In January 2020, just before the pandemic hit, Irvine-based electric bike manufacturer Super73 had just launched its newest bike models — the S2, R, and RX — and business was surging.
Then the pandemic hit.
"There was a day in March when [Gov. Gavin Newsom] declared a state of emergency, everything shut down, and we saw our sales drop quite a bit. We were like, 'uhhh, buckle up, what's coming?'" said co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer Michael Cannavo.
The prospect of customers sheltering at home and avoiding the outdoors and other people seemed like a death knell. In April, Lime laid off 13% of its staff, saying it had been forced to shut down 99% of its markets to support cities' social distancing measures.
"Then, the rest of the year, every single day was a record-breaking day," Cannavo said. "The biggest issue of 2020 was just trying to keep up with the demand."
As Los Angeles and the world emerges from the worst days of the pandemic, interest in electric bikes is surging, with several Southern California e-bike startups recently announcing new funding and expansions. The surge derives from several trends that emerged during the pandemic, including a rise in the popularity of bikes, a move toward clean transportation technology and the boom in ecommerce and deliveries.
Image courtesy of Super73
Earlier this month, Lime revealed it would spend $50 million on a large e-bike expansion, upgrading and quadrupling its LimeBike fleet, and adding service to 25 new cities in 2021.
The company raised $170 million in an investment round led by Uber in May, and has acquired Uber's bike-share system, Jump.
Lime, which launched as LimeBike in 2017, initially only offered e-bikes, but changed its name and pivoted to focus on electric scooters shortly thereafter.
Its bikes and scooters are considered last-mile solutions, giving people a convenient option for short, local trips, or an easy way to get from a train or bus station to their final destination. Lime's newest e-bike, slated to debut this summer, will come with a 350-watt motor and a swappable battery that works interchangeably with its electric scooters.
Electric bikes differ from traditional bikes in that they use a rechargeable battery to power a motor. While cyclists can still pedal an e-bike, the motor can help with difficult hills, long trips or, in some cases, heavy cargo.
Laws pertaining to e-bikes vary from city to city, but most are classified as bicycles and can use the same infrastructure, including lanes and bike racks, as their non-motorized counterparts. A 2019 study found that e-bikes offered an affordable alternative to owning a car, while still providing the exercise and recreational benefits of a traditional bike. Additionally, the widespread use of e-bikes could reduce C02 emissions, urban noise, air pollution and inner-city traffic.
According to Lime demand for e-bikes surged globally during the pandemic as people began to favor single-rider outdoor choices to public transit or rideshare services.
"Shared micromobility is playing an essential role in getting cities moving again safely so we see this as a critical moment to double down on e-bikes as an open-air, socially-distanced transportation option," Lime CEO Wayne Ting said in a statement.
Super73's Cannavo said he saw a similar surge in interest, coupled with a newfound sense of freedom and community.
"We had become a tool for people who were trapped in their houses," he said. They were buying our bikes as a source of joy and pleasure in a really uncertain time."
When Super73 went looking for funding in Silicon Valley in 2017, they didn't catch much interest. Investors were more interested in backing an app — such as Bird or Lime — than a new bike product. But now, Cannavo said it's clear that their bike's value "isn't a last-mile option as much as it's a lifestyle option."
The e-bikes retail for between $1,260 and $3,245 and are highly customizable, from their color schemes and handlebars to seating and battery placement.
Super73 owners have built a community around their bikes, regularly attending group rides and meetups in cities around the world. Cannavo said a typical event draws around 90 riders. About a third of U.S. Super73 owners and about half in Europe have completely ditched their car for the bike. This is common in urban areas and small towns, but even more so in cities like Paris or Amsterdam, where gas-powered vehicles are being phased out.
"It gives people who can't afford a car or want another option for transportation, or who just want something fun to get around on the weekends," Cannavo said. "You still get the thrills [of riding a bike], you're interacting with your city, and it really connects you more to your community which is why I think our group rides are so successful. Suddenly you're going down streets you've never gone before because your car could never take you there and you're finding the hidden gems within the city and that's because you got out of your car."
The company announced last month it had raised an additional $20 million from investors including Volition Capital, which it plans to use to develop new anti-theft technology as well as to grow its operations and diversify its supply chains. Cannavo said he also hopes to open more international showrooms on top of those in Irvine and Amsterdam.
Courtesy of Super73
Pasadena-based URB-E sees itself on the forefront of two recent trends. One is the push to transition to electric vehicles amid climate concerns. The other is the dramatic surge in demand for delivery services, something that was already on the rise before COVID-19 and which CEO Charles Jolley predicts won't slow down after the pandemic.
The company pivoted in 2019 from manufacturing foldable scooters into a delivery network powered by e-bikes. It also recently raised a $5 million Series A round and named Jolley, an Apple and Facebook veteran, its new CEO.
Consumers have become used to the convenience of delivery, Jolley said, and they aren't likely to let that go.
"Where a company like URB-E comes into play is that we think the next stage is to transition to where you're doing much higher density kinds of deliveries like groceries or parcels or food deliveries out of ghost kitchens. For all of those, you need much more efficiency than what you get out of a bike with a small package on it."
E-bikes, not cars or trucks, he said, offer the fastest, easiest way to transition to doing more deliveries in a way that's mindful of the climate.
"Replacing a five-ton truck with a five-ton electric truck that's just three tons of battery isn't feasible. We don't have enough lithium iron in the world to do that, so we have to come up with smarter solutions if we're going to make that transition," he said.
URB-E bikes are engineered by Chief Technical Officer Sven Etzelsberger, previously a lead engineer at Porsche, to be high-performance machines. They attach to a container that can carry up to 800 pounds of cargo, which riders can move through cities at 12 mph thanks to the bike's high torque.
"Our first application is mostly same-day delivery, but we're also doing parcel delivery with some companies," Jolley said. "So a big company might bring a truck to the edge of a neighborhood like Santa Monica, and inside the truck would be containers they could pull out to waiting bikes, who'd do the last-mile delivery."
URB-E will deploy this exact concept in Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles this year, and will also update the e-scooters it uses in Pasadena with e-bikes.
The startup doesn't compete with existing delivery providers but works with them. So, for example, a business could provide its own drivers to use URB-E's system, or a delivery provider that already works with a grocery store or retailer could rent URB-E's fleet and technology platform on an hourly basis. Those delivery companies would then save on equipment, maintenance and storage costs.
"It's really trying to make all of the infrastructure, technology, software and equipment just completely turnkey," Jolley said.
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After completing a costly renovation less than a year ago, the once high-flying e-scooter unicorn Bird Rides has put its airy and sleek Santa Monica offices up for sublease, dot.LA has learned. Prior to the pandemic, Bird was looking at tripling its local footprint, but now with a local workforce numbering less than half what it was before the pandemic and those who remain working from home indefinitely, the company is dramatically downscaling.
The move comes as Fidelity Investments filed a disclosure Friday with the SEC revealing it has marked down the value of its Bird investment by 17% since the beginning of the year.
Bird would not respond to questions sent by dot.LA, including whether it was attempting to unload its entire headquarters. But, the 79,019 square feet being offered appears to represent most — if not all — of the company's Santa Monica footprint. Former employees say it would be difficult to imagine splitting up two-story space, which could not be less suited to social distancing requirements.
"Bird had finished a massive expansion of that office space back in November of last year, which only doubled down on the 'openness' of the office," said the former employee who asked not to be named because they had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. "I don't see a conceivable way where they'd only be able to sublease a part of it and not all of it."
Bird spent several million dollars on network infrastructure and over a million dollars on furniture alone in last year's expansion, according to another former employee. The renovation opened up new desks, a number of new conference rooms, and a large kitchen with two buffet-style central islands where the company brought in daily catered lunches for employees from Halal Guys, Fresh Corn Grill and My Taco Guy on Taco Tuesday.
"Overall it was a really nice space," remembers a business operations employee who was laid off in March. "It kind of sucks things went down the way they did and remote work became mandatory."
Bird became the fastest company in history to reach unicorn status in 2018. Shortly after that, it achieved a $2 billion valuation in less than a year. But in March, it abruptly laid off 406 employees via a Zoom call that former employees described as dystopian. Headquarters was particularly hard hit, with the layoffs reducing the staff by more than half.
"Given the pandemic, Bird employees are currently working from home and the company is not currently utilizing the space," said a source at the company not authorized to talk on the record but who is close to the matter. The source portrayed the move as a reaction to the pandemic rather than indicative of anything about the company's financial performance.
Lime and Bird offices https://t.co/NgB5I2VbPE— EB (@EB)1602043892.0
Pandemic Hits E-Scooters
The pandemic occurred at the worst possible time for e-scooter companies. They typically bring in little revenue in the cold winter months, recouping their investment in warmer weather. But in March, they had to pull their fleets and close down operations just as they would normally be returning to city streets. Cash-starved Lime, a Bird competitor that has also put up its offices for sublease, was forced to raise new capital at 79% discount from its last round in May.
Bird has the fortune of being better capitalized and in late January, the company raised another $75 million of Series D2 funding at a $2.77 billion valuation. But Dan Hoffer, managing director of Autotech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm focused on transportation, thinks Bird also might eventually be forced to raise a down round. He has long been skeptical that the company's unit economics can justify its lofty valuation.
"Our position is being validated right now as investors get wiped out and their companies recapped," Hoffer said. "In an environment in which multiples are retracting, having raised at a very high valuation is not always a good thing."
As a private company, Bird does not have to share its financials, which is why Fidelity's markdown is revealing. But the company has maintained that in many ways, the pandemic has been a positive as people eschew crowded buses and subways and cities use the crisis as a way to rethink city streets and prioritize scooters over automobiles. It is seeing riders take longer trips than they did before the pandemic and consolidation in the industry could be good for Bird, which is the market leader.
Early investors including Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures managing partner, say they remain bullish on Bird and that the company has done a good job of reducing expenses.
How Bird Could Benefit From a Post-COVID World assets.rebelmouse.io
"The unit economics are already very positive," Suster said before headquarters was listed. "We have narrowed our losses because capital is harder to raise right now in the micro-mobility market."
Inside Bird, the latest move to get rid of headquarters is seen by some as a way to further trim expenses and prepare the company for an IPO or exit. The company has been able to continually improve its unit economics – each scooter model is less expensive and more durable – so cutting administrative costs is crucial.
Expansion Plans Halted
Before the pandemic, Bird was said to be on the hunt for up to 300,000 square feet of office space for a new corporate headquarters - more than tripling its current size, according to Michael Soto, research director at Savills, a commercial real estate advisory firm.
Soto says Bird is certainly not alone in trying to unload costly unused office space. The company's neighbor, Edmunds.com, has been attempting to sublease 195,000 square feet at the headquarters it opened to great fanfare in 2016 and Beachbody, a provider of fitness and weight-loss programs, is trying to shed 135,000 square feet in Santa Monica. (Beachbody did not respond to a request for comment. An Edmunds spokeswoman said the company has more square footage than it needs and noted that it was considering a sublease before the pandemic.)
"It's tough right now," said Soto. "There's just too much uncertainty in the economy so most companies are putting off signing deals unless they have to. And for those companies who are signing deals, there's a lot of kick-the-can-down-the-road short-term deals because a lot of companies aren't comfortable locking in a long-term financial commitment right now, especially since they don't know what they'll look like post-COVID or even if they'll keep their employees working from home."
One exception is Netflix, a major beneficiary of the stay-at-home economy, which signed a lease last month for 171,000 square feet to house its first dedicated animation studio in Burbank. LegalZoom also recently extended its 50,000 square feet lease in Glendale. But overall, just 1.6 million square feet of office space was leased in the third quarter in Los Angeles, a decline of 18% from the previous quarter and a 61% dropoff year over year, according to Savills.
"As long as uncertainty over COVID remains, overall leasing activity will continue to be low," Soto said. "That doesn't mean there aren't or won't be larger leases being signed over the short-term, but I really think those will continue to be the exception rather than the rule."
Bird moved into its current headquarters at the Colorado Center in 2018, signing a lease for 58,000 square feet, which it later expanded to 72,019 square feet. Other tenants include Hulu, Goop, and EHarmony.
Bird's listing says renters can occupy the space until either the end of 2023 or until next September, which is around the time Bird can execute a lease termination option, according to a source familiar with the matter.
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As Santa Monica prepares to shutdown its five-year-old, city-run shared bike service, Lyft will roll out a fleet of hundreds of electric bikes, beginning Tuesday.
The new e-bikes will be docked at the city's existing 80 bike rental stations and cost $1 to unlock plus 34 cents per minute to ride. That compares to the city's Breeze Bike Share program started in 2015, which cost 12 cents a minute after a $1 initial drop.
Breeze was the first shared bike system in L.A. County, but once competitors such as Bird, Lyft, and Lime came to town, Breeze lost marketshare and ran a deficit that city leaders were not keen to subsidize. Last month, the city's bike share coordinator Kyle Kazar said with Santa Monica financially strapped by the pandemic, the city would permanently close Breeze and turn bike sharing over to the private sector.
When stay-at-home orders took effect this year, Santa Monica saw shared mobility ridership plummet by 94% between February and April. Lime and Jump terminated their operations, leaving Lyft and the hometown unicorn, Bird, as the only operators.
Since then demand has increased, especially as riders have favored micro mobility over crowded buses and trains. Bird and Lyft have returned their e-scooter fleet sizes back to 750 each and Lyft will roll out the 500 e-bikes.
Lyft already rents e-bikes in Columbus, Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Jose, New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and Portland.
The electric bikes are available in Santa Monica but can be ridden and left as far away as West Los Angeles, with the option to park at any Breeze station for free. Otherwise, a user can park at any public bike rack for $1.
"I couldn't be more excited to see Lyft launch its new ebike program in Santa Monica," Mayor Pro Tem Terry O'Day said in a statement. "Our future depends on sustainable, active transportation like e-bikes. They reduce our carbon footprint and increase accessibility for the entire community."
For those who still want to try the city's Breeze program, rides are free until the city pulls those bikes off the road November 11. The city's equipment will be sold or recycled in the coming months.
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