How should companies approach growth to achieve results during times of challenge? Karbo Com joined Co-Founder and Chief Growth Officer Jonathan Sadow at Scoop Technologies, the largest carpooling solution in the country, to learn more about the strategies they are deploying to successfully navigate uncertainty in one of the hardest-hit industries impacted by COVID-19: transportation.
In a Zoom-facilitated “In the Know” discussion, Jonathan shared his thoughts on what business growth tactics work during a market slump, how Scoop has leveraged virtual events to bolster their marketing efforts, and the future of commuting after the immediate impacts of COVID-19.
Can you give us a brief intro on Scoop and what inspired you and your brother to start the company?
Today, Scoop is the largest carpooling network in the country. We partner with enterprises to offer commute solutions to their employees and create more meaningful and empowering ways to get to work.
My brother Rob, Scoop’s co-founder and CEO, and I first started thinking about Scoop in the spring of 2014. We commuted (via carpool!) nearly 250 miles per week to get back and forth to high school — so this was a problem we were very familiar with personally. When we moved to the Bay Area later in life, commuting became a big part of our lives again. I started commuting three hours down to Mountain View and back. A few years later, Rob moved here from New York. Overnight, the commute became an important factor in his daily life again.
Around the same time, I was building a market research tool while working at Google. I happened to run a survey asking people what their top frustrations were in their personal lives and their professional lives. The only thing that was in the top five of both survey responses? “Traffic.” A light bulb went off for us. We thought, “Oh, this is the same pain that we’ve felt since we were kids and that we feel now. Why hasn’t anybody done anything about it? What are the solutions?”
We started to systematically break down the problem and eventually believed that carpooling and scalable, shared commuting were going to be the answers to solve the commuting problem at scale.
Tell us about your journey from co-founder to CGO — what led you and the company to identify the need for this role?
It’s a great question. My CGO title is new as of only a couple of months ago. From the very beginning of Scoop until just earlier this year, I was co-founder and chief product officer. In Scoop’s earliest days, it was me and our founding engineer and my brother. Product Management was at the center of what I did, but my job was often much more dynamic than that. But, it didn’t feel like my job title really mattered all that much.
As we grew, we came to realize that titles can come with a lot of baggage. Along the way as we were building out the Marketing team, or the Analytics team, or this year, when I took on the Operations team, we discovered that there were preconceived notions of what it meant for a Chief Product Officer to lead those functions. And those preconceptions could alter perception around what a team’s mandate was. In practice, the role I was playing was actually leading a collection of functions that all have one goal: growth.
And so there was a real authenticity to the team saying, “Hey, we’re happy to be working with you, and we love the mandate of all these teams coming together, but it feels strange for a Marketplace or Operations team or Analytics team to roll into Product, right?” I realized that maybe that wasn’t the best encapsulation of what we’re trying to do. It was with that in mind that we decided that it was time to transition my title from Chief Product Officer to Chief Growth Officer, which encompasses everything from Marketing to Analytics to Operations to UX and Product.
How does a CGO differ from or complement a CMO?
In my eyes, a growth organization tends to be more dynamic—it has a couple of different functions coming together. A growth organization might flex in its focus area and its makeup over time. We may shift from being more product-oriented for a while to more operationally-oriented, depending on what the company needs to drive growth.
When I think about the goal of a CMO, it’s really about what’s at the center of the bullseye: establishing the brand positioning of the company, and the way that you want to go to market and communicate who you are. Essentially, it’s the way that you think about putting your product out there. And growth certainly might be a part – or even a big part – of that picture. But for a CGO, growth stays at the center of the bullseye, and then you invest against these different levers and functions to drive that mandate.
It’s nuanced, but the idea is that for a CGO, marketing is a piece of the growth pie. Whereas from a CMO’s perspective, marketing is the north star, and growth might be a particular output of that marketing-oriented effort.
Solving growth challenges requires rigorous experimentation. How do you approach experimentation at Scoop? What does that process look like?
At Scoop, we talk more about testing than experimentation. I’m a little bit of a nerd on this because when I worked on research on surveys at Google, I became obsessed with what it means to have statistical significance and how to actually generate actionable, quantitative insights. I think that we mess this up a lot in this industry. We may be trying to run an A/B test and use sophisticated tooling, but we often don’t have the right sample size, or we don’t have the ability to actually do that significance testing or analysis.
One of the smartest pieces of advice I’ve heard on this was from the engineering lead from the team I was on at Google, Brett Slatkin. He said, “Look, you’re not going to be able to get data fast enough to move as quickly as you need to successfully experiment. What you need to do is test and iterate. Iterative testing is way more valuable. Because by the time you run your A/B test experiment, you could have just built iteration number two, and gotten it wrong the first time.” Because of this advice, Scoop has been much more iteration oriented. I think many, many early teams would be more well-served to think about testing capabilities and instead of pure experimentation.
Another perspective of mine is that while we understandably want to be data-oriented, intuition gets a bad rap. One of my favorite quotes is, “Intuition is your brain processing everything you know faster than you can realize.” If you think about a great athlete, they’re not making calculated decisions on every shot. They study that on the macro level, and then they rely on instincts and physical mechanics to get them where they need to be. And that’s something that drives our decision making and experimentation as well.
Now when we launch features at Scoop, we all put numbers on a board and say, “I think it’s going to be X percent, Y percent, and Z percent,” and see how close we are. If our intuition is good, that helps us drive toward an iterative approach, as opposed to always A/B testing everything. I think growth is often associated with high capacity, complicated A/B testing. And I’m not sure that always serves the purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish to build a great product.
How do you evaluate specific growth opportunities and determine whether or not they’re worth pursuing?
I’m a big believer that growth is really about valuing the ROI on user insight. Great product development is about solving a user problem or bringing user value to bear. And so you’ve done the user research and you’ve looked at the data. You’ve found where you believe you have gaps, where you’re coming up short on solving the problem, or where you can amplify the existing solution that you’ve created.
Real growth opportunities come from where you can get the most output, relative to the least input, while solving one of those user problems. And so it comes back to evaluating those challenges, evaluating what it would mean to solve them and understanding and being critical about the incremental cost and return on investment of a better solution.
For us, it’s quite systematic. Some of the best advice that I’ve gotten is that the most valuable thing you can do to create growth is improve product/market fit. We often talk about product/market fit like it’s a binary thing we discover. But it’s really a moving target. There are layers of it, you get it and you lose it, you improve it and detract from it. And so oftentimes people don’t realize that the best thing they can do to grow is usually just to make their core product better to augment product/market fit.
Community building is a major aspect of Scoop’s business model and something that you put front and center in marketing materials. How does the focus on relationship building give you an advantage over some of your competitors in this space?
A lot of it has to do with how we see our business model and the problem that we’re solving, which is fairly distinct from companies that might at first blush like competitors, like the Ubers and the Lyfts and other folks in mobility. Yes, they’re all in the mobility space, but the problem we’re trying to solve is one of a very different composition. We don’t employ any of our drivers. We’re not building a short-distance solution–we’re here to solve the commute’s tough challenges. Everything we do is truly peer-to-peer, and longer distances reflect most commute behavior.
We’re asking people to give of themselves to make the marketplace work in a way that’s different than when you’re paying or employing one side of the marketplace. Trust becomes just that much more important. Scoop needed to create a community of peer-to-peer trust that’s quite different from what other marketplace companies aim to establish.
A lot of our community focus has to do with us learning over time what really matters to people in the car. One of the major transition points for Scoop was in 2017. We did some branding and positioning work and what we found was that people cited that the community itself was actually the most compelling reason they used Scoop and enjoyed their experience in the car. They liked meeting people, they like turning time that was normally solitary and frustrating into something that was social or informative or networking oriented. At first, community was a requirement to be able to create that necessary layer of trust. But over time, it became something Scoop continued to foster because community is what people found value in.
Let’s discuss business growth in an economic downturn — how has Scoop’s growth strategy shifted in light of the pandemic? Which new or modified growth strategies have you deployed?
The first piece of understanding growth in this environment is to understand the reality of the situation. It’s been a very challenging time for Scoop. There’s a lot of uncertainty facing the mobility business. We had to think about what our economic position was to give ourselves a chance to navigate through this and that was hard. It was painful for the team and even more so for the folks who we had to let go of. But it was the first step of saying, “Okay, let’s acknowledge that this is a changing environment.”
Getting focused became incredibly important. In times when the economy is rich and you’re growing and there’s not all this pressure, it’s easy to get bloated or unfocused, or just take on that extra project. When you have slimmer resources, you need to think more critically about how you invest your cash and what you work on. The number one priority is getting the company to focus back on the one or two things that are most important.
The second priority is assessing and making bets on what we think is changing the world. I think that’s the hardest part. Saying, “What are our beliefs around how the world is going to change? How confident are we? How much of this is going to change over time? And when are we ready to start putting a stake in the ground?” There’s still a lot of uncertainty, but we do know that people are starting to think about going back to the office and that there are very specific needs and opportunities facing the marketplace that we can solve. So part of it was looking to assess those, make that bet, and then drive our focus forward into that area—and then doubling down and doubling down again and saying, “Okay, let’s presume we know where to go here.”
The final piece is to be very careful about pivots or the pressure to pivot. It’s very easy when you’re making that assessment to say, “We need to change our product to adapt – or even to take advantage. Can we do things to support the coronavirus environment?” That’s typically a luxury of big companies and companies with a lot of excess cash. For startups, it’s important to remember that if you have a mission you are trying to accomplish, you have to be careful not to derail the long term vision. Sometimes it is important to turn that corner, but sometimes that can be a big distraction.
At the end of the day, our job is figuring out how to help Scoop’s customers balance the needs of their community, which is going to be a safe, reliable, and convenient way to get back to work, with what they as companies need, which is a solution that’s flexible and scalable. Those are the real pieces of the puzzle we’re putting together from a growth perspective.
Let’s circle back to your important point about the pandemic forcing focus. How does Scoop separate the signal from the noise?
In today’s world, it’s not easy. For us, the greatest signal comes from the mouths of our customers. We talk to every single customer. You need to go out and ask questions, figure out how the market is feeling. And where you’re not finding answers, those are often the areas that your customers need answers from you.
At Scoop, we realized early on that many of our customers didn’t have answers for how their employees would commute and come back to work, and that this was a hole we could fill for them. In this case, we could have been looking for signal all day long, but we were actually the ones who needed to create that signal—to do the research, to share the data, to build the plan.
And that’s a really important thing for companies to realize. Sometimes growth means creating your own signal. It’s not just going and meeting customers where they are, it’s telling them where they need to be. To that end, data is the other piece. The best way to filter out signal from noise is by looking at numbers. Do a survey. How many people say they’re going to come back? There is a lot of nuance here. If you want to figure out how to chart that path out of uncertainty, trust data.
The sharing economy has been massively affected by COVID-19, however some analysts are saying the pandemic has opened the door to the “revival of the sharing economy’s original ideals of community cooperation and peer-to-peer trust.” Are you counting on that analysis unfolding?
We’ve always thought of ourselves as the truest form of what sharing is. Sharing is when you and I are giving something to each other out of the desire to actually have each other experience what we have to offer one another. That dynamic changes when you add an employment, compensation, or service orientation. Our Scoop drivers don’t want to be ride-hailing drivers. This is something they do because they want to make a few dollars to cover gas and share an experience with co-workers or friends or neighbors.
When I think about how coronavirus may affect the sharing economy, I am not sure that it’s going to change the fabric of sharing so much as it’s just going to put pressure on business models that don’t invest in both sides of the sharing equation. When your sharing is based on one part of your marketplace being compensated and the other part of your marketplace getting value, you have to compensate well enough and return that value on the other side of the equation. When the economics of a business gets squeezed, providing enough compensation for value gets hard.
Of course, coronavirus has increased the need for health and safety trust. If you and I commute to the same company, and we both have the same symptom checking requirements and temperature checking requirements and mask requirements, I’m going to feel more comfortable getting into a car with you than I am with someone who may be operating under different circumstances.
At the end of the day, what we know is that people still have to commute, they still have to get to the office, and so when we think about sharing there, we know that the tightness of community is going to provide value.
With community being at the core of your business, do you foresee autonomous vehicles playing a role in Scoop’s evolving model?
Autonomous as a technology is really compelling. But there are a lot of layers. For instance, let’s think about this from an environmental perspective. I think we can agree that autonomous vehicles need to be electric. If we had autonomous fleets of gasoline-powered vehicles, we’d be in serious trouble because they’d be causing the same emission problems that current vehicles do.
I also believe that autonomous vehicles will need to be shared. Let’s consider a full concept autonomous car: I’m sitting in the backseat, I’m watching Netflix or I’m working, and it’s great. Well, all of a sudden the demand for being in the car has increased tremendously and you’ve actually driven everyone to be in their own personal vehicle. Traffic and congestion have increased. That’s a disaster, right? That’s the worst possible outcome of good technology.
If those autonomous vehicles are shared—well that’s a different story. Hypothetically, if Scoop could put you and someone else in a car and you don’t have to drive, you can spend that time together and improve the sharing experience. No matter the technology, we’re going to continue to be the experts in how we make sure that you and I can share that space in a way that is safe and meaningful to us.
You recently co-led a webinar on analyzing and addressing commuter sentiment in the COVID-19 world. How do events like those support your greater growth strategy?
These virtual events have been great for us, frankly. Right now, there’s so much learning going on and webinars are just a really high touch way of distributing information en masse. And it only takes an hour of someone’s time to attend. I don’t have to fly somewhere or go to a conference.
The transition from live events to webinars has allowed Scoop to communicate at scale with our customers, prospective customers, and governments, and get our information out there without all the overhead. They’ve been really successful and I expect them to continue. Do I think that they will replace in-person meetings? Not entirely. Do I think that they create the same type of personal connection? Not necessarily. You do lose something in the formality of the webinars, but it’s been a great opportunity for us to get hundreds of people to events where they can hear what we’re thinking about and share their own ideas as well.
What advice do you have to companies that are in the midst of transitioning to virtual events?
Three things stand out to me. The first is that if your goal is to teach someone about what’s happening in the marketplace, you have to remember that you probably know more than you realize you do relative to your audience. Your job is to be the expert on the topic. That’s why you’re the one hosting the webinar. And sometimes the simple things are what’s really valuable.
Number two is more tactical. And that is encouraging your team to amplify webinars within their networks to build awareness. In the past, we were always a little careful about that. But the reality is that people want the information we can provide. And everybody has different networks and so it’s really okay to teach your team how to be an amplification of your core strategy.
The third is, these things are hard to do. It takes a lot of time to put together a good presentation. And if you’re not putting together something great, it’s not going to be worth your time. Know that you’re going to need to look at the deck and look at the materials and tell a good story and work through the narrative.
You currently partner with some of the biggest names in tech — LinkedIn, Rakuten, and Samsung just to name a few — how is the carpooling industry dealing with the growing trend of tech giants offering permanent work from home options for employees?
We’re paying a lot of attention to how people are feeling about working from home. This goes back to our earlier discussion around what it means to stay focused and to use data to determine signal from noise. Our research shows that nearly three-quarters of people would prefer to be working predominantly in the office or in a hybrid environment in the long term. So in a post-corona environment, most people want to be spending at least a good portion, if not the majority, of their time in the office.
What people want is flexibility—that’s what we’re seeing in our surveys. I think that’s the thing that the tech companies are going to wrap their arms around. It’s easy to transition to work from home when everyone’s working from home. But what happens when half the team comes back to the office? What happens when new people join your company? If you haven’t ever met them in person, you don’t have any of those instinctive signals around who they are and how they operate. Those things are going to create challenges where connectivity in the office is critical.
We saw in our research that while 70% feel connected to their co-workers when they’re going into the office, only 30% of work from home employees feel connected. That’s going to create long-term challenges around retention and engagement and productivity in the workforce.
What we’re going to find is that technology companies will have the ability to be dynamic and flexible. However, there are a lot of people around the country, including some in tech, who already need to be at the workplace, or are going to want to return as soon as they can. And when they do, they’re going to need a way to get to work. If all of a sudden I work from home three days a week, do I still need to own a car? Or what if I don’t own a car? How do I get to the office on days four and five? Our job is to be that flexible, scalable solution to help employers offer commute solutions that enable their employees to feel empowered to choose what works best for individual circumstances.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Want more “In The Know” expert insights? Learn how the tech industry is navigating the mounting uncertainty of COVID-19 in Karbo Com’s interview with Fortune’s Digital Editor Andrew Nusca.