Alex Stephany: The Innovation Interview

Alex Stephany, CEO of JustPark, the world’s largest peer-to-peer parking website shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and the sharing economy.

JustPark generates millions of pounds annually for property-owners by letting them rent out their parking spaces. At the same time, its web and mobile applications provide cheap parking to over half a million drivers. JustPark is backed by Index Ventures, BMW, and a recent record-breaking equity crowdfunding campaign on CrowdCube.

Alex is is a widely recognized expert on the sharing economy and author of The Business of Sharing: the insider’s guide to sharing economy and Macmillan’s flagship business book of 2015. The book has been critically acclaimed by the likes of Martin Varsavsky, Mark Suster and Lily Cole. He also mentors at Techstars, the foremost tech accelerator program in the UK.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

For me, innovation means bringing a fresh perspective to an existing field, often solving an everyday problem that people face. For example, at JustPark, we have created a way for drivers to bypass all the traditional headaches associated with parking – not being able to find a space, paying over the odds, getting ticketed for parking in the wrong place – and we’re reinventing an industry that has changed little in the past few decades. Innovation means rewriting the rulebook – much in the way Uber have done for taxis and Airbnb have achieved in the hotel industry.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

I think that any industry should be constantly searching for new and improved ways of doing things, but based on my line of work I would naturally point to the parking industry. It has struggled to embrace emerging technology over the years, especially the smartphone.

Thankfully, we are now seeing change. Councils and car park operators are allowing people to pay for parking by phone rather than feeding clunky parking meters with loose change, and drivers are using apps like ours that let them find and pay for parking online. More and more of this old-fashioned industry is now being streamlined using the Internet – we are harnessing the power of the web to introduce efficiencies into the process.

This type of disruption drives the more traditional businesses in the sector to innovate and improve their services to keep-up, forcing them to incorporate this new technology in the way they do things.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Before I worked for JustPark, in a former life I was actually a corporate lawyer. I soon realized it wasn’t for me though, and shortly after joining Clifford Chance LLP I started looking for a career move. However, I do remember the Head of Litigation there offering me a valuable piece of advice – “impress everyone”, he said. I’ve tried my best to carry that philosophy with me throughout my time at JustPark, bearing it in mind before going into any meeting, conference or pitch.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

What I’m most proud of is writing The Business of Sharing – now the leading book on the sharing economy – alongside overseeing the growth of JustPark from 4 to over 40 employees, and taking the company through a funding round with Index Ventures. It was no mean feat juggling completing the final draft of the book and trying to run a fast-paced startup at the same time – I sacrificed a lot of sleep, but it was completely worth it to see the final version on the shelves earlier this year.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

I spend so much of my time looking at screens that I’ll take a paper book any day. There’s a certain pleasure to doing something thoroughly old-fashioned from time and time and not having an almost limitless amount of information (and distraction) at your fingertips. I have a Kindle but I barely use the thing.

Through your partnership with BMW, you were successfully able to create a seamless parking experience that benefits the driver, parking space owner and the car manufacturer. How did you first present this concept to BMW and what was their initial reaction?

BMW was very alert to the possibilities of a partnership ever since approaching us with a view to making an investment in JustPark – then called ParkatmyHouse. They’re experts at building cars and we’re experts at software and as the two worlds begin to move ever closer, partnerships like ours begin to make more and more sense.

What are some of biggest advantages to being a startup that was founded and based in London?

After Silicon Valley, there’s no better place to be a startup than in London. There is a very progressive culture that fosters innovation and growth, plus there are ample funding opportunities and a wealth of expertise and talent to draw from. There are also some great Government tax schemes like EMI for share options and EIS and SEIS for startups raising capital.

The eyes of the tech world are trained on this city, as there are so many amazing companies developing awesome ideas within its startup community. At JustPark, we’re very proud to be a homegrown tech business coming out of London – and there are huge advantages to being based in such an innovative and forward-thinking city.

How did you first conceive the idea of ParkatmyHouse and what lessons did you learn as you were scaling the service?

Anthony Eskinazi – our founder and my trusted business partner since 2011 – came up with the idea when he was traveling in San Francisco. Before attending a baseball game, he was struggling to find any parking nearby – on seeing an empty driveway, he thought that it would be a massive win-win if he could just pay to park at that house rather than circling the streets. After returning to the UK to start a grad scheme with Deloitte, Anthony decided that what he actually wanted to do was pursue this idea and put all his efforts towards realizing his entrepreneurial dreams.

ParkatmyHouse was born in 2006, and after 5 years of grueling solo work, Anthony hired me to help him in growing what was already a very promising small business. Since then, we have rebranded, received investment from arguably Europe’s leading tech investors, Index Ventures, and closed a record-breaking crowdfunding round – and more recently won Richard Branson’s Pitch To Rich competition.

We’re continually learning lessons and new things about our own business. But one lesson I’ve learned is to be completely uncompromising on the talent we bring into the team. As a result, we’ve built a fantastic culture of achievement, creativity and innovation, and sheer fun among people who are on a fascinating journey together. If it’s the kind of journey that might be for you too, please check out our careers page.

Have you had discussions with City Managers and Town Councils about possibly integrating the JustPark service into existing City Parking Places and Structures? If so, how have those discussions gone?

We have – JustPark currently works with many councils at their car parks, helping drive them significant amounts of new revenues from the drivers on our platform. As with other car park operators and hotels, they see us a new and impactful channel that can take care in part or full of the digital space for them.

When are you planning on expanding JustPark in the United States? Are there plans to develop a US focused version of the service?

JustPark is a service that is open to drivers and property owners worldwide, and we already have thousands of property owners making money from their parking spaces in the US – without having properly targeted the market there yet. We’re currently very focussed on growth in the UK, but ultimately we want JustPark to be a global solution for a global problem. Inevitably, this will lead us to the US, but it isn’t a focus for the immediate future.

Sign up for IDEAS — Our weekly insight into innovation.