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Thursday, April 27, 2017, 21:45

Hopping around my little world on wheels

By Duan Ting

Editor’s note: The bike-sharing craze has caught up with sports-cum-leisure aficionados in Hong Kong. A local startup has gotten off to a rocky start in its bid to help people get around with ease and being environmentally friendly in an overcrowded city.

Hopping around my little world on wheels

Just on two wheels, and it can take you far — a sort of frenzy inspired by the boom in the bicycle-sharing business on the Chinese mainland as commuters become increasingly frustrated with being habitually “locked up” in ugly traffic logjams in overcrowded cities.

Raphael Cohen, chief executive and co-founder of Gobee.bike, has got the ball rolling by starting Hong Kong’s first bike-sharing project. But getting it off the ground always seems to be the toughest nut to crack.

The public response so far has been enthusiastic. According to Cohen, their app has been downloaded more than 8,000 times since the service was launched earlier this month, and the figure continues to mount — more than a thumbs-up from the crowd.

However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing after all. The launch was marred by the suspected vandalism of nine Gobee.bike bicycles, three of which ended up in a watery grave in a river in Sha Tin.

The bike-sharing craze has caught up with sports-cum-leisure aficionados in Hong Kong

Gobee.bike isn’t the one and only victim. As the bikes on hire are left all over the place, bike-sharing operators on the mainland also have had their fair share of the menace, including vandalism, thefts and illegal parking.

A survey conducted by China Daily in Hong Kong showed that while bike sharing may easily find its feet on the mainland, it may not be the case in Hong Kong, where cycling venues and facilities are stretched to the limit in such a congested environment. Some potential users even complained they could not even locate Gobee.bike’s two-wheelers after having paid a deposit via their mobile app.

A blog called gaplotech.com pointed to a security loophole in Gobee.bike’s mobile app.

Cohen was at pains to stress they are having the problem rectified. “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the few people who dumped the vehicles into the river, but we believe most Hong Kong people are civilized enough and will embrace this concept because of its many benefits — it’s convenient and good for the environment.”

It took the entrepreneur just two months to turn his business proposition to fruition after he had made frequent visits to the mainland. “I was visiting the mainland and saw those bicycles parked all over the streets. So, I thought I could do something about it and bring the idea to Hong Kong and the rest of the world,” says Cohen.

Needless to say, he sees high growth potential in the bike-sharing business, particularly for Hong Kong although the public areas available for cycling are very much restricted.

The business has been flourishing on the mainland in recent years and has caught the eye of big-time investors. Mobike and Ofo are two of the largest among a growing crop of private bike-sharing operators, both of which boast more than 10 million users in the domestic market, with 1 million bikes deployed across over 30 mainland cities. They’ve also set their sights on global markets.

Compared with the business model of mainland bike-sharing companies, Cohen says his company works in a similar fashion, but will focus on more mature markets like Hong Kong where facilities are better built.

Thus, Hong Kong’s first bicycle-sharing system began with more than 1,000 smart bikes painted in their bright green colors and spread out across key locations in the New Territories, including the traditional cycling districts of Sha Tin, Tai Po and Ma On Shan.

Cohen expects to up the number of vehicles to 20,000 by July this year and Gobee.bike aims to cover most areas in Hong Kong — Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, Discovery Bay and Park Island — by late this year.

Customers need to pay a deposit of HK$399 and sign a contract through the brand’s mobile application, which is currently only available on Android phones, while the iOS version for iPhones is expected to be launched soon. A customer can locate the nearest bicycle with an interactive map. Cyclists need to unlock the bikes they find on the street by scanning a unique QR code. They can park the vehicles at any designated public area and Gobee.bike staff will handle management of the bikes.

The fee is HK$5 per half hour and payments can be made directly through the mobile application by linking a credit card, according to Gobee.bike. The other leisure bike operators in Sha Tin demand some HK$45 to HK$100 a day per bike.

Gobee.bike has completed the Series C funding led by Swiss Founders Fund, CoCoon Ignite Ventures, Lastminute.com group founder and chairman Fabio Cannavale, Lamivoie Capital and Goldman Sachs alumni, as well as individual investors.

The funds raised may be invested in upgrading technology and, in Cohen’s words, “anything that makes sense to grow the business”. Cohen is joined on his entrepreneurial journey by two other partners and a team of 15 staff members. “It’s a volume business and we expect to make money only through the rental fees in the beginning. We expect to see big rides and regular usage.”

Gobee.bike isn’t Cohen’s maiden business foray. He was also a co-founder of HotelQuickly and Foodpanda.com. “I’ve been in various vertical startup businesses. I like to run new things that could be different but the same knowledge can be applied, like in management and operations,” he says.

The startup aims to extend its reach on a global scale over the next two to three months following its Hong Kong pitch.

tingduan@chinadailyhk.com
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