From delivering fresh produce to suburban families in a parking lot, to dropping off blow-up pools, to setting up ad hoc drive-in movie nights, Boxcar CEO Joe Colangelo and his team have kept sharp; and the company has pivoted quite a bit during the COVID-19 shutdown.
While the future is uncertain for the tech-driven commuter-parking and luxury-bus startup, even as the area slowly reopens, the way Boxcar reacted to the pandemic has certainly forged stronger ties between the company and the communities it serves.
And for a company rooted in community, that’s a good thing.
Colangelo’s company is headquartered in Chatham, at The Station coworking venue, which specializes in private offices and team suites. In a video chat initiated by The Station, introduced by Station founder Jeff Garibaldi Jr., and moderated by organizational development expert Irlana Ho of CulturePivot, Colangelo explained the reasons for all those pivots, and discussed how his business has evolved during the past several months.
While January 2020 was Boxcar’s strongest month for its parking and commuting business, Colangelo said, “it was clear in mid-February that we weren’t doing what we could as a country to keep coronavirus out.”
Leveraging Boxcar’s Strengths
In anticipation of the coming crisis, the company looked at alternative business lines to leverage its “robust technology and strong customer service, marketing and sales teams.” The first thing Colangelo’s team did was review the company’s expenses and renegotiate terms with vendors, as they reevaluated the landscape while the virus began shutting everything down.
During this time, Boxcar partnered with one of its customers, which had created the Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG) of Chatham and Madison. FLAG was helping feed front-line healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic, while also keeping local restaurants in business.
The group was accepting donations via the leader’s personal PayPal account “because you can’t get a 501(c)(3) overnight,” Colangelo stated. Boxcar offered a better way to do this: via Boxcar’s own vendor management system, as well as “our ability to take payments online in our app,” he said.
“For us, it is like Forrest Gump when he was out at sea with his shrimping boat during a storm. Forrest and Lt. Dan were having the toughest time, but by the time they got to shore, all the other shrimping boats were wrecked, so it became easier to catch shrimp after that. Unfortunately, there are going to be a lot of businesses that suffer from this crisis,” but if Boxcar could use the time to “sharpen our skills during it” and survive, “we’ll come out on the other side even stronger,” Colangelo said.
“Trust is a Superpower”
One of the strengths of Colangelo’s business was Boxcar’s relationships with the municipalities it serves. These municipalities had to cooperate to allow the company’s bus and parking services to thrive. “They have a window of what is acceptable to do from a partnership basis, and due diligence is required for that,” he said. But now, the municipalities themselves are in survival mode, like everyone else.
So when Boxcar contacted Madison with the idea of a pop-up drive-in movie theater, for example, the town was receptive. That’s because Boxcar had already proven itself trustworthy: “We told Madison Borough we were going to implement a hardware-free parking solution, and they raised an eyebrow. We were able to execute this plan, and lived up to our promise. So when we contacted them about our drive-in movie idea,” they said, “You have always been a trustworthy partner, so go for it.”
Colangelo advised the audience, “If businesses need your service or product, and people are asking for it, you should move fast on it.”
Ho asked Colangelo how he had built this trust from his partners. “I haven’t learned a fast way to build trust. I think it is built up over time and destroyed in an instant.” Trust is a “superpower,” he added.
Using Paul Graham’s Playbook
Ho also wanted to know about his method for creating his business and figuring out what ideas will work. Colangelo said that he used a “playbook” that he took from the blog posts of Paul Graham, cofounder of the venture capital firm and accelerator Y Combinator (Mountain View, Calif.). “His blog on “Do Things That Don’t Scale” is a good one. He says, find something that makes five people happy. If you can make five people happy, and do it in a novel way, you can probably make 50 people happy. If you can scale and focus on the manual labor that got you there in the first place, it could be that easy,” said Colangelo.
“Boxcar started with me renting out my driveway in Cranford,” he said. “I made one person happy with that. I got a couple other parking spots in Cranford and handed out flyers every day at the train station, and got people to park there every day. I managed it through Excel and payment through Stripe. Once we got to 50 parkers a day, we were doing $1,000 in sales a week. We thought, okay, we are clearly on to something. Now we can invest in technology and stop wasting eight hours a week on manual entry in Excel.”
The startup has grown because it does things that don’t scale until Colangelo sees that those things are sustainable. Then the company invests in tech. “The reason people don’t pursue this playbook is because it is really hard and boring,” he said. “It’s exciting to get those first five spots and customers, and less exciting to get the next 50 or 500. And when you are doing things over and over again, it’s not what it looks like in ‘The Social Network’ or ‘The Founder.’ … If you are tenacious enough and do things that don’t scale (and keep doing them), you’ll come out on the other side pretty successful business.”
[The Station is once again open to the public, but on a limited basis, offering only private office rentals, conferencing space, and business address services. Contact them here for further info.]