Guanghua School of Management, Peking UniversityColumbia University – Columbia Business
In late July, I did a tour of Mobike’s headquarters in Beijing – and I had a fascinating talk with founder Hu Weiwei and VP of International Expansion Chris Martin,. It was a fantastic experience and I left with a much better appreciation of the rocketship ride the company has been on. I am writing up three (more serious) business articles on the bike-sharing business from this experience. But here is a summary of my trip – and then five big things I learned.
Arriving at Mobike HQ: Wait, Have I Been Here Before?
The Mobike headquarters is near the Liangmaqiao subway station in northern Beijing. So on the way there, I got a nice walk along the river (canal?). And, of course, I couldn’t help but notice all the on-demand bikes on the way. These days these bikes are mostly Mobike and Ofo. This is a change from 6 months ago when +30 companies had rushed into the market and there were lots of different types. It got to the point where there weren’t enough new colors to go around and they had to do combinations. Here is one of my favorites.
I also passed one of Mobike’s new outdoor ads. You can see similar ones by Ofo in the subways now. This was something I have been noticing and wanted to ask Mobike about. Given their overwhelming presence on the streets, why use outdoor media? Their answer to that is below. Here’s the ad I passed (sorry for the glare).
I arrived at their new headquarters at the Manning International center – and I immediately started having deja vu. I had definitely been in this building before, but couldn’t quite remember when. It’s an odd building that sits over the river (canal?) and the roof deck replicates the bow of a ship (see photo below). I remember giving some sort of Friday night talk on the roof near the “bow” part of the ship. And I definitely remember getting pretty drunk at the cocktail party after and then stumbling around inside this building. That last part is pretty fuzzy though.
Entering the lobby, the headquarters looks pretty much like what you would expect to see. Lots of people hustling around and working on laptops in random places. A café, which was holding an employee meeting, off to the left. And lots of orange everywhere, so its similar to the bike colors.
On the left wall, there is an interesting pictorial history of the bicycle, with their company listed as the newest part of that history. I think that is not contestable at this point. On the right wall, there is a history of Mobike in a timeline. The line stretches across the entire wall with various milestones marked. But then you notice that the timeline only began in 2015. So at this rate, that timeline is going to run out of wall space in like November.
And of course, everyone in the bustling lobby is noticeably young and casually dressed. It’s an internet start-up. People are wearing everything from jeans and t-shirts to shorts and sandals. And standing in the lobby in my suit, I felt pretty out of place. And a bit old. I made a mental note to drop a couple references to One Direction.
I was met in the lobby by Luke Schoen and Huang Xue, both from media relations. I immediately felt the compulsion to disclose that I had been drunk in their building in the recent past. In retrospect, that was maybe not a great way to introduce myself. They politely ignored that and said they had just moved in about two months ago. And off we went on a tour. I pulled out my long list of questions.
Meeting the Founder
After some discussion, we headed up to the second floor deck, which is the part that looks like the bow of a ship. I continued peppering Luke and Xue with various questions, likely pushing the boundaries of acceptable social graces. I was then surprised to be joined by VP of International Expansion Chris Martin and co-founder and President Hu Weiwei.
This was pretty lucky as their international expansion was a topic I was trying to find out about. And Chris is the person spearheading that effort. He’s a pretty interesting guy. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, Chris comes across as a young guy in perpetual motion, which makes sense. Mobike has been launching in a new city almost every week and Chris appears to be a big part of this frantic pace. In the last couple of weeks, they have launched in Manchester, Florence and Milan. And the word of mouth is London is next month. Chris comes across as a super-charged executive and he’s just an instantly likeable guy. Although I did sort of resent him for speaking Mandarin so much better than I do. You can see him giving an interview in Manchester here.
Founder Weiwei makes a different impression. She’s poised and very-well dressed, like a Fortune 500 CEO. She has an assistant hovering behind her, constantly trying to get her attention about various things. And there is none of the odd behavior that seems so common in Silicon Valley CEOs these days (Zuckerberg, Kalanick, Musk). She comes across as precise and very thoughtful. I scribbled down two notes while she was talking. The first was “very smart”. The second was “gravitas”, which I circled twice. You can see a recent CNBC interview with her at the World Economic Forum here.
Weiwei strikes me as a particularly good example of the newest generation of Chinese women entrepreneurs. And this is a demographic worth paying close attention to. Keep in mind, women typically generate 50% of household income in China, which is fairly uncommon globally. And virtually every study shows they are the most financially ambitious women on the planet. As of last year, China has over 80% of the world’s self-made women billionaires. You can take a look at a breakdown of these women billionaires here.
Within this phenomenon, there is a new generation of women entrepreneurs and executives emerging, with a lot of this happening in the Internet space. Take a look at Jean Liu, President of Didi Chuxing. Or her cousin Zhen Liu, previously Senior Vice President of Uber China. Weiwei is part of this newest generation of Chinese women entrepreneurs. They are not yet as well known as Jack Ma and Pony Ma. But they are the group to watch.
Ok. Those were just some impressions of Weiwei and Chris. Back to the business questions, which were my goal for the visit. And this is where I put in two big qualifiers.
First, you’ll note I haven’t quoted Weiwei or Chris. Or Luke or Xue. I am not a reporter and there is no “on the record” with me. I am gathering information for my own analysis and understanding. Sorry if that is disappointing. But I have put together a ton of analysis on this company based on the visit, so hopefully that makes up for it.
Second, there is a problem with a guy like me looking at a company like Mobike. I am in private equity / advisory and this is a venture capital situation. It is a different skill set. Private equity tends to be about figuring out what is probable. Venture capital is about what is possible. I spend most of my time on strategy and competition questions (longer-term forces that determine probabilities). But early-stage companies like Mobike (“zero to one” situations) are far more about betting on big ideas and the ability of specific people to execute fast. So you’ll notice I focus more on the longer term consumer and competition questions. And I tend to avoid the “how to grow fast” and “how to build an entrepreneurial culture” questions that are probably more relevant – but out of my expertise.
And these are important questions for Mobike. Most of their success or failure will be determined by their rate of growth and the performance of Weiwei, Chris, and the senior management team. How fast and effectively can this group execute?
I will leave that question to smarter people. But the growth in the past twelve months has been stratospheric, like a meteor blazing across the sky in Russia (see that amazing video here). In twelve months, they have gone from a tiny start-up to 6.5M bicycles deployed in over 100 cities. And talking with their team, that is what really comes across, that this is a company operating at a flat out sprint. Going from start-up to almost global player very quickly. The movie “Almost Famous” comes to mind.
That’s Part 1. My big lessons learned from the visit are located in Part 2 (here).