The Risk Takers series looks at how a few of Canada's creative minds fearlessly went their own way.
Tracey Axelsson was treading unknown territory in 1997 when she co-founded the Co-operative Auto Network in Vancouver.
Dressed in a lovely suit, looking out onto the Vancouver cityscape from her top-floor office, Tracey Axelsson decided to quit her job to pursue her vision: to bring car-sharing to Vancouver.
The seed was planted a year earlier, in 1995. In her bid to adopt a more environmentally conscious lifestyle, Ms. Axelsson decided to put her beloved British MGB sports car in storage.
Living in Vancouver’s walkable West End, a car-free life was easy, except she could no longer take her grandmother out on her weekly shopping trip. While mulling this over with a friend, he showed her a three-minute clip of a car-sharing program in Cologne, Germany. It was the perfect solution.
To flesh out the idea, she developed the framework for a car-sharing co-operative as a school project. At the time, Ms. Axelsson was working full-time as a communications officer at the Fraser Basin Council and studying community economic development at Simon Fraser University at night.
But when her project landed a $20,000 grant from Vancouver City Savings Credit Union and then another $20,000 from The Co-operators insurance company, she seized the moment to realize her vision.
“It was a total no-brainer,” Ms. Axelsson says, “Car-sharing was too important to fail.”
At 27, in debt from student loans and with no business experience, she recruited a handful of partners (including her husband Magnus Axelsson, and Kevin McLaughlin, who later founded Toronto’s Autoshare), and quit her job to pursue her idea.
With just a few car-sharing operators in Europe, and only one in North America (Quebec-based Communauto), she was treading largely unknown territory. Unintimidated, she and her partners created a business plan, recruited members by postering the neighbourhood (pre-Internet days) and bought the first four cars with a loan guaranteed by Ms. Axelsson, Mr. Axelsson and Mr. McLaughlin.
In January of 1997, the Co-operative Auto Network (CAN) opened its (Ms. Axelsson’s small condo) doors for business, with Ms. Axelsson as the sole employee.
The learning curve was very steep, and the hours very long.
“You can’t imagine the myriad of things that you’d be confronted with on a day-to-day basis,” recalls Ms. Axelsson, who fielded calls for car reservations and emergencies 24/7.
There was constantly new ground to be broken: policies for insurance and roadside assistance needed to be invented for car-sharing, building landlords were suspicious of renting out a parking spot for a car with multiple users, and the business model was in a constant state of revision.
“Financial projections would suggest a certain thing, then we would find how people used the cars was different,” Ms. Axelsson recalls.
But they navigated around all the unforeseen circumstances and CAN immediately started growing. It started with 16 members and two cars. Membership grew by about 500 per cent in the first year and 300 per cent the next, according to membership numbers provided by the company. It has continued to grow every year since. Currently, Modo (the name changed in 2011) has more than 10,000 members and a fleet of more than 300 vehicles.
“The growth was a function of people really getting the concept,” Ms. Axelsson says.
It was a novel concept in 1997, points out professor Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. There were a lot of unknowns about car-sharing, especially in North America, where the car culture is different than its European birthplace.
In addition to setting up the infrastructure for car-sharing, including access to parking, insurance plans and public awareness, a key factor to the current success of the industry was the pioneers’ willingness to help each other, Dr. Shaheen says.
“There was this spirit of collaboration, sharing and knowledge transfer; we needed to do that if we were going to advance it [car-sharing],” says Dr. Shaheen, who met Ms. Axelsson in the early days of CAN. “There was a feeling that we were working on something together.”
From the start, Ms. Axelsson openly shared her experiences to help other car-sharing companies get started. In her tenure, she helped start operations around the world, including her Car2Go competitors in Vancouver.
Furthermore, continues Dr. Shaheen, pioneers in car-sharing laid the foundation for today’s “sharing economy,” a new consumer trend of “access” rather than “ownership.” It is a growing sector that includes businesses such as accommodation-sharing site Airbnb, tool libraries and city-wide bike shares.
Ms. Axelsson left CAN before the “sharing economy” was popularized. Her term as executive director ended in 2008. After a period of struggle between her and the board, they asked her to leave due to a difference in vision.
While it was a difficult departure, she admits she needed the break. Thirteen years of steadfast dedication took a toll on her health; although not her drive.
Currently she is the executive director of Vancouver Community Network, a community-owned provider of Internet tools and services, and has just launched her latest brain-child: a texting service for homeless people. For street-involved people, information can be a matter of survival, explains Ms. Axelsson. This can include where a shelter bed is available, or if there is a bad batch of heroin on the streets. She is setting up a texting platform to get this type of critical information in the hands of people who need it.