For many of us, driving can be somewhat of a hassle. All the traffic and the endless search for a parking spot has caused a whole lot of headaches, but not for Alex Nickodem. For him, it’s a way to make a living. About five months ago, Nickodem took his dream of chauffeuring professionally and created a unique business model for his company: Simplified Personal Driving.
“There’s a huge difference between me and Uber, or Lyft,” said Nickodem. “I think ride share services totally have their time and their place, but parents aren’t going to call an Uber to take their kindergartener to school in the morning. So yes, people talk about Uber and Lyft all the time, but they’re just different things. And the doctor that I pick up in the morning, I know how she likes her coffee, and I arrive with her coffee and her personal CD’s she keeps in my car for me to play.”
Simplified Personal Driving is Nickodem’s own chauffeuring service here in the Chapel Hill-Durham area. Unlike popular ride share apps, SPD adds a more personal touch for clientele ranging from med students trying to avoid the troubles of using the extensive parking deck of UNC’s hospital to young children who need a ride to, and from, elementary school.
Nickodem grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, “the greatest city on Earth” according to him. After attending college at Elon University, he met his wife at a church Bible study in Greensboro.
“I always say I married in to the state, because my in-laws are from Boone. My wife soon decided she wanted to go to law school, and she ended up getting into UVA and UNC, which are both excellent schools. And we were told, if you want to practice law anywhere in the U.S., go to UVA. If you want to practice law anywhere in North Carolina, go to UNC.
“That was one of the greatest decisions, because one of our friends who is a lawyer in Hillsborough, talked us into coming here. And Chapel Hill, being Chapel Hill, it was an easy call because it’s a very welcoming community. It’s an easy community to jump into and to feel a part of. I’ve had four years of work experience and now that I’ve started this hyperlocal business, and she’s working over in Raleigh – we’re not going anywhere.”
Running a business grounded in personal interaction means holding meaningful conversations with strangers. Willingness to engage people he just met has never been a problem for Nickodem – he’s always willing to get to know someone new.
“When I was about six and seven, I was diagnosed and treated for a malignant brain tumor. I was in the hospital a lot those years and I constantly had visitors come in my room but many strangers, too. There were people I knew, or didn’t know, and I had to engage them. I had to talk to them. I couldn’t just sit there and leave it to my parents or just my mom to welcome guests and talk to them. So, I think from an early age, I was thrown into talking to folks and learning how to carry on a conversation.”
It was that tumor treatment where Nickodem contracted tinnitus, a condition that leaves a constant ringing in his ear. There is one activity that drowns out the ringing, however: driving.
“The road noise, the engine noise, the conversation, whatever music is playing, I tend not to notice it, and it doesn’t bother me. And so, if I can be in an environment where I don’t notice the ringing in my ear, but I’m also getting to have good conversation and getting to know people, that seemed like an ideal fit for me.”
Nickodem worked as a fundraiser for a Habitat for Humanity Re-store before becoming the Simplified Personal Driver. After some time, he felt as though he needed to embark on a journey that would fulfill a childhood ambition of his.
“I think we all, in the back of our minds or the front of our minds, have that thing that we would do if someone said, ‘No matter the income, or the feasibility of it, what would you like to do?’ And my answer has always been ‘To be a chauffeur for a family full time.’ And that doesn’t seem like a reality in a place outside of a big city. Because no one family is going to be very likely to have someone come on full time to help them.
“I moved on from fundraising for Habitat for Humanity, and it felt like the right time. My wife said, ‘Take your time and figure out what you really want to do.’ And I already knew what I really wanted to do, it was just a matter of implementing it. And so, I saw that there was a need for it and it was just a means of figuring out how you implement it.
“Another reason was I really enjoyed the relational aspect of fundraising. It’s the relationship your form with your donor, and getting to know them and their passions over the years as having them as a donor for the organization. And so, I wanted a job that fit that, where I could continue having that work relationship with someone long term or several clients long term. And it’s just great getting to know people and chatting with them.”
For Nickodem, it’s this step above simply driving clients from place to place that sets him apart from the rest. His clients agree, some even saying that Alex has changed their lives through his dedication toward those who need his services.
“It definitely takes stories like this to keep going and be motivated because starting your own business is not a profitable thing in the beginning,” Alex explained. “And I got a call from an elderly woman who lives out in Orange County, and she lives far enough out where there’s not a bus system. And ride share services aren’t as reliable out there. She had moved out from California to be with her daughter and son-in-law, and for different circumstances, the daughter and son-in-law aren’t able to be as present in her life as they’d like to be.
“And so, I’ve started helping her by driving her around to wherever she needs to go. Then, I got a text from her last week that ended with, ‘Alex, if it weren’t for you and your company, I would be home bound.’ That was amazing. I don’t dwell on the fact that, ‘Is this worth it all financially?’ That might cross my mind, but when I’m in that moment, all I have to do is think about her and her sending me that text. And that’s the most rewarding thing I think anyone has ever said to me.”
This endearing sense of empathy toward his clientele and focus towards meaningful experiences marks Nickodem as a rarity among other private transportation services. Nickodem sees the service he provides going hand-in-hand with creating a comforting environment on the road.
“So many times, when I tell people what I do, they say ‘Oh, so you’re a taxi driver,’ or ‘Oh, so you’re like a ride share driver.’ And in some ways, I am, I take people from point A to point B. But it’s so much more than that because you’re in a car with someone four to five times a week for forty minutes at a time, and it takes a lot. It takes empathy and compassion. They tend to start sharing things with you, because you are a third party that isn’t necessarily as invested in their lives as a partner or family member would be. And so, it’s almost relaxing to get into a car with someone they know is listening. It’s really important that you take the time to do that.”
Alex’s vision for the future of Simplified Personal Driving promises a commitment to the same for years to come. SPD isn’t just a start up that he hopes to manage one day because being behind the wheel suits Nickodem better than being behind a desk.
“I don’t have the desire to no longer be driving any clients, and just be managing people solely. I always want to have at least those main clients, perhaps the ones I stated with or maybe a few a week. I’m definitely at the point where I need to expand because I can’t be in two or three places at once, and I hate telling people ‘no.’ But I also really like being hyperlocal, and luckily my fundraising activity with Habitat from years past, allowed me to jump in quickly into that local scene.
“Before I started this, you would have thought that I wouldn’t have started a small business. It’s not a breeze, it’s not something where you just walk out and have this easy day and be stress free. It is less stressful in a way.
Even though I loved my boss at Habitat and at the Restore. It’s just nice that I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. And I feel like I’m more motivated, because I’ve told everyone, ‘Hey, this iswhat I’m doing, and this is what I’m going to do.’ And I have to follow through with it because there’s no pulling out now.”
Nickodem is in this business for the long haul, and his hard work to fulfill a passion he’s had since he was young is finally beginning to pay off.
“And I look forward to the days when I’m fifty years-old and I have been driving clients since the early 2000s. And that just makes me happy thinking that someday in the future, I will have been so ingrained in this community that when people think they need to get somewhere, they think of, ‘Oh, there’s this personal driver in Chapel Hill who’s been doing this for thirty years.”