Frédéric Mazzella is the Founder and President of BlaBlaCar and has led the company to become the world’s largest long-distance carpooling community. As a branding and communications enthusiast, he has built a global brand whilst relentlessly spreading the word about the virtues of carpooling. Mazzella carries BlaBlaCar’s vision of a people-powered travel network enabled by trust and technology and is passionate about high social impact solutions. Mazzella is a regular speaker at leading international conferences and in the media, where he comments on the fast-changing mobility landscape, entrepreneurship, global marketplaces and building trust in online communities.
Mazella was born in 1976, in the city of Nantes in France. Growing up, the young boy possessed a deep affinity to the classical arts and was trained as a pianist. Although Mazzella came from a remote city in France, his love for music and physics propelled him to move in the right direction.
According to Mazzella, everything started with playing the piano – though he also played the violin, guitar, and drums. It was his passion for music that drove him to move to Paris to attend the Conservatory while still studying math and physics.
He says, “I have found playing music to be an incredible asset in entrepreneurship.” He continued, “When you are playing professionally for an audience, the feedback loop is instantaneous. If you mess up a note, it is pretty loud and clear. You can’t afford to make mistakes.” Just like that in business.
However, despite his long-standing love for music, he switched to studying math and physics because he figured he could always come back to music if he needed to. He saw the analytical and theoretical world of mathematics as a way to comprehend the real world around him with formulas. This skill proved instrumental to launch his first startup, BlaBlaCar.
The turning point for Mazzella was when he moved to the US to study at Stanford. He was inspired by the entrepreneurial environment in California, a stark difference from what he was used to in France. This led him to create a vision for himself to be an entrepreneur someday. During his time studying at Stanford, students joined Google and other startups without completing their degrees. It was a new era where intelligent students realized that they didn’t need to complete a diploma to get a significant position in startups and make an impact. After completing his studies at Stanford, Mazzella went on to become a research assistant at NASA.
However, not long after, BlaBlaCar was born during Christmas when Mazzella wanted to go home to visit his family in the French countryside. He recalled the incident, “I had no car, the trains were full, the roads, too, were full of people driving home, alone in their car. And that’s when it occurred to me that I should try and find one of the drivers going my way and offer to share petrol costs in exchange for use of an empty seat.”
And soon, he had an epiphany and thought he could do it online, but no such site existed, and Mazzella knew he had to be the one to start ride-sharing in the region.
Mazzella says, “I had imagined a new transport network built on people, that could bring efficiency to road transport, solve congestion problems, make travel affordable and social. With a background in scientific research, I saw the full potential of a peer-to-peer transport network, and the huge environmental and economic benefits of enabling a more efficient use of existing resources.”
He started by establishing a site online, and he watched the community grow organically. He then met his co-founder and engineer Francis Nappez. In anticipation of the future, Mazzella completed an MBA and worked on a plan to develop the full potential of car sharing with his peer, Nicolas Brusson, the third co-founder. Nicolas later joined the company full time to finance and scale the business in Europe. The trio has expanded and built the company into a pan-European community marketplace that helps connect drivers and passengers.
However, it was not an easy task to turn the company into a success. In the early days, the idea was dismissed as ‘hitchhiking online’, and detractors said people would not want to share their car with strangers. Mazzella had initially envisioned an online marketplace where individuals could exchange everything from car journeys to piano and cooking lessons but had to deviate when the plan did not work out.
For the first seven years, the company was called Covoiturage, the French word for carpooling. But after meeting a member who used the app but could not remember its name, he realized he had a branding problem. They decided to name it BlaBlaCar because when members create their profile, they indicate their level of in-car chattiness, from ‘Bla’ (watches the scenery go by), ‘BlaBla’ (can be chatty) to ‘BlaBlaBla’ (won’t keep quiet). “Anyone who has ever come across the word BlaBlaCar remembers it,” Mazzella said. “This is invaluable for a peer-to-peer brand.”
The company’s big break came late in 2007 during travel strikes that shut public transport in the country, propelling it into the limelight and has been ever since. BlaBlaCar operates in a different market from Uber and its imitators because it is built on long-distance carpooling rather than short taxi rides. According to Mazzella, BlaBlaCar has stayed on the right side of the regulator because its model is designed so that its drivers do not make money, unlike Uber. The journey fee is meant only to cover costs. He says: “If you’re below the threshold of the mileage allowance then you’re not making a profit. That’s why we’ve had so [few] issues with regulators.”
Ride-sharing passengers contribute six to seven cents per km, compared with $1 to $3 per km for a taxi or Uber, according to analysts. Mazzella says, “BlaBlaCar’s activities do not create professional chauffeurs. We’re just making the best use of existing assets and existing behaviours.”
The company has expanded in Europe, India, Brazil and Russia, its fastest-growing market because the country has few alternatives to public transport. But it has stayed away from the US, believing that low fuel prices, frequent domestic flight schedules and sprawling cities are not conducive to carpooling.
In 2021, the carpooling company raised a $115 million funding round (€97 million). While BlaBlaCar is better known for its long-distance carpooling marketplace, the company has also added a bus marketplace with the acquisition of Ouibus and an online bus ticketing platform with the acquisition of Busfor to expand their range.
With the company’s significant growth over the year, Mazella concluded, saying, “the thing is, the scope is so broad that it will never be enough. There will always be room for more trust and optimization. So we’re not finished yet, and we have our work cut out for the coming decades.”