Parker (recounting the story from his office in Moovel’s Old Town headquarters) was stunned. He had made a hobby of photographing frustrated transit riders facepalming when denied a ticket from the aforementioned meters.
A year passed. Then, in August 2011, the FBI raided McCoy’s office. The agency indicted him for taking nearly $200,000 in money, travel and entertainment bribes from Cale Parking Systems, the Florida-based supplier of Portland’s parking meters. In exchange, McCoy provided the company with confidential information to aid its bid for a multimillion-dollar city contract. A judge sentenced him to two years in federal prison.
Vindicated, Parker again took up his cause: easing the pain of the daily commute through mobile payment solutions. In 2013 his startup, GlobeSherpa, built TriMet one of the first mobile-ticketing apps in the nation. At Moovel, a Daimler subsidiary that brought GlobeSherpa into the fold in 2015, Parker manages other transportation apps and software products, including TriMet’s Hop Fastpass. Each month, Moovel’s software facilitates 1.78 million transactions.
Clearly, plenty of commuters trust mobile payment.
Parker envisions a city connected by a variety of shared transport modes
Moovel’s expanding suite of technologies is key to the company’s vision for cornering the urban-mobility market, a sector that views cars not as private vehicles that reign ascendant but as cogs in a well-oiled, publicly managed transportation machine.
“Just about every automaker is developing a footprint in a mobility service,” says Jeremy Carlson, an analyst at the London-based research and analytics firm IHS Markit. In the future, Carlson and other transport experts (including Parker) say, smart cities will deploy a new transportation “operating system,” in which traffic engineers coordinate a network of services — ride sharing, bike sharing, buses, car sharing — to move people around cheaply and efficiently.
Moovel, which operates in just 12 cities, has a long way to travel down that road. But the 39-year old Parker, who exudes the self-confident, game-changing vibe of the tech startup CEO (he’s reading a book called The 48 Laws of Power), tempered with an unusual dose of empathy, seems well suited to the task. “Whenever you encounter him, he has time for you,” says Brian McCarthy, one of Parker’s former marketing professors at Portland State University. “He makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world he could be talking to at that moment.”
Parker is equally adept at navigating the inherent tensions of the job. He’s a startup CEO working within the confines of a multinational corporation. He helms a private company whose success depends on cumbersome (and underfunded) public-transit agencies. He balances the promise of technology against the American city’s desperate need for infrastructure upgrades (more buses, more trains). His own ambitious vision is rooted in an exceedingly practical goal: speeding up the daily commute.
Can Parker reconcile competing interests and objectives to help reinvent a German auto conglomerate and the way Americans get around? That challenge is the mission, he says. “I’m still here because they have given me, in particular, a lot of free rein,” says Parker, referring to Daimler. “They know they’d lose me without that.”
Daimler named Parker CEO of Moovel North America in 2016
Get on the bus
Transit means freedom, a lesson Parker learned in second grade. As a kid growing up in Arlington, Virginia, a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., Parker spent much of his time on his own, hanging around Nottingham Elementary after school. When he enrolled in tae kwon do classes, his parents couldn’t make the 15-minute drive to Oriental Sports Academy in Falls Church. His father draped a laminated lanyard with a bus pass around his neck and put him on the bus. “Take it to the East Falls metro” he said. “Sit behind the driver; don’t trust anybody.”
Before long, Parker deviated from his father’s instructions. He met other passengers and stopped at free Smithsonian museums along the Mall. “For me it just unlocked so much opportunity,” he says. “Seeing every color, language, race was inspiring. I think that’s one of the things about transportation that motivates me today.”
“Seeing every color, language, race was inspiring. I think that’s one of the things about transportation that motivates me today.” —Nat Parker
Raised in the nation’s capital, Parker as a young adult amassed considerable political expertise. He worked for D.C. nonprofits and as a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. After moving to Portland in 2001, he shipped off to Senegal for two years in the Peace Corps. He worked as an ecotourism extension agent, advising companies based around national parks.
That’s when he realized, “Holy smokes, I’m an entrepreneur.” Parker struggled carrying around travel tomes like Lonely Planet and Frommer’s. But in 2007, the inaugural year of the iPhone, he conceived an alternative: GlobeSherpa, a smartphone travel guide. “Today that sounds ridiculous,” he says, “but back then it was pretty phenomenal.”
Riding the bus as a kid fueled Parker’s interest in transit.
Upon returning to Portland, Parker enrolled in the MBA program at Portland State. In McCarthy’s introductory marketing class, he met Gray, who became his business partner. Together they drafted the first GlobeSherpa business plan. The assignment demonstrated maturity unusual for first-year students, McCarthy says.
“Nat was perfectly comfortable with the fact that his first idea wouldn’t be the one he would end up implementing.”
Indeed, GlobeSherpa (“a guide to your world”) metamorphosed into ParkingSherpa (“pay for your space with your smartphone”) and, after the McCoy scandal, into TransitSherpa (“pay for transit on your smartphone”). Each idea centered around the repeatable-revenue model: making commissions off small, everyday transactions.
“Nat was perfectly comfortable with the fact that his first idea wouldn’t be the one he would end up implementing.” —Brian McCarthy, professor of marketing, Portland State University
Rejected by McCoy, Parker sat down after his day job as a renewable-energy trader with a phone and the TriMet staff page. He made cold calls to pitch TransitSherpa and hit the jackpot at the letter “S.” Tom Strader, fare-policy analyst, agreed to meet for coffee. Parker convinced Strader that the current system — collecting cash from ticket-vending machines in armored cars and hand-counting it — was as outdated as a print travel guide.
Strader was sold, but funding proved elusive. “It was kind of a gut-check moment,” recalls Chris Tucker, director of revenue operations at TriMet. “Can they deliver this really exciting technology or will they not have the resources to do it?”
It was fitting that Parker found his angel investor while biking. At a red light, he pulled alongside a yellow Tesla. He turned to the driver, “a sort of nerdy-looking dude with a goatee,” and said, “Nice ride. Want to fund my startup?” The driver sped away.
Parker chased him down. At the next light, he tried again. “I’m serious. It’s GlobeSherpa. We make mobile ticketing easy.” Before the light changed, the goateed man responded.
“Have you ever heard of ClarisWorks? I’m Scott Holdaway. I wrote that. I sold it to Apple. Here’s my card.” Two breakfasts later, Holdaway invested $50,000.
In 2010, TriMet signed onto the MOU. As GlobeSherpa began work on the mobile ticketing application, Parker’s ambitions bumped up against the relatively slow pace of public-sector operations.
“There was a desire to move things ahead quickly,” says Tim McHugh, TriMet’s CIO. “But something of that magnitude takes a lot of time.” During one meeting, McHugh recalls, Parker flipped open a binder with drawings of retinal scanners. “We were thinking something a bit more now, not that far ahead,” McHugh says. “But it’s also refreshing.”
Parker expanded GlobeSherpa, garnering $500,000 in additional investment, enough to quit his day job and hire six employees.
One of his first hires was Tony Tom, who, in the spring of 2013, was working in payments processing when a colleague suggested he get advice from Parker. They went out to lunch. “I thought halfway through, ‘Damn it, I’m going to work for this guy,’” says Tom, now chief business development officer at Moovel. “I found there was a deep level of empathy that was missing in other people I’d worked for.”
Parker may be a nice guy, but he doesn’t compromise. Tom recalls Parker asking him to board a next-day flight to Germany to meet with a corporation seeking to buy GlobeSherpa. Despite the enthusiasm, Parker said no deal. The company didn’t understand GlobeSherpa’s full potential. “He’s compelling,” Tom says of Parker, “but he’s also competent. He knows exactly what he wants.”
Eighteen months after the TriMet project began, GlobeSherpa completed the mobile app, saving the agency 60% of the cost of ticketing. Parker then landed a deal with Virginia Railway Express, netting the startup a $1.2 million development fee. “Every week,” Tom says, “something huge was happening.”
The energy and excitement attracted the attention of the broader mobility-services sector. At a conference in 2015, Parker met Joseph Kopser, the CEO of Austin-based RideScout, a trip-planning company that acquired the Portland startup that same year.
The year before, RideScout had itself been acquired by Daimler in a purchase that underscored the changes roiling the transportation sector. Eager to join the mobility-services market, auto companies were starting to partner with tech disruptors like Uber and launching their own car-sharing companies like Daimler’s own Car2Go. (In Portland the Daimler presence is dominated by Daimler Trucks North America, a division that employs more than 1,000 people.)
“Daimler is saying if we rest on our laurels, if we simply try to sell another Mercedes S-Class,” Parker says, “we’re not going to be in the position we need to be in for the future.”
In 2016 Daimler merged RideScout and GlobeSherpa to form Moovel North America, under the umbrella of its global subsidiary Moovel GmbH. The new company sold a mobile-ticketing application, transit management software and RideTap, a software development kit for integrating transportation options into apps.
“Daimler is saying if we rest on our laurels, if we simply try to sell another Mercedes S-Class,” Parker says, “we’re not going to be in the position we need to be in for the future.” Seventeen percent of Daimler’s €153.3 billion ($184.8 billion) revenue now comes from its financial-services division, including Moovel and Car2Go.
Tony Tom, chief business development officer at Moovel
GlobeSherpa’s employees held their breath through the acquisition, hoping a corporate buyout wouldn’t change company culture. Tom, recalling rough acquisitions with other startups, was wary. “You realize you don’t have to run as fast,” he says, “and people lose interest.”
This time was different. “We were given instructions to continue along with what we were doing,” says Moovel CFO Sadhana Shenoy, another GlobeSherpa veteran. “We just tailored our mission to understanding Daimler’s end goal.”
Their new mission: Chart a course away from single-occupancy vehicles as the dominant transport mode.
Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili was Parker’s inspiration for Moovel’s lounge design
Not a company man
At Moovel’s Old Town headquarters, inside the three-story Overland Warehouse, a former boardinghouse for late 19th-century Chinese migrant workers, Parker’s philosophy is hammered into the exposed timber beams. The curvature of the main lounge and the circular boardroom evoke the adobe structures of Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili, whom Parker came to admire in Senegal. Honoring ancient navigational strategies, Parker named boardrooms after constellations: “Hercules” and “Pleiades.”
Employees often crave a drink after listening to his lectures on “robust infrastructure” and “robust reporting,” Parker jokes. So they dubbed the downstairs kitchen and full bar “Robust.”
To get to work from his home in Portland’s Overlook neighborhood, Parker takes the MAX or the Nos. 4 and 44 bus lines. “I love the social aspects of public transport,” he says. “It’s great people watching.” When he ventures farther, he takes Car2Go or a competing car-sharing service, like BMW’s ReachNow.
With its distinctly American startup vibe, Moovel’s workplace environment contrasts with Daimler’s more traditional, German, corporate culture. Parker himself hews to a collaborative leadership style: He keeps the door to his second-floor corner office open, and employees mix with members of other departments in workstations scattered around the building. Borrowing a GlobeSherpa tradition, Parker hosts biweekly lunches in Moovel’s kitchen area, where everyone from interns to executives can pitch an idea.
Moovel’s Overland Warehouse headquarters boasts a kitchen and full bar
Vestiges of the parent company seep in.
Parker says he is all but required to use Powerpoint, “almost a religion in big-company operations.” But Daimler encourages innovation, he says, and with streamlined purchasing and hiring processes, Moovel doesn’t adhere to the same policies and regulations the core business does. Employees trade ideas on Slack in Google Apps and Scrum, software not commonly adopted in other Daimler divisions.
Parker also appreciates the safety net — and the rigor — that comes from working for a multinational company. “The Germans are smart enough to know that if they squeeze too hard, asphyxiate these young, thoughtful companies, they’re defeating the purpose of acquiring them in the first place,” he says. “At the same time, we have the long-term security of Daimler’s balance sheet.”
If successful, Daimler could import Moovel’s approach to its other divisions. In his 2016 annual report to shareholders, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche noted the automaker seeks a corporate culture “with faster decision making and more flexible forms of cooperation.”
Not that Daimler wants to emulate the cutthroat approach adopted by many tech transport companies. Uber, for example, is still reeling from the feuds, espionage and infighting fueled by its brash ex-CEO Travis Kalanick. Ride-sharing companies continue to provoke legal skirmishes with the Portland City Council.
Moovel staff work in groups with employees from other divisions
Parker flies further from the sun, knowing technology companies often overstate their potential. “Assholes aren’t welcome,” he says. “I don’t care how smart you are. In the tech world, there’s such a bro-y, competitive, type-A culture that’s really created just a swamp. We don’t want to be that.”
Moovel’s gentler approach extends to the relationships with public-transit agencies that sustain its business. Parker believes tech-transport companies should work harder to understand how cities operate, what they need and their pace of change.
“A lot of companies suffer from real hubris and don’t walk in and just listen. How is your ridership changing? How does that make you feel?” he says. “Simply being willing to ask and not just shove down their throats some canned response makes a difference.” Before approaching a city, he says, companies should seriously review regulations, like Title VI equity requirements for poor and disabled riders. “Understanding that is important. Coming up with solutions that are not just for tech-inclined millennials is important.”
So is getting a leg up on the competition. To integrate RideTap into TriMet’s mobile-ticketing app, Parker needed to convince Uber, Lyft and other competitors to offer services through the same app. “As you can imagine, many of them said: ‘Why would we do that?’” he says. “I want to own the customer, the data.” So Moovel changed its approach. The company powered the ticketing platform for the city, remaining in the shadows: “TriMet tickets, powered by GlobeSherpa.”
“Cities can compel self-interested third parties to play nicely,” Parker says. “It’s not me asking; it’s the city that I serve.”
For their part, McHugh and Tucker say Moovel’s rapid product iterations can be difficult to keep pace with. “They’re a different entity every time I meet with them,” Tucker says.
Outside of Portland, the company faces a perennial problem: money, or lack thereof. “It takes a lot to sell those public partners,” says Carlson, the IHS analyst. “Most cities don’t have the resources to think that far ahead.”
Parker delivers an upbeat review of 2017 during Moovel’s holiday party in the Pearl District
Envisioning the future
The hundred or so employees who attended Moovel’s holiday party at Castaway, Portland’s Pearl District event space didn’t need a designated driver. “For everyone who’s had too much to drink, we’ll find some way to get you home,” Parker said. “Ride share, Car2Go, bus, light rail, even Nike Biketown.” After reviewing the year and praising people who “bust their ass at Moovel,” Parker promised his team, “next year is going to be huge.”
In 2018 Moovel plans to expand a program that helps universities manage transit incentives, subsidies and benefits. The company aims to push its Hop card further into the virtual realm, following the December launch of an Android Pay card.
And after that?
To help solve urban traffic woes (in Portland and elsewhere), Parker supports congestion pricing, a solution in which cars pay to enter downtown during peak travel times. He believes in induced demand, the idea that wider highways attract more drivers, and he favors paid parking.
When Providence sought his advice on its overflowing employee lot, Parker told transportation staffers, “Start at $12 an hour and tell me what happens.” He counters concerns that ride sharing steals transit riders by pointing to “cheap gas and that we don’t have the political will to put a price on carbon.”
Related Story: PDX Council adopts resolution supporting congestion pricing
“We still sell cars, for goodness sake,” Parker says. “But also our emphasis is on reducing congestion. Fundamentally, that cannot be achieved if everyone wants to drive their own car.”
Daimler isn’t the only car company laying claim to the networked smart city. The week before Christmas, Toyota announced its decision to establish Toyota Mobility Service Company, tasked with developing technology for connected vehicles and car sharing. In its press release, Toyota said that instead of owning cars, today “people use things only whenever and for whatever period they would like.” So dramatic is this shift, the company deemed it a “once-in-a-century revolutionary period in the automobile industry.”
Moovel’s largest mobility-services competitor, San Francisco-based Ridecell, offers a similar “white-label” software platform that powers the BMW ReachNow car-sharing service. Like Moovel, Ridecell markets its platform, which powers 15 million rides per year, to transit agencies.
Moovel’s 120 employees gathered at Castaway to celebrate the holiday in late in December 2017
It’s difficult to overstate the kind of radical rethinking the mobility sector requires. Until recently, transportation organizations and advocates pitted cars against all other modes: bikes, buses, street cars, light rail. But urbanization has created traffic jams that are sending commuters to the breaking point. Buying into the mobility vision requires getting your head around a new paradigm in which all forms of transport are part of one happy family (for Moovel, preferably the Daimler family.)
But if solving congestion means folding all vehicles into a shared vehicle economy, Daniel Yergin, IHS Markit’s vice chairman, says this future is also defined by a “great ‘automotive paradox.’” In a recent report on the emerging industry, Yergin outlined a vision in which there will be “more travel via car than ever, but fewer cars will be needed by individuals.” By 2040, the report says, the mobility-services sector will purchase more than 10 million cars — compared to just 300,000 in 2017.
“The challenge for me is maintaining that sense of independence and autonomy in a big corporation,” Parker says. “So far I’ve been winning the day, but I don’t take that for granted, ever.”
Parker, who answers to a parent company still best known for single occupancy vehicles, negotiates these and other paradoxes every day.
At the very least, the changes he forecasts will likely come at a slower pace than his pep talks indicate. To be sure: in a remarkably short period of time, pioneering companies like Uber and Lyft have transformed the way people get around in select cities. Yet car ownership still sits firmly above the 50% mark. “The traditional business model will still be around for some time,” Carlson says.
Then there’s the general consensus among transit planners and advocates that buses need simple service upgrades more than new-fangled technology. “The best thing you can do to improve the bus is make it more useful,” says Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit expert who does business with Moovel.
Pushing back against Moovel’s futurism, Transit advocacy group OPAL took issue with TriMet’s descision to entirely replace paper tickets with moovel’s e-fare system, beginning February 1. OPAL claims the $3 cost of buying a hop card burdens low-income riders, and that e-tickets raise concerns about privacy and “information sharing with law enforcement.”
Related Story: The Bus is Back: Lessons Learned
Parker knows what it takes to create effective bus networks, the transportation mode that inspired GlobeSherpa in the first place. Walker advises cities to prioritize fixed-route frequent service, with buses if possible. “I tend to agree,” Parker says, noting that Moovel’s products consist of utilitarian improvements that complement infrastructure.
Parker’s interactions with Daimler teeter between pragmatism and idealism, too. Tom, for one, speculates that Parker will continue to navigate new corporate territory. “I think you’ll see him grow into a more prominent role with Daimler and their overall mobility strategy,” he says.
Driving change from within is an intricate dance, and Parker is mastering the steps. “The challenge for me is maintaining that sense of independence and autonomy in a big corporation,” he says. “So far I’ve been winning the day, but I don’t take that for granted, ever.”
A version of this article appears in the February 2018 issue of Oregon Business magazine.
Clarification: This article has been amended to clarify an ambiguous quote. The original quote, from Nat Parker, stated: “Jarrett will say get fixed-route frequent service down, and do it with buses if you can.” The updated version paraphrases Parker’s quote: “Walker advises cities to prioritize fixed-route frequent service, with buses if possible.”
This article has been edited to reflect the following correction: TriMet was not the first transit agency in the nation to offer mobile tickets. Boston’s Massachussetes Bay Transporation Authority debuted mobile tickets for its commuter rail line in 2012.