Scooting Home to Columbia
Frank Scozzafava brings Scootaway to the Midlands
Photography by Jeff Amberg
New York college student Frank Scozzafava didn’t go to the beach on his freshman spring break. Instead, a buddy convinced him to come visit his campus — the University of South Carolina. Even before he left “Cola Town,” Frank knew he would be coming back. Thus, he transferred to the Gamecock ranks his sophomore year.
Several decades later, Frank was working for a NYC ride-share company hearing its death knells. With his experience in marketing, advertising and public relations, Frank knew there was one basic problem the company was not overcoming: the demand was consistently higher than the supply. Frustrated consumers turned to the competition and never looked back. Out one night with friends, Frank and a buddy joked that Frank could solve the problem by picking up the customers on his Vespa.
The suggestion was like flame to gasoline. No stranger to competitive business ideas, Frank had already tasted success, most notably on the reality TV show Shark Tank. Shark Investor Barbara Corcoran bought into his proposed venture, a creative bikini line which later morphed into his current company Versakini. With his employer going down, Frank considered combining the Uber ride share program with a different, more flexible mode of transportation — the motor scooter.
Frank considered the existing problems with renting vehicles — having to find a way to get to a rental business, dealing with the limited hours the business is open, filling out paperwork and always, the waiting — and thought of ways to solve those problems for the consumer. What if the vehicles were accessible 24/7 at multiple, easily accessible locations with no company to deal with? What about the keys, most would ask? What about no keys? To make the concept function as envisioned, Frank would have to make the technology and the transportation blend seamlessly.
Frank found a Brooklyn technician who tweaked an existing car remote, used for unlocking and starting, for scooters. Frank says, “I bought a cheap piece of Chinese scooter to use as a prototype. I didn’t want to mess with a good one, right?” He outfitted the little brown scooter decked out in gold stickers with the modified technology.
Frank then rode the streets of Manhattan showing it to people, explaining the concept, getting feedback — would they use something like this? The response was a solid green light. The next step? Destination China.
Having already put together a business plan, Frank spent a month overseas putting together all the various elements — having front and backend apps developed, revising prototypes for the adaptation to the technology, testing constantly for safety, maneuverability, comfort and endurance. At that time, Frank was also using technology to fast-track another crucial part of the business — getting capital. While products were being created and tested, Frank used the Internet to preview his product to potential investors.
Always thorough, Frank had done his homework and knew who he wanted to target. Before long, he knew he was coming home to financial backing. The scooters were ready, the investors were willing. It was time to get the scooters stateside and put them in the most suitable location. Frank had a special place in mind, but he knew choosing a launch location couldn’t be an emotional decision. The ideal environment would be an urban environment, a college town with 20,000 or more students. Frank’s research narrowed that down to 157 towns. Overall weather conditions and safety concerns had to be addressed. Also important when trimming the location list was considering where city, state, business and academic officials would be most open to and supportive of this innovative idea.
As fate — and the best business practices — would have it, Frank was about to come back to a place close to his heart — Columbia. As his longtime friend Mike Campbell says, “Frank is a diehard Gamecock. That man loves USC. Even early, there was no place in his mind other than USC that he wanted to start this.”
While USC students, Mike and two others, Jeff Widmer and Mark Waid, owned an off-campus bar in Five Points called the “No Brainer.” Creative Advertising major Frank Scozzafava supplied the slogan “Leave your brain behind.” To Frank and the others, the bar was their idea of what a student center should be. Frank’s high energy and outgoing personality were quickly put to work tossing out drinks and handling the bar’s marketing. Soon he had his own business within the business — a t-shirt company. He constantly cranked out product with the bar’s logo as well as other slogans for all of the events. It was just a preface to much of the work he would later do for his businesses, including this new one, dubbed “Scootaway.”
Mike says, “He always liked to have a good time, always cutting up. And he was popular with the girls.” In between the bartending, the marketing, the partying, the ladies, the Gamecocks and the occasional class appearance, Frank’s brain was still on overdrive with business ideas. Now in the mortgage industry in Charlotte, N.C., Jeff says, “Give him a pen and a piece of paper, he’ll come up with something — he’ll come up with several things actually. Frank was always inventing things.”
It was a natural flow that Frank would reach out to his old friend Mike Campbell during the time a location for his new company’s launch had to be decided. “Not surprising with Frank, I could tell he had really done his homework on it, and had really come up with something that was unique,” Mike says. Enthusiastically he became one of Scootaway’s five national board members.
While Columbia was always at the top of Frank’s personal wish list, the businessman in him had to be sure it was the right move. Mike, who is currently a state workers’ compensation commissioner, is the son of former governor Carroll Campbell and has been a candidate for lieutenant governor. With his business and political background as well as his thorough knowledge of the Columbia scene, Mike was sure Scootaway would be a win for multiple types of consumers as well as various businesses locally and statewide.
Decision made, a test launch was scheduled to coincide with the end of the 2015 spring semester. Thirty-eight scooters, the number that fit in one shipping container, arrived in the Port of Charleston. Quickly, they were placed in various locations on and off the USC campus. Jeff Stensland, USC’s associate director for public relations, explained the school’s reason for participation. “We’re adapting to a changing student culture. The migration of more apartments in close proximity to campus means that while cars may no longer be needed, scooter applications can be a practical and economical alternative.”
Scootaway’s first 38 were quickly swarming around Columbia, catching attention as they went. Recent USC graduate Rebecca Geigel quickly noticed. “Everywhere I went, I kept seeing them. It really got my attention.” So too with off-campus housing complexes, such as Copper Beech, the Woodlands and the Hub, who wanted to be included in Scootaway’s parking destinations.
Businesses in the Vista and Five Points saw the benefits too — Tin Roof, Wild Wings, The Horseshoe, Wild Hare and others soon got on board. The latter were also conveniently located near other businesses, a further asset to students and employees. Still, Frank knew location would mean nothing unless every part of the experience was user-friendly.
The process can start in several ways. At ScootawayScooters.com, there is a tutorial explaining the one-time registration, accessing the vehicles and demonstrating safety features. Foregoing that, someone needing a ride can simply download Scootaway’s secure smartphone app. The registration requires a valid driver’s license, plus riders must also be 18 years old or older. That done, they can pull up a list or map view of pick-up and drop-off locations. Scootaway’s fee is $2.99 per half hour. That’s the total cost for the consumer — gas, helmets, parking and insurance are all covered by Scootaway. The cost can even be split as the scooters are two-seaters. The app allows the rider to unlock the scooter as well as the storage unit which holds two helmets with visors designed to comfortably cover a wearer’s glasses. There’s even a dual-purpose basket, which provides convenience for the rider and advertising for businesses.
Frank, who also rode a motorcycle around USC for a while, knew safety had to be paramount. At every step of the way — from conception to Columbia — it has been a primary focus. Even though top speed is only 30 mph, the design of the scooter was crucial for easy handling. Rebecca, who has witnessed a moped accident before, understandably was cautious. “I drove around in circles in the parking lot until I felt comfortable. My friends and I ride for fun now.” Scootaway’s free training course is held Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. at the Carolina Field House. An added incentive is a t-shirt designed by Frank as well as some free initial ride time.
Among the incoming scooters slated for Columbia are three wheelers, with two wheels up front, designed to alleviate any other maneuverability or safety concerns. There is also a customer support center set up for additional help. Don’t get carried away with any joyriding though — there is a GPS on every unit which can remotely turn it off.
Another concern is Frank’s old issue of a lack of supply for the demand. To combat this business-killer, Frank is willing to do whatever it takes to provide a scooter within five minutes of the consumer. He is thus planning hundreds, if not more, for Columbia. This may be even more possible with the most recent scooters being purchased from a South Carolina based company located in Spartanburg. “It took Frank a total of a year and a half to develop the scooters and get the patents on the technology … this will make it applicable for numerous products,” Mike says.
Another goal is making scooters available at and around Fort Jackson. Just as the soldiers will go to other locations after training, so too will Scootaway. In the very near future, Frank will be providing Scootaway in other South Carolina cities, with the ultimate goal of spreading nationwide and then internationally.
It’s been a labor of love … Frank’s love for a good idea and for this city. “The best memories of my life were from my time at USC and Columbia. My strongest friendships are here,” he says. “I’m deeply rooted in Columbia.”
Welcome home, Frank Scozzafava.