When was the first time you remember riding a bike? What does a bike symbolize to you?
My first time on a bike was when I was probably six years old. Like many Americans, I experienced being on a bike initially as a form of recreation – my mom and I would bike around Prospect Park. I never seriously considered being on a bike in the context of transportation until I was in college at Tufts. Then I started biking around Boston. It was my first experience as a lover of cities.
Biking is cool, because I get to know a city in a way that I don’t get on a transit route. I’m getting to see how the streets connect. It’s amazing – when we travel the subway, we live through subway maps and stations. The city is an abstract thing. But when you’re on a bike, you recognize how neighborhoods blend together. When I was in Boston, I didn’t have to rely on the Red Line to get to work or hope the shuttle bus was on time. I remember it gave me that sense of freedom.
How did your love of biking lead to founding Oonee?
As I biked more often, I ran into problems. “Oh, I got a flat, who’s going to fix it? Oh, someone stole my handlebars, what do I do?” For many people in cities, biking is their life. They’re road warriors. In the 21st century, we have so many apps for concierge experiences, especially for cars. So when something happens or goes wrong, you have someone to call. But we don’t have that with bikes. It’s like the Wild West — you’re on your own.
That’s where the idea for Oonee was born, it’s part of the romance here – that you can integrate the independence of a bike with having someone to call when something goes wrong. I realized that until we get to that kind of experience, people aren’t going to take bikes seriously. The Wild West is not acceptable for a vast majority of people.
What is the core problem Oonee is solving?
America has a big problem. We don’t build infrastructure. Here in New York, we have 472 subway stations, and 95% of them were built before 1965. So we’re largely standing on the shoulders of those who came before us – the bridges, the tunnels. Rather than having conversations about building new things, we’re trying to replace what’s already here.
We wax poetic about bikes and scooters and micro mobility becoming a big part of the urban landscape of the future, but we haven’t made a commitment to building basic things like parking infrastructure. Compare that to the 3.5M free car parking spaces on the curb. We require buildings to build garages for cars. So we know secure parking is pretty important for vehicles. I don’t know why we think it’s not important for bikes and for scooters.
One out of every four households in New York city has experienced bike theft. We know that in cities across the country, it’s one out of every two cyclists that experiences bike theft. We know that theft is the leading barrier to entry to commuting on bike. So how could we possibly think we’re going to get to this future where 30% of all trips are on electric scooters if we don’t have a solution for bike parking?
What is Oonee’s role in reducing carbon emissions?
I’m not a math guy, but here’s some transient-property stuff: 30% of urban emissions come from vehicles and about 50% of all urban trips in New York city are under three miles, in cars. If we can get people who are taking cars to only take cars for journeys over three miles, we would reduce car trips by half.
We need to provide those people with compelling alternatives. If we can cut urban car trips by half, we’ll reduce emissions from 30% to 15%. That’s huge. When I look at Oonee’s role in this, I see us creating the kind of environment where cycling, as a key transportation alternative, can be competitive. I see Oonee as creating the vital infrastructure foundation that we need to reduce car dependency.
Selling to the public sector is complex. What are your biggest takeaways?
We’ve worked with some major US cities that have taught us key lessons —both on a macro level and on a micro level — about fostering successful public-private partnerships.
What often happens in government is what we call ‘death by a thousand cuts’, where no one says no, but they don’t say yes either and you end up sliced and diced until you’re not viable anymore. People don’t usually understand the twists and the turns in how you get from, “We’re interested,” to a signed contract. It’s a challenging landscape to navigate, you really need a champion in a big bureaucracy.
On the macro level, it’s all about advocacy. How can we create the firepower externally to show that people are excited about this? If someone is not moving fast enough, can you make the phone start ringing? How big is your mailing list?
When we were doing a launch event in 2019, we had a big problem. It was pouring rain. It was not supposed to rain that day. And we had to start working the phones because we knew that if elected officials turned up to cut this ribbon and there was no crowd there, they would never come back. We had to show our elected friends that people were watching, and they cared about this. So we were working the phones. “You’re still coming, right? It’s raining, but we still need you.” We were able to turn out at least a hundred people and it sent a strong message.
It really has turned into a cornerstone of how we approach our work. We deeply invest ourselves in advocacy and community relations. We have to win hearts and minds. We can’t solely rely on government to develop good policy because it’s the right thing to do, because that doesn’t help win elections. That’s reality. For every new idea, you need to show that the community is very excited to get something done.
What has it been like being part of the URBAN-X cohort? What were your takeaways?
Being a part of the URBAN-X experience has definitely changed the trajectory of our company. The Oonee Mini would literally not exist, at least in its current form, if it weren’t for URBAN-X’s Johan Schwind and Dean Dipietro getting together and helping to boost our renderings, which then broke the internet. Having that tangible support was game-changing for us.
Our biggest takeaway walking away from URBAN-X was the confidence it gave us. We were coming off a very tough 2020. It turns out that companies don’t buy out of home ads when people aren’t out of the home— and it was a critical juncture for us, because we had just launched. 2020 was supposed to be about proving we could monetize and that just didn’t materialize. So, instead it meant $2,000 in the bank and putting our entire staff on a 50% salary cut. But it also meant laying the foundation for the success that we are enjoying this year. The sales cycle we have this year is from all the work we did under the gun in 2020 when we didn’t know if we could survive.
At the end of 2020, we didn’t actually expect to get into URBAN-X. It was actually our fourth time applying, and I only applied because one of our investors said we should try again. We were deeply skeptical until we actually started. I still have the rejection letters from the previous attempts in my inbox.
Written by Katerina Athanasiou