Lime’s CEO on the future of scooters: ‘COVID has turned from a headwind into a tailwind’

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Like most shared scooter companies, Lime was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We saw a 95 percent drop in ridership,” Lime CEO Wayne Ting says in an interview. “We’re a mobility company. And one of the things with mobility companies, when communities shut down, riders shut down.”

But while the world still remains in the grip of COVID-19, Lime’s scooter business has begun to rebound. In May, the company made a crucial investment deal with Uber and others for $170 million to take over the ride-hailing company’s bike and scooter business Jump. That deal also saw Ting, then Lime’s global operations head (and former chief of staff to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi), replace Brad Bao as CEO.

Now, Ting says that Lime’s riders are coming back; the company just announced it has reached the milestone of 200 million rides. It took 28 months to get to 100 million rides, but only 13 months to rack up another 100 million. And Lime expects to achieve another milestone in 2021: becoming profitable.

Lime’s recovery was never a foregone conclusion, Ting says. “One of the things that has been really surprising for us was how quickly Lime’s business has come back, and how strongly it’s come back,” he says. “I don’t think it’s because the world has come back. I think it’s because we’re seeing a mode shift away from traditional forms of transportation, and particularly the car, into other forms of transportation.”

To be sure, the company was shrinking before the pandemic hit. In January, Lime laid off 14 percent of its employees, or around 100 employees, and pulled its scooters from 12 cities. Scooter sharing is a seasonal business, and companies tend to retract during winter months.

But the pandemic has changed the way people get around in cities, Ting says. Public transportation ridership dropped as people sought out more socially distanced modes of travel. And as the pandemic progressed, scooter and bike companies appeared to scoop up some of those shifting riders.

Things were trending pretty good for scooter companies before the pandemic. Between 2018 and 2019, the total number of shared micromobility trips in the US shot up from 84 million to 136 million, according to a new report from NACTO. Scooters accounted for the vast majority of the new trips, more than doubling in usage, while bike ridership grew only 10 percent. The question remains: how long will it take for scooter companies to get back to those pre-COVID numbers?

Lime’s ridership numbers are still down, year over year, largely because the company’s top use cases — tourism and work commuting — are still nonexistent in most of Lime’s markets. But the company is confident that it can get back to — and exceed — it’s pre-COVID peak numbers, especially if people continue to move away from ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

“COVID has turned from a headwind into a tailwind,” he says. “People are looking for a socially distanced way to move. And what’s great about e-bikes and scooters is that it’s single passenger, it’s open air. It is allowing a lot of people to get back on the street, and do so in a safe way.”

Even though it has proven popular with riders, scooter sharing has always been a money loser. Most companies rely on a hefty dose of venture capital to keep their operations afloat. The industry has been struggling to fix its unit economics, in which the purchase price for each scooter exceeded the amount of revenue it brought in before eventually breaking down.

The original scooters deployed by companies like Bird and Lime — mostly sourced from Chinese companies like Xiaomi and Segway-Ninebot — weren’t built for shared use, so they were prone to breakdowns, often within weeks of being rolled out. But over the last year, the scooter companies have taken pains to roll out better, more durable scooters in order to increase the average life span and improve their unit economics.

Ting says that Lime has seen a dramatic improvement in the life span of each individual scooter, with each vehicle able to stay in circulation for an average of two years. “It’s much longer than where we were a year and a half ago,” he says. “And I think it’s certainly growing all the time, especially as we introduce new hardware.”

“We want to ensure is that our scooters don’t break, and when they do break, they’re easy to fix,” he adds. “The way you do that improves the profitability of each scooter.”

Lime also wants to reimagine what it means to be a micromobility provider. The company doesn’t want to be just a scooter company; it sees itself as a “platform” for different kinds of micromobility. This winter, the Lime app will start allowing users in select cities to find and rent vehicles from third-party operators, beginning with pedal-free e-bikes from Wheels.

Lime already has the largest reach of any shared micromobility provider in the world. By aggregating more types of small electric vehicles into its platform, the company hopes to become a “one-stop-shop for anyone looking to take a car-free trip under five miles,” Ting has said.

Naturally, he sees Lime as becoming something like Amazon, but for transportation. “I think Amazon has built a very successful platform,” he says. “They sell things they manufacture, and then of course, they have a very, very large marketplace of external sellers and buyers on their platform. That’s what we intend.”

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