How Brett Akker revolutionised the car-hire business

Inspired by the success of car sharing schemes in Europe and North America, Brett Akker decided to give the idea a spin in Britain.


Brett Akker: Inspired by car-sharing in Europe and North America

Even while he was studying economics and law at the University of Durham, Brett Akker (now 40) knew that he wanted to go into business with friend Andrew Valentine. After graduating in 1997, he and Valentine kept in touch, spending up to three evenings every week looking at potential ideas, but the inspiration finally struck in 2003 when Akker read an article in a business magazine about car-sharing schemes in Europe and North America.

This prompted the duo to start investigating the sector in depth, running focus groups and drafting a business plan. They came up with a proposal for an online car-sharing service that would allow users to book a car for as little as an hour. By contrast, traditional rental services had a minimum rental period of one day. Convinced by the results of the research, Akker quit his job at Mars and pooled his savings with Valentine to provide the £70,000 seed capital for the firm that became Streetcar.

The money covered their living expenses, office space and the cost of leasing the necessary technology from a German firm. But even with this, they needed additional funds to lease and insure the cars that their customers would use. Akker recounts that they had to approach around 70 potential investors, most of whom wanted "proof of concept" before they would invest.

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Insurers also worried about the cars being left at locations scattered around London and accessed via a security code, rather than stored in one central location. Despite this, Akker had "no doubts" about his chosen path. Indeed, on Streetcar's first day of operations in April 2004, he told his business partner that, even if it failed, he would never go back to a corporate job.

With almost no money for publicity, their first customers were drawn from their friends and family. However, a decision to focus marketing on train and tube commuters, many of whom only drove at the weekend, resulted in a rapid increase in their customer base. By the end of 2004, Streetcar employed five people. By 2010, this had swelled to a staff of 250. After rejecting multiple offers for the company, including one that arrived the same year they started trading, Akker and Valentine agreed in 2010 to merge with Zipcar, in a deal valued at $50m.

Akker continues to be an active entrepreneur, founding storage company LoveSpace three years ago. The idea for this new venture came from a discussion with an Asian investor and the firm "aims to do for self-storage what Streetcar did for car rentals". Unlike conventional firms, which rent out a specific storage area, LoveSpace allows people to store individual items. It also offers delivery to and from the storage area. Akker says business is growing strongly and the firm is on course to deliver a turnover of £1m this year. He has also invested in a variety of other projects, including freelancer site YunoJuno, and Housekeep, which enables people to find reliable cleaners.

Akker says he enjoyed his time developing Streetcar, but admits that he could have managed the firm's expansion better and done more to give the original staff more responsibility. His main piece of advice to potential entrepreneurs is to be "all-in", which means "living and breathing your business" and "being 100% committed".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri