Chris Ramos & Jennifer Harlan
Chris Ramos decided one day to up and buy a bus. He wanted to use it to move people around, to get people from the suburbs into Detroit, and to help build a sense of community in the metro area. Then he got the idea to run the bus on biodiesel; might as well help save the planet, right?
So he quit his job, bought a bus and hired Jennifer Harlan to be his marketing director. And so the The Night Move
OK so maybe it wasn't that simple.
Chris and Jennifer will be blogging about starting a business in a recession, the obstacles they're facing and the things they're learning as they go along.All photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.
We’ve used our other posts to discuss some of things we think are important, things we’re trying to do something about. We’ll use this last post to talk about why metro Detroit is the perfect place for our system.
We love Detroit. It has so much potential and there are so many good things already there. In this terrible economy, a lot of people are hoping Detroit will be able to rise above the fog of economic downturn. Maybe it can become a real cultural metropolitan center like New York or Chicago. Public transportation is going to be key for that. Not just us, because what we’re doing is kind of small. But we’re a start. The light rail system -- that’s going to make the difference. And if we can transform our industrial resources into tools for new industry, go from being Car Town to something else, Renewable Energy Town, maybe, then we’ll be able to see a renaissance in our city.
We want to use our bus to bring people together, and to build a community between downtown folk and suburbanites. There are a lot of people who are hesitant to leave their comfort zones. Our goal is to push people to do just that. We talked to someone the other night who suggested our system will be a good utility for meeting people. If you’re new in town, hop on the bus for a tour of the metro area, and stop in some of the hottest spots along Woodward. You’re on a crowded bus with a lot of people who will be going to the same places you are; it’ll be a conversation starter.
The biggest struggle we’re facing as we’re about to launch this shuttle service is not knowing how we’ll do. We’ve gotten tons of positive feedback: we’re popping up on message boards, blogs and even the Transportation Riders United (TRU) homepage, all without our influence; it’s really exciting. We just have no way of knowing how that will translate into, you know, butts in seats. We hope the facets of our business that we think are so great, and the points other people are responding to, will be enough to get it going. Metro Detroit needs public transportation. It will be sweet if we can get that ball -- and those wheels -- rolling.
There seems to be a lot of buzz right now about rebuilding Detroit’s greatness. Detroit Renaissance, Inside Detroit, Metromode and Model D, and Open City -- there are all these groups right now with this as a common goal. It’s pretty awesome, and we’re pumped to be a part of it. Everyone’s so proud of this place. It’d be fantastic if we could make it a place to be truly proud of. A booming metropolis in our backyard? Sign us up.
And…we’re back. We want to use this post to talk about the environment, and how saving it feels so right. We’ll try to refrain from preaching.
I remember a cartoon sketch from Sesame Street when I was a little kid, where a boy was brushing his teeth with the water running. There was a fish outside the house swimming in a pond. As the water poured out of the faucet, the water level in the pond started dropping. The cartoon fish picked up the phone and called the boy to ask him to use less water. The cartoon made a pretty big impact (apparently, since I still remember it), and I’ve always had a guilt complex about wasting. Everything we do impacts our habitat and habitats around us. We need to be more conscious about the effects of our actions.
It’s great that this whole “green” thing is catching on like it is. We need accountability for the damage we’ve caused to the environment. If we had been eco-conscious since the beginning of time, it wouldn’t be such a change now to implement environmentally sound practices. Everyone would have always recycled. We wouldn’t have cars that weren’t electric. Solar power would be a commonplace energy source. And we wouldn’t have holes in our ozone layer or melting ice caps.
But we can’t change the past. And if we could we’d probably be a planet of vegan hippies with a cow overpopulation problem.
For our business, trying to be green is easy. Our main source of revenue is a vehicle, so running on biodiesel is the obvious solution. For other companies, the solutions may not be so apparent. One thing a lot of businesses are doing is partnering with companies like Carbonfund.org, whose slogan is “Reduce what you can, offset what you can’t.” Basically these organizations provide you with a carbon calculator to help you determine the carbon footprint of your house, your business, an event, or your whole life. They know you need to use electricity and fuel to survive. The idea is that you can offset the miles you drive to work every day and the number of lights in your home by making a donation to one of these organizations. They will then use the accumulated funds toward developing alternate forms of energy, or planting trees. You can choose where you want your donation to be distributed. We chose alternative energy research, but there’s a grocery list of choices which will all neutralize your carbon footprint.
But this doesn’t mean that you can just pay a bunch of money and the problems are solved. Burning plastic while handing money over to Carbonfund.org doesn’t mean you and the environment are square.
Reducing is important too (and reusing and recycling, if you remember your three Rs). Carpool or ride a bus (hint, hint). Does your office recycle? Most of this stuff is really simple, especially as companies are jumping onto the green bandwagon. There are so many green products on the market that didn’t used to be there, and they’re readily available in any store. They’re making the change to green living easy.
So you should make your life greener. Oops. We’re preaching. But regardless of what Kermit the Frog may have sung, it is easy being green.
Have you ever heard of the Great American Streetcar Scandal? In the 1920s, GM, Standard Oil, Firestone, Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum succeeded in buying out the electric trolley lines and closing them down, resulting in a monopoly on transit. At that point, only 10% of Americans had cars, but that number was about to increase dramatically.
Great marketing scheme, but kind of evil, right? (Read more about the trolley scandal on About.com.)
Fortunately, the rest of the country bounced back, and most big cities now have public transit systems. Unfortunately for Detroiters, this is the Motor City, the heart of the auto industry. Not that we're opposed to automobiles, the people who drive them (ahem, us) or the people who work to build them. Our Motown identity is great, but we've suffered from having no public transportation. And I (Jen) get speeding tickets all the time.
As gas prices rise and environmental awareness grows, people -- especially those without access to public transport -- are starting to see the necessity for it. Most thriving cities have it, and have enough options that their citizens can manipulate multiple systems to get around efficiently -- New Yorkers don't rely solely on the subway.
You've heard talk about the development of a light rail system in Detroit. We think that's fantastic. Light rail systems are reliable; they improve traffic conditions and emit minimal pollution (depending on the system). They may have limited usage, but properly funded, ours could grow to great extremes. It might take a while before the system is perfect. In fact, it'll be a while before the system is even built, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be excited about it.
People have asked us if we're concerned about trying to compete with the rail system. But like we said, you need options to be able to get around efficiently. Along that vein, we're talking with some local cab companies about adding that medium of transit to our network, as one that provides passengers with a specific-destination solution. We're hoping to work something out with a cab company, and preferably a "green" one, so we can provide a more complete service. That's the idea, anyway. We're trying to look to other green companies for our partnerships, who share our views and can help us make an impact. We'll talk more about the whole green thing in our next post, because let's face it, saving the planet is sweet. They wouldn't have made a whole superhero to do it if it wasn't.
I started talking about this a year ago. For a while it was mostly that -- talk. I called about some buses, and even drove to look at a few. I called the cities I wanted to target to see what kinds of permits were required. And I talked to people I knew and people I met, to look for responses and to see what kind of support I could gather. I worked for an event company, helping other companies and groups plan events, and renting décor to them. I met a lot of people through that, and attended their events. I gathered a lot of feedback and made some useful contacts.
Maybe I should back up.
Here's the gist: We're starting a shuttle service, The Night Move, moving passengers from Royal Oak to Ferndale to Detroit on weekend nights, to start. We plan to add more routes and more days as soon as we have the demand. We're running on biodiesel, which we're getting from Clean Emission Fluids, another local company that operates out of NextEnergy in Detroit. The service launches October 10, so we're now in the final stages leading up to the inaugural weekend.
Nothing really got rolling until I quit my full-time job two months ago. Within a week I owned a bus and hired Jen as my marketing director. We started building the website and establishing our presence on social networking sites. We made initial plans for the launch party. I talked to my friend in New York about getting us a logo.
I think the biggest push in starting a business is going from talking to doing. The idea is important, of course, but for us the idea was easy. The service we're offering is one we needed ourselves. That being said, lots of people have ideas. And people love to talk. We had a whole discussion with a group of people the other day about putting together a music festival, and Jen and I walked away saying we're actually going to do it. After The Night Move takes off, of course.
That's the other thing: I think you really have to focus on one thing at a time. I couldn't have put the time and energy into this that I have if I were working another full-time job. Jen's doing both right now, and I swear she drinks enough Redbull to kill a small animal. It's ridiculous.
Moving on: people have asked about the impact of the economy on starting a business. On one hand, the recession could be causing people to stay in more often and not have as much need for a service like ours. But we're playing the marketing angle of saving our customers gas and parking money, so we hope that message comes through. We're going to use these next blog entries to wax a bit more about public transportation, "going green" and why it's a great time to get involved in metro Detroit.
In terms of the company, rather than just the service, the recession has actually helped. Eric Ryan, one of the founders of Method household products, told Inc. magazine in May 2008 issue, "Starting a business in a recession is like vacationing in the off-season," says Ryan. "It's a little less crowded, and everything starts going on sale." It's true. The bus I bought is in great condition, with few miles on it. I'm sure if we were operating in a different economy, it would have cost way more than I paid for it. And if the cost of gas holds, it will drive (excuse the pun) people toward public transportation -- though let's hope it doesn't hold.