience who would never be able to meet 30 miles outside of the city. In addition to all of that, sometimes the event doesn’t even happen because there is no buy-in from anyone for the activity. Imagine driving three hours to a mountain only to find no one showed up. We see this all the time.

We realized that almost no one would let us help organize, even colleges, universities, private language institutes — nobody wanted to open up this opportunity to their community even though they were frequently not providing the experience, if they were at all. In terms of providing a space to help people get to the outdoors, it doesn’t exist. So we said “Screw it, we’ll make our own Meetup.” And now we have over 4,000 members.

But it was originally just a Meetup group and a calendar tool we spent $8 per month on.

Once we started creating reliable, stable carpool trips that were inclusive to everyone, our name became known. To be clear though, we don’t host the hikes; we provide the carpooling. And we’re not only focused on hiking — it’s a mission of bringing people to do fun things. That’s what’s driving our growth now.

What tactics do you have planned to drive growth this year?

There are hundreds of untapped businesses who are missing out on an awesome customer base. We partnered with Canterbury Farms in the Berkshires to bring people out there. We received discounted tickets to bring people cross-country skiing and snowshoeing for the first time in their lives. And we could do this all for about $55 for the riders. You can’t get that kind of deal anywhere else on a five-hour round-trip ride and activity purchase.

We partnered with Loon Mountain, and even though they’re already so popular, they still wanted to reach new audiences. We have LGBT, people of color — a diverse user base — and now we’re making this sort of thing affordable to everyone. We work with tons of different kinds of businesses, and in our mission to be community based, we think this is a great way to drive growth not just for ourselves but for our region as well.

We provide group bookings, bring a different set of customers, and get people to start carpooling. Last year we took over 500 cars off the road, and that’s another win-win for everyone: the businesses we work with have eco-friendly goals, and they need nature to run their business.

Another manner in which to drive our growth was to learn early on that vanity statistics mean nothing. We dropped a couple of thousand dollars on a marketing campaign that focused on vanity metrics like views and CTRs rather than optimizing our website. In the end, we couldn’t form an honest connection with our audience because the site was not optimal, and we decided to leave any professional marketing campaigns alone until the site was running at an acceptable capacity.

We’re doing better just by optimizing our website than by having a formal marketing campaign, and this speaks to a lot of advice that startup advisers give: bootstrap, bootstrap, and bootstrap, as it forces you to really cut the fat.

Our other major tactic is to let our users lead. Literally. Users are guides, and they’re a great marketing resource. Our users can tag us in their photos, so we don’t have to hire a photographer because it’s all user-generated.

We also want to continue increasing our visibility with businesses who want more customers. The businesses we partner with market our brand when they announce the partnership with us, which gives us credibility. We want to work with organization like The Trustees. They own and buy land for the purpose of preserving it, and after bringing people to a hike they hosted, there was a clear beneficial relationship for us and for any other nonprofits too. We are happy to bring willing, paying adventurers to these incredibly guided adventures in some of the Northeast’s most beautiful areas.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome with your business so far?

We did some pitch competitions at BU early on. We both graduated from there and I taught there for awhile. It’s interesting at universities because they say they want to include alumni in their startup community, but they give most of the attention to students.

I have no idea why people focus so much on undergrads. So much of the startup culture is focused on undergrads, but how can they have enough experience to create a truly meaningful business? I teach middle school and work with refugees. My cofounder works in data analytics. We aren’t business-school alumni, so I guess there was this perception that we aren’t as legitimate or something.

Beyond that, the challenges are cultural. As I said before, the outdoor community is very averse to anyone trying to monetize it beyond buying expensive gear which is one of the first roadblocks we see to making the outdoors part of everyone’s normal life. We’ve tried to get various organizations to open up, but we keep hearing, “You’re trying to monetize it!” Yes, we are monetizing the otherwise chaotic carpool, but we feel that if that’s how we get disadvantaged groups out there, then we need to do it.

We don’t charge people for hikes, we just charge for gas and the driver’s time. REI charges $45 for a mundane hike. That’s not how you get people outdoors. We have a profit model that gets people out there, and we want outdoor businesses to work with us to centralize these activities so everyone can get outside. Why wouldn’t they want to sell more and get more people involved in their nonprofit?

We do our best to approach different businesses and groups with genuine intentions. We tell them: We’re not trying to take away your ability to do what you do. We want you to do more of it by empowering your current and potential adventurers with a system and space that brings everyone together.