In the beginning, there was Bird.
When Travis VanderZanden and company dropped the first Xiaomi scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, a micromobility revolution was born. But five years later, the shared micromobility startup’s future is in question.
Last month, Bird announced it overstated revenues for the last 2.5 years and may not have enough cash to survive, setting off waves of speculation about the viability of the industry. According to an SEC filing, the discrepancy was the result of counting rides taken by customers with an insufficient wallet balance as revenue.
This means that riders bilked the company out of millions of dollars. In an investor call, CFO Ben Lu said that Bird planned to revise numbers for the first two quarters of this year by $12.5 million for a total revision of $31.6 million from 2020 to 2022.
It was the latest in a spate of bad news for the company that went public via SPAC in 2021. In just the past year, Bird has also pulled out of multiple cities, changed CEOs and risked being delisted on the New York Stock Exchange. The revenue snafu seems to have further deflated optimism in the company, and the timing — as the economy reels from inflation and effects of the pandemic slowdown — couldn’t be worse.
“I was very surprised that it's $12.5 million. It's a large number,” said Prabin Joel Jones, ex-CTO of Bond Mobility and founder of Freshkart, a Belgium-based meal delivery startup. “But I'm also surprised that there's not a lot of people talking about it.”
How Did Bird Veer Off Course?
Critics, competitors and Bird itself have blamed multiple factors for the state of e-scooter startups, including a strategy of expansion at all costs, bloated general and administrative expenses and over- and under-regulation by cities.
“[Burning cash to expand] is okay at the beginning, but it cannot be the game for a really long time, when you absolutely have to find the right business model for you to be profitable,” said Jones.
“Last quarter was, from a net-loss perspective, one of their best quarters. But it's too late. They should've done this a year ago,” Jones added.
Bird, Spin and others blame cities for over-regulating e-scooters, enforcing riding and parking restrictions — like speed limits, curfews and parking corrals — that disproportionately affect shared bikes and scooters. At the same time, they say municipalities have been too lax, allowing markets to be oversaturated by operators, making it impossible to achieve profitability. Emil Nnani, founder and CEO of Dallas-based micromobility startup Boaz Bikes, said that’s not a fair assessment.
“They're using the excuse of saying, ‘Hey, well, [there are] too many operators.’ But what that really says is… ‘Hey, we want to operate a horrible business, and we want to make money on it.’”
Nnani also pointed out that Bird is one of the last to adopt swappable batteries, which would allow it to cut down on operating costs; depleted scooters would no longer need to be transported to a home or warehouse for charging. Instead, batteries could simply be swapped in the field.
“They definitely have to raise a massive amount of funding in the next, say, three months. If they don't, it's going to be very difficult for them,” said Jones.
An Unlikely Scooter Suitor
“Part of our short term and long term strategy is acquisitions within the micromobility space,” Amy Shat, chief people officer at Helbiz, told dot.LA. “Will we consider all opportunities we have to do that? Absolutely.”
Bird spokesperson Campbell Millum wouldn’t comment directly on the possibility of a sale. “We don't comment on rumors,” she wrote by email.
But Helbiz has its own problems. The company is currently trading at $0.16 and risks being delisted on Nasdaq.
Canary In the Coal Mine or Just Growing Pains?
Despite these setbacks, some industry insiders and companies say they are still bullish on shared micromobility.
For one, cities may be rethinking the nature of public-private partnerships in the sector — moving past the “battle royale” pilot stage where a large number of young companies fought for dominance on city streets and into something more sustainable, where cities pick the best companies and award them with more lucrative contracts.
For example, Santa Monica will be recruiting two operators for a three- to five- year term starting next year. Currently, Spin, Veo and Wheels are the only three operators in the city — Bird was unceremoniously booted last summer.
The future of shared micromobility might be partially subsidized, especially if cities want to make micromobility an integrated part of their transportation networks and an equitable option for all.
In cities like L.A., e-scooter companies are required to operate in low-income areas that are less lucrative for them. But in the future, cities might start subsidizing these rides.
“Nobody in the history of cities has figured out a way to really make money providing transportation as a public good,” said Colin Murphy, director of research and consulting at the Shared-Use Mobility Center, in an email.
Murphy argues the government routinely subsidizes the auto industry by building and repairing roads and setting aside public space for private vehicles.
“The same thing will have to happen with shared bikes and scooters if they're going to remain a real part of the transportation ecosystem,” he said.
That said, Boaz Bikes’ Nnani predicts that 2023 and 2024 will be “golden years” for shared micromobility. As bigger companies like Bird are forced to pull back, he said, smaller companies like his will have the space to grow.
“And sometime in 2025, I expect fresh money to start getting pumped into the industry, once they see that, ‘Hey, okay, everybody's figured out the unit economics’,” he said.
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