Project 100 wants to revolutionize transportation, but will it be another unrealized Vegas dream?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on May 16, 2014

From The News Desk

As Zach Ware, CEO of the newly funded transportation startup Project 100, explains his vision I can’t help but think that he’s gone a little crazy.

“Public transport can never deal with the need to go door to door. We see an opportunity as Uber did to build a dynamically routed system to connect someone from one door to the next in an efficient way,” Ware says.

He envisions — and not just envisions but has already placed purchasing orders for — a multi-tiered transportation company that shepherds people around Las Vegas via bikes, cars, drivers, and shuttles. It’s called "Shift, by Project 100."

Today it announced that it closed a $10 million funding round in a round led by the grand Vegas poo-bah (and Pando investor) himself, Tony Hsieh. Hsieh put in 95 percent of that money, with additional funds coming from smaller angels. “It’s [Hsieh’s] largest personal investment that he’s made so far so we’re pretty humbled,” Ware says.

When asked whether that means Shift by Project 100 is, in essence, Tony Hsieh’s pet project and just another branch of Downtown Vegas, Ware admitted, “Obviously from a financial stand point as a CEO you always work for your investors.” But he went onto argue, “When we first came up with this idea I was adamant that we don’t think of this as some Downtown Project amenity. Tony wouldn’t have invested if he didn’t think there was a future growth path that didn’t involve him.”

The promise behind Shift by Project 100 is that future members can get to a transportation option in five minutes — i.e. a bike, car, shuttle, or driver are all five minutes walking distance away —  if they’re in the “central” part of Las Vegas. That includes The Strip and Downtown.

There will be three tiers of pricing, where customers will pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to bikes and shuttles, and small, medium, or large chunks of car rental time or driver time depending on the price plan.

Ware’s eventual dream is to make it so no one in Vegas needs to own a car — that having a membership to Shift will be enough. After Vegas? The world.

“There’s more cities in the US that look like Vegas than SF,” Ware says. “We figure if we can figure it out here we can figure it out anywhere.”

That’s all well and good as far as vision is concerned, but executing such a grand master plan is a far different beast. Revolutionizing a sprawling suburban city’s transportation system so that eventually no one will need to own a car is a feat that even the heart of Mother Teresa, the brains of Elon Musk, and the might of Spiderman would struggle to accomplish.

If successful, it’s the complete revolution of an urban transportation system. You think Uber is disruptive, imagine everyone you know giving up their cars to just hop on a bike or a car nearby whenever they need to go somewhere. It’s the culmination of a bunch of transportation startups smooshed into one — Leap Transit for buses, Uber for cars, the now defunct Bixi for bikes.

If it’s successful. That’s a huge if. The challenges of executing on a vision of this magnitude are endless, particularly given that Project 100 will own the bikes, cars, and shuttles it rents out. There’s supply and demand questions — onboarding more customers won’t just require recruiting more drivers. Project 100 will have to order more vehicles to be manufactured.

Of course it will have to onboard more drivers too since that Uber-like service is part of its offering. It will also have to buy more bikes. And shuttles. And people to drive the shuttles. Not to mention technical people to service the bikes and the shuttles and the cars when things go wrong. And it will need to find more parking spots and lots, which have to be negotiated with the city and land owners respectively.

That’s just the scaling challenges Project 100 will face as it gets bigger in Vegas. It doesn’t count what will happen when it tries to move to other cities.

It’s blasphemy to say this in startup culture, but Project 100 might be too ambitious for its own good. By trying to meet all the transportation needs all at once, it’s perhaps dooming itself to failure. Ware, of course, disagrees. “If you look at all the things we’re doing in a short period of time, it’s to build a capacity to dump a lot more people and a lot more cars. Even though it seems super complex it’s a system design,” Ware says. “That’s what will allow us to drop into another city quickly. We’re systematizing everything.”

That’s supposedly the reason behind the big splashy purchase of the Teslas. Ware says it’s not because Shift plans to target members who are swanky enough to want Teslas instead of Fords. It’s because electric vehicles are easier to maintain and cheaper to run.

When asked whether the company has considered hiring urban planners or transportation experts, Ware defers. “Our idea is so different and weird that when we bring people in who have a lot of experience, they also come with baggage,” Ware says. “This is how it should be done because it has been done this way for 50 years. Just like Uber has more people focused on data science and math than they do with transportation planning, that’s the approach we’re taking.”

Big-dream ideas associated with the Downtown Vegas project have a tendency to over promise and under deliver. We have yet to see a huge startup emerge from the entrepreneurial ecosystem Tony Hsieh has been cultivating. Vegas has not become “The Co-working Capital of the World.” Even the 100 Teslas that Project 100 itself purchased in a huge splashy news stunt a year ago have yet to arrive.

Project 100 used a prior seed funding round to pay the half a million deposit it needed to reserve the 100 Teslas up front, and Ware says that Project 100 will be receiving them in a staggered period of time as the company grows.

“The reservations and the orders are still in place with Tesla,” Ware says. “The first delivery will be June 15. It will only be a handful of vehicles because we don’t need all that many in the beginning.” By ordering 100 up front and paying the deposit, Ware claims that opened the door for Project 100 to work with Tesla on developing technology for Shift like specific APIs for vehicle tracking.

He admits that the whole Shift undertaking is enormous and some might think it to be impossible.