Monday 13 February 2017 5:10 am

DriveTribe co-founders Richard Hammond and Ernesto Schmitt talk dating, driverless cars and excluding Jeremy Clarkson from music ventures

How would you transition from celebrity to business magnate? If you’ve already done well in life, one option is to wind down.

This is not, however, the option Richard Hammond and sidekicks James May and Jeremy Clarkson are going for. In case they didn’t have enough to do launching Amazon’s The Grand Tour, they’ve also started a new company: DRIVETRIBE.

“It was a function of timing,” says Hammond. “Coming out of the BBC was like leaving the army after a long career. We’d been sheltered, but once we’d limbered up and realised that it wasn’t just television that’d moved on, but all of media, its distribution and the monetisation around it, it was really a case of ‘why would we choose not to be a part of that?’.”

So, along with former Top Gear producer and friend Andy Wilman, the trio have founded DRIVETRIBE, a digital platform for car lovers. “Once we’d decided to do television in the modern way – on demand – we were left aware that something in the digital space was needed. We knew that we have a degree of pull over a fairly wide group of people – that show we did in the past, it wasn’t just dyed-in-the-wool petrolheads – but more than that we didn’t.”

New blood

This is where Ernesto Schmitt comes in. Hired after a process he describes as “three months of dating and having questions about cars fired at me over dinner,” the serial entrepreneur (he founded Silverscreen video stores and digital marketing agency Beamly), former Tesco director and Porsche owner has been working with Hammond and co to grow DRIVETRIBE as fast as possible. “We were very careful to craft an agreement with Amazon that would carve out an opportunity to do something in parallel,” explains Schmitt.

Ernesto Schmitt is ex-Tesco, Boston Consulting Group and a serial entrepreneur

The combination of clever tech, a novel model, and the right faces seems to be working. DRIVETRIBE gets 2m views a day, with tens of thousands of content creators. Described as “YouPorn for cars” by Clarkson, the platform enables users to create a profile and a group – “tribe”. That tribe can be focused on whatever you like: “your interests might extend to following Formula One, or you might be a keen rally driver. You might like crossing the planet in old modified Beetles, or you might just like looking at cars at car shows, or just building them out of lego,” explains Hammond.

“We can pull all of those interests together so they can be exploited, enjoyed and, most importantly, shared.” Tribes range from Hammond’s Fob Jockeys to The Bullitt Brigade, from Pre-War Cars to Monks with Cars.

Quickly Hammond is illustrating the power of the network DRIVETRIBE creates. “I like old cars, and there’s hardly anywhere that I get to talk about them. I was driving my Lagonda last weekend and I ended up telling a story on DRIVETRIBE about it breaking down and needing to be fixed and there we go. Then, just this morning, I was mooching around on DRIVETRIBE and I see this picture some guy has posted of a Lagonda which looked just like my Lagonda. Then I thought, ‘hang on, that is my bloody Lagonda!’ So I asked him where he got the picture from – a picture from before I owned it. That’s an evolving story about my car. It’s a specific connection and content-creation at once.”

The point about social media to date, says Schmitt, “has been that it connects you with people you know. Your Facebook feed is stories about individuals you’re already familiar with. With DRIVETRIBE, we’re spinning that 180 degrees. This isn’t about the people you know; it’s about the passions you share.”

DRIVETRIBE users don’t have to lead tribes – you can just join as an observer or contributor. Hammond has been spending time on Lord March’s, founder of Goodwood Festival of Speed, tribe. “Lord March did that piece where he said: ‘I came downstairs and a crate had arrived at the door and I opened it up and there was a motorcycle inside!’ It was a Harley Davidson of particular interest because it was sent to him by a particular designer. I send him a comment on the post saying ‘I know, the same thing happened to me only it turned out to be a book about trees.’”

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Calling other celebs

The team already has “100m plus” users in sight. “This machine has two roles: one, for distributing content, but then it becomes a content generator itself by learning about you and feeding you stuff you’ll want to see and discover. And where one person is connected to someone else and they discover something together – that’s the intersection between content and social media.”

And maximising the technology and the model doesn’t stop with motoring – the plan is to move into completely different verticals.

“I’m not sure yet what we’ll be able to add content-wise in the fields of fashion, food, and certainly not music if Jeremy gets anywhere bloody near it, but we are pressure-testing the tech with that in mind,” explains Hammond.

“You will be seeing different brands but using the same model and technology,” adds Schmitt. “Jeremy, Richard, James and Andy have been instrumental in getting DRIVETRIBE off the ground. Launching into other areas would similarly require very strong creative talent. So they’d be very happy shareholders, rather than actively involved in it.”

I ask about monetisation. “There’s no question that if you could get a very large group of people who are deeply passionate about their area, you’ve then got a lot of data on them. That lends itself to all manner of monetisation: native advertising, branded content, social commentary, transactions… but we’ve no intention of doing that until much later on this year,” says Schmitt. “What’ll be fascinating is what people connect over, how they’re interacting and why,” adds Hammond. “That’s going to be where a lot of the commercial interest will lie.”

Two months since site launch and the focus is fully on building the platform and scaling it. “It’s all an incredible learning curve for those of us not from the entrepreneurial world,” says Hammond. “You assume digital means all zeros and ones, but organic growth is fascinating to watch.” He pauses to rail against the Volvo dealership that seems to surround his, Clarkson and May’s offices – alarms keep going off.

“We’re not exactly small personalities, but with this we’re small fish in a big pond, and we’re really enjoying that. It’s the first time, for example, that I’ve had transatlantic conference calls with people about backing things.”

DRIVETRIBE's seed funding came from its co-founders, then it took money from Jim Breyer (the investor known for being the first to back Mark Zuckerberg) and Twenty-First Century Fox, who put $6.5m into the website. “I’ve been able to speak with my brother who’s ex-City and now in a more entrepreneurial role. I now understand a little bit more about what he does, and that’s been really rewarding.”

Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May in a DRIVETRIBE website banner
DRIVETRIBE calls itself the home of motoring and adventure

Forward friends

“The thing about passions – tribes – is that they offer a badge of identity for people,” says Schmitt. “And if you’re passionate, it’s very easy for you to create content,” adds Hammond. “I just write down what I’ve been messing around with at the weekend. Taking cars as an example, people always have an attitude towards them. Even people who dislike cars express their dislike through the car they buy.”

Which is? I ask:

“Oh a Prius. Any early hybrid. But that said, the way they’re going now – the likes of Tesla – that’s all incredibly exciting. I was just reading about GM and Honda’s plans to build a hydrogen fuel cell factory in Detroit… it’s a tremendously gripping subject.”

I ask Hammond how he feels about driverless cars. “There’s never been a time where there’s been more to say about motoring since the invention of the car. The last time manufacturers were presented with the opportunity to get things this wrong and make fools of themselves, or make genius strides forward, was when the car was first invented. We’re the opposite of worried about autonomous cars – we’re excited.

“The whole industry will be reinvented; for us that’s a field day. You have to drill right down into what a car really means. It means, at a primal level, moving yourself from one place to another. And that matters to us as humans. With driverless cars, what’ll be exciting is how they make motorways safer, how they help us move more quickly. But that won’t eradicate the deep-rooted desire on our part to display messages about our potency, virility or parsimoniousness. There’s always the simple, visceral pleasure of being on your own.”

And technology isn’t just changing media and motoring. “We won’t be the only ones starting new things. Others in the media are realising that, if they want to stay in the game, they’re going to have to turn into a different thing. We can’t just wander along bumping our gums at a camera and thinking ‘job’s done’ because you have to be far more involved. I’m massively fired up.”