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An Officer, a Gentleman—and a Techie
Ian Eck | Photo: Courtesy Google Enterprise and Flickr | April 11, 2014
The new mobile transportation app RideScout pairs an unlikely team of military vets with fresh-faced coders.
SideCar, Uber, Lyft, Flywheel—the world doesn't need another ride-sharing app. If anything, it needs less.
The people at RideScout agree. Calling themselves the Kayak of ground transportation, their app compares transportation options (public, private, shareable) and displays the best and cheapest routes to get you from point A to B. And they know a thing or two about logistics: They're led by a man who served two tours of duty in Iraq. That's right, the world of vets and techies have collided. Call it the military-startup complex.
"You get thrown in situations that are so diverse, so unpredictable, while largely deprived of sleep and food," says RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser over beers at the site's San Francisco launch event on Thursday. "It stresses you out to the absolute limits of what you can take." He is speaking, of course, about his weeks of training in the renowned Army Ranger school. But he might as well be describing the marathons of work it takes to begin and run a startup. "I think the training I received in the army translates well to the startup world, because it's hectic, it's unpredictable, and it requires teamwork."
Kopser glows with the zest of a born leader as he works the crowd at SoMa bar Bloodhound. He trades laughs with a succession of well-wishers: an old friend, a young army vet, a tech blogger, and Katherine Webster, the founder of an organization called Vets in Tech. Kopser is in high spirits, tossing out lines like, "We want to create an app of the people, by the people, for the people." And even while his millennial colleagues may smirk in the background, it's obvious how much they admire him. "You know he never even drinks coffee," notes one twenty-something engineer. "We have theories that he might actually be a machine."
Before retiring as a Lt. Colonel, Kopser held distinctions as a West Point graduate and instructor, a cavalry officer, and a Bronze Star recipient. He had the idea for the app while living in Washington D.C.: “What should have been a five-minute commute [to the Pentagon] would become a traffic nightmare depending on the day.” He knew there had to be a better way. Two years later (with the help of $2 million in seed funding), he created RideScout with his Army friend Craig Cummings, a fellow West Point grad with an equally-impressive tech resume, having founded two previous software companies. It seems oddly fitting (and sitcom-esque) that the two vets should lead a group of young, ambitious tech workers in "democratizing transportation."
All told, the RideScout team has twelve full-time employees. Four of them come from the Sociology Department at West Point, while the rest are largely composed of the type of workers we've grown familiar with—the millenial techie. When asked about any culture gaps between the "grizzled vets" and the tech savvy youth, Kopser shrugs it off. "Its easy. Ever since I graduated from West Point [in 1993] as a Second Lieutenant, I've been charged with responsibility over the sons and daughters of America, who ranged from 18 to 35 years of age." He jokes later, "I still see myself as 17, but, you know, I'm sympathetic to the fact that some of these guys perceive me as old."
Indeed, in this time of Zuckerbergian wunderkinds, Kopser seems an anomaly in the tech world. But within the context of a military that has in recent years lost more soldiers to PTSD-inflicted suicide than to combat, Kopser cuts an even more inspiring model: the returned army vet who has the audacity to take on Silicon Valley. He knows that returning military men and women "can take what they were trained in the military and apply those same skills as civilians, especially in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship." Kopser credits his success to an array of personal mentors he's had through the years, and now he sees himself as an example for younger vets.
"People will be what they can see. So whether you're 8 years old, living in Chicago, and you see the first black president and you think, 'Holy crap, I could grow up to be President;' or you're a soldier coming out of the military going, 'I could code, I could start a tech company.' People will be what they can see."
At first glance, Kopser's RideScout shows some promise. Sure the data-sorting is a tad buggy, the UI isn't beautiful, and the team lacks support from Uber and Lyft, which refuse to share their pricing data. But the platform makes sense, and they've seen some success in D.C. and Austin. With this San Francisco release, Kopser will soon find out if RideScout can attract a serious user base. In many ways, it's a time to be nervous—the company's success or failure could hinge on what happens in the next few weeks. But Kopser is not sweating the small stuff. "At the end of the day, no one's shooting at us."