Many young businesses would likely balk at a major expansion during a pandemic, but the co-founders of a University of Toronto e-scooter start-up identified a unique opportunity to grow.
The startup, named Roll Scooters, was co-founded last year by CEO Richard Cao, a U of T Scarborough alumnus, and Arda Erturk, who is an undergraduate student.
It's been a remarkably quick rise, having recently rolled out the service in two cities: Calgary and Ottawa. And more are on the horizon.
“We’re hoping next year cities like Vancouver and Toronto will follow suit as people look for transit options where they can practice safe social distancing,” says Erturk.
The pair met as undergrads while organizing an Earth Day event at U of T Scarborough and began talking about the potential for e-Scooters in Canada. In March 2019, they went to The Hub, U of T Scarborough’s entrepreneurial incubator, and began working with its director, Gray Graffam.
Cao, who had manufacturing connections in China to build the scooters, along with Erturk formed a team of six employees who helped launched the website, code the app, and looked for potential Canadian cities in which to launch. Roll offers a "dockless" service, meaning customers who rent them through the app can ride them wherever they want and leave them anywhere after they're done.
After a successful trial in Kelowna, B.C. last year, Roll expanded into Calgary this past May with 500 scooters, and this past week in Ottawa with 80 scooters.
“Trying to operate and expand our business during COVID-19 has had its own unique set of challenges, but it’s also presented opportunities. People are recognizing micromobility as a safe and reliable transit option,” says Erturk.
Roll was all set to launch in Calgary, but with COVID restrictions in place they began to consider other plans, including private rentals. In May, the municipal government at first allowed Roll a limited number of scooters to rent, and soon after they began to see an uptick in use.
“We saw a lot of recreational use, so people just trying them out for the first time, but we also saw a trend that people were taking shorter trips, and more trips in the evening. This means they were commuting back home from work, which was great to see,” says Erturk.
Launching during COVID also meant introducing new cleaning procedures, including sanitizing scooters twice per day, and encouraging customers to sanitize their hands before and after use.
Electric scooters, known as e-scooters, are battery-powered scooters that have exploded across Europe and the U.S. in recent years. Users are able to find, unlock and rent the scooters through mobile phone apps. In Canada the industry remains very much in its infancy, mostly due to initial safety concerns.
“We’ve made the platform of our scooters wider and heavier than most U.S. companies, which makes it more stable. Our wheels are also larger to help prevent them from getting caught in curbs or uneven street surfaces,” says Erturk.
He adds there are also some unique challenges that come with operating in Canada, namely the weather. Roll can usually operate from March or April until November, depending on local bylaws, but during the down time in the winter months he says they’re able to focus on making software and hardware improvements.
Roll plans on looking for more opportunities to expand into other Canadian markets, particularly in Toronto, which is set to launch a pilot project for e-scooters in 2021. Meanwhile, the company will soon be selling their retail scooter models through Kickstarter and their online store.
Erturk says with many municipalities around the world looking at ways to divert more cars off increasingly busy downtown city streets, there is opportunity for growth in bicycle, e-bike, and e-scooter rental businesses in the near future. He’s also been encouraged by the welcome they’ve received by local business improvement areas, which are happy that it offers potential customers greater access to small businesses.
“E-scooters, and micromobility in general, offer a great opportunity for cities. People living in cities are demanding safe, clean, and reliable modes of transportation beyond cars. I think this goes hand-in-hand with creating more livable cities.”