The first 10 Birds descended on Santa Monica, California, in early September 2017. Within days, this small migration became more like an invasion. Soon, locals woke to see Birds scattered across the city’s sidewalks and bike paths and on the boardwalk at Venice Beach–some 250 e-scooters left by the fledgling startup Bird Rides, along with instructions on how to rent them using an app. No one had invited Bird to Santa Monica. There were also no laws that specifically banned (or permitted) Bird’s business–the closest were the city’s regulations governing sidewalk food stands. “We are not selling hot dogs and tacos,” Travis VanderZanden, Bird’s founder, CEO, and head provocateur, said in March. “We felt we were in a gray area.”
VanderZanden wasted little time exploiting that area, alerting Santa Monica mayor Ted Winterer, via a LinkedIn message, that many more Birds were coming. “We have $3M in venture funding to focus on the traffic and parking problems in Santa Monica and Venice,” the message read. “I’d love to work together.” The mayor’s response was far less chummy, perhaps because VanderZanden’s missive had landed after those Birds had. “If your company is the one deploying electric scooters in the public right of way,” Winterer shot back, “my understanding is there are serious legal issues with doing so.” He then pushed VanderZanden off to other city officials.
But many residents of this beachfront community–long a haven for cyclists, skateboarders, inline and roller skaters, and Razor scooterers–proved far more enthusiastic. Chaos quickly ensued. Citizens piloted Birds on the sidewalk (illegally). Teens caused mayhem by ignoring traffic laws while double-riding. Pedestrians tripped over discarded scooters that clogged the walkways. There were accidents, serious head injuries–Birds zip along at 15 miles an hour, and few trying them out wore helmets–and hundreds of tickets issued to riders. There was a protest. There was a counterprotest. Six months after the scooters appeared, Bird agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a nine-count misdemeanor criminal complaint levied by the city attorney’s office.
In other words, everything went more or less according to plan. Bird unleashed a cultural phenomenon, sparked a VC frenzy, and remains the clear leader of a renegade group of e-scooter rideshare outfits that includes Lime, Scoot, Skip, Spin, Jump (owned by Uber), and Lyft, with more seemingly arriving every day. “Bird is the classic example of a startup looking like a toy and people underestimating and dismissing it,” says David Sacks, an early PayPal executive who invested in the company’s seed round. “It’s low-cost transportation that’s perfect for cities.”
Which is why Bird has taken flight like few other startups. “Bird might be the fastest-growing company ever,” says Mark Suster, the managing partner of Upfront Ventures, which invested in each funding round. “It could be the fastest-growing company to a billion-dollar run rate in history.” As of November 2018–just 14 months after its stealth launch–Bird’s annual revenue run rate was well above $100 million, says VanderZanden. (In June, Bird told investors its run rate was $65 million.) Bird also rose to unicorn status faster than any other startup, notching a $2 billion valuation in less than a year, according to PitchBook, which shares an owner with Inc. To put that into perspective: Airbnb took nearly three years to reach a $1 billion valuation–and Uber needed four.
In the company’s first 14 months, Birds landed in more than 120 cities, some small, like Russellville, Arkansas, and some large, like Los Angeles. They’re in Paris, Antwerp, Tel Aviv, London, and Mexico City. There have been more than 10 million Bird rides. And since Bird has taken in $415 million in funding, it has the capital to get to many more cities, and fast.
When Bird comes to your town, transportation options–and the streetscape–change immediately. You find scooters speckling sidewalks and public spaces all over town. You use the Bird app to rent one for $1, plus a per-minute charge of 15¢ to 20¢, depending on the city. When you’re done, you end the ride, the wheels lock, and you leave the scooter wherever, for whomever. Bird is boldly making the case that untethered e-scooters (“dockless,” in scooter-speak) have a better claim to public space than cars–indeed, that e-scooters can take cars, including Ubers and Lyfts, off the road and contribute to greener, less congested cities.
Organizing random transportation is a complex task. Bird imports e-scooters from China, and then installs a minicomputer (a “Bird brain”) to connect a scooter to the company’s software platform. After this modification, the company can see where every Bird is located, lock and unlock the wheels and motor, and throttle a scooter’s speed remotely. “It’s not as easy as building an app and putting the scooters out there,” says VanderZanden. And every night, a motley swarm of freelance Bird “chargers” must gather all the e-scooters wherever they’ve been parked (or abandoned), recharge them, and redistribute them to designated “nests,” where riders can easily find them for the morning’s commute.
With the hyperfocused VanderZanden, Bird has the kind of leadership needed to handle the difficult mix of technology, logistics, and politics it requires. A serial entrepreneur who’s not yet 40 but who’s already earned and left a few scars in his career, he is an acknowledged ops maestro and a veteran of both Uber and Lyft. Under VanderZanden, the company has yoked a powerful entrepreneurial vision to a huge mission: to change urban transportation utterly. For its audacity and ambition, for its ferocious execution skills–for demonstrating, even, that sometimes entrepreneurship requires playing in a gray area rather than wearing a white hat–Bird is Inc.‘s Company of the Year.
You might say that public transportation is in VanderZanden’s blood. His mother, Robin, operated a Valley Transit city bus in his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. His father left the family shortly after Travis was born, and Robin often had to bring her son along to work. “I remember watching her drive, watching how public transit worked and how the routes worked,” VanderZanden says. “And seeing all the friction–riders need to time their pickups and drop-offs perfectly with the schedule.” Other kids were playing video games. Young Travis was spotting market inefficiencies.
In 2002, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a computer science degree, VanderZanden packed up his forest-green Pontiac, borrowed money from his older sister, and headed for San Diego to find a job. He did, becoming a product manager at Qualcomm, where he worked on the cell-phone application platform BREW, which allowed third-party developers to create and sell games, ringtones, and other apps. As VanderZanden put it: “We were basically building the App Store years before the iPhone even existed.” In 2005, he started night classes at the University of Southern California, driving twice a week to L.A. to get his MBA. “A little crazy, in retrospect,” he says. It meant eight hours of driving for every four hours of classes. “Everyone thought I wouldn’t finish. They told me it was too far and how it didn’t make sense. But out of stubbornness, I finished.”
In 2008, he quit Qualcomm and moved to Austin, where he started his first company, QikCom, an enterprise chat app. (“A bad name,” he admits.) One day, he recognized a name among the new sign-ups for the fledgling service: David Sacks, who’d recently founded a rival called Yammer. Sacks was checking out the competition, but VanderZanden saw an opportunity and asked Sacks to have dinner.
Sacks quickly realized QikCom was a one-man band, plus a few freelancers. But he was impressed enough to hire the frontman: VanderZanden started the sales team at Yammer and became its chief revenue officer. By 2011, though, VanderZanden had quit to start another company, this one called Cherry, an on-demand car-wash app. “A terrible idea,” he told attendees at Vanity Fair‘s New Establishment Summit in October. “Don’t try that.”
Even after VanderZanden left Yammer, Sacks remained intrigued. “He is a natural entrepreneur with a combination of vision, the ability to execute, and a certain impatience,” says Sacks. He invested in Cherry. Two years later, when it sputtered, Sacks discovered he wasn’t the only one to recognize VanderZanden’s talent: In 2013, Lyft bought Cherry, and promptly made VanderZanden its COO.
Shortly thereafter, VanderZanden became a one-man soap opera. When Lyft founders Logan Green and John Zimmer began selling shares, VanderZanden asked permission to sell even more, but the board did not approve. According to a source familiar with the situation, VanderZanden then pushed the board to explore selling Lyft to Uber. When the talks fizzled, he called a board member–Geoff Lewis, then with Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund–with an ultimatum: Make me CEO, or I resign.
See ya, the board responded. “It was a failed CEO coup, and felt very mercenary,” says the source, who describes VanderZanden as a talented but power-hungry executive who’s determined to win. “You need executives who are competitive, but Travis is out for Travis and Travis alone.” (VanderZanden would not comment on those events.)
He quickly landed at Uber, as vice president of driver growth. Just as quickly, Lyft sued in November 2014, alleging he breached confidentiality agreements and stole company secrets. VanderZanden countersued, accusing Lyft of accessing his personal text messages and emails, thus setting off a two-year court battle that ended with a confidential settlement in June 2016.
In September 2016, VanderZanden left Uber, telling colleagues that he wanted to spend more time with his family. This was when bikesharing firms like Ofo were making a splash in Asia, and just four months before Lime–then a bikesharing company–was launching in cities and on college campuses across the U.S. Meanwhile, companies like Boosted Boards were making electric skateboards popular. (Boosted founder Sanjay Dastoor now leads e-scooter company Skip.) Amid all that, VanderZanden credits a holiday with his family for giving him the idea for Bird.
On Christmas 2016, he gave bicycles to his daughters, who were then 3 and 5, and spent the day teaching them how to ride. But the very next morning, they woke him up with an urgent question: Daddy, can we ride our scooters again? Forget those shiny new bikes–they still loved the scooters they already owned. And the thought occurred to him: If you attach a motor to the scooters, might grownups agree? VanderZanden found adult e-scooters made by Chinese manufacturers on Alibaba and ordered a few. And then a few more, and then a few more, until he found the Xiaomi M365. “I pulled it out of the box, and the thing looked like Steve Jobs himself had designed it,” he says.
VanderZanden and his wife, who were then back in San Diego, took the scooters to the boardwalk. Heads started to turn. “Everybody was like: ‘Where can I get one of those?’ My friends who took a ride would text me and call me and say, ‘Hey, can we go for another ride?’ People would get addicted,” he says.
The Xiaomi M365 became Bird’s launch vehicle, and, by April 2017, VanderZanden had incorporated Bird Rides and raised $3 million in seed capital, throwing in some of his own cash and convincing Sacks and others to participate. But let’s just say it took Sacks–who’d already watched VanderZanden flop twice–some time to warm up to this latest venture.
“He told me the idea of adult scooters and explained how riders would just leave them on the sidewalk, and I was incredulous. I thought he was crazy,” says Sacks. He invested anyway. “Once I went to Santa Monica, I realized it was magical,” he says, after he scootered to his destination, without waiting for a cab or sitting in traffic. “I started thinking about how big this idea could become, and realized that it’s transformational. You could have millions of these, and start displacing car trips for commuters–and eventually redesign cities.”
Bird’s modus operandi has remained remarkably consistent: Identify cities without laws proscribing e-scooters, launch a fleet of them, watch as people start scooting all over town, and then wait as city officials scramble to respond to the newfangled transport option. The price paid, as of November 2018, has been nearly half a million dollars in fines and court fees, hundreds of seized scooters, numerous cease-and-desist letters from angry government officials, and at least three lawsuits. One is a proposed class-action suit launched by nine plaintiffs who claim that Bird, Lime, and Chinese scooter manufacturers are responsible for shattered teeth and broken bones. In another filing, the city of Milwaukee branded Bird a public nuisance. And there have been two reported deaths associated with e-scooters, according to The Washington Post.
In response to such concerns, VanderZanden has said he doesn’t minimize the accidents, injuries, or deaths, but brings in another perspective: Automobiles kill more than 40,000 people annually in the U.S. The fewer the cars, the safer we’ll be, whatever the risks of e-scooters.
Still, in San Francisco, Bird’s launch-first, explain-later policy backfired after Bird, Lime, and Spin unleashed some 3,000 scooters on the city in March 2018–an event that won the tag “Scootergeddon.” San Francisco banned scooters until regulators established a pilot program, but when the city started licensing companies, Bird found itself on the outside looking in, as did Lime and Spin. (Scoot and Skip won the only permits.)
There’s also been some visible backlash from people outraged by the rideshare firms’ tech-punk attitude. Birds and Limes have been crushed by trucks, pooped on, tossed off buildings, set afire, and heaved into oceans and rivers, as amply documented on the Instagram feed @BirdGraveyard. Such blowback isn’t always the stuff of funny social media posts. At Bird’s headquarters on Electric Avenue in Venice, burly-looking security guards stand behind a 10-foot iron gate. As Bird’s value crested $1 billion, physical threats against the company and VanderZanden ensued–a sobering touch at an office more inclined to startup whimsy, where each conference room is named after different avifauna: Dove, Eagle, Falcon, Penguin, Cardinal, Toucan, Robin, and, yes, even Big Bird. (“We scaled security as the company scaled,” a Bird spokeswoman said. “It was not because of a single event.”)
When especially tough local laws prohibit e-scooters, Bird sends in a cadre of policy wonks, lawyers, and lobbyists to persuade legislators to change them. These efforts are led by Bradley Tusk of Tusk Strategies, a former top aide to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg who made his bones by spearheading Uber’s victorious efforts to take on regulators.
Tusk’s argument for Bird is this: If cities want to reduce traffic and greenhouse gases, they need people to rethink their approach. Why use a 4,000-pound automobile to go two miles when a bike or e-scooter can better handle that task? Micromobility–as this burgeoning industry of small electric vehicles is called–equals transformation. At least this is what Bird and its e-scooter siblings assert.
“Our mission is very strong: It’s to remove cars from the road, reduce traffic, reduce carbon emissions,” says VanderZanden, whose relentless drive is perhaps matched only by his dedication to stressing Bird’s vision at every possible opportunity. “Every city in the world could benefit from that.” More cannily, VanderZanden positions Bird as a means to amend what ride-hailing companies like his former employers Lyft and Uber have wrought–adding more congestion to cities. To correct that, America needs to let go of its “car addiction,” he asserts.
“There’s already a lane for cars, there’s a lane for pedestrians, but there hasn’t been enough invested in this third lane,” says VanderZanden, discussing bike lanes as if he’d just invented them.
Tusk is currently lobbying in markets, like New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, that explicitly ban e-scooters. Cracking these cities would yield enormous riches. In New York, the company is garnering political support from city council members by pitching its service as a way to help Gothamites deal with a 114-year-old subway system that is increasingly notorious for service delays.
Of course, Bird stands to reap benefits, should cities remodel themselves in the way VanderZanden suggests. “No one in this business that I know of is doing it to make an impact on carbon emissions, or improve the environment,” says Horace Dediu, founder of the Micromobility Summit, a new event centered on alternative transportation technologies. “Everyone is doing it because there’s a shitload of money in e-scooters.”
Short, single-occupancy car trips represent 80 to 90 percent of all automobile travel, says Dediu. If you target trips of five miles or less, in urban areas across the world, he says, “you can carve out about 30 percent of all the money in transportation. We’re talking trillions of dollars.”
The data confirms the seductive math behind the business. According to The Information, a Bird presentation to investors in June revealed that it was averaging $3.65 per ride and had 19 percent gross margins. In the same presentation, Bird said it was on its way to reducing costs per scooter from $551 to $360–a figure that includes importing the device and modifying it–which will help push gross margins to 33 percent. (Half the revenue from each Bird trip goes to its array of roving chargers; the company also pays freelance mechanics to fix broken scooters.) VanderZanden declined to update Inc. on Bird economics, aside from saying that unit economics have “dramatically” improved.
Such numbers, and the market size, help explain why rent-by-the-minute e-scooter companies mushroomed from one to about a dozen in just over a year. It’s not just startups with cutesy names like Yellow (in Brazil) and Grin (in Mexico)–the giants are now coming in. Uber invested in Lime, and is adding e-scooters to its bikeshare company Jump; Lyft is similarly hedging bets by acquiring bikeshare company Motivate and rolling out Lyft-branded e-scooters. Razor, the iconic scooter manufacturer, has also launched its own rideshare business, and, in November, Ford bought Spin. Doubters looking for a market top may point to China’s Ofo, the operator of the world’s largest bikeshare platform, which once stretched across the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Asia. Ofo recently announced plans to drastically shrink its business and shutter most U.S. markets.
Back at Bird headquarters, though, VanderZanden evinces little concern. “Our religion, our true north, is to get cars off the road,” he says. The e-scooter is just a starting point; the company will evolve to offer new short-range electric vehicles. “The nice thing is, the name Bird works well with electric scooters all the way to flying cars,” says VanderZanden.
Wait. Flying cars?
“Any transportation that doesn’t involve a car is on the table for us,” he says.
For now, though, VanderZanden must focus on establishing e-scooters with an aggressive, bifurcated approach: Sell the magic of the machinery to eager consumers and transportation futures to skeptical governments. There is a precedent, one created by one of Bird’s newest competitors. To popularize automobiles, Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford dazzled the public with his hardware–he set speed records in his “999” racer in 1904–while simultaneously pushing governments to build the roads and infrastructure needed for the industry to thrive.
It worked. Ford’s strategy fueled a personal transportation revolution. And even as VanderZanden strives to fuel another, he’s already achieved one marker of success: Bird has been subjected to knowing jokes and references on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and a South Park episode called “The Scoots.” In that episode, e-scooters resembling Bird’s wreak havoc on the small town the show is set in–until someone finally fells a cell-phone tower to disable the scooter’s app.
VanderZanden heard from his mom and grandma soon after. “They didn’t agree with a lot of stuff in the episode,” he says, “but they thought it was hilarious.” For all the controversy that his Birds have left in their wake, for all the questions that remain as to whether even VanderZanden’s formidable skills and confidence can achieve all he foresees for his company, give him this: Not even Henry Ford’s work dented pop culture as quickly as Bird did.
Mapping the Scooter-Verse
Bird has been around only since 2017, and already it faces a gaggle of competitors that span the globe.
Lime: Launched in 2017 as a bikeshare company, it then expanded to e-scooters. Lime has raised $467 million and is valued at $1.1 billion. In November, it launched car rentals in Seattle.
Jump: Launched in 2010 as an electric bikeshare company, Jump has raised $11.6 million and sold to Uber in 2018 for about $200 million. The company was originally named Social Bicycles, and was the first dockless bikeshare firm in the U.S.
Lyft: Launched in 2012 as a ride-hailing company, it expanded to e-scooters in 2018. It has raised $5.1 billion and is valued at $15.1 billion. VanderZanden was once Lyft’s COO.
Spin: Launched in 2016 as a bikeshare company, it has raised $8 million and was valued at $40 million in 2017. Ford acquired Spin for about $100 million in November 2018.
Razor: Launched in 2000 as a kick scooter maker, it launched e-scooter rideshare in 2018. After its launch in San Diego, a Razor e-scooter was found in Tijuana.
Skip: Launched in 2018, it has raised $31 million and is valued at $100 million. Before launching Skip, Sanjay Dastoor co-founded electric skateboard company Boosted Boards.
Scoot: Launched in 2011 with Vespa-like e-scooters, it then expanded to kick scooters in 2018. It has raised $4.3 million. Since San Francisco banned e-scooters and then created a pilot program, Scoot and Skip are the only companies that have won permits.
Yellow (Brazil): Launched in 2018, Yellow has raised $75 million. Founders Ariel Lambrecht and Renato Freitas started Brazilian ride-hailing startup 99, which they sold to Didi Chuxing.
Grin (Mexico): Launched in 2018, Grin has raised $73 million. This Y Combinator company acquired Brazilian e-scooter company Ride in October 2018.
Taxify (Estonia): Launched in 2013 as a ride-hailing company, Taxify expanded to e-scooters in 2018. It has raised $167 million and is valued at $1 billion. It launched its Bolt e-scooter service to compete with Bird and Lime in Europe.