RENO, Nev. — In 2018, while taking an entrepreneurship class at the University of Nevada, Reno, Tristen Houston was brainstorming ideas for a solution to curb drunken driving.
Sure, ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft had a foothold in that market, he thought, but what about people who overdrank and don’t want to leave their car stranded overnight or simply don’t feel comfortable getting in a stranger’s vehicle?
Inspired, Houston launched a startup called Don’t Drive, with the concept of being a designated driver service.
A year later, in May 2019, fellow UNR student Derek Sornson joined the company, and through their two-driver system, the duo would drive a customer’s car home while the other person followed.
“We’ve had friends and family members affected by drinking and driving,” Sornson told the NNBW last week. “And we’ve dealt with a lot of people with the problem of waking up in the morning and not knowing where their car is or having to find out their car’s been vandalized or towed.”
While they saw some demand initially, the Reno entrepreneurs realized there was an opportunity to diversify.
“We started to get requests from the community for medical rides — people from eye doctors or hospitals,” Sornson said. “And then also requests were coming in from (people at) auto dealerships and auto shops. And even the elderly was calling us, seeing if we can help them out with some personal transportation.”
So, two years after the creation of Don’t Drive, Sornson and Houston recently re-launched and rebranded as Budddy.
Devin Kahl, who is finishing up an economics degree at UNR, serves as the new company's third co-founder.
Serving the Reno-Sparks area, Budddy offers a designated driver service (Drinking Budddy); medical transportation service (Medical Budddy); personal driver service focused on the elderly (Personal Budddy); and valet service that shuttles cars in need of a tune-up or repair to and from an auto dealer or shop (Auto Budddy).
“Essentially, we drive people in their cars or just their cars when they are not able to,” said Sornson, noting the company operates 24/7. “Our No. 1 goal is to keep our community safe, and we are able to do that through providing reliable transportation to those who need it.”
Sornson and Houston said the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the ridesharing industry when it comes to safety in the age of COVID-19. With that in mind, they noted all Budddy drivers wear masks and sanitize the keys, steering wheel, gearbox and seat of a customer’s vehicle before and after each ride is complete.
“Our service is definitely needed to a lot of different demographics here in Reno,” Sornson said. “Especially when considering peoples’ reluctance to utilize public transportation or other rideshare companies like Uber, Lyft, even taxis, because of COVID. We do establish a lot of comfort to our customers with them being able to ride in their own vehicle, which they know is safe and clean.”
Moreover, for people in need of rides after drinking, Houston pointed out the challenge of fetching an Uber at night.
“After nine o’clock, there’s no Ubers available, so people have been stranded,” Houston said. “So we’re using that to our advantage … we’ve been trying to promote to our Reno community to ride local and support local.”
Sornson said Budddy’s services have a starting rate of $25, and the cost increases from that baseline price based on mileage and time.
Currently, the company has vetted and trained six drivers, but is looking to onboard 30 more by the end of the year, said Sornson, noting all drivers are considered independent contractors.
When asked, Sornson said all Budddy drivers are required to carry rideshare insurance and double the state minimums for auto insurance. Between the driver’s coverage and the customer’s insurance, damages and injuries would be covered if an accident occurred, he said.
Since re-launching about two months ago, Budddy has grown its revenue by 100% each month.
By the end of 2021, Budddy has a goal of doing “well over $100,000” in revenue, said Houston, noting the startup is currently valued at $1 million.
“What we’re aiming for is a six-figure year our first year,” added Sornson. “And then doubling that year after year until we’re satisfied with the growth or want to expand to other states.”
Notably, the company recently announced that it has partnered with Bill Pearce Motors, Mercedes Reno, Land Rover Reno and Jaguar Reno for its Auto Budddy service.
“We’re going to constantly be onboarding drivers for probably the entirety of our company,” Sornson said. “We’re going to constantly be interviewing, vetting, and training drivers to work with Budddy. And we’re able to provide a great source of supplemental income for people.”
As for the company’s unique name, which features the letter “d” three times?
“… It represents what we call The Budddy System,” Sornson said, referring to the company’s logo. “It’s hidden imagery of how our service works. If you look closely, you can see that the 3 d’s and the shapes under them look like the head and shoulders of three people — the customer in the middle, and two drivers, one on each side.”
That, and it made trademarking the new company “much easier,” he added.