Old-school newspaper veteran puts energy into ride-hailing app
Russel Pergament might seem as old-school as they come in Boston’s newspaper industry. He cofounded the Tab newspapers, and later sold them to Fidelity Investments. He was also the first publisher at the Boston Metro, the free daily, and then launched its relatively short-lived rival, BostonNow.
So what is Pergament doing, starting a ride-hailing app dubbed BestRides at this stage in his career?
Here’s how it works. The app involves sharing license plate photos or other identifying info about the cab, Uber, or Lyft vehicles giving app users a ride. Once an app user arrives at a destination, he or she presses “Arrived Safely” on the app and a preselected group of friends and family are notified. If the expected trip time passes and the user doesn’t hit the button, that same circle of contacts is alerted that something might have gone awry. The info about the driver is distributed to the contacts, with the presumption it could be shared with police. The app also includes a “panic button” option that can be used to alert the contacts immediately if there is a problem.
“I think we can save lives,” Pergament says. “The safety side is what motivates me.”
The business was originally called SafeRide, but Pergament changed the name six months ago when he found most people were downloading the app because it offers a price comparison for Uber and Lyft rides. Today, the price comparison is the primary draw.
The app is not generating revenue now, and the basic version of the app will always be available for free. But Pergament’s goal is to create a premium edition that parents would pay for, and versions that could be sold to colleges and universities to help protect students.
Pergament originally came up with the idea while traveling in Peru several years ago. He had begun to take photos of his cab drivers while traveling abroad and texting them to friends. Once he realized this practice could be useful to a broader audience, he started working on the app.
As the majority owner of BestRides, he leads a team of three employees at an office in downtown Wellesley, above a deli. They have been ramping up promotion of the app this spring. He says BestRides gets downloaded 800 to 1,000 times a week now.
At 71, Pergament shows no sign of retiring anytime soon. He remains actively involved in State House News Service as one of its owners and is publisher of the nonprofit Jewish News Syndicate.
The lessons from his Tab days still remain relevant. Just like four decades ago, Pergament says he is starting something new, with a small team, and a sense of purpose. — JON CHESTO
Ex-prosecutor, associates establish Boston law firm
You may have seen the George Clooney movie “Michael Clayton,” or the Showtime series “Ray Donovan” starring Liev Schreiber. The protagonists are fixers, available on a moment’s notice to respond to a crisis.
So where do you find someone like that in real life, around Boston?
Greg Henning is hoping you give his new law firm, West Hill Associates, a call.
Henning is a former Suffolk County prosecutor who ran for district attorney but lost to Rachael Rollins in the Democratic primary last September. He took a leave of absence for the campaign, but returned to the office after losing the primary while planning his next move. When the time came, his buddies and colleagues Ben Megrian and Vince DeMore joined him in the new firm.
The three started West Hill Associates in February, and celebrated with a “launch party” on May 9 at Explorateur. West Hill is technically a law firm, but it’s also a bit more than that. West Hill focuses on crisis management, corporate investigations, and strategic communications. Clients include schools, developers, restaurants.
“Part of our business is practicing law, and part of our business is the discrete handling of problems, and the communications and critical response that comes with that,” Henning says.
All three rose to senior levels in the Suffolk DA’s office during their time there. Henning and Megrian were the chief of the gang unit and deputy chief, respectively. (Megrian also took a leave of absence to help Henning with his campaign.) And DeMore took a lead role in representing district attorneys around the state in the state’s drug lab and Breathalyzer scandals.
Their office is on Tremont Street, across from Boston Common. So why the name West Hill Associates?
Henning grew up on West Hill Place in Beacon Hill.
“We didn’t want to do three guys’ names,” Henning says. “There are a million of those.” — JON CHESTO
Vegan meal kits supplier has a new owner
Andy Levitt’s vegan venture, Purple Carrot, has come a long way since he started it in his garage less than five years ago.
The supplier of vegan meal kits now employs more than 60 people, largely at its headquarters in Needham. It generated $42 million in revenue last year, and had its first cash-flow positive quarter this year.
And now, Purple Carrot has a new owner as well.
Japanese meal kit service Oisix said last week that it will buy Purple Carrot for up to $30 million. Oisix plans to use Purple Carrot as its launchpad to expand in the United States, and has no plans to cut its management or other employees.
“In conversations with other potential acquirers, it probably would have been a different outcome,” Levitt says. “[Oisix will] probably look to us to be the boots on the ground to help with other acquisition and growth opportunities in the US.”
Purple Carrot sells two subscription plans: $72 a week, for three plant-based meals with two servings each, or $96 a week for two meals with six servings apiece.
The firm specifically targets people who eat meat but want to add more plant-based options to their diets, or as Levitt likes to say, “vegan food for nonvegans.” (Only about one-fifth of its customers are vegan.)
Purple Carrot received a crucial assist in April 2016 from WindSail Capital, the Boston firm that provided debt financing to the business to help it expand. Venture capital investors New Crop Capital and Stray Dog Capital made equity investments. Both firms will end up taking a slight discount from their investments, Levitt says, although the total amount they put in has not been made public.
Levitt points to the fact that both VC firms are “mission-based investors” that are looking to disrupt the agricultural industry’s traditional livestock model. He noted that Purple Carrot has shipped more than seven million plant-based meals since its founding.
“The return was a bit less than they were hoping for,” Levitt says of the VC investors. “But the impact was better than they expected.” — JON CHESTO
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