What ZipCar’s IPO means for car-sharing

April 13, 2011, 11:37 PM UTC

Car-sharing company ZipCar (ZIP) is expected to hit the public markets later this week, after some fits and starts caused by anti-trust issues in Britain. It would have an initial market cap of approximately $618 million, were it to price its IPO at the high end of its proposed $14-$16 per share range.

[Update: Company raised around $174.6 million in its IPO, pricing 9.7 million shares at $18 per share.]

To get a better sense of what this listing could mean for the burgeoning car-sharing market, I spent some time on the phone with Shelby Clark, founding CEO of RelayRides, a Google Ventures-backed company that lets users “borrow” their neighbors’ car (ZipCar owns its own fleet).

Fortune: If ZipCar successfully prices its IPO, what does that mean for the car-sharing market?

Clark: I think it’s a really great sign. ZipCar has done a fantastic job of taking car-sharing from a niche idea for environmental hippies and turned it into a mainstream lifestyle choice…

Assuming the IPO is successful, then it means people realize that car-sharing not only is fantastic from an environmental and community perspective, but also from an economic and business perspective. We’re really rooting for them, because we see them as more of a complement than a competitor. Even in its most successful cities, ZipCar only has between 5% and 10% penetration among licensed drivers. I could imagine up to 40% or 50% of drivers adopting car-sharing, but only if the market continues to mature.”

Does this mean car-sharing begins to be thought of as a legitimate rival to car rental?

Well, it definitely means car-sharing is up-and-coming and will have a seat at the table. But I think you need to realize that there is a very big difference between the two. I saw an analyst report calling ZipCar an hourly car rental service, but it’s not. Car rental is about unusual circumstances, not about being your daily form of transportation. It’s an exception to the rule.

Car-sharing, on the other hand, is meant to be an alternative to car ownership – a way to live without a car, or perhaps for a family to live with one car instead of with two. For trips to the grocery store or IKEA or maybe for a weekend getaway. That’s a major difference, not only in how you market your service but also in the people who will want to use it.

But some of the big rental companies have tried getting into car-sharing, and there even had been some speculation that ZipCar could be an acquisition target. Are you surprised that someone hasn’t snapped them up prior to the IPO?

No. I think car rental companies have gotten involved in car-sharing because they see something changing and want to be in a position to understand what’s going on. But if you look at the scale of operations, some of these companies buy themselves a million cars per year. I don’t think they’d even know what to do with something as small as ZipCar, which only has around 8,500 cars.

So could there be a symbiotic relationship?

Hopefully. It’s also important to realize that it’s not just car rental companies that have some interest in car-sharing, but auto OEMs do as well. Daimler has a program in Austin, and BMW just launched one in Germany. There’s some action in Asia from an OEM. Bill Ford gave a great TED talk recently, talking about the future of Ford and how the auto industry isn’t globally scalable, particularly from an environmental or infrastructure standpoint when you think of the hundreds of millions of new vehicles that could be required in China and India. I think that’s why Ford and BRW have rebranded themselves from car companies to mobility companies.

Toyota also recently have away 100 Prius plug-ins to car-sharing companies, and the biggest reason was to get feedback. Think of how valuable it is for them to have thousands of people use their cars. Or to be top-of-mind if someone drops out of the car-sharing program and looks to buy a car of their own.