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Driven: how Zipcar's founders built and lost a car-sharing empire

In the late ’90s, Antje Danielson’s son Max and Robin Chase’s daughter Linnea often played together on a tire swing in Cambridge, Massachusetts' Dana Park. The two women had met at their kids’ kindergarten, but supervising the playground is how they got to know each other. As Danielson, a Harvard geochemist, and Chase, an MIT business school graduate turned stay-at-home mom, kept chatting, their casual park encounters grew more profound. Chase started telling Danielson about wanting to put her business degree to good use, about her entrepreneurial ambitions. Danielson spoke of wanting to branch out of academia, a desire that had her, too, mulling entrepreneurship. “I was sitting in the playground after school, and there was this other mom who had a business degree and I was telling her about [wanting to start a business],” Danielson recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting, and I’ve been thinking of starting a company, too.’” Danielson’s husband was encouraging. “He said, ‘Well, why don’t you just ask her if she wants to start this company with you?’”

So, one afternoon in October of 1999, Danielson took a chance and told Chase about her car-sharing idea. Chase was enthusiastic, but she wanted to make sure her husband would be okay with her taking on such a big project. That night she went home, talked to him, and decided to go ahead. Within a few days Chase and Danielson had their first official Zipcar business meeting.

Today, Zipcar — which is still headquartered in Boston — has offices in more than 26 American cities and 860,000 members across the US, Austria, Canada, Spain, and the UK. And the company’s profile only grew when car-rental giant Avis bought Zipcar for $491 million in January 2013. But in fact, both founders left the company more than 10 years ago, as power struggles and disputes prevented both Chase and Danielson from seeing their shared vision through. Now 56, Danielson hasn’t spoken to Chase in more than a decade.


Born in Germany, Danielson first came to the US to complete a postdoc in geochemistry at Harvard University, where she studied the chemical composition of the atmosphere using 2.5-million-year-old sedimentary rocks. But after the birth of her first child in 1993, Danielson found herself worrying about the world her son would inherit. "It was very clear to me how big the [environmental] problems were," she says, "and what I saw [in academia] was a lot of theory, but no application." She wanted to change her focus from the Earth’s past to its present, and to start a company with an environmental focus.


Antje Danielson, co-founder of Zipcar

As the company came together, its co-founders grew apart

Unsure of what that might actually be, Danielson looked for ideas somewhere familiar: academic journals. It was during her research that a study involving Switzerland’s Mobility Cooperative caught her eye. The European car-sharing company was different from those already operating in the US, like Car Sharing Portland (which later became Flexcar and merged with Zipcar in 2007). Mobility was already a large company, with 17,400 customers and over 700 vehicles. But its biggest asset was technology. The company had developed systems that allowed members to access cars without constant key-swapping. Danielson decided the same thing could succeed in the US.

Conscious consumers, both she and Chase agreed on wanting to drastically reduce reliance on single-owner cars, and thought that a company founded on that principle could be a lucrative one given America’s growing interest in environmentalism. But because Danielson’s family relied solely on her income, she needed to keep her job at Harvard. Chase, however, was able to work full time on the new business and threw herself into the company. By the end of 1999, the women were shopping for investors, and secured $75,000 in startup financing before incorporating the company the following January. Chase became Zipcar’s president, while Danielson took on the role of vice president.

Zipcar had its first vehicle on the road by May of 2000, and counted over 600 customers by September. But as the company came together, its co-founders grew apart. "Robin and I didn’t get along very well," Danielson says. "She wanted extra shares, and I said, ‘Look, you can get extra shares through employee stock options, but we started this together [so] we are going to have it 50 / 50.’" According to Danielson, that push for more assets, and more power, was their primary source of conflict.


The rift continued to deepen, and Danielson says she was rarely consulted on decisions, even though the company’s core was composed of only a handful of people at the time. "It looked like Antje was not being brought into the discussions," says Paul Covell, a product manager at Google who was Zipcar’s first engineer. "There were more conversations happening without her than with her." Roy Russell, Chase’s husband and Zipcar’s founding technology officer until 2006, says that happened because Danielson wasn’t fully committed to the company. "She never took on a real strong operational role at the company, that I can remember," he says. "In some sense, I am not sure she ever joined [the company], in the sense that she never left her other job at Harvard." But Danielson doesn’t see things that way. "I worked very hard," she says. "I did work my regular hours at Harvard — my 35 hours a week — and then I worked an additional 30 hours or so per week doing Zipcar."

According to the majority of Zipcar staff interviewed for this story, Danielson’s strengths didn’t work in her favor. She was an astute academic and a passionate environmentalist, but one without a shred of business experience. "Antje brought a more earthy, holistic view to the company," says Mark Chase, Robin’s brother and the director of business development at Zipcar for four years. Larry Slotnick, a former fleet manager at Zipcar who oversaw large groups of vehicles, puts it more bluntly: "It wasn’t like she was doing any irreplaceable task." Slotnick recalls Danielson as easy to work with, but says she had trouble balancing professional and personal duties. "She just wasn’t one of these co-founders who was able to put in 50 or 60 hours a week," he says.

But Covell says that Danielson focused on Zipcar even after the birth of her second son in 2000. "Antje remains somewhat unique in my experience because when she had her second child, she didn’t miss a beat at the office at all." Danielson herself remembers going out at midnight to jump-start a Zipcar with a dead battery, "and I did that with my infant in the car seat."

Though the rift between the two founders was obvious, its extent was unclear until early January of 2001. During a board meeting, Chase petitioned Zipcar’s board for the ability to make hiring and firing decisions without consulting them. Danielson thought it was a reasonable request that would make things easier as the company expanded, so she voted for the proposition, which passed. "Two hours later, she was firing me," Danielson says. "Robin wanted to be the sole powerhouse in the company, and she was very savvy at getting the power." Covell says he didn’t see it coming. Even Chase’s brother was surprised. "All I know was that Robin initiated it with the board, and that it was some kind of power struggle," Mark says. "I was shocked when it happened." Only weeks earlier, Danielson had given her notice at Harvard to work full-time for Zipcar. The impending end of her career in academia made the initial shock of her firing at Zipcar all the more devastating. "I had the idea, I started it, and I asked Robin to partake," she says. "It was almost as though a baby had been taken away from me."

Chase has often stated in interviews that Danielson decided to leave Zipcar on her own. But the former Zipcar CEO now says that she avoided expanding on Danielson’s departure because of a deal the founders struck following the boardroom incident. "I have spent the last 14 years honoring the agreement I made with Antje when she left the company," she wrote in an email. "This includes not disclosing these details."

"I have worked very hard to protect Antje over the years, whether or not she appreciates that."

When presented with Danielson’s account of the firing, Chase called it "fascinating." The board meeting, she wrote, made clear that the board's responsibility was to never meddle with the operations of the company. "I definitely did not ask the board if I could have the right to fire people in order to fire her," she said. "I have worked very hard to protect Antje over the years, whether or not she appreciates that."

Danielson left Zipcar quietly, taking a job at Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative. She has never spoken publicly about the circumstances surrounding her departure. "I didn’t make a fuss because Zipcar was still in a very vulnerable state," Danielson says, "and I didn’t want to run it into the ground." Danielson owned shares in the company, but asserts that a potentially lucrative payoff wasn’t what kept her from speaking up. "You don’t kill something just because someone else isn’t taking their ethics classes."

After the firing, however, the company dynamics were largely unchanged, Slotnick says. "It’s not like we dwelt on it for a long time," he recalls. "I don’t think it had too much of an impact." The company kept expanding, extending its reach to New York City and Washington, DC, within the next two years. But Covell recalls the immediate aftermath of Antje’s departure as sorrowful rather than business as usual: "I remember it being a pretty dark situation."

Danielson remained a Zipcar shareholder until Avis bought the company in early 2013. "I started off with 50 percent of the company," she says. But after multiple rounds of funding, she ended up with 1.3 percent — about $6.3 million in an acquisition worth $491 million.

Two years after Danielson's firing, Chase was no longer at Zipcar. In the past, Chase has claimed she left Zipcar because of her father’s recent death and her daughter’s budding modeling career (her daughter is Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell). And when The Verge asked if she was fired, Chase answered that it was "a very complicated and long story," and she was "not interested in engaging." Some within the company simply say, much like Danielson, that she was forced out. "It was the board’s decision," Slotnick says. "Robin was trying to bring some venture capital — the next infusion of money — and she was having a hard time doing it." According to him, this was one of Chase’s first efforts to raise millions of dollars on her own, and the people she approached could tell. "She was the one responsible for bringing in the dough, and she didn’t make it happen." Based on that, he says, the company’s board decided they wanted a different CEO.

"My feeling was that Robin was never given a chance — they just orchestrated a take-over and that was that."

Chase was a charismatic leader, says former Zipcar engineer Greg McGuire, but she had a hard time infiltrating the boy’s club that governs the venture capital world. "It’s almost exclusively males," he says, "and it’s difficult to break into that." When Chase’s successor Scott Griffith took over, the funding immediately started coming in. "It kind of seemed to me like the VPs involved were withholding closing on that round [of funding] until they were able to execute the changes they wanted," McGuire says. "My feeling was that Robin was never given a chance — they just orchestrated a take-over and that was that."

Much like her founding partner’s stake, Chase’s ownership share of Zipcar diminished substantially as the company grew. By the time Avis acquired Zipcar, two years after the company’s initial public offering, Chase’s stake had dwindled from over 30 percent to less than three.

As the two women predicted over 14 years ago, Zipcar has drastically altered the way we use cars. Families with Zipcar memberships don’t typically own two vehicles: they book one when they need an extra ride instead. And members in big cities rely on the company when they’re running errands or moving from one apartment to the next. The company currently has over 800 employees and 10,000 vehicles globally. Neither woman worked for Zipcar when it reached this level of popularity.

Today, Chase is the executive chairman and founder of Veniam Works, a vehicle-communications company headquartered in Portugal, as well as the founder of French peer-to-peer car-rental company Buzzcar. Since leaving Zipcar, she has been named one of Time’s 100 most influential people (in 2009) and given numerous talks on entrepreneurialism, environmentalism, and the genesis of Zipcar, including a TED talk in 2007. The vast majority of those talks make no mention of her business partner’s contributions — a circumstance that likely contributed to Danielson being referred to as "a friend who had just returned from Berlin" in a 2013 New York Times article.

Danielson has long since returned to academia. As the administrative director of the Institute of the Environment at Tufts University, she oversees the day-to-day activities of Tufts’ environmental programs. Sitting in her office, Danielson appears confident and content. As she recounts how her relationship with Chase turned sour, her candidness is a result of both. She no longer bottles her anger, nor does she bite her tongue. Life hasn't been easy of late — she is currently going through a divorce — but the blows she has been dealt haven't slowed her down or made her any more guarded.

She even admits to using Zipcar on occasion, saying she continues to feel proud of the company she co-founded. "I don’t know where Zipcar will go with Avis," Danielson says. "But I feel like we made a difference." When asked about her future plans, she muses about improving environmental education in colleges around the globe. This idea, she says, may or may not involve a startup.

Photography by M. Scott Brauer.