How does a start-up get attention in the crowded field of ride-hailing 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.