Renting a car, one of the last bastions of "the old empire"

In recent years, technology has solved most of the pain points of travel and logistics. Uber now delivers a car to you in just minutes with the press of a button. Waze gets you around traffic. Hotwire's app and Hotel Tonight let you book a same-day hotel with a couple taps. But have you tried renting a car lately?

If traditional car rental companies have been consistent in one area, it's making the process of renting a car one of the worst experiences on the planet. They've tried to innovate by adding ways to bypass the counter and head straight to your car, and now you can rent "cool" cars from some companies, but they're missing the point. In fact, in Seatac's new car rental building, Hertz has one of the most absurd solutions to making things easier: a luxurious waiting area.

When I walked by the Hertz rental counter a couple days ago, I almost thought there was a movie theater in the building. The chairs were large, there was plenty of leg room, and it was masterfully lit; the only thing it was missing was a movie screen.

Has Hertz's ability to innovate come down to simply building a nicer waiting area while your significant other stand in line?

But I digress.

I reserved a car through another company and approached the counter. I'll spare you the sob story: They didn't have the car I had prepaid for. (I needed a large SUV as I was planning on carrying a lot of people.) Despite receiving confirmation that my Yukon (or similar vehicle) would be waiting for me upon arrival, it turns out that the closest thing they had was a Jeep.

I cancelled my reservation and went to another counter.

Thrifty had a Yukon XL. Great. However, at Thrifty, you can't rent an SUV directly - it's only available as an upgrade. In order to rent an SUV, you must first make a reservation online for another kind of car (like economy), then have the counter upgrade your reservation. As I stood at the counter, I had to pull out my laptop and make a reservation online and wait about 5 minutes for it to make its way through the system. (Are carrier pigeons delivering my reservation?) The attendant then had to try to upgrade me and no one knew exactly what rate she would be able to get me.

Hi. It's 2014. Is this really where we're at?

Oh, but this isn't over yet. After I get my reservation packet, I head downstairs to the garage to find the car. Three attendants and 15 minutes later, we find the SUV. First they tried to put me in a full-size car. We explained we rented a premium SUV. They said they didn't have any, but we could have an Xterra. We then point to a large Yukon sitting over in the corner. Finally we had our car.

I detail this story to make a point: Renting a car (especially if you care about what car you end up with) is still one of the worst experiences on the planet. Leaps and bounds in innovation clearly isn't going to happen with the big car rental companies, unfortunately. It's going to end up coming from Silicon Valley.

We're already starting to see out-of-the-box challengers. FlightCar gives you free airport parking by allowing you to rent out your car to others while you're out of town. But it's going to be a long, uphill battle. We've already seen airports make a fuss about UberX because it cuts out their airport on their ~$4 fee they charge to Uber Black Cars (and they make money from taxis, too). (They say it's an insurance issue, but let's be real.) Already when you rent a car at an airport, 20%-40% of what you pay goes to various local tourism taxes and, of course, the airport.

What we need is a new sort of company that starves the traditional rental car companies. Without that, we will never see real innovation, because they don't have anything to fear. When I rent a car, it shouldn't take interfacing with a total of 10 people to rent a car, especially when I prepay online.

"The old empire" of unionized industries is crumbling, but one of their remaining pillars is the car rental industry - a $10 billion/year industry. It will take some time, but that pillar is bound to come down. And I can't wait to watch it unfold.

What you don't see when a website goes down

FolioHD went down this week due to some server problems. I happened to be in Paris, approximately 5,642 miles away from where the servers reside in Los Angeles. This tends to be a problem when you are physically nowhere near the data center and when you can't fix things remotely. The remaining two days of my vacation were spent on spotty, unreliable wifi, emailing with customers and working with vendors and contractors to bring the site back online.

During the process, I received hundreds of emails from customers. I would lump these customers in three categories:

  • Those who asked when their sites would be back online. Totally understandable.
  • The entitled customers who tell me how I am hurting their business, that this is unacceptable, they are infuriated, demand refunds, and tell me they will be going elsewhere. (I actually referred many of these customers to a competitor of ours.)
  • And then, few and far between, are the empathetic customers who are compassionate, more than patient, and understand we are working as quickly as we can to fix things.

When something doesn't work as expected, it's normal to become irritated or angry. (I remember when our electricity was out for about 3 days back in 2002. I wrote an angry tirade to Southern California Edison on my blog at the time.)

But having experienced being on the other side of an outage now, I figured I'd share a little bit about how I've spent the last 48 hours.

  • Found out about the downtime, began to diagnose the issue
  • Started answering customer emails
  • Diagnosed the problem, weighed possible solutions
  • Sent out a mass email to recently active customers telling them we're working on the issue
  • Decided on a solution, started calling vendors over Skype (from Paris)
  • Replied to all sorts of customers asking for status updates
  • Selected a vendor, asked a very kind friend to pick up some hard drives from our data center and drive them across town to the data recovery facility
  • Coordinated the purchase of new hardware to be overnighted to the data center
  • Discussed status updates throughout the night with our data recovery team as they worked to save data
  • Continued responding to angry emails
  • Flew home
  • Landed, picked up hard drives from data recovery facility
  • Drove them across Los Angeles to the data center and plugged them in
  • Got the site back online
  • Emailed active customers to inform them of the news and explain what happened and what was going to change to make sure this didn't happen again
  • Started issuing refunds and credits

The last two of days of my "vacation", I got maybe 3 hours of sleep in total. I slept with my phone in-hand, waking up to every vibration to check on status updates from our data recovery team and to triage anything urgent.

Throughout the whole process, I received several emails that were quite encouraging:

"I really appreciate your upfront and clear communication regarding this incident. Your professionalism does not go unnoticed."

"I am certainly glad that you all were able to get FolioHD back I'm action! Although it was tough, you all did an exceptional job with keeping us all informed. I am more than sure that from this conquered hurdle, FolioHD will reach new heights that will align and even exceed what you all have envisioned."

"Great communication through out your down time ... and I can tell from your email above that there are genuine, interested people at work behind the scenes, which prompted me to put this email together. Keep up the good work and all the best for 2014! "

Too often, people think of websites as machines and not people. What encourages me about these emails is that these customers actually understand that every harsh word spoken to a company is actually read by someone who has invested blood, sweat and tears into the product, and instead of using their words to tear down, they chose to be positive and understood this fact. I totally understand the frustration of those who rely on us and those who speak their mind about it, but when it comes down to it, I hope they can understand that I am just as frustrated as they are, and that their harsh words only take me away from trying to fix the root of the problem. They don't see the 22 hours days people like me put in to get things back in order.

The next time you email somebody who runs a website, keep in mind that you're dealing with normal people. Speak with civility and respect. Your words are far more likely to be heard than those who act entitled and fly off the handle.

Want to sell me something? Here's how.

As a business owner, I cannot count the number of times I am solicited for products or services, or by recruiters looking to work with us. Over time, you learn to tune them out just like we all do with junk mail.

But last week at Preact, something far different happened - far superior to cold calls and cold emails. We received a packet on our doorstep from a private banker at Wells Fargo. This was a cold outreach from her, but she had taken the time to learn about our company and do her research before contacting us. And the way she did it was genius: finding things important to us and mentioning them. Case in point: on our Company page, there's a reference to our near-religious love of Taco Tuesday. So what does she close her note with? "I <3 TACOS! Maybe we can meet Tuesday?"

This is the way to build relationships. Even if we're not in the market for a private banker at this point, some day I will be, and you know who will come to mind first.

Something similar happened recently after I posted a job online. Most applicants reply to a detailed job posting with a simple canned response. But I received an email from a candidate who took the time to go line-by-line in my job posting to respond to everything I wrote. In fact, he took so much time and put in so much thought to his email that I actually felt obligated to respond immediately and thank him for taking the time. Even if he wasn't the most qualified person, I'd feel more inclined to give him a closer look simply because he took the time to do something to stand out.

And when it comes to selling yourself, your product or your service, standing out is the name of the game. But amazingly, it isn't rocket science. Take the time to be personable and to do something meaningful and you'll have a leg up on the competition.