Last Wednesday, Sept. 17, marked the maiden voyage of Designated Driver Missoula, a shining beacon for Missoula’s inebriated. The idea: DD Missoula drivers take you home from the bars, in your car, for a modest price. But after one weekend, the beacon is already dimming.
Brandon Sturm, the company’s chief operations officer, explains the level of enthusiasm expressed by the public failed to match customer turnout. Eight calls Friday and four Saturday made for a slower debut than anticipated.
“We set everything up, we hire the people, we start the service, and nobody shows up,” Sturm says.
The company is now struggling to stay afloat. By 5 p.m. Monday, five of DD Missoula’s seven employees were laid off. The company’s funds would have run dry in three weeks otherwise, and DD Missoula needs a chance “to build a client base,” Sturm says.
“All of our employees that we initially started with…are going to be the first people we invite back,” Sturm says.
“There’s no conflict between us in any way,” says driver John Nilles of his short tenure with DD Missoula. “It’s pretty major is what I’ve come to understand.”
As Nilles and other DD Missoula drivers lingered downtown Friday night, support for the company seemed as strong as a drink from Al’s & Vic’s. Pedestrian Kirsten Chapman expressed how much she likes the service.
“I love this,” Chapman said. “Twenty dollars to take your car home too? That’s awesome.”
In an e-mail from his home in Manchester, England, Paul Ashton, president of DD Missoula, says the company met unexpected challenges out of the gate. Chief among them is the now-axed voucher system, wherein customers purchased $20 coupons at participating bars.
“Initially we got it wrong,” Ashton writes. Customers now pay reduced prices in cash directly to DD Missoula drivers.
Ashton and Sturm remain steadfast that their new business will work. The two met eight months ago, when Ashton still lived in Missoula, and hatched DD Missoula over a few beers. They’ve stayed enthusiastic since.
“I’m not as optimistic as I was last week,” Sturm says. “But I haven’t given up hope yet.”