Five Questions For … Joseph Kopser, Ex-Army Officer, RideScout founder
Austin—Many entrepreneurs developing a consumer product attempt to incorporate that technology in their daily lives. For Joseph Kopser, that meant regular commutes from his home in Austin, TX, to pitch events and meetings in Houston without using a car—a rather unusual choice in Texas.
Kopser was developing RideScout, an app that aggregated various transportation options—taxis, ride-hailing services, buses—and presented users their options in real time. So, getting a first-person look at some of the alternatives to driving his own car made sense to him. “I made it a point of pushing the limits of when you decide to go car-free or car-light,” he says. “I was trying to use all the other resources available.”
In 2014, Kopser sold the startup to Car2Go, a car-sharing service owned by Germany-based Daimler AG, the maker of Mercedes-Benz. The RideScout operation eventually became part of Daimler’s moovel mobility services division in North America, which was based in Austin. Along the way, Kopser became a transportation evangelist of sorts, advocating for what he says is a better mobility policy.
Last year, moovel moved from Austin to Portland, OR, and a few months thereafter Kopser announced his departure and that he had co-founded a consulting firm called Grayline.
“Just when I get good at something, I [move on],” he says. “Fake it ’til you make it … To an outsider, they might say, ‘This guy can’t hold a job; he’s all over the place.’ ”
But Kopser, a graduate of West Point and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, says there was method to his madness. Each position enabled him to reach success that revealed to him other interesting problems he wanted to work on. “And I had an absolute blast doing each of them,” he says.
This week’s “Five Questions For …” is with Kopser, in which we talk about the importance of being engaged in the community, the joy of science kits, and the “Saturday morning test.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Xconomy: Tell me about your upbringing and early influences.
Joseph Kopser: At the beginning of all of this, I just loved solving problems where I think I can help. That came from my childhood growing up in Lexington, KY, [about] a mile from my grandparents. They were Depression-era young adults. They have in them a work ethic like you’ve never seen, a sense of community like you’ve never seen. My grandmother was a candy striper at the hospital forever; grandfather was part of the Knights of Columbus. They were joiners. She said, “I don’t care if you collect garbage or you are a dogcatcher, whatever you do, do it well.”
Second, from my parents. My favorite story is when my dad felt that the intersection leading into his business park—it was a left-hand turn that had to be made against traffic and no stoplight. He would watch accidents occur morning after morning. He advocated to the city council for a stoplight to be put in. I was a young kid. We would at night be going door to door, rolling up flyers about the meeting in bad weather. He was writing letters to the editor about it. [As] an impressionable 4th or 5th grader, I saw problems solved by advocacy displayed by the people I love the most.
You can trace almost everything I do back to those moments in elementary school. From then, it’s been one experience after another.
I did aerospace engineering at West Point, but I was a cavalry officer in the Army. I taught American politics, not engineering. When [other instructors] were going into the policy world, I went back to the muddy boots part of the Army and served in Iraq, in Mosul, in 2007 for 14 months. Then I went to work on the Future Force Integration [Directorate]. I was trying to figure out what the Army of the 21st century would look like.
I went from working in the Pentagon to walking in the deserts of Texas with all of this experimental equipment. Then I go work for the Army chief of staff in communications and strategy doing speech writing, policy memos. When I moved to Texas 10 years ago, I led the Army ROTC department at [the University of Texas at Austin].
X: You taught at West Point. What career advice do you give to new college graduates?
JK: I have the Saturday morning test, the alarm clock test. When there’s nothing else going on, when you have a free morning, what do you do? Is it outdoors, community service? Simply watching TV, traveling? Take what it is you love and work backward through the paradigm. People do it backwards: I need a job to afford to do what I want. I say flip it on its head to do full-time what would it take to sustain yourself. I met this guy on the beach on Grand Cayman on vacation, an American serving me a beer in a Tiki hut. He used to work on Wall Street, a cliché investment banker. He said he would work his ass off 50 weeks of the year to make enough money to come back here. But he really dreaded going back to the office. So he said, I just flipped it. Now I live down here 51 weeks in a year and only go back home for a week on the holidays.
I would tell them to kind of just wander around, join AmeriCorps, Teach For America. Do something in the service for others and there you might find or fall in love with something that really drives you. Or you might find you want to be an intern at a dentist office.
The alarm clock test can be given to people of all ages. If you hit it two or three times, you’re kind of in trouble. That means, whatever is waiting for you, you’d rather stay in la la land then get up and do it.
X: If you got stranded on a desert island, what’s the one thing you would have to have with you?
JK: Anything that can keep my mind occupied. I’ve gotten to a point now where I just always love being engaged, connected, learning, whatever you want to call it. I’m not that person who, on an airplane flight from Austin to DC, can just sit there and stare at the back of the seat. I don’t know how they do it. They must be very reflective or meditative in nature. I would go crazy.
Or maybe I just need a towel.
X: You were in the military. You were teaching at West Point. Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
JK: For the first 20 years of my life, everything that I was doing, I truly believed I was moving the needle. After 20 years in the Army, as I looked at the positions available, the bottleneck starts to squeeze. There are fewer and fewer jobs for you to be able to make a contribution. I thought I could do more in the private sector to help people with their daily commute than staying on in the Army.
X: Were you big into technology as a kid?
JK: I was the kid who had those early science kits where you pull it out of the box; it had transistors and capacitors wires and light bulbs. I loved that kit. My parents were able to get me an IBM PC Junior; that was the game-changer. Holy cow. When I saw what I was able to do in programming, the whole track of science and engineering, I could really visualize myself going into NASA and the space program. I had to learn the science of technology, thermodynamics, all that stuff. It was so much fun. It was not easy but I really did enjoy it. I’m not as much of a practitioner in the day-to-day but I’m still very much a student of technology. I love thinking about big ideas.