If you are a devotee to "lean" methodology then you'll be familiar with the term "MVP". It is the abbreviation for "minimally viable product." Generally, it refers to software, things like smart phone apps and such. Using 'lean' methodology, tech startups are supposed to create the simplest, most basic version of their program, then test it, review the results, make the necessary changes, then test it again, repeating as often and quickly as feasible, only adding features and functions as user needs warrant. The aim is to tailor the product to what the customer actually needs and wants, rather than what the developer thinks they want, with the metrics for success attracting actual paying customers as quickly as possible.
The 'bible' for this strategy is Eric Reis' 'The Lean Startup - How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Business.'
While this concept is ideally suited to software development, what about a hardware-based startup? What's its MVP? That's the question I asked myself when launching Quikbyke, our electric bicycle rental venture. I've had lots of advice like "put some e-bikes in a trailer and rent them from a street corner." While logical, it doesn't prove the merit of the Quikbyke concept. People are already doing that. Over the course of the last several years since coming up with the original idea, and I've "pivoted" once already since then, I've heard from people who told me how they enjoyed renting e-bikes in places like San Diego and San Francisco, usually out of bike shop storefronts. Renting electric bikes, per se, isn't all that innovative a concept.
Where you rent them is!
At last count, there are more than 850 bicycle share systems around the world. It is the fastest growing form of public transportation on the planet. We have a wonderful B-Cycle system here in my hometown of Omaha. But you know the problem with these systems? They cater to a fairly narrow segment of the population. A study by the city of Philadelphia found that the majority of riders are male and their average age is 33. Basically it's Generation X males who use these systems. What about the rest of the population and my generation especially: baby boomers, all 77 million of us born between 1946 and 1963?
I created Quikbyke for us.
My 'aha moment' came at a day-long entrepreneur's conference here in Omaha. I was siting at a table having lunch when one of the other participants mentioned that his company developed digital media for Royal Caribbean, the cruise ship line. That was when the proverbial light bulb turned on in my head. Cruise lines? Why not?
I started researching the industry and guess what I discovered? The demographics are pretty much identical to the people buying electric bicycles in the United States: aged 50 and up. The deeper I dug, the more convinced I became that this was a promising market for e-bikes. Experience told me that giving people the opportunity to ride an electric-assist bicycle is transformative. They come back all smiles. That 250-350 Watts of quiet, clean electric assist makes riding a bicycle fun again, especially for someone as old as I am.
But there's also a problem with the cruise line model. It's seasonal. You might have as many as 4 ships, each carrying 2000-6500 passengers, dock or moor every other day in St. Thomas or Grand Cayman or Key West in February. By July, you're down to maybe one a week. As the tropics warm in summer, increasing not only the humidity but the likelihood of hurricanes, cruise lines redeploy their vessels further north or south. Many of those same ships that anchored off the Bahamas in winter, now cruise the Inward Passage to Alaska in June.
With each one of those cruise ships costing hundreds of millions of dollars, Carnival and its competitors can't afford to have they fleets sit idle six months out of the year. And neither can Quikbyke. That's how the Q•pod concept came about. Put the bikes in a box and move them with the seasons, and what better 'box' than those ubiquitous steel shipping containers. They are cheap and available in their millions. They are pretty much how everything we own crosses the ocean or by rail or road.
While the majority of ISO containers are 40 feet in length, that size requires specialize handling equipment that is expensive to rent and hard to find, especially on small Caribbean islands. A better choice, I was advised early on, is the 20-foot model. It can be moved much more easily with your standard tilt-bed tow truck.
A cruise line executive with Norwegian Cruise Lines quickly dispelled my original notion of putting the containers on cruise ships. The lines don't have time to handle their unloading and reloading during their brief stays on the islands, and often they have to moor the ship offshore and 'tender' passengers ashore, getting the bikes on land would just be too complicated and time consuming. So the Q•pods had to remain onshore, which also meant we could rent to passengers off any ship.
So in theory, the concept seemed sound. Adapt a container to house the bikes and move it twice a year: winter in the tropics, summer in the north. But what's the MVP?
I couldn't see any other way around this but by building one, putting some bikes in it, and seeing if anyone would rent them, starting right here in what we affectionately call 'River City' on the banks of the Missouri.
This morning I came across the "How to Start a Start-Up" infograph below. In looking at it I found that as of today, Thanksgiving 2015, we're at the "Launch" phase, having raised money from several investor/cofounders and received a matching grant from the state. This week, I committed to a local contractor who will modify the container for us, the goal being to have it ready to go by early Spring of 2016.
Of course, there is more to this story than turning a used shipping container into a semi-mobile rental shop. There is also a software-side that will require the same 'lean' MVP approach, and excitingly, there's also an Internet-of-Things (IoT) component that will be important to the success of the enterprise. Here we have initiated an opening dialogue with a major player in the field, but I'll have to play that card close to the vest for now.
Quikbyke's mission is to get more of us riding more and driving less for "Fun, Fitness and maybe helping Save the Planet," an admittedly ambitious, okay, really, really ambitious goal. Would you expect anything less?
Posted By: Bill Moore [29-Nov-2015]
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