Why Lyft co-founder John Zimmer says he didn't take a salary for three years

John Zimmer
Mary Catherine Wellons | CNBC

Lyft co-founder John Zimmer knows that one the road to entrepreneurial success, there are detours.

In a recent episode of the "Success: How I Did It" podcast, Zimmer tells Business Insider U.S. Editor-in-Chief Alyson Shontell about the early challenges he and cofounder Logan Green faced when starting their company.

The duo linked up in 2007 when Zimmer saw a Facebook post that Green, who he didn't know at the time, had left on a mutual friend's page. The post mentioned that Green launching a company called Zimride, inspired by a recent trip to Zimbabwe during which he saw people sharing rides out of necessity. Zimmer asked the mutual friend to connect him with Green so he could learn more about the company.

After a meeting in New York, the two decided to go into business together.

"I was really excited. I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur," said Zimmer, who at the time held a full-time position at Lehman Brothers.

Zimmer and Green moved to Silicon Valley. Neither took a salary during the first three years of business, and they relied heavily on Trader Joe's microwavable meals.

"It was helpful that I saved some money," said Zimmer who left his day job when he moved to Silicon Valley. "We basically lived in an apartment that was also our office. We called it the 'apartfice.'"

Zimmer says he slept on a couch for six months before moving to his best friend's parent's house.

In the beginning, Zimride focused mostly on providing college students with carpooling options when they went home on break. It also served as a way for students to make some extra cash.

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"So for $20 or $30 you could sell three seats," said Zimmer. "Let's say make $60 on your ride home and you'd actually be making some money rather than losing money on all of the cost associated with driving."

By 2012, Zimmer and Logan had thousands of users and 150 universities and companies participating in their business. However, the duo still felt they weren't tapping into the bigger vision they had for the company.

"Our actual mission is to improve people's lives with the world's best transportation and, in doing so, to change our cities so that they are designed around people instead of cars," added Zimmer. "And we were just scratching the surface."

With that in mind, Zimmer and Green developed the concept for Lyft. Two engineers built the app and it launched in 2012.

Today, the company faces stiff competition from Uber, but shows no signs of slowing down. Zimmer says the company is now worth $11 billion and has spoken frequently about using his to survive in business.

"For a while there was this idea that we are treating people well, and we are going to get beaten by a competitor that is more aggressive," Zimmer told the Financial Times. "There was a misunderstanding about those values [not being] tied to building a great business, which they are."

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