Newenhouse: 'I have that entrepreneur spirit in me.'
Wisconsin's first car-sharing program turned 10 this fall. From its humble launch in Madison with only 26 members, it now serves some 1,300 customers who rely on fuel-efficient Community Car vehicles for errands and pleasure, as well as for reducing their carbon footprint.
Community Car founder Sonya Newenhouse has been called a "serial eco-entrepreneur" by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. In the near future, she plans to expand her green mission by marketing super-efficient kit homes and creating an "eco village" in Viroqua, Wis.
"I'm a first-generation American," Newenhouse says. "My dad and mom were entrepreneurs who came from Europe, so I have that entrepreneur spirit in me."
Newenhouse earned her master's and doctorate in environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she started thinking about car-sharing, she already had a business, the Madison Environmental Group, an interdisciplinary consulting firm she founded in 1998. Among other recent projects, Madison Environmental wrote the deconstruction plans for the former Central Library building, as well as for properties displaced by the new Hampton Inn at 440 W. Johnson St. The company also helped facilitate LEED design and construction of the Madison Children's Museum.
"As we looked at more significant issues in the environmental field, we realized that transportation is something that really needs addressing," recalls Newenhouse. She found that driving less was the single most effective way an individual could help the environment.
The firm received a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to do a study. "I wasn't intending to start a second business, so the initial research was an intellectual pursuit," Newenhouse says. But she changed her mind after doing the market study and survey research. "I guess I didn't want to let it go."
The Community Car concept was born. At the time, car-sharing was virtually unknown in the Midwest, and even today Newenhouse finds she must clear up misconceptions. Community Car is not ride-sharing or carpooling.
"In essence we're an hourly car-rental company for members. The reason it's for members -- anyone with a good driving record can join us -- is because we cover all the insurance," she says. "Then we're just one click away. You don't have to go into an office to rent our cars."
Newenhouse says it was not difficult to find seven investors. The Madison Development Corp. provided a loan and UW-Madison set aside parking places. "There are a lot of smart people in Madison who see an idea and are looking toward the future," she says.
The occasional second car
In conversation, Newenhouse sometimes lapses into the language of nonprofits, speaking of "in-kind" donors and early sponsors. But Community Car has always been a limited liability company.
"It could have been done through a nonprofit," says Newenhouse. "We could have gone through grants. But I believe that businesses can be mission-driven and make a profit. For me, my passion as an eco-entrepreneur is to find solutions that pay for themselves, to be a financially sustainable business."
Community Car launched with three automobiles on Oct. 15, 2003. Today it has 12 autos and a truck, and a staff of four. Vehicle cleaning is performed in part by a job-coaching service for people with disabilities.
Members "range from university students to an 87-year-old who recently joined us," says Newenhouse. "Our average age is in the mid-30s, and it is pretty much split down the middle with men and women as members. We have everything from condo-owner empty-nesters who are downsizing to people who, for affordability or environmental reasons, are choosing not to own a car. But mostly we're the occasional second car for a family."
Members can "pay as you drive" for $10 an hour or subscribe to prepaid plans that drive the cost down to as little as $8 an hour. However, the prepaid plans are "use 'em or lose 'em"; hours don't roll over to the next subscription period. Community Car covers gas, and the first 150 miles per reservation are included; after that, it's 48 cents per mile.
The average rental lasts two hours. Vehicle locations are mainly downtown. "Primarily we need to be close to bus routes, bicycle lanes and density," Newenhouse says. "We have tried farther out, but then the cars weren't used enough."
Competition arrived in December 2011 when Boston-based Zipcar came to town. Its car-sharing rates are similar, and it pushed Community Car off campus.
"Zipcar currently has nine vehicles in and around Madison, as a result of a partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison," says spokeswoman Lindsay Wester. "Those not associated with the university are welcome to use the cars as well, as long as they have a current Zipcar membership." In August, Milwaukee became Zipcar's 24th major metro market, with 40 vehicles in 20 locations.
"Zip who?" jokes Newenhouse, when asked about the competition. Community Car had to move much of its fleet off-campus, but she says business improved because vehicles are now located near where many clients live, rather than where they go to school.
"It was a pleasant surprise that our car usage and our revenue actually increased," she says.
Sharing is in
Newenhouse sold her interest in Madison Environmental almost two years ago but still serves as an adviser. She heads several other companies, including Crescent LLC, which owns the building at 25 N. Pinckney St. on the Capitol Square. Its tenants include Community Car's headquarters and a portion of the Old Fashioned restaurant and bar.
She says her next business, which she hopes to launch in about a year, will sell "super-insulated small sustainable kit homes that are furnace-free." She and her family live in a prototype in Viroqua, between Richland Center and La Crosse.
"It's pretty exciting. We give tours once a month," she says.
Newenhouse visits Madison every other Tuesday for Community Car business. "I mostly just coach the staff virtually," over the Internet.
She also heads Maple Heights Viroqua LLC, near her home. "We certified the land organic and will over the years create an eco-village there," she says. Its seven acres will include "a few houses clustered together and an eight-person co-op living house."
Newenhouse says the sharing economy is on the rise. That bodes well for the state's first car-sharing program, she says. "Community Car really has a lot of opportunity to grow."
The author has been a Community Car member since 2010.