Sprynt’s fleet of elec­tric cars comes with a bonus

Founder of new ride-hail­ing ser­vice in Arlington isn’t plan­ning to charge a fee

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY LUZ LAZO luz.lazo@wash­post.com

How does a start-up get at­ten­tion in the crowded field of ride­hail­ing apps? Sprynt, the lat­est en­trant to the field in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, hopes to do so by of­fer­ing free rides.

The Arlington-based com­pany launched last month with a fleet of four elec­tric ve­hi­cles that re­sem­ble a cross be­tween Lon­don’s fa­mous black taxis and gi­ant golf carts. The com­pany is tar­get­ing cus­tomers who need a lift “when it’s too far to walk but too close to drive.”

“We con­nect res­i­dents to lo­cal busi­nesses,” said Alex Vil­lanueva, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive. His ser­vice, he said, “is this new, fun, ex­cit­ing, eco-friendly way to get around down­town Arlington.”

That means short trips within one of the county’s busiest cor­ri­dors, cov­er­ing hubs such as Court­house, Claren­don and Ball­ston.

It’s be­come pop­u­lar among in­terns and other work­ers want­ing to ex­pand their lunch op­tions, go­ing from of­fices in Court­house to restau­rants in Ball­ston, for ex­am­ple.

Vil­lanueva said the ve­hi­cles put in 3,500 miles in the first two weeks of op­er­a­tions, pro­vid­ing rides to more than 2,500 peo­ple. He de­clined to go into the specifics about the com­pany’s fund­ing but said that $250,000 in pri­vate in­vest­ment — mostly from friends and fam­ily — made the launch pos­si­ble. Ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue will fund op­er­a­tions, he said.

In­side the ve­hi­cles, cus­tomers will find in­for­ma­tion about restau­rants, in­clud­ing menus, as well as an­nounce­ments from apart­ment com­plexes in the area. An app up­date to be re­leased this week will al­low restau­rants and shops to of­fer coupons and spe­cials through the plat­form.

“It is a unique win-win sit­u­a­tion where the con­sumer is get­ting a free ride and the ad­ver­tiser is still able to push their prod­uct to the con­sumer,” Vil­lanueva said.

Each ve­hi­cle, with its dis­tinc­tive black-and-white color scheme, has room for five pas­sen­gers and the driver, and the six-door con­fig­u­ra­tion al­lows rid­ers to hop in and out quickly.

An­nie Chen, one of Sprynt’s first cus­tomers, said she signed up for the ser­vice af­ter see­ing the ve­hi­cles zip­ping back and forth on Wilson Boule­vard. She ap­proached one of the drivers near her Claren­don of­fice build­ing to in­quire about the ser­vice. Soon she was Googling the com­pany, down­load­ing the app and hail­ing a ride.

The app is avail­able for iOS and will soon be avail­able for An­droid de­vices.

“We heard it was free,” Chen said as she and two co-work­ers boarded just be­fore noon on a re­cent work­day. Why not give it a try, she said, as she browsed through an iPad dur­ing their five-minute trip to the food trucks in Ball­ston.

“So will you start charg­ing soon?” Chen asked her driver.

Be­hind the wheel, Vil­lanueva an­swered with a def­i­nite “No.” “We will never charge,” he said. Hav­ing a fully elec­tric fleet of ve­hi­cles keeps oper­at­ing costs low, Vil­lanueva said.

“We fig­ure that if we do some­thing that is free, we are go­ing to gen­er­ate a lot of rid­er­ship, and the more rid­ers we have, the more valu­able our plat­forms are to ad­ver­tis­ers,” he said. “We need the ad­ver­tis­ers to keep the op­er­a­tion run­ning, and we need the rid­ers to show the ad­ver­tis­ers this is a valu­able plat­form to ad­ver­tise.”

Be­sides, he said, be­ing free and us­ing all-elec­tric ve­hi­cles is what makes Sprynt unique. The even­tual goal, Vil­lanueva said, is to foster a steady stream of pick­ups and drop-offs and ex­pand to ar­eas where there is a high de­mand for ser­vice, such as Bethesda-Friend­ship Heights and Crys­tal City-Pen­tagon City.

The ser­vice is re­stricted to ar­eas where the speed limit is 25 mph or un­der be­cause of the ve­hi­cles’ lim­its, which elim­i­nated plans for a McLean-Tysons route. The com­pany is study­ing ar­eas of the District for a pos­si­ble ex­pan­sion, how­ever. Vil­lanueva de­clined to spec­ify where.

Vil­lanueva said Sprynt isn’t try­ing to com­pete with Uber and Lyft, which have mil­lions of users and thou­sands of drivers world­wide.

“We com­ple­ment the ex­ist­ing meth­ods of trans­porta­tion,” he said. “Those ride ser­vices are more in­ter­ested in longer rides. Th­ese short hops are not al­ways prof­itable for them.”

A na­tive of Puerto Rico, Vil­lanueva, 26, left his job as a se­nior an­a­lyst at Global Imag­ing Sys­tems, a sub­sidiary of Xerox, in Tampa, to move to the Wash­ing­ton area to launch Sprynt. He had lived in Vir­ginia when he was young, grad­u­ated from the Col­lege of Wil­liam & Mary and vis­ited North­ern Vir­ginia fre­quently.

Vil­lanueva said he knew that the den­sity and di­ver­sity of res­i­den­tial, of­fice and re­tail op­tions made Arlington ideal for Sprynt. It was also, he said, a highly de­sir­able de­mo­graphic that mar­keters and ad­ver­tis­ers want to reach — mil­len­ni­als.

Sprynt of­fers a free ride, the con­ve­nience of not hav­ing to deal with park­ing or driv­ing to make a short trip, and the app-based, on-de­mand op­tion that they have grown used to.

“My goal is to drop you off and for you to say, ‘This is too good to be true. I can’t be­lieve this is free.’

“And if that is the case, then we have done our jobs and you will con­tinue us­ing us,” he said.

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