- US startup Bird rents out electric scooters for short city trips, and bills itself as a solution to urban congestion and pollution.
- It has raised $400 million to date and hit a valuation of $2 billion despite only launching in 2017.
- Like earlier generations of transport startups, such as Uber and bike-sharing firms, Bird is having to win approval from regulators on a city-by-city basis to place its electric scooters on streets.
- Business Insider spoke to Bird’s most senior exec outside the US, Patrick Studener, about the company’s expansion in Europe, its similarities and differences to Uber, and how you stop someone wielding a scooter as a riot weapon.
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US scooter startup Bird is one of the most valuable startups in the world, launching in California in 2017 with a handful of electric scooters pitched as an alternative to the car for short journeys in traffic-heavy cities.
Expansion beyond the US has come with a number of challenges. First, scooters are still illegal in one of Europe’s biggest cities, London. Second, a glut of local rivals makes standing out much tougher.
Still, Bird has managed to persuade UK authorities to sign off on the country’s first ever electric scooter trial, with riders able to legally ride scooters for a short distance around east London’s Olympic Park. Like other scooter firms, Bird charges an unlock fee of around $1 or £1, then users are charged 20p or up to 33 cents per minute of use.
Scooter companies’ expansion tactics have drawn comparisons with previous generations of "mobility" firms — namely Uber. Bird’s founder, Travis VanderZanden, was a former VP of Growth at Uber and prior to that, COO of its main ridesharing rival Lyft.
Patrick Studener, Bird’s European chief and its most senior executive outside the US, is also a former Uber exec. Business Insider spoke to Studener about working at Uber, why Brexit might be holding scooters up in the UK, and how you stop people wielding a Bird as a riot weapon. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Business Insider: What did you do before Bird?
Patrick Studener: In 2013, I left CitiGroup where I had worked for six years in London and Sydney and joined Uber as one of its first employees in Europe, joining their launch team which was responsible for expansion across Europe and Western Africa [under then-head of expansion] Austin Geidt.
A lot of people would joke: "You’re leaving a career in finance to join a taxi app?" I was really excited, I did think Uber was something that could change the way we operate.
BI: How did you meet Bird’s founder, Travis VanderZanden?
PS: I did [expansion] for 2.5 years at Uber… At the time Uber hired the Lyft COO Travis VanderZanden, who’s now the founder of Bird, and I was then asked by him and some other folks about joining his team, we were in charge of the growth products. So, specific features that would get more riders to join the platform, growing the platform. Everything including referral programmes, things like that.
[Later] Travis gave me ring and said ‘We’re doing scooters.’ At the time, Bird were just launching a handful of scooters in Santa Monica.
BI: Was there a time where you felt that some of the stuff happening with Uber’s leadership, and at board level was immoral? Did it make you uncomfortable?
PS: I never had that, and I also left, I must have been out six, seven months before a lot of that stuff. [Studener left in July 2016, seven months before former Uber engineer Susan Fowler would publish an explosive blog alleging sexism at the company and triggering CEO Travis Kalanick’s downfall.]
I will also say it’s really a shame, a lot of the things that you read now, because there are so many hard-working and really amazing people there and a lot of the stuff you read about, especially in [Europe] was tough to ride, a lot of that stuff was happening in San Francisco. That’s very different from what we saw.
It’s super unfortunate that a lot of these things came through the growing pains. I do think they will do really well in getting through this. It’s always interesting to see how different companies grow through these things. Google had to bring in Eric Schmidt, Facebook brought in Sheryl [Sandberg.] Companies evolve and grow up.
BI: How could Bird be different?
PS: What I’m really excited about now, having gone from hyper-growth… is this super balanced approach at Bird, which Travis [VanderZanden] has had from day one, which is we need to grow, but we need to grow profitably. That’s where you do really well. I love that vision and I’m 100% on board with that.
If you asked me what my vision is, I don’t want to launch all the cities, I want to launch the right cities and I don’t want to just launch cities, I want to launch cities the right way.
For us, in EMEA, every city we’ve launched, we’ve spent a lot of time in advance talking with the cities. We’re the new kids on the block, people should ask questions and we should have good answers for those questions.
BI: Could Bird replace Uber, or cabs?
PS: Yeah, I do think there’s a difference between the zero to two-mile journey, and the two to five or 10 mile.
A lot of people, when they’re between meetings, will still for a 1.5-mile or 2-mile meeting, where there isn’t an alternative, use Uber or a taxi. So is there potential there to also use Bird instead. But at the same time, if you’re going to Heathrow, you’re not going to hop on a Bird. I think these alternatives will work really well together.
BI: Are some countries and cities more receptive to scooters than others?
All the countries are on different timelines a bit, but what I’m excited about is people understanding these are alternatives that can really make a difference. The mission of Bird is to reduce congestion, and to reduce CO2 that comes with congestion. I’ve yet to meet a single city or country that doesn’t have a 2030 or 2040 plan to do the same thing.
Every city will do things their way and I don’t know there’s one right or wrong way. In France, there wasn’t an issue at the national level in terms of what is a scooter and just being street legal, or not, or existing as a vehicle class. [The UK classes electric scooters as "Personal Light Electric Vehicles" which can only be used on private property.]
France said we want to solve this quickly, to allow alternatives. [They were] happy to iterate on the regulation while also testing new products. Other countries are more like, let’s update the regulation first and then go. That’s often tough for startups, because it means you can’t launch.
BI: How have you found talking to the UK’s regulator, Transport for London, and government people at the Department for Transport? Are they receptive to changing the law?
Folks at TfL and the Department for Transport are generally people who deeply care about making the city, country move more efficiently, and in a more environmentally friendly way.
I know that a lot of them would like to work on things that are non-Brexit related, there is that elephant in the room, and there is guidance that that [Brexit] stuff has to happen first, so there’s a bit of a bottleneck. I’ve generally found people at TfL and the DfT super open. Some countries are moving faster than others.
Understandably, [UK transport minister] Jesse Norman didn’t give a date [for reviewing laws around scooters] which is fair. But regulatory reviews from what I understand can go on for many many months and then on the back of that there’s more input. But I think the point is, we’re here with a team, we want to contribute, there’s a call for evidence. We’re putting in lots of data, and sharing everything we can.
BI: In the European cities where you’re operating, what patterns do you see?
PS: There is a bit of an inequality thing with transportation where… sometimes people who make the least money have to travel the furthest to work. Sometimes they live in areas that are under-served, where if you miss the bus, there’s no bus for like an hour and then you have to walk two miles.
Maybe that’s an area you can’t afford to put in expensive charging stations, but it’d be super easy to put Birds there and help connect them. In these transport deserts, transportation is a fluid problem, and Bird is a fluid solution.
BI: How do you think about pricing then? Public transport represents good value for most people, because you get hours of transport for little money. In order to serve the audience who live far away and missed the bus, you’d have to appeal to them on price. Scooters are quite reasonable currently, but over a longer journey they would work out more expensive than a bus. Would Bird avoid locking in an audience and then raising prices?
Pricing will continue to evolve. So over time as we grow as a company we can adjust pricing, that can be adjusted, you can adjust it in different areas, and for times.
BI: Is it flat currently?
PS: Yes. Yes, here in London it’s £1 to unlock, then 20p to ride per minute. There are elements that come in with scale, where you ask can we adjust that price. We have to start somewhere and keep adjusting as we go.
BI: How are you thinking about safety, and responding to regulators’ questions about accidents?
PS: Everything we do starts with safety, so everything from the development and design of the scooter, to tutorials we layout when you sign up on what ride behaviour is [right].
Statistically, there will be pedestrian, car, bicycle accidents. It’s the same with scooters, there will be incidents and it’s super important to track is that something that is an individual user’s behaviour, or the product, and then keep innovating so you’re as safe as can be every day.
BI: In Paris, Bird scooters were used as weapons during the gilets jaunes riots. How do you prevent that?
PS: Look, how do you stop someone using a car [in that way]. It’s really unfortunate to see, to a certain extent there’s human behaviour that’s out of our control. And some of that stuff is scary.
There are things we’re testing right now in some cities in the US and we’ll keep innovating. If people are moving a Bird and it’s not unlocked, not being used for a ride, alarm bells go off on the scooter.
We have one concrete thing we do, which is having Bird "watchers", so stewards who go round putting Birds in the right place. During the Paris riots, because we collect the scooters every night and put them out in the morning, we do know not to put out the scooters. That’s the easiest way.
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