2012 Interview with Allie Armitage and Brad Eisenberg, weBike
weBike entered the 2011 WJF Business Plan Competition. They won the DC Prize and the Better World Telecom Prize.
weBike aims to get more people biking as a sustainable form of transportation with a new, affordable solution to bike sharing: a stationless design that leverages mobile and web technologies to power a rider’s interaction with bikes.
WJF’s Erin Jones recently sat down with Allie Armitage and Brad Eisenberg to learn about the creation of weBike and how far they’ve come.
Where are you located?
What does weBike do?
weBike is a bike sharing company that allows bike sharing to be accessible to communities across the country, particularly smaller communities such as collegiate campuses, corporate campuses, small towns, and residential communities that don’t have the budget or the infrastructure required of a station-based bike sharing program, like that of Capital Bike Share here in DC. We do that by offering mobile and web technologies and licensing those technologies to those communities at prices much below they would have to pay to purchase a station-based program.
How do you produce societal value?
Brad: Some of the inherent benefits of biking are obvious in terms of environmental impact and the benefits of replacing automobile transportation with biking, but beyond that, biking is really a pleasure – it’s a great way to get around and in doing so, really builds better communities by enabling people to connect to each other and to connect to places within their community and to have fun while doing so.
Allie: People don’t always talk about the ancillary benefits of biking, like the fact that it improves your sleep, reduces stress, lowers obesity. In Barcelona, a lot of people have adopted the bike share program and healthcare costs have been reduced for the entire city—it’s just incredible to see the impact on a high level when you aggregate it. Bike sharing takes the benefit from the individual and puts it all together and creates this big momentous impact. The University of New England gave a bike to every student that pledged not to bring a car to campus. Within two years, they took a parking lot and converted it to a big open space. They put a soccer field there and an event space. There’s this ability to create real estate—that’s something that bike sharing allows you to do that doesn’t get talked about enough.
What was your motivation for starting weBike?
Brad: It started out of a class project out of the University of Maryland in the fall of 2007. We had all identified certain pieces, certain passions that brought us together before we even decided we wanted to pursue bike sharing. With Allie, it was looking into green sustainable marketing techniques. For me, it was pursuing technological solutions to bike parking. One of our other business partners Vlad had just come back from a trip in Europe, where he saw bike sharing being implemented there. We took all these passions with the goal of getting more people on bikes at the University of Maryland—that’s how it all started. We wanted to build a bigger biking base and more sustainable infrastructure on our own campus and through doing so, recognized the need elsewhere. We also learned through some of the obstacles we encountered along the way how we needed to shift and change in order to provide this stationless model that we believe can really benefit that sort of community.
Allie: We replaced the station model with your basic bike, a bike lock, a bike rack, and a little bit of technology—you can have the exact same functionality and can go anywhere. That’s our goal, to bring bike sharing to any community that wants to have it. Ever since, we’ve been chugging along on that path.
Who are your customers?
Allie: We have two customers. The end user is the biker, so that can be anyone—that’s student, staff, visitor, faculty, anyone, and then we have the community entity—whoever is running the program and offering it as a service. From attracting prospective students and residents to the communities to being able to reduce the demand for buses and parking and create real estate—there’s real cost savings for the community in addition to making the community a more livable and enjoyable place as well. Bike sharing benefits both our customers who are users and the communities who are our customers.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as a team?
Brad: The biggest challenge was the first one, when we had to really define what our company was. We had all graduated college and had been lobbying the college for a year and a half to get a station-based bike sharing system on campus and we hit a brick wall. We very easily could have graduated, got jobs, gone elsewhere, said hey it was a fun two years, but we really had to think about how to get around that. In doing so, in conceptualizing the stationless approach, we created weBike for the first time—that’s what took the concept of bike sharing and the passion we had and really converted it into a business and a business model that was going to succeed. Beyond that, the biggest challenges we’ve had to face is to maintain our momentum and the team cohesion through periods where the business wasn’t growing as fast as we would have liked it to. It’s really exciting to have been able to cross that hurdle now, for everyone to be finding their passion again with a recent sale and our Launcht campaign and our pursuit of product development—I think everyone’s excited again, it’s a good place to be, we’ve come through the speed bumps.
Allie: We founded weBike on a set of values and a mission that we wanted to accomplish and we’ve always kept to that—we’ve refined how we express that, but it’s within us. We’ve had some ups and downs as a team, very difficult questions about where are we going next, big questions, but ultimately what keeps us together is that we believe so strongly in what we originally set out to do. We all have something we get back from this in such incredible ways that are beyond a monetary salary that you could be receiving. I think that’s what’s really cool to see with a startup, to see how you learn and grow from the in-person experience that you’re taking away. That is our culture—we can all understand what we’re doing is bigger than doing x and taking x out of it—it’s not your average job, it’s something more than that.
The other challenge we have by nature of our business is that sales take a long time. It creates a very slow ramp up stage, which is hard, especially as young entrepreneurs. You just want to grow grow grow—you have to learn to adapt to the model of the business you’re actually in and the nature of the environment that you’re trying to sell to.
Do you both consider yourself entrepreneurs?
Brad: Yeah, we’re both starting our own company but even outside of that, we live and breathe entrepreneurship. Allie has a part-time job with the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and I work for another energy startup company as well.
Allie: I didn’t know I’d be an entrepreneur until I started to pursue this idea and started to see what could happen when you take action with your ideas. It’s so empowering to run with your own idea. What our professor at University of Maryland did for us was help to remove the barriers that we tend to put up in our minds. His whole theory was to think from possibilities, never from constraints. Being able to remove the obstructions that typically stand in your way and just go after things that you’re really passionate about seeing is so incredible.
Brad: That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.
Allie: Once you started, it’s addictive. You can’t not do it.
Brad: It’s basically ignoring all the social barriers that society puts in place and doing whatever you want to do and creating your own career path. That’s how I connect with entrepreneurship.
How have you learned to define success?
Brad: Business operations are easier to measure than business development—you certainly set goals and try to achieve them but early on, there are a lot more goals and a lot less achievement. To some degree, you define success less so on what you’re able to achieve and more so on the momentum you’re able to build because when you’re not able to achieve great success or the big victories that would ultimately be great, you can find a lot of passion and excitement in the momentum you build for yourself. That can be as simple as meeting an influential person that you didn’t think you’d be able to meet that believes in what you’re doing or getting a new student group involved in what you’re doing and becoming passionate. Those small victories build a lot of momentum and are what kept us going in the beginning, even when our initial pursuit of putting a station-based program at the University of Maryland ultimately failed.
Has weBike lived up to, exceeded, or fallen short of your initial expectations regarding its success?
Allie: It’s certainly been slower.
Brad: I think in some regards it has probably come up short to our initial expectations.
Allie: Because we envisioned the world for this.
Brad: But I think in other ways, I probably don’t think any of us could have seen us in the position we are today.
Allie: I mean you’re so idealistic when you’re starting. Especially from a college environment because you don’t understand the reality of the situation, but I get all these moments where I step back and look at what we’re doing and I’m like wow this is so cool – I think it’s beyond what we knew what we were getting ourselves into. Ambition is part of the game and you have to set goals way higher than what you could ever achieve.
At the end of the day, you have to go where people are receptive and embrace it. We spent a lot of time trying to get on campus at the University of Maryland before we realized there may be a lot of other outlets besides what’s just in front of us. I think learning to expand your definition of what you think your product looks like in reality or what you think people should be doing with it—you have to open that up to the reality of the market, which is another benefit of the for-profit business, it makes you really see what the market is telling you and create a market. What people want is what they’ll pay for. You’ll only create a solution that works when you do that.
Brad: What we’ve developed I’m more proud of today in terms of what the product is and what our business is way more so than what our original conception was—I think that’s far exceeded our expectations.
Allie: You learn the reality of situations and you adjust. The experience I’ve gotten along the way, I never envisioned. I wouldn’t trade that experience ever in the world.
Has WJF competition and mentoring program helped you on your way?
Brad: Many of our advisors have come through the William James Foundation. The best thing is when we don’t have an advisor or when we don’t know who we can turn to for advice, WJF Executive Director Ian Fisk is the first person we go to to say hey we need advice about this and we don’t know anybody and he does. The William James Foundation has been great in filling the gaps. It’s really cool to have a problem and most of the time know who would I go to to figure this out because that wasn’t always the case. Even just a year ago, that was not the case—we were very much within our own bubble. The WJF was the impetus to start building our network through the WJF community and ultimately through the community of the Affinity Lab—that is how we were able to build this pretty big network of support and it’s been hugely beneficial to us.
Allie: We entered the William James Foundation competition two times. The first time we didn’t know what we were doing with the business plan, hadn’t put a ton of time into it, so we got ripped apart, but the feedback was great and it was our first time really coming up to an audience that was going to look at the viability of the business and give you critical feedback on that. Since we were in the competition and won, we were able to connect with the resources and be in the Affinity Lab, and I think we’ve really catapulted the thinking about our business and entity, which is totally different. We had the mission down, we knew that solid, but how do you run this business strategically, smartly, and grow it so it’s sustaining the mission.
What do you see as your ecosystem? Are there other resources you have found that are particularly useful for social entrepreneurs?
Brad: I almost identify more as part of the social entrepreneurship community than I do the biking industry/bike sharing industry. Because we’ve spent more time in it, it’s had more of an impact on our business. We’ve accomplished so much in the past year because we were able to enter those communities and build our networks beyond the bubble that it’s easy to get into when you’re a startup and just operating at your home or with your team and not talking to any external resources. Getting out and meeting people in the community and identifying strategic partners or even just people willing to help out has had a huge impact on our business, not only from the real value that we’ve gotten from some of these partners, but just the mentality of it, the momentum it gives you to rediscover your passion when things seem really difficult. The community we found here within the Affinity Lab, within the entrepreneurial resources at the University of Maryland, within the William James Foundation, and within Sandbox and the DC Impact Hub have really been of benefit to us.
Allie: Purely having someone listen to the challenges you’re dealing with and provide some feedback is sometimes all it takes, even if they’re not giving you an answer, but just helping you think through what the answers could be. It helps you keep going and search and dig for what you’re looking for and that’s been extremely valuable. Nothing’s been handed to us, we’ve had to go out and connect with each other. Once you start to grow your network, it grows exponentially and people begin introducing you to others. A lot of credit goes to the William James Foundation, the Affinity Lab, and the University of Maryland. Centralized resources are mostly hard to come by – that’s why Startup Maryland, co-working spaces, and organizations like the William James Foundation try to fill the void, although it’s not completely filled yet.