Last year, when countries after countries started closing their borders and imposed stay-at-home orders, there was a dawning realisation among people. It was immediately clear that the lack of activity was having an impact. Whether it is that short walk to the train station or climbing a few flights of stairs to get to the office, these small activities were crucial to staying active. However, after staying at home for a few months, people started to realise the side effects of staying sedentary for a long duration of time. As pandemic eased a bit and outdoor activities were allowed, people immediately started focusing on various activities including riding bicycles.
This activity also meant that people really wondered about the benefits of biking to work like people do in cities like Amsterdam. While it is impossible to bicycle to work in cities like Mumbai, there is a meaningful conversation about sustainable mobility and Dutch startup Swapfiets is leading the charge. At TNW Conference 2021, Marc de Vries, CEO of Swapfiets explained how he is focusing on getting people out of their cars and moving into micro mobility.
The pandemic CEO
Marc de Vries is not a regular CEO leading charge of a startup. He is one who has taken over from the founders of a startup that wants to make membership for a bicycle sound as cool as The Royal Industrieele Groote Club membership in Amsterdam. He is also someone who joined the company during the pandemic and Marc de Vries has gone through the same tough process of joining a company during the pandemic that most people have experienced in the 18 months.
As someone who joined the startup during the pandemic, Marc de Vries is quick to note that the biggest challenge for him was “knowing the company”. While remote work is no stranger to the European startup ecosystem, it is not always easy to know everyone and every element of the company via Zoom call alone. Marc is charged with innovating an old-fashioned industry and says the immediate focus is to “approach one million users”.
While Swapfiets immediately draws comparison as Netflix for bicycles, Marc says that it is a bit more nuanced than that. The startup was founded in 2014 but it found a name for itself in 2017 and Marc says that the service is in the middle of bicycle sharing and owning a bicycle. While most consumers would buy a bicycle and discard it once it is broken, Swapfiets’ success revolves around the idea of swapping your bicycle when it is broken.
In Dutch, fiets means bicycles and Marc de Vries is fine with people pronouncing it fi-yets till the time they understand that “Dutch people are known for producing quality bikes.” Mard exemplifies the idea of joining a company during the pandemic and his focus on “customer experience being awesome” stands out. He says “many new people who joined consider him as an older employee” now but finding the cultural fit remains a priority for him.
Circular bike economy
Last month, Lieke Pijpers, co-founder of The Next Closet explained how the startup is envisioning a circular model for the textile industry. Swapfiets, Marc de Vries said at the TNW Conference 2021, wants to create a “completely circular bike economy”. In order to become sustainable, it is important to reuse what is already available in terms of resources. Marc says the company is focused on extending the life of bicycles and has a mission critical approach to ensure that bicycles are not dumped under the canal.
He says the first and critical step for Swapfiets or any other company focused on micro mobility is to convince people to get out of their cars. While Paris has tried “day without cards” annually since 2015 to reduce air and noise pollution, Marc de Vries’ paints a picture of how micro mobility like shared bicycles could allow people not only move from one place to another but do so without polluting the environment and without putting a huge dent on existing resources.
The brand, which is instantly recognisable for its bicycles with blue front tyres, wants to recycle those tyres. Swapfiets aims to accomplish this circular model with its strategy where it owns all the bikes and offers best maintenance. Marc says consumers should focus on the bike experience while Swapfiets will worry about the rest. With operations in nine countries and 60 different cities, Swapfiets aims to expand to more cities and use a simple playbook of “if it works in cities, it can work in countries”.
While Swapfiets is focused on bike friendly European countries, it does realise the challenge ahead to build this circular model. The immediate challenge will be the supply constraints affecting the semiconductor industry but another challenge is finding suppliers who would align with their ideology of extending the life of an existing product. From swappable batteries to bringing e-scooter in markets like Germany, Marc says Swapfiets is prepared with a roadmap of micro mobility enjoyable in the markets it operates.
Next big innovation
At TNW Conference 2021, Marc de Vries did not shy away from recognising that its success so far has been in cities that are already bike friendly. However, the operational success in these markets allows Swapfiets to deploy the playbook in markets that have been traditionally car-friendly but are open to bicycles. From Spain, Italy to Vienna, Austria, Marc de Vries sees opportunities but it will also need big innovation.
The major innovation, according to Marc de Vries, will come in the form of a gradual shift from pedal bicycles to e-bikes. He says that 3 to 4 percent use e-bike in Amsterdam while the same number jumps to 40 percent in a market like London. Marc also highlights how designing these e-bikes or bicycles with parts that don’t break easily would be key to sustenance of the company.
He cites examples of bike racks that tend to break easily with pressure and can also damage the back wheel, adding cost to the vehicle. This is one of the reasons why Swapfiets bicycles don’t have a rack. “To lead the movement to more liveable cities,” Marc says is the mission of Swapfiets and the next big innovation like electric mobility and sustainable bike experience will become the next big innovation.