Zipp Mobility has already brought a more sustainable e-scooter sharing model to UK cities. With plans to enter Europe and Ireland underway, its founder Charlie Gleeson tells ThinkBusiness about the need for mobility done right.
Why did you set up Zipp Mobility?
It started with frustration with public transport in Ireland. I had always been interested in start-ups and read about a new scooter sharing industry in the US. Scooters were dotted around cities; you scan your smartphone, ride to your destination and scan off. I thought this was absolutely brilliant. I was fascinated by the level of scale these companies were achieving – getting into a hundred cities in their first year.
“A lot of companies use diesel vans to charge and redistribute scooters. That negates any potential environmental positives of electric scooters. We use electric cargo bikes and electric vans to make sure we are carbon neutral”
The demand was really interesting too, it was 5-10 times that of a bike. I started digging and quickly noticed two key things. One was that scooters were illegal in Ireland. I saw this as an opportunity to get our ducks in a row so that when legislation changes, we’ll be in a good position. The other was that a lot of scooter operators weren’t operating very ethically. They were using gig economy employees, their scooters weren’t lasting long and they were making local authorities disgruntled. I saw an opening to start a scooter sharing company and do mobility right.
“There’s a mind-set with a lot of Irish entrepreneurs that moving into international markets is difficult and scary. Because we broke that barrier early, our ambition is much bigger”
As an independent business, how do you stand out from the crowd?
One of the mistakes other operators were making was growing at a really fast rate. In a lot of cases, they were putting scooters into markets without discussions with local authorities. They weren’t allowing the time needed to ensure a successful scheme, often ending in scooters being banned altogether. Other operators were giving local authorities a tailored service, that’s what we’re trying to do. It has a completely different effect on the local community.
Rather than tapping into gig economy employees, we hire full time staff in every market. A lot of companies use diesel vans to charge and redistribute scooters. That negates any environmental positives of using electric scooters. We use electric cargo bikes and electric vans to make sure we are carbon neutral. We don’t want to get into 100 markets per year, like a lot of our competitors. We are looking at 10 -15 markets per year, or 5-10. We were in three markets last year, this year it will be closer to 5-10, peaking at around 20 markets per year.
Another thing that sets us apart is that we were born International. We’re a Dublin based company but due to delays in electric scooter legislation, we launched and scaled across the UK first. That born global approach means the sky is the limit for us. There’s a mind-set with a lot of Irish entrepreneurs that moving into international markets is difficult and scary. Because we broke that barrier early, our ambition is much bigger.
“We soon noticed that public transport capacity was in serious trouble. Their capacity was reduced by around 80pc, due to social distancing measures”
What challenges have you met and how did you overcome them?
The pandemic was a massive challenge when it came to the pilots that fell through for us due to it. But micro mobility is an industry that has stayed quite strong, with ridership increasing across Europe because people have a fear of public transport. Covid-19 showed the need for electric scooters to help get people off public transport and moving in a different way.
“In the UK scooters have only been legalised since last summer and there have already been millions of journeys taken. Around 25-35pc of journeys replace the car”
Did the pandemic impact your business and how did you adapt?
I finished college in May 2019. For the nine-month period leading up to Covid-19 I’d been working on getting pilots off the ground here in Ireland. We had contracts secured when Covid-19 struck and they all fell through. Despite having nothing to show for nine months of work, we kept at it. We soon noticed that public transport capacity was in serious trouble, with capacity reduced by around 80pc due to social distancing measures. The UK government realised it needed to get people moving in a different way and legalised electric scooters as a response to Covid-19. That’s where the opportunity came.
In the UK e-scooters have only been legalised since last summer and there have already been millions of journeys taken. Around 25-35pc of journeys replace the car. So, we’re already seeing a real benefit of electric scooters there.
“The supports in Ireland for people starting businesses are great but they’re not advertised well. You really need to go digging”
What supports did you receive to set up your business and how could the support for entrepreneurs be improved?
The supports in Ireland for people starting businesses are great but they’re not advertised well. You really need to dig. I was a student at UCD and naturally moved into their student accelerator programme at Nova. I would advise any aspiring entrepreneur with an idea to do an accelerator programme. Then I went into another accelerator programme called Venture Launch, also in Nova UCD. Nova were excellent. They gave me free office space for the first few months until I could raise money. Dublin Business Innovation Centre is unbelievable. It was and still is a great adviser to Zipp.
Enterprise Ireland is phenomenal. They have a financial planning grant, which was great. We’ve used the feasibility grant in the past. We’re classified as a high potential start-up, so they are coming in on our funding rounds now. Talking to Enterprise Ireland mentors had huge value for us.
“Understand that start-ups are volatile. The ups and downs are part of the process. Once you realise that, everything gets easier and you can focus on what matters – the work itself”
What was the most important thing you learnt and what would you like to teach other businesses?
I would advise anyone who’s got an idea to go for it, you learn more in six months getting a start-up off the ground than you will in any graduate programme. You make loads of mistakes along the way but learn so much. Be patient. It took us 625 days to launch. These things take time, but they’re worth it.
It’s really important to know your market. When I started Zipp Mobility I was self-conscious about raising investment straight out of college. It’s not about age, but what you know about the market. The more you know, the more you can identify opportunities.
Understand that start-ups are volatile. The ups and downs of a start-up are part of the process. Once you realise that, everything gets easier and you can focus on what matters – the work itself.
“I would advise anyone who’s got an idea to go for it, you learn more in six months getting a start-up off the ground than you will in any graduate programme”
What are your plans for the future?
We are in talks with local authorities in Portugal, Spain, and Poland and expect to launch and at least two of those countries before the end of the summer. Scooter legislation is at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage in Ireland. We expect that legislation to change in May or June. The Irish market is just about to open up and we’re really excited to bring our service home to Ireland.
We’ve saved around 10 tonnes of carbon from going into the air and replaced around 15,000 car journeys. For scooter sharing schemes to be sustainable and reduce emissions, swappable batteries are needed. Instead of taking scooters off the streets for charging and redistributing them the next day, we replace the battery pack where they are. We use a mixture of electric vans and electric cargo bikes to do it because we don’t need to carry scooters around the city to be recharged.
In five years, we hope to employ hundreds of people across tens of countries, and to replace tens of millions of car journeys per year and leave the world a better place.
Interview by Olivia McGill
Published: 1 April 2021