Travis VanderZanden. If you’ve been following the fast-changing transportation industry, it’s a name that may sound familiar. Until September 2016, VanderZanden was VP of growth at Uber and before that, COO of its fierce rival Lyft, which had acquired his on-demand car wash company, Cherry, in 2013.
It was a dramatic few years for VanderZanden, once he joined the ride-hailing race. Not only were his employers experiencing growing pains, but Lyft sued him for allegedly breaking a confidentiality agreement when he joined Uber, with the two sides later settling for undisclosed terms. Little wonder that after leaving Uber, VanderZanden wanted to take some time off to decompress with his wife and two daughters.
That was the idea, anyway. The thing is, VanderZanden, whose mother drove a public bus for 30 years, says he couldn’t stop thinking about transportation. Within six months, he was testing out different short-range electric vehicles. By last summer, he’d quietly launched his newest company, Bird.
Now, VanderZanden’s dockless electric scooter company is the talk of Santa Monica, Ca., where it’s based. That’s largely because over the last six months, Bird has plunked roughly 1,000 “Birds” on the streets of the city — and people are riding them: 50,000 people so far have taken 250,000 rides, he says.
But Bird, which just moved into Westwood and is easing its way into San Diego, also has local officials in all three places somewhat flummoxed — and not entirely delighted. A Washington Post piece published Saturday characterized Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer as highly irked that VanderZanden reached out to him — via a LinkedIn message — after putting Bird’s scooters on the streets.
The message reportedly offered to introduce Winterer to Bird’s “exciting new mobility strategy for Santa Monica.” Winterer says he responded: “If you’re talking about those scooters that are out there already, there are some legal issues we have to discuss.”
Legal issues and other complications, as it turns out. For example, according to that same Post story, local police officers issued 97 citations involving Bird scooters in the first six weeks of this year; the city’s fire department has responded to eight related accidents, some including minors and adults; and according to a senior marketing and communications manager for downtown Santa Monica, there have been numerous complaints of the scooters being left in front of doorways, in the middle of driveways and on wheelchair ramps.
Despite outward appearances, VanderZanden suggests he hasn’t stolen from the playbook of his last employer, which under the leadership of longtime CEO Travis Kalanick taught employees to ask forgiveness — not permission.
He paints a rosier picture of that exchange with Winterer, for example, telling TechCrunch that the “first week we put Birds out in the wild [in early September], I emailed the mayor directly about how excited we were and the impact we thought we could have.”
Bird employees have since met with Santa Monica’s director of transportation and mobility and had “a series of really productive conversations,” says VanderZanden, noting that with “any new innovation, you have to work with the city to figure out how you best fit into the regulatory model.”
In Bird’s case, he says there isn’t an existing permit scheme currently, though the city plainly disagrees. It filed a criminal complaint last month, citing Bird’s failure to obtain the same kind of permit it asks food vendors to secure; the two sides meet in court later this month.
Naturally, VanderZanden thinks the focus instead should be on the benefits of Bird’s scooters, which can be used by anyone over the age of 18 who has a valid driver’s license, who agrees to wear a helmet, and who will stay off the sidewalk (not that Bird can enforce the last two).
For starters, they are cheap to use, he notes. In addition to a driver’s license, new customers need only plug a credit card number into the app. After that, it’s $1 per ride, plus 15 cents per minute, and riders can go as far as the scooter’s electric charge will take them at a top speed of 15 miles per hour. VanderZanden says some have made it to LAX. Others have ridden from Santa Monica into downtown L.A.
VanderZanden says that Bird is willing to share some of the data it’s collecting with cities. “We really want to work with cities and go in early with figure out how Bird best fits in. We realize we’re just one part of the transportation puzzle.”
VanderZanden, who says Bird ships riders free helmets when they request one from the app, also says it does its best to educate riders, including on where to park Birds (near bike racks, ideally), where to ride them (bike lanes), and via stickers that it plasters on the floorboards of the scooters that list safety regulations.
He stresses, too, that Bird employees begin collecting the scooters at 8 p.m. every night, clearing all of them off the street and only returning them to the fronts of coffee shops and other local businesses — at their own request, he says — by 6 a.m. the next day.
As for what happens if someone is injured, we gather that Bird pays if one of its scooters breaks but not if a rider is being reckless. VanderZanden declines to get into specifics, offering instead that, “Every mode of transportation is dangerous . . . but you can’t protect against people not obeying traffic laws.”
At any rate, investors don’t mind at all that Bird is still figuring things out. It just closed on $15 million in Series A funding, including from Tusk Ventures, Valor, Lead Edge Capital, and Goldcrest Capital.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the round was led by Craft Ventures, the new venture fund cofounded by serial entrepreneur David Sacks. Before Cherry (and Lyft and Uber), VanderZanden was VP of revenue at the enterprise software company Yammer, where Sacks was cofounder and CEO. In fact, when VanderZanden left to start Cherry, Sacks wrote him a check for $500,000 — the biggest check Sacks had written to a single company as an angel investor at that point.
Indeed, if the company starts looking for another round of funding very soon, it will be even less surprising. While VanderZanden calls Bird “first to do dockless electric scooters,” competition is springing up around it — fast.
Last week, Spin, a dockless bike-sharing company that brought its wares to South San Francisco last August, announced that it’s working to launch stationless electric-scooter sharing. Two days later, LimeBike, a Spin competitor, similarly revealed plans to build its own dockless electric scooters. Bird’s own scooters are made via an exclusive manufacturing agreement with an unnamed company.
It’s the kind of battle that VanderZanden has seen before and seems prepared to fight — though he takes a far softer tone publicly than the famously combative Kalanick.
“People are taking notice of how quickly Bird is growing and they want to pivot in and clone us,” says VanderZanden. Yes, that could eventually create clutter for cities, he acknowledges. Still, it’s better than all the greenhouse gases being generated by cars and trucks.
“Preventing car ownership is the goal of all these companies,” he says. ” I think if all of us are successful, that’s fine.”