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The intersection of Silicon Valley and the rest of the economy is as hot a topic as ever. The tech industry has its (many) faults. But when its companies work they grow fast, deploy bleeding-edge concepts and achieve sky-high valuations.
The latest company to demonstrate its fealty to the idea of Silicon Valley is Ford. Its new CEO, Jim Hackett, is a meat-and-potatoes business guy (he ran office furniture maker Steelcase for years) who also is an adherent of so-called design thinking. That product-conceptualization school of thought, centered at Stanford’s famous d.school and the nearby original office of global consultancy IDEO, posits the common-sense approach that human behavior should be at the center of making products.
My feature on Hackett in the current issue of Fortune explores the CEO’s proclivities by way of guessing what he might do with Ford. It also highlights an unusually close relationship Hackett shares with David Kelley (founder of both IDEO and the d.school) and what their collaboration means for Ford’s future. (Teaser: the two once had a 24/7 video link running between their respective offices.)
Hackett has little to show for his fresh approach in the four short months he’s been in the job. Some of Ford’s most aggressive moves in alternatives to goods and services related to cars and trucks happened with Hackett’s involvement but during the tenure of his predecessor Mark Fields.
One of these, buying the “micro-transit” service Chariot, is indeed an intriguing prism through which to view how Ford might evolve. Chariot has a fascinating model. It crowdsources its rush-hour routes and gathers the information to do so by collating and analyzing expressions of interest from prospective and existing customers. That is so obviously superior to the public-transit method of establishing fixed routes and sticking with them for years.
Chariot also operates dedicated routes for companies who have employees commuting from similar areas to its offices. Think of this as a “Google bus” for companies with smaller employee populations and fewer means. This week I noticed a Chariot van marked “Intuit” in San Francisco’s Mission District. (Intuit’s offices are a solid hour’s drive south of there.) Chariot founder Ali Vahabzadeh, who has stayed on to run the company under Ford, told me its “enterprise” business is its fastest-growing offering.
Ford sells its 14-passenger Transit Wagons to Chariot, but that’s not the primary reason it likes the acquisition. Hackett sees a day—he won’t get specific—when Ford’s non-vehicle revenue becomes bigger than selling cars and trucks. That would be a paradigm shift to set the heart racing of any Silicon Valley thinker.