The Scooter Economy

As I understand it, the proper way to open an article about electric scooters is to first state one’s priors, explain the circumstances of how one came to try scooters, and then deliver a verdict. Unfortunately, that means mine is a bit boring: while most employing this format wanted to hate them,1 I was pretty sure scooters would be awesome — and they were!2

For me the circumstances were a trip to San Francisco; I purposely stayed at a hotel relatively far from where most of my meetings were, giving me no choice but to rely on some combination of scooters, e-bikes, and ride-sharing services. The scooters were a clear winner: fast, fun, and convenient — as long as you could find one near you. The city needs five times as many.

So, naturally, San Francisco banned them, at least temporarily: companies will be able to apply for their share of a pool of a mere 1,250 permits; that number may double in six months, but for now the scooter-riding experience will probably be more of a novelty, not something you can rely on. In fact, by the end of my trip, if I were actually in a rush, I knew to use a ride-sharing service.

It’s no surprise that ride-sharing services have higher liquidity: San Francisco is a car-friendly town. The city has a population of 884,363 humans and 496,843 vehicles, mostly in the city’s 275,000 on-street parking spaces. Granted, most of the Uber and Lyft drivers come from outside the city, but there is no congestion tax to deter them.

The result is an urban area stuck on a bizarre local maxima: most households have cars, but rarely use them, particularly in the city, because traffic is bad and parking is — relative to the number of cars — sparse; the alternative is ride-sharing, which incurs the same traffic costs but at least doesn’t require parking. And yet, San Francisco, for now anyways, will only allow about 60 parking spaces-worth of scooters onto the streets.

Everything as a Service

This is hardly the forum to discuss the oft-head-scratching politics of tech’s de facto capital city, and I can certainly see the downside of scooters, particularly the haphazard way with which they are being deployed; in an environment built for cars scooters get in the way.

It’s worth considering, though, just how much sense dockless scooters make: the concept is one of the purest manifestations of what I referred to in 2016 as Everything as a Service:

What happens, though, if we apply the services business model to hardware? Consider an airplane: I fly thousands of miles a year, but while Stratechery is doing well, I certainly don’t own my own plane! Rather, I fly on an airplane that is owned by an airline that is paid for in part through some percentage of my ticket cost. I am, effectively, “renting” a seat on that airplane, and once that flight is gone I own nothing other than new GPS coordinates on my phone.

Now the process of buying an airplane ticket, identifying who I am, etc. is far more cumbersome than simply hopping in my car — there are significant transaction costs — but given that I can’t afford an airplane it’s worth putting up with when I have to travel long distances. What happens, though, when those transaction costs are removed? Well, then you get Uber or its competitors: simply touch a button and a car that would have otherwise been unused will pick you up and take you where you want to go, for a price that is a tiny fraction of what the car cost to buy in the first place. The same model applies to hotels — instead of buying a house in every city you visit, simply rent a room — and Airbnb has taken the concept to a new level by leveraging unused space.

The enabling factor for both Uber and Airbnb applying a services business model to physical goods is your smartphone and the Internet: it enables distribution and transactions costs to be zero, making it infinitely more convenient to simply rent the physical goods you need instead of acquiring them outright.

What is striking about dockless scooters — at least when one is parked outside your door! — is that they make ride-sharing services feel like half-measures: why even wait five minutes, when you can just scan-and-go? Steve Jobs described computers as bicycles of the mind; now that computers are smartphones and connected to the Internet they can conjure up the physical equivalent as well!

Indeed, the only thing that could make the experience better — for riders and for everyone else — would be dedicated lanes, like, for example, the 900 miles worth of parking spaces in San Francisco. To be sure, the city isn’t going to make the conversion overnight, or, given the degree to which San Francisco is in thrall to homeowners, probably ever, but that is particularly a shame in 2018: venture capitalists are willing to fund the entire thing, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Missing Moats

Late last month came word that Sequoia Capital was leading a $150 million funding round for Bird, one of the electric scooter companies, valuing the company at $1 billion; a week later came reports that GV was leading a $250 million investment in rival Lime.

One of the interesting tidbits in Axios’s reporting on the latter was that each Lime scooter is used on average between 8 and 12 times a day; plugging that number into this very useful analysis of scooter-sharing unit costs suggests that the economics of both startups are very strong (certainly the size of the investments — and the quality of the investors — suggests the same).

The key word in that sentence, though, is “both”: what, precisely, might make Bird and Lime, or any of their competitors, unique? Or, to put it in business parlance, where is the moat? This is where the comparison to ride-sharing services is particularly instructive; I explained back in 2014 why there was more of a moat to be had in ride-sharing than most people thought:

  • There is a two-sided network between drivers and riders
  • As one service gains share, its increased utility of drivers will restrict liquidity on the other service, favoring the larger player
  • Riders will, all things being equal, use one service habitually

This leads to winner-take-all dynamics in a particular geographic area; then, when it comes times to launch in new areas, travelers and brand will give the larger service a head start.

To be sure, these interactions are complicated, and not everything is equal (see, for example, the huge amounts of share Lyft took last year thanks to Uber’s self-inflicted crises). It is that complication, though, and the fact it is exponentially more difficult to build a two-sided network (instead of, say, plopping a bunch of scooters on the street), that creates the conditions for a moat: the entire point of a moat is that it is hard to build.

Uber’s Self-Driving Mistake

This is why I have long maintained that the second-biggest mistake3 former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made was the company’s head-first plunge into self-driving cars. On a surface level, the logic is obvious: Uber’s biggest cost is the driver, which means getting rid of them is an easy route to profitability — or, should someone else deploy self-driving cars first, then Uber could be undercut in price.

The mistake in Kalanick’s thinking is two-fold:

  • First, up-and-until the point that self-driving cars are widely available — that is, not simply invented, but built-and-deployed at scale — Uber’s drivers are its biggest competitive advantage. Kalanick’s public statements on the matter hardly evinced understanding on this point.
  • Second, bringing self-driving cars to market would entail huge amounts of capital investment. For one, this means it would be unlikely that Google, a company that rushes to reassure investors when it loses tens of basis points in margin, would do so by itself, and for another, whatever companies did make such an investment would be highly incentivized to maximize utilization of said investment as soon as possible. That means plugging into the dominant transportation-as-a-service network, which means partnering with Uber.

My contention is that Uber would have been best-served concentrating all of its resources on its driver-centric model, even as it built relationships with everyone in the self-driving space, positioning itself to be the best route to customers for whoever wins the self-driving technology battle.

Uber’s Second Chance

Interestingly, scooters and their closely-related cousin, e-bikes, may give Uber a second chance to get this right. Absent two-sided network effects, the potential moats for, well, self-riding scooters and e-bikes are relatively weak: proprietary technology is likely to provide short-lived advantages at best, and Bird and Lime have plenty of access to capital. Both are experimenting with “charging-sharing”, wherein they pay people to charge the scooters in their homes, but both augment that with their own contractors to both charge vehicles and move them to areas with high demand.

What remains under-appreciated is habit: your typical tech first-adopter may have no problem checking multiple apps to catch a quick ride, but I suspect most riders would prefer to use the same app they already have on their phone. To that end, there is certainly a strong impetus for Bird and Lime to spread to new cities, simply to get that first-app-installed advantage, but this is where Uber has the biggest advantage of all: the millions of people who already have the Uber app.

To that end, I thought Uber’s acquisition of Jump Bikes was a good idea, and scooters should be next (an acquisition of Bird or Lime may already be too pricey, but Jump has a strong technical team that should be able to get an Uber-equivalent out the door soon). The Uber app already handles multiple kinds of rides; it is a small step to handling multiple kinds of transportation — a smaller step than installing yet another app.

More Tech Surplus

More generally, in a world where everything is a service, companies may have to adapt to shallower moats than they may like. If you squint, what I am recommending for Uber looks a bit like a traditional consumer packaged goods (CPG) strategy: control distribution (shelf-space | screen-space) with a few dominant products (e.g. TIDE | UberX) that provide leverage for new offerings (e.g. Swiffer | Jump Bikes). The model isn’t nearly as strong, but there may be other potential lock-ins, particularly in terms of exclusive contracts with cities and universities.

Still, that is hardly the sort of dominance that accrues to digital-only aggregators like Facebook or Google, or even Netflix; the physical world is much harder to monopolize. That everything will be available as a service means a massive increase in efficiency for society broadly — more products will be available to more people for lower overall costs — even as the difficulty in digging moats means most of that efficiency becomes consumer surplus. And, as long as venture capitalists are willing to foot the bill, cities like San Francisco should take advantage.

I wrote a follow-up to this article in this Daily Update.

  1. That article is perhaps more revealing than the author appreciated [↩︎]
  2. Note: this article is going to focus on San Francisco for simplicity’s sake, although the broader points have nothing to do with San Francisco specifically; I am aware that the transportation situation is different in different cities — I do live in a different country, after all, in a city with fantastic public transportation and a plethora of personal transportation options. [↩︎]
  3. The first was not buying Lyft [↩︎]