Lyft Co-Founder John Zimmer: ‘You Should Never Veer Off the Path of Your Own Values’
By Nina Zipkin
Long before he was the co-founder and president of ridesharing startup Lyft, John Zimmer had his first job as a phone operator in his hometown’s Hyatt hotel.
He quickly became fascinated by the inner workings of the hotel and ways to turn potentially vacation ruining moments to memorable and delightful customer experiences. That passion led him to Cornell where he studied at the university’s School of Hotel Administration.
While his focus is trained on changing transportation to make it more efficient, his hospitality training is always at the forefront of his mind as he works to put the company’s people first.
“Every time we have a team meeting, we share a driver or passenger story to remind ourselves that as we grow the business, behind each ride there are two people that are interacting,” Zimmer told Entrepreneur.
Since it’s launch in 2013, the company has grown to encompass more than 300 cities in the United States, 1,500 employees, 700,000 drivers and 12 million passengers. Lyft provided 162.6 million rides in 2016, and to date Zimmer and Green have raised $2.61 billion in funding, valuing the company at $7.5 billion.
We caught up with Zimmer and asked him 20 questions to figure out what makes him tick.
1. How do you start your day?
I get up and do about an hour of exercise. It gets me into the physical world, not just in my head. As an entrepreneur we think a lot, and we can think ourselves into tough decisions but by being physical, I feel both more clear headed and healthy. Then I have a quick snack and get to see my daughter before I leave the house.
I carpool into the office with my co-founder Logan. It’s a great opportunity to catch up on the last 24 hours without any interruptions. I’m trying to solve this problem, would love your advice on it, that kind of stuff.
2. How do you end your day?
I often carpool home with Logan, maybe three out of the five days a week. Typically our carpool home is less about business, more about catching up personally, listening to some good music. Then I try to get home to see my wife and daughter before my daughter goes to bed. Otherwise try to make bath time and then be there to put her to sleep.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
There is two books by Paul Hawken, one is called Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism.
I was interested in the environment and doing good, and I was also really interested in business. I struggled growing up thinking about how you can combine those two pieces. I think I considered them separate. I thought you either do good or you do business. Those books showed me that there are opportunities to do both, and that business can be used to create a positive solution in the world.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
Tribe by Sebastian Junger. It speaks to this value we have of bringing people together and power of real community. As you look back to how people organize themselves historically, it was in smaller groups and the book walks through why that is important and powerful.
In today’s world there is a lot of cars and roads getting in the way of people interacting. Our hope that by making car ownership optional we can have our cities redesigned around the people living in them. This book provides perspective about why that idea is so important, why it should be easier for people to interact.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
I removed both Safari and the news apps from my phone. Reducing noise from my phone makes it so when I’m in a meeting for example, I’m the most focused.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
A doughnut man. That was the first thing I told my parents. I used to go to Dunkin’ Donuts, and I told them that I wanted to be a doughnut man. That was a person that was making the doughnuts. I used to talk to the people that were making them and so just my love of doughnuts made me want to make them too. This is when I was 5.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
I think more about the culture at Lehman Brothers when I worked there. I saw that people weren’t being themselves and they weren’t participating in a real meaningful way. I learned that the values that I want to be a part of and create in our environment are ones that were different from a place where people weren’t participating or being themselves.
When you walk into the Lyft offices in San Francisco, you see a sign of our first value, which is to “be yourself.” Our fourth value is “participate.”
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
In my personal life, my wife. She has helped me in the constant strive to find balance between home life and work. She’s had a positive influence on me.
In the work world, I’d say Howard Schultz of Starbucks. He has been really helpful. A year or two ago, we had a conversation about values. The first time I ever spoke to him, we spent the entire phone call just with him interested in our values.
He asked me how did we think about making decisions? How did we treat the people? It was just reinforcing the idea that values matter, and that you should never veer off the path of your own values. Him reinforcing that with every interaction we have had since has been helpful and influential.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
When I was in college I traveled to Nicaragua. I had a really amazing time there living with different communities, who similar to the book Tribe, had a better sense, I would argue, of family and community than much of the cities I had seen. That influenced me to decide that whatever I was part of, I wanted to bring people that sense of community.
10. What inspires you?
RIght now, my daughter is a huge inspiration. Thinking about the future of our cities, the world and what environment she’s going to grow up in.
Also, the driver and passenger stories we hear every day. In a past team meeting, we had a mother come in and tell the story herself. She is a Lyft driver living in New York and her daughter is in Los Angeles. The daughter was going through a rough living situation with a roommate and had to leave and move into a new place. The mother called a Lyft for her daughter, had a quick conversation with the driver and the driver took care of her daughter in this tough situation.
These stories inspire us to think how we can make things more efficient and create a platform for two people to have a really positive interaction?
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
There is a white pineapple that is native to Nicaragua that I tried with the community I was staying with. After my trip there, I thought it would both benefit people there who wanted to export that as well as people in the states who hadn’t tried it.
We thought how were we going to ship it. There were four of us that worked on it. We went to the idea of dried fruit because of the shipping difficulties, and it ended up that we were not successful in bringing it to market.
I learned a lot about how something that may seem simple is very complicated. At the time I was naive in what I thought it meant to start something. It was just a dose of reality around if you want to make something happen, you have to fully commit yourself. I think that’s what Logan and I have done with Lyft. It’s basically our life’s world. I learned a lot about the commitment required to fully deliver.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
I was a phone operator at a Hyatt in my hometown. It was my first real hospitality experience, and I fell in love with the idea of delighting people through great service.
Being an operator was valuable, because I got to see the how the whole hotel worked. If a guest called down and had an issue with something in the room, I would call the right department and then follow up and it was fixed.
You look for these moments to delight guests. I remember a guest called down and there were kids in the background. Something was broken and I called engineering. Because it had been a bad experience with the guest and I heard the kids, I sent up milk and cookies. I learned how to take a potentially bad experience and turn it into a great customer experience.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
It was from Howard Schultz, when he told me to be true to our values.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
We were told to shut down Zimride [a ride sharing startup that was the precursor to Lyft that Zimmer started at Cornell]. They said, you guys are passionate about transportation, but what if you did something else? I think us deciding to stay on the course was the right thing.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
I schedule proactive time every day. The goal is to do three hours a day of proactive time with no meetings. There is nothing scheduled so I can be thoughtful, prioritize and be as productive as possible.
16. Is there an app or tool you use to get things done or stay on track?
It’s more that I remove apps that are distracting. I always remove the news app and Safari from my phone and that helps me stay on track.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
It’s a combination of finding work that you are passionate about so you feel good about committing the time, as well as making the physical and mental time and space to be the with the people most important in your life.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
Exercise four to five days a week and then spending quality family time as much as possible during the week and investing time with the family on the weekends.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
For me, it’s helpful to get outside and get away from technology. It’s nice to see trees and be in nature.
20. What are you learning now?
I’m learning how to be a father. It’s super important, because I want to take great care of my daughter, but I also think that there is so much noise in today’s world. And the most important thing we do is raising a family and taking care of our kids, because I think they can have a really powerful impact. I want her to be happy and have a positive impact on the people and the world around her.
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