About 10 years ago, a buddy of dealer Don Flow made an offhand remark that stuck with him: "I would love to change cars like you do, Don."
Flow pondered that for a long time, trying to devise a way, beyond loaner cars, to let customers regularly swap in and out of a variety of vehicles like he did.
"We had this big war room where we were trying to figure out how to manage this," said Flow, CEO of Flow Automotive Cos. in Winston-Salem, N.C. "We finally said, 'This is impossible. We don't have the technology and can't figure out how to do it.' "
Then, about two years ago, Flow met with leaders of Clutch Technologies, maker of the Clutch app that lets automakers and dealers provide vehicle subscription services. Flow realized his vision could finally be a reality. In late 2016, he launched Drive Flow, which serves the Winston-Salem and Raleigh markets, about 100 miles apart.
"We did it according to our philosophy, which is take design thinking, start small, do it again, learn, test, do it again," Flow told Automotive News. "We're at a point now where we have a pretty deep understanding of it."
There are 130 subscribers in Drive Flow, and Flow said it is profitable because the company upholds three fundamental principles: Provide top customer service, provide vehicles that customers want to drive and manage the depreciation cycle through an entire year.
"Now we're ready to grow it and double it again on an annual basis," Flow said. "With each of those principles, we stopped and said, 'Has the size changed the difficulty in delivering on any of these [principles]? Because it's different when you go from 100 to 200, then 200 to 400. Things start changing."
Drive Flow's website lists a $250 activation fee and three subscription levels. The Prospector tier costs $850 a month, provides access to one vehicle a month with a sticker price in the $40,000 range and allows up to 1,000 miles of driving a month. The $1,000 Pioneer plan and $1,499 Adventurer plan offer more expensive vehicles, unlimited flips and 200 more miles of driving. All packages include insurance, taxes and maintenance. Nameplates from the 18 brands Flow's dealerships sell are in the fleet.
Now that Flow has mastered how to operate subscription car services, he said it's "like a star exploding" with more opportunities.
"You can think about unlimited subscription opportunities or somebody who says, 'I just want unlimited SUVs,' or 'I just want it for two weeks out of a month because I travel all the time,'" Flow said.
Flow said the majority of customers will still desire personal car ownership, but he foresees more people wanting to experiment with more uses of cars.
"Then, as we move towards autonomous vehicles, I hope we'd develop the skill sets, the competencies for customer management and asset management, so that we have deep customer engagement about their transportation," said Flow. "Those are transferable skills."