Cargo bike by subscription - the story of Oslo startup Whee!
9 OCT 2021
Kari Anne Solfjeld Eid is a Norwegian cargo bike lover, bike activist and entrepreneur based in Oslo. She runs design agency Hoi! Oslo and last year launched Whee!, an e-cargo bike subscription service. This year they’ve extended their offerings with a maintenance subscription service and opened Kiosk, a community-owned coffee shop. This – in her own words – is the story of how they did it.
We are a team of tech designers (service, business and UX), and an industrial designer with super-valuable experience designing bike systems for sharing. We believe that utility and cargo bikes are the missing link to thriving urban communities, and I have been speaking the cycle urbanism gospel for a long time, and at one point I just got really fed up of talking, because the revolutionary power of the cargo bike is impossible to understand without experience. So I decided to try.
I am not really cycling-as-a-hobby interested, I have just experienced first and second-hand over the years how these bikes hold the power to radically transform cities and lives for the better. But it is really difficult to grasp without first-hand experience. So instead of telling people, we set out to see if we could do something to radically increase the number of cargo bikes on the road.
Partners & Supporters of the ICBF
I’ll start with our design agency Hoi! that I founded in 2017. We work with sustainable solutions digitally, physically and systemically, and strive to apply user centric design methodology in service development, tech/digital as well as urbanism and physical space. We saw really quickly that working with biking is something that sort of merges it all. It is a multi-solving tool. Hoi! has a feminist/caretaking perspective to our design and business focus.
And we had just hired our third designer when lockdown hit, and everything stopped. We were like UH-OH, what do we do? But the whole plan for our design agency was that we will work, and make money to be free to do our own initiatives, and this was something that had been brewing for a couple of years, so we decided to give it a try and see how far we could get.
We started around Easter 2020 with two people full time, and me in the evenings, working on the digital/technical solution, the concept, the actual physical bikes, partners in insurance, maintenance and so on. At that time it was a fully bootstrapped operation, and we were super fortunate that amazingly talented people had time to contribute because of COVID layoffs, and because they saw that we had both a great idea, a solid business case, and that we actually were able to execute.
Early summer last year we got our first two angel investors, and I could start working full time on the startup. Now the team consists of five people, designing and developing our technical platform, building services and customer experiences, and we are growing. Coming from the IT/tech industry, we are all about user experience, and strive to offer services that solves our users more cleverly, and still sustainable.
Running at max capacity
Today we are at max capacity and have waiting lists. We have around 75 bikes solving everyday logistics for families in and around Oslo, and are doubling next year. We have hardly done any advertising. For next year we have 220 bikes on order, and if we had more funding to get more bikes, we would.
Right now we offer a Whee! bike, that gives our subcribers a compact midtail with 180 kg cargo capacity with insurance and maintenance included. Customers are assigned to 4 yearly checkups, including a full wash, drying and lubing, plus changing to studded winter tires, and back. This fall we will start testing IOT units to offer better theft protection, and we are harvesting as much data as we can to learn and improve.
Through our design research we’ve seen that e-bike and e-cargo bike users have little knowledge or interest in bike maintenance, often are afraid to do something wrong, and since they are already saving SO much time and money from not using a car, and are super dependent on their ebikes, the spending will is substantial. We also see huge potential in digitising this, eventually moving parts of the diagnostics to the customer and doing on site repairs.
So we decided to expand our offerings to other cargo bikes as well, and soft-launched a service subscription service for a limited amount of car replacement bike brands and models. So for a monthly fee of €20, Whee! schedules and takes care of your maintenance at a discount. In Oslo, a lot of people rely on these bikes, and the existing marked for maintenance is lacking capacity. And of course, being a tech company, we are digitising these processes, and gathering data to be able to predict maintenance and prolong bike life span, and provide a better and more predictable overall experience for users.
We are scaling and professionalising our service operation, to expand locally, nationally and internationally.
In addition to this, we are of course offering utility bike essentials, like rain ponchos, crates etc. Any bike essential that does not involve dressing up to ride a bike. We also sell Whee! pannier bags and cushions, original accessories, which we’ve designed ourselves and produced here in Norway.
Our next venture is to develop our own bike concept, where we are merging our user focus and system design thinking, industrial design and fleet development expertise, our solid knowledge of cargo bikes, and goals of circularity, sustainability and repairability.
We are a female-founded startup, solving urban household logistics through green mobility design. This may sound like a cutesy hippie get up, but we are also a cutting edge tech startup, with a dead solid business case, valuated at 25m NOK this spring, looking for investors who share our vision and can help us scale faster.
The fact that cargo bikes have to be experienced for people to fathom their revolutionary potential is a challenge that we’ve solved for users, but still are struggling to convey to investors and governmental innovation and funding agencies.
So much of the mobility industry is catering to men, and to hobby/self-development, while cargo bikes are tools to solve everyday problems for everyone.
And that is also very relevant when we see new concept bikes. They just cater to a whole different target group. The typical concept solution is a sleek and bike with a hidden battery and “Strava”-esque technology embedded.
In both cases, cargo bikes do have an environmental impact. However, the lower weights and speeds involved mean that their footprint is orders of magnitude slimmer.
Car is over
Our main problem is car dependency, and the fact that cars are a very inefficient mode of transportation in crowded areas. It just does not scale. And in urban development space is the main asset. That is why the small, efficient and nimble cargo bike proves to be a resilient and practical solution. While the user, very often a parent, needs to feel safe, feeling that their kids are safe, that they are in control, as well as a lot of smarter solutions. They need a bike designed to solve the everyday problems that needs solving designed around the function of the motor, not a regular bike retrofitted with a motor and bro-tech. Sorry about the rant.
Yeah, and our bike service hub and bike wash is an old car lot, with a car workshop that we have converted to a bike service hub. On the property there is also an absolute gem of an iconic gas station from 1935. We recently opened Kiosk! there – a coffee shop partially crowdfunded by 65 neighbourhood owners, also designed and done by Hoi!. Everything is done in respect of history, and we’ve used local artists and artisans. The symbolic value of that conversion is not lost on us, and it is a dream come true doing bottom up urban development and placemaking.
This whole journey has been full of serendipity, and when you are deep down in bike part inventory, paint damages or spare part delay issues, it is easy to forget how far we have come. But the big picture is that we have actually done this. Launching, proving we have a product marked fit, getting amazing user feedback, and actually building sustainable services, culture and an organisation has been the most fun ever. I am so proud of us, and know this is just the beginning.”