Exordium — two fantastic months
I absolutely abhor the cold.
I like my rooms at 25°C, my sweaters thick and my blankets layered. Knowing this, of course, the God who ensures that startups compulsorily go through hell pushed all our timelines into December and January.
We went from operating 12 bikes in Nashik at the start of December, 2018 to 150+ bikes across four cities by the end of January, 2019. Within a span of 50 days, our bikes were live in a zoo, two cities, a manufacturing plant and a residential township. Additionally, 30 of the bikes we deployed were electric, making us India’s first electric bike share.
Our revenue and usage numbers from these deployments look stellar. The variety of campuses and customers we are working with is testament to how scalable the product is. We aren’t relying on big volumes and venture capital to prove sustainability — we’ve built a model that makes us money from day one. Looking at the number of campuses that are now reaching out to us, we know that the model we’ve built is the right one, and that’s really exciting.
On a side note, if you are part of a campus that needs a fleet of amazing cycles, e-cycles or e-scooters, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to connect.
Water to wine — capitalizing on Tata Motors
A feature that we baked into Pedal when we first started development was the ability to unlock a bike with a smart card. In SRM University, where we deployed our first pilot, we learned that students almost always preferred to use their ID cards to unlock a bike instead of their smartphones. This is even more applicable in corporate campuses where everything from an employee’s attendance to building entry is controlled through their ID card.
Our initial pilot at Tata Motors had been very well received. The administration was excited with how Tilt was reducing the amount of time employees took to commute through the plant. In the first two months, 100+ employees took over 2,000 rides with just five bikes. Soon, several departments from across the plant were requesting for the project to be scaled up and we received a purchase order from Tata Motors to deploy the first phase of 30 bikes within the campus.
The data gathered from our pilot as well as the survey we had undertaken gave us a good insight into the travel patterns of the campus. Our goal was to ensure that we averaged four to five rides per bike per day while making Tilt as accessible as possible. We strategically set up six stations across the campus with the goal to service three to four key areas. We also worked with the Tata Motors team to integrate over 20,000 employee ID cards with the Tilt platform.
Whether it was white collar management, blue collar workers, visitors or just temporary staff, we wanted anyone in the campus to be able to unlock a bike at the swipe of a card.
However, unlocking a bike is just the start of any user’s experience. The bike itself had to be the right fit for the average Tata Motors employee. Unlike other bike share companies, we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all solution. Every campus is different with different types of users and use cases. While our docking technology is standardized across campuses, we ensure that the vehicles themselves are chosen based on what the campus needs.
Our research indicated that the Tata Motors plant was 90% male and a large number of them carried tools and other equipment. We partnered with Tata Stryder, a company from Ludhiana, to manufacture bikes that were big, rugged and designed for tough use. Looking back, this design thinking process was absolutely worth it—we are now averaging over six rides per bike per day and have received glowing feedback from our users.
Tilt went live in Tata Motors on 13th December, 2018 in the presence of Mr. Guenter Butschek (MD & CEO of Tata Motors). A very lively and burly man with an infectious grin, I was incredibly excited when he took one of our bikes for a ride. He spoke about how Tilt was an opportunity for Tata Motors to make a positive impact on the environment while keeping employees healthy.
In the months following the deployment, we’ve had thousands of employees use our bikes. They love that it makes their commute quick, eco-friendly, and healthy. In fact, Tilt has been so well received that we are already on track to scaling up to 100 bikes within this plant and will also be entering other Tata Motors plants across India in the coming months.
Steel City — entering Jamshedpur
Working with city administrations has always been tricky business. Finding competent decision makers who can match the pace that startups want to move at is rare. Towards the middle of 2018, we got in touch with Tata Steel and the Jamshedpur city administration to see if there was an opportunity to take Tilt to any of their ecosystems. A few meetings later, we had found two great spaces where Tilt could enhance commute and fitness.
The first was Jubilee Park, a gorgeous 500 acre park at the heart of Jamshedpur. Built to commemorate the city’s golden jubilee, it is one of the most popular places in the city. The park is frequented by two key demographics—fitness enthusiasts and visitors. The joggers, cyclists, laughing clubs and yoga groups who visit the park in the mornings and evenings are very similar to the health conscious users we had experienced at Nashik. Our focus with this group was to make cycling a part of their workout and habituate them to picking up our bikes whenever they came to the park.
The visitors on the other hand, trickled in constantly throughout the day to explore the park, enjoy a picnic or visit the zoo. Cycles for them were a means of mobility and they usually traveled in groups. We ensured that we catered to both these user segments as we constructed the pricing model and marketing plan for Jubilee Park.
The second campus we found was the Tata Steel Zoological Park. Spanning over 50 acres and averaging over 2,000 visitors per day, the zoo is home to hundreds of animals, birds and other odd creatures. Before Tilt, visitors could either explore the zoo on foot or use the electric shuttles. While the first option is tiring and time consuming, the second is not flexible to time or route preferences. As with our other deployments, we found a mobility gap that Tilt could fill. Our bikes could ensure quick commute while also giving people the freedom to travel at their own speed and discretion.
Today, we average over five rides per bike per day with exceptional asset utilization. Tilt at the zoo is a great example of how our shared bikes can have a huge positive impact on the tourism industry.
We flagged off at Jamshedpur in the last week of December, 2018. Along with the media spotlight, we were privileged to have Mr. Amit Kumar (Hon. District Commissioner, East Singhbum) as the chief guest and Mr. Chanakya Chaudhary (VP Corporate Services, Tata Steel) as the guest of honor.
Also present were Mr. Tarun Daga (MD, JUSCO), Mr. Rituraj Sinha (Chief of Corporate Administration, Tata Steel) and Captain Dhananjay Mishra (Sr. GM, JUSCO).
Both our deployments at Jamshedpur have proven our ability to be successful outside private campuses. The data from these deployments are playing a central role as we craft our future B2C offerings and explore other product verticals. Alongside, we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing what a city run by a competent city administration looks like. Today, as we work with the JUSCO team to scale further, other exciting opportunities are already emerging from Jamshedpur and its surrounding cities.
Peanuts and monkeys — bike share done wrong
As soon as the bike share boom happened in China, a flurry of copycats sprang up in India. By the end of 2017, there were more than a dozen dockless bike share companies running unsustainable businesses, projecting bloated revenues and dumping cycles into Indian cities. Today, a little over a year later, most of them have shut shop or have pivoted to doing something else entirely.
Zoomcar, a prominent car rental service, launched their own dockless bike share service called PEDL at around the same time. Placing large inventory orders from China and going live in multiple cities simultaneously, they quickly picked up traction thanks to their dirt cheap rates. However, as with many of these companies, this early spike didn’t last. They quickly ran into issues with theft, vandalism and cycle maintenance. Customer complaint forums were filled with reports of poor customer service, incorrect billing and technology issues.
We saw these problems first hand during our first visit to Palava.
Metropolis — India’s largest private city
Located in Dombivli, Mumbai, Palava City is a massive integrated township and home to over 30,000 families. Complete with schools, supermarkets, shuttle buses, a mall and club houses, it is a great campus for shared bikes. Zoomcar had already deployed their cycles within the city and despite a good initial response in the first few months, more and more residents were growing disappointed with the service. The city management complained of inadequate maintenance, unsatisfied citizens and cycles strewn recklessly all over the city.
This is where we came in. We had a track record of delivering quality bikes to campuses. Our bikes are always well maintained and our docking technology ensured that bikes were well organized throughout the city. No one else could offer the value propositions that we could.
Coincidentally, we had just finished prototyping the addition of electric bikes to our platform and wanted to see if these would be a good fit for Palava. We figured that the best way to test this would be to actually take a few bikes to Mumbai and do a field study. So Daksh and I loaded a bunch of our electric bikes into a truck on a Sunday morning and drove down to Palava to get a feel of what users thought about our shared e-bikes.
It was incredibly fun to introduce people to electric bikes. We surveyed how much users were willing to pay, their usage patterns and what they anticipated from a bike share. Uncovering what Zoomcar was doing wrong was the surest way to know how we could do better.
We also compiled the entire field study into a video that captured what we were most excited about — we were India’s first electric bike share!
Following our survey, we launched Tilt at Palava in February, 2019 with a mixed fleet of bikes and e-bikes. With over 2,000 registered users in the first month alone, Palava quickly became one of our most dynamic projects.
The first quarter of 2019 in Palava has shown an overwhelming and sustained engagement from users. We’re on track to breaking even in the first five months. Further, drawing from the usage data thus far, we’re already rolling out beta tests of some other interesting verticals within Palava.
Beyond these soaring numbers, the highlight of our success in Palava is that we have done what Zoomcar couldn’t — we built a sustainable model that makes residents and administration happy without compromising on the profitability of our product. We proved that Indian users and Indian ecosystems are willing to pay more if they see real quality. Our bikes are always well maintained, we never miss a customer care call, and we take feedback seriously.
Since we went live with the electric bikes in Palava, companies from across India have reached out to see if we can bring Tilt to their campus as well. We’re already in advanced talks with many of these organizations and will be deploying in their campuses over the next few months.
Magic beans — a niche monopoly
Every startup is small at the start. Every monopoly dominates a large share of its market. Therefore, every startup should start with a very small market. [i.e Facebook with Harvard, eBay with beanie babies, Amazon with books, etc] — Peter Thiel, Zero to One
Shared micro mobility is a tough space to crack. Especially in India. Starting with BlueGoGo in 2017, it’s been a collapsing house of cards across the world for bike share companies. Whether it’s raising huge capital, pivoting away from bicycles or eyeing an untapped demographic, those that still persist have found innovative ways to make their models sustainable. And that’s exactly what we are doing.
We know a secret about B2B bike share in India that no one else does. We have figured out a unique set of value propositions that campuses love and have spent the last year perfecting them. So while we continue piloting and tweaking our customer facing model, our current product has guaranteed us a niche monopoly that will bring in sustained revenue and invaluable data. We’ve reached a place where we can pay salaries, run an office, develop new technologies and scale our B2B business without raising a single rupee in venture capital.
Desiderata — head in the clouds, feet on the ground
On my last visit to Palava, I was pleasantly caught off-guard when I saw customers zipping through the city on our bikes. This isn’t just on paper anymore. After two years of dreaming big and working smart, we’re live with real users, real clients and very real revenues!
And we’re just getting started.
We have some incredibly exciting things in the pipeline. The rest of this year looks extremely promising and we’re loving every second of building this company. I’ve always believed that great things are never too far away and I can’t wait to delve into what the next few months hold.
On a more serious note, winter is the worst time to be productive. Humans should really learn to hibernate when the winds get chilly.
This post was authored in April, 2019.