CEO, startup founder, mentor, influencer, role model, wife and mother. Mar Alarcón, CEO and Founder of SocialCar, Spain’s leading peer-to-peer car rental company, is all of the above and more. Recently named one of EU-Startups’ 50 Most Influential Women in the Startup and Venture Capital Space, and an active board member of Barcelona Tech City, she’s a definitive figure in Barcelona’s tech and startup scene.
She’s also the epitome of a mompreneur, balancing the role of startup CEO and mother of three.
We sat down and had a long and profoundly uplifting chat with her about her passion for sustainability, how she started her company in the sharing economy space, the obstacles she and her team encountered and the barriers she refuses to impose on herself. She also gives advice to young women on how to avoid putting limitations on themselves and how to see themselves as human beings and highly capable professionals.
Roots of Sustainability
When did the idea of starting a business in the collaborative economy come to you? What was your journey like?
In 2004, I had the chance to work with Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. He is a social entrepreneur who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and introducing microcredits, very small loans for non-bankable, impoverished borrowers. It was then that I realized that you could make a social impact by running a business. Back then, we were used to seeing NGOs or foundations having an impact on society, but not businesses. And Muhammad Yunus’s work made me believe that it was possible to have a profitable business and a social purpose.
My husband and I have always believed in sustainable projects. The first business that we started, when we were living in Shanghai, is called Social Energy and it’s a renewable energy engineering company. We had a Chinese company making solar panels for us, and installed them in Spain. Later we moved back to Barcelona and expanded our business to other European countries as well. So these are our roots. Our aim has always been to make a good impact on society in some way.
In 2010, we started thinking about a mobility project. We were considering everything from electric cars to carsharing, because that was how we saw the future of mobility. We decided that my husband would run Social Energy, and I’d be in charge of our mobility project.
SocialCar is the leading peer-to-peer car rental company in Spain. Car owners can safely rent their cars through the platform and get an extra income for it, while drivers get access to a more sustainable and convenient mobility solution.
How was SocialCar born?
SocialCar almost became a traditional car rental service. We were thinking to buy a fleet of cars and leave them at different spots around the city for people to rent. But then, we suddenly changed our minds.
I was at home with my second child, researching the industry and companies in the carsharing space all over the world. There weren’t many back then. That’s when I came across a company called WhipCar, which was a UK-based peer-to-peer car rental company. It was actually one of the first in the world. And to me, it seemed like a great idea. I realized that the impact of peer-to-peer carsharing on sustainability would be much greater than that of a traditional carsharing service. Why would you buy a fleet of new cars when there are so many unused cars already in the city?
Also, there’s the social impact of being able to help families earn money with their second most important asset: the car. In 2010, when we were in the middle of a severe economic crisis here in Spain, it seemed like a very new and relevant approach. So I went up to my team and discussed it with them, and we came to the conclusion that this was the best way to do it, even though it would mean having to completely change people’s mindset.
What challenges did you have to overcome at the first stages of setting up SocialCar?
There were several challenges. There was no clear legislation and no insurance in the market to cover something like this. We knew that the first questions car owners will ask us when we launch would be: What happens if my car is stolen? What if it’s an accident? Do I have to declare the income, and if so, how do I do it?
We wanted to be prepared to answer those questions, so we had to launch in the market with a solution that was well-thought out and fully legal to the last detail. As a former tax advisor, the legal aspects were especially important to me.
We are a community of people. If you lie to your community, you’ll soon be out of business. That’s why we decided to make everything as straightforward as possible. You have to inform your community that yes, they have to declare their income and you need to provide them with tools to do it.
What about insurance?
We struggled to find a good insurance solution. In Europe, each country has different insurance regulations. The solutions that baby platforms in other countries had were not useful for us. We finally we found one company that trusted in us. They created a tailor-made insurance for SocialCar that covered all risks.
It was something completely new and, as an effect, we managed to drive change in the insurance industry: soon, other insurance companies started showing interest in offering innovating solutions like ours.
Then, at the end of 2014, AXA approached us with a tech solution. We entered a partnership with them, and now we have the best insurance that’s out there in terms of technology. When you rent a car in SocialCar, within ten minutes, you receive an insurance certificate for you as a driver, for the car with the exact plate number, and for the period of time that you’re renting the car. It’s very specific to the service, and it’s completely automatized. In this aspect we’ve made a very big step.
And now of course everyone’s talking about insurtech all the time. AXA are leaders in this because they’ve started working with startups and tech companies that required these new solutions.
“We Are a Community.”
One of the massive advantages of SocialCar compared to other carsharing services is that you have your own car park where car owners can leave their vehicles. How did you come up with that?
The fact is that people have cars, and they’re not using them. That’s just the way it is.
We are a community, and we’re user-centric, so we listen to what our users ask for. One thing they wanted was somewhere to leave the car. It started with one of our long-time car owners who had to move to Dubai for six months. He said he would be happy renting out his car in the meantime, but we would have to provide him with somewhere to keep it, and manage his bookings for him.
We started thinking about how we could do this on a larger scale. So we launched the “park and earn” service. Car owners can leave the car at our parking lot for at least one month, and during that time we manage their rentals and they receive the money every week.
Are you working on any new features at the moment?
Another thing that the community has asked for is a tool for selling cars. 98% of the car owners who leave the platform do so because they sell their car. And it happens that they sell it to one of the drivers! And the car owner who decided to sell starts renting cars on SocialCar. So, since there were already cars exchanging hands within SocialCar, we launched a platform for buying and selling cars. So far, it’s been going really well, and we’re going to develop it further.
Innovation and Mompreneurship
I’ve seen on your Twitter profile that you refer to yourself as a “Mompreneur”. I love that expression. Could you explain what it means?[Laughs] I don’t remember who started calling me that… But a mompreneur is basically a female entrepreneur who has kids, someone who is able to manage a self-owned business and raise kids at the same time.
This term is also used to describe women who leave their jobs because of maternity leave, and then they start a business. This is not my case, not directly, but it is true that having my kids has had a very direct influence on my career.
We were living in China when I got pregnant with my first child. I wanted to have the baby in Barcelona, so we came back. While I was pregnant, I decided to study a PDD at IESE. I went to the interview with a big belly, and I was accepted, but I only started the course after I had my baby. And there I was, juggling three things at once: my job at Social Energy, the PDD programme, and my baby.
Two and a half years later, I had my second child. I worked until the last day, but I decided not to go back after maternity leave. It was during this maternity leave that we started thinking about the mobility project. Then, we launched SocialCar in 2011, and I got pregnant with my third child in 2012. I was pregnant at the first meeting with one of our investors. I tried to hide my belly because I thought the investor would not take me seriously.
Now I know that it was completely silly of me to think that. That’s not how it works. When an investor has an interest in you, it’s because of the value they see in you, your talent, your team, your product. They don’t care whether you’re going to have a baby and not be available for a few months.
My third child was born in 2013, which was also an important moment for SocialCar. Two weeks before the due date, I decided, on a Friday, that I was going to finish everything that I had on the table, and I was going to stay at home on Monday, because I’m exhausted. I felt like if I don’t stop working and thinking about SocialCar all the time, this boy is never going to leave from my belly. And then, on Monday evening, I had my baby. I just had to concentrate on having a baby, and to decide that I was ready.
So yes, my children had an influence on my career at every important turning point.
How do you think becoming a mother can impact your personality?
Being a mother changes you in many ways. You have to take care of someone 24 hours day. You can’t make any spontaneous, or “on-demand” decisions. You have to plan ahead. You need to have a lot of empathy. And you need to be able to think outside the box and solve problems in a matter of seconds.
Because of this, becoming a mother can also give you tools to innovate. A few years ago, I was interviewed by a journalist for a study by Nesta, an innovation foundation in the UK. They profiled 25 women from all over the world, all mothers and entrepreneurs who run innovation businesses, to study the connection between becoming a mother and coming up with innovative ideas for businesses. The title of the book is Mothers of Innovation, and it has great examples of how motherhood can have an impact on innovation.
“Never Put Limits on Yourself!”
What would your advice be to female leaders?
I think that women tend to put a lot of limits on themselves. We are the first ones to say: “I can’t do it. I’m not able to, because I’m a woman, or because I’m a mom.” This is something that you must not do! Ever. I mean come on! You are a human being. You’re not a woman.
I always get asked the same question: have you had any problems throughout your career because of being a woman? And my answer is always: no! I never saw myself as a woman. I see myself as a professional, as a human being, not a woman. Because if you look at yourself and see a tag that is weakening you, you won’t be able to do anything.
I love that there are groups of women who have made it their mission to fight the gender gap, and I’m part of those groups. But they must send a positive message. Some of them just victimize themselves, victimize women, and I think that’s a destructive approach.
What would you tell mothers who want to start a business but think that they can’t do it?
Yes, you can do it. You do have opportunities. You just have to see them, and grab them. Many women ask me how I was running a business while I was breastfeeding my baby. Well, I had meetings in my home. I manage my time so that I can make the most of it. I don’t spend my time on commuting, for example. My house, the kids’ school and the office is in the same block.
Being a woman is not a problem. It’s a problem if you make it one, and if you use it as an excuse. I see people suffering at their jobs and complaining for years and years and years. Just stop complaining and do something for yourself! You can do whatever you want to do, and kids are not an excuse.
Of course, this is not easy. You need a lot of support. I am fortunate enough to have a husband who has supported every decision that I’ve made. He has never looked at me as someone weaker. We mutually support each other. And I realize that this is very important and not everyone gets to have it. But I think you also have to choose your surroundings, your relationships. I had support from my family, from my surroundings, who saw me as someone who is able to do things.