How a flyer in my mailbox took me on a crazy 2 month adventure

And pushed me right out of my comfort zone…

I’ve just arrived at one of the biggest tech startup co-working spaces in Sydney. It’s 35 degrees outside, my plane landed moments ago and I’m sweating out of control. The lady at the front desk instructs me to take a seat while I wait.

So here I am, patiently waiting for my first ever meeting with the CEO of car sharing company, Car Next Door, and his team to explain to them how they can improve their business and summit to top of the car share industry.

As I sit on a large burgundy leather sofa, trying to cool down, I start reflecting on the last two months and how I found myself here in this very moment, out of my comfort zone and about to do something I have never done before.

Rewind to two months earlier

I just finished an experience design contract at a large agency and wanted to keep the momentum going until my next bit of work came calling. I was on my way to meet my friend, Marcus, who I had been meeting a few times a week at random hot-desks to talk about all things tech and product and how we could make our mark on the world. We connected as a result of our mutual interest in environmental and social impacting projects.

I checked my mailbox prior to meeting him one morning and found a flyer from a company called Car Next Door. I briefly mentioned it to Marcus and we continued working on other projects.

Once I got home I started to look into what Car Next Door was actually about. The more I found out about the company, the more I felt drawn to their vision and what they were trying to create. I’d grown very interested in sustainability in the past year and this company’s objectives (although not specifically focused on renewable energy) did resonate with me.

Their vision was to create a future that championed preserving and protecting the environment, solidifying a sense of community and promoting sharing culture.

The turning point

I recalled a statement from an article by Raghav Haran; ‘do the job before you get the job’. This started to play in my mind for a few days, prompting me to ask the question:

“do I believe in this company’s vision?”

I knew the answer to this was yes. I know they have true propensity to change the environmental and social landscape of the world and I wanted to be a part of their journey. That question was all it took to throw myself head first into helping Car Next Door disrupt the standard perceived notion of ownership and transport.

Obviously I knew this meant sacrificing paid contract work, but I felt drawn to what they were doing. I had no idea how much time, money and energy I would eventually end up putting into this project. It was at that point that I decided that I was going to help build a better Car Next Door and in turn, help build a better planet and I was fortunate enough that Marcus was willing to help me do this.

We agreed to treat the project as if it was our own startup and commit at least 60 hours per week to designing the best possible version of this company. Our initial planning suggested it would take three weeks but it ended up taking close to eight weeks, around 100 hours each week and several hundreds of dollars from our own pockets. I still needed to pay rent and eat so I worked two days a week at a skate store to get by and the rest of the time I worked on our ‘mini startup’.

I constantly reminded myself of the term Airbnb founders coined; ‘ramen profitability’, meaning that as long as you can pay rent and eat ramen, you’re doing a-ok. This was very much the case for us.

Building a better Car Next Door

We signed up to Car Next Door and its major competitors and began using the different products and services. We noted how they stacked up against each other and made our initial unbiased hypothesis. We were lucky to acquire an industry report on car sharing in Australia. This allowed us to get a deeper understanding of industry, forecasts, stats and numbers. We looked at every car sharing company across the globe and compared facets of each.

The difficulty of doing work for a company that doesn’t even know that you are doing an in-depth experience redesign of their business is not having any access to its users (owners and borrowers) or any other helpful non-publicly listed information. So we read every online user review and response the company had ever received and consolidated this data.

We knew that this provided great value but actually speaking to people in person would be priceless, so we decided to conduct some guerrilla testing. We located vehicles that were listed as available on the Car Next Door website, went to them and waited until an owner or borrower approached the car and then we approached them and asked them for some vital feedback. People were really keen to help us improve the product and service when they knew what we were trying to do.

We really needed to get some users to test the product, but our budget was very minimal so we offered to take people out for a meal in return for participating in some user testing sessions. Using over 100GB of footage from all our research, we spent countless hours dissecting and analyzing the content and then started journey mapping all the insights and pain points.

Our primary aim was not to create a solution but instead, to discover the specific problem or set of problems Car Next Door was encountering and from there, formulating a solution would become a natural progression.

Every company can build on what they have done and as much as we loved what Car Next Door was about, we knew there was room for growth and improvement. We compiled a complete list of all the insights and problems our research and testing had uncovered and included suggested solutions to these insights and problems. To do a complete product redesign and develop a strategy would take a lot longer than two months.

As the world evolves, the product or service has to evolve with it; we knew that whatever we suggested would need to be constantly nurtured and iterated but it was time to begin this process. Out of all the facets of the business where an opportunity for development and growth existed, we decided to specifically focus on creating a booking app prototype.

How we got their attention

Throughout this whole journey, I was completely aware that all this work would amount to nothing if we could not get the founders and investors interested in what we were working on and get that face to face meeting.

We agreed that the main investor in the company was the best person to contact. As most American action movies suggest; to find the source of power, follow the money. I started asking people within my network if they knew anyone affiliated with Car Next Door. One of my friends knew a very charismatic, young and successful entrepreneur who indirectly knew the main investor of Car next Door.

This entrepreneur’s company had done work for another company, which was also invested in by this same venture capitalist. I had previously met him a few years back when I went to his company with an idea for a tech startup. He remembered me and was kind enough to take some time out of his day to meet with me and give me some tips and hard truths about what we were doing. He said that he would help us get in contact with this venture capitalist once he could see what our finished work looked like. Fair enough, his reputation was at stake if he recommended us.

I got back to the ‘office’ (my leafy green apartment which was far from practical to work out of) and made a detailed plan of when we would show our finished work to this entrepreneur and hope that he would recommend us to the investor.

As the English proverb goes:

‘there is more than one way to skin a cat.’
A few days later, I decided that I wanted to create an experience for the Car Next Door team that would force them to meet with us. I wanted to excite them and I knew that getting an email introduction or phone call with a venture capitalist who is constantly bombarded with pitch ideas was not going to cut it.

My obsession with donuts borderlines addiction. I don’t really know how it came to me in that moment but, I started Googling donut companies in Sydney out of curiosity. I suppose I kind of just jumped the gun and imagined which donut shop I would go to after we pitched our work and got a standing ovation. Thanks to my wild imagination, I stumbled upon a company called My Donut Box that make these amazing giant sized donut cakes.

And then, an idea came to me, why not create a clever video explaining who we are and why we are working on Car Next Door, upload it to two USB’s, attach them to two giant donut cakes and have them delivered to the Founders and the main investor? The lovely people at My Donut Box agreed to help us do just that.

The donut cake with message and USB.
The video that was on the USB.

That first phone call

I remember the day the donut cakes were sent to the two offices, we were waiting by the phone the entire day. They made us sweat for a few days but eventually, the call came. But just before it did, Marcus unfortunately encountered a personal emergency, which meant he could no longer be involved in the project. There was still a lot of work to be done, only now there was only one of us to carry the load.

The phone call was with the CEO, Will Davies. We spoke for about 20 minutes and the beginning of the conversation went a bit like this:

‘Do you send donuts to every company you try and pitch to?’
‘Hang on, so you’re telling me you actually spent the last month and a half working on our product everyday?’
‘So what do you actually do?’

He was shocked at the amount of time two strangers had voluntarily put into working on his company and extended an invite to meet him at their office in Sydney the following week. I hung up the phone and booked one return ticket to Sydney for the following week.

Fast forward to the meeting

I knew that what I was about to show them would be best understood if I made them do an exercise where they could interact with the idea of perception and experience. I told them to pretend that they had to explain the process of making toast to a friend of theirs who had never done it before, but, they had to draw it without using any words. Sounds simple, right? Many of us assume that we would make toast the same way.

As is always the case, each drawing differed completely to the next. Some focused on getting the bread from the supermarket, some on the bread itself, some on the toaster etc. I explained that this was in essence what we did with their product. We uncovered how people use Car Next Door and interact with it and as a result of getting all these varying perspectives, we developed more complete and all encompassing solutions.

I had just pitched to a team of five, two of which were on a Skype call in another city. An hour and a half later, we shook hands, I gave two virtual high fives and walked out of the board room with a ripe smile on my face. It went as well as I could have imagined.

A few days later, Will called me and asked me why I didn’t reach out earlier? He said If I had, I would have known not to work on some aspects that were already being updated. I explained that this was a calculated and conscious decision. Here is why; If I had approached any company and told them that I wanted to improve their business at no cost to them but needed all their private and confidential company information, unless I was Tim Brown from IDEO, chances are I would be told thanks, but no thanks. Even to me, this notion would seem suspect and too good to be true.

So what happen?

I never expected that I would invest so many hours, money and all my energy into a company that was not mine, especially when they had no idea that I was working to improve their product. But it happen. Although I am in regular contact with Will, I can tell you that nothing has eventuated from the meeting I had that day. Maybe one day it will, maybe it won’t. Either way, this experience has taught me a great deal.

My learnings

  • A task will only seem as impossible as you let it appear in your mind.
  • Projects will rarely go fully to plan.
  • Trust your abilities and your way of thinking, there is no one like you on the planet.
  • Try to seperate work life and home life.
  • Expect things not to work out according to plan.
  • If you’re feeling uncomfortable, it probably means you’re growing as a person.
  • Bring spare t-shirts if you’re walking to a meeting on a hot summer day.
  • I make one hell of a ramen.

The important stuff…

I gained inspiration and knowledge from reading about the out of the ordinary things people have done to make a difference, to be noticed or to deliver a certain quality of work. I hope that my experience can inspire anyone willing to push the boundaries of what they think they can and can’t do. By sharing ideas, learnings, experiences and failures, we are able to help each other grow and shape the world.

As I previously mentioned, there is more than one way to achieve something. Many industries are quite rigid in their approach and expect people to follow a certain type of process or conduct themselves in accordance with some general practice. As the late and great Steve Jobs said:

“the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones that do.”

I’m by no means saying I’m changing the world but, I’d like to think I am challenging myself to always question how I think something ‘should’ be done. Solving a problem doesn’t require an age limit or an amount of experience. If you can solve a problem, you can solve a problem.

You may read this and ask yourself:

‘who am I to do…?’
I’m here to tell you, that you are every ounce capable to do anything you put your mind to, give it a try and you might just surprise yourself.

Although I do not work for Car Next Door, I now call Will a friend and wholeheartedly continue to believe in everything he and his team are doing for the greater good of the environment and communities around Australia.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article, I hope you were able to take something away from it.

If you would like to chat about working together or about donuts or anything else really, I’d love to hear from you!

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