Lyft’s John Zimmer: On optimism, partnerships and mobility transformation

Joining Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani on stage at the inaugural Rakuten Optimism Conference held in San Francisco last week, was John Zimmer, President and Co-founder of Lyft.

Mikitani and Zimmer let the audience in on the backstory of how Rakuten first invested in Lyft and explained how their shared passion for customer service, for collaborative partnerships and for improving people’s lives lead them to form a working relationship that is transforming transportation.

Recalling his first meeting with Mickey – at Mickey’s house in Silicon Valley – Zimmer admitted “it was a scary time for Lyft.” Our main competitor had about 30 times more cash, he said, “and they were trying to kill our business.”

There was much at stake for John at the meeting, but he soon found that he and Mickey shared important core values. John had a background in hospitality and envisioned a ride sharing service that would transform transportation altogether, and also remain focused on treating drivers, passengers and partners well. Mickey, who has long valued “omotenashi”, the Japanese concept of customer care and superior service, and the power of disruptive innovation, could relate to the young founders’ goals.

Rakuten CEO Hiroshi "Mickey" Mikitani sharing a laugh with Lyft President and Co-founder John Zimmer.
Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani sharing a laugh with Lyft President and Co-founder John Zimmer.

The two also found that they shared the goal of opening their businesses to a wide consumer public, not simply a luxury slice. “Uber had launched before us as a black car service. We wanted a product that would be accessible to everyone,” explained Zimmer.

When Rakuten agreed to be an investor, Lyft was able to sustain its challenge to other ride-hailing services. And while that competition continues to be intense, “We grew up with intensity,” said Zimmer.

With Lyft continuing to pick up momentum in the ride-share industry, and some game-changing tech on the horizon, Zimmer shared a few of the things he is optimistic about.


During his on-stage conversation with Mickey, Zimmer reflected on a class he took as a college student at Cornell about the possibility of creating green cities. As ride-sharing and the promise of autonomous cars continues to rise, the possibility of reducing cars on the road and achieving green cities, designed around people rather than cars, becomes ever closer. As John noted: Already, there is an autonomous car cruising the Las Vegas Strip (with a human driver behind the wheel, for safety.) Soon – even in a handful of years, he predicts – cities will see more autonomous vehicles in use by consumers.


Many businesses face challenges and conflicts as they seek to disrupt established industry. Zimmer is optimistic about the promise of partnerships to address these conflicts. For example, as cities and states have strived to keep up with the pace of change and understand the impact of the growth in ride sharing, Zimmer said Lyft’s reaction has been, “Let’s talk.” His vision is to have Lyft work together with local communities to discover new, win-win solutions. This system has already worked for cities such as Austin, where Lyft withdrew and then returned under new, negotiated arrangements with the city.

Transformation of mobility

Lyft is not just about an alternative to taxis. It’s about the transformation of mobility. Zimmer imagines a day when upon reaching the age of 16, a young person won’t be given the key to a car, but access to a range of services like Lyft. The average U.S. household spends $9,000 a year to run a car. If offered new services, that money could be redirected. Already, Lyft has its first scooter project in Denver. Still, while transformation is underway in transportation and other industries, leaders must consider it their job to foster future innovation and positive change, said Zimmer. Ultimately, he continued, optimism is not just a state of mind. It is also a mandate to leaders of all kinds.

“Optimism means focusing on the fact that things can always be better. People want to do the right thing, so leaders need to provide ways for people to do that.”

For more coverage from Rakuten Optimism 2018, visit here.

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