In this feature article, we connect with Leo Vero, Chief Operations Officer of Swiftmile, about how his company and Reinvently have been working together. Headquartered alongside us in Palo Alto, California, Swiftmile makes and deploys electric charging stations for eScooters and eBikes. Despite being a relatively new company, they are already a leader in this booming market, sometimes referred to as the Personal Electronic Transportation System (or PETS) industry. According to Grandview Research, it finished 2017 with a market value of $16.3 billion and is forecasted to reach nearly $42 billion by 2030, with a 7.6% CAGR!
Swiftmile is a near-perfect example of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) startup. Their veteran team of co-founders includes Colin Roche (CEO), Leo Vega (COO), Keith Moravick (CTO) and John McGraw (CBDO). Swiftmile provides a real-world example in how they used their MVP stage to radically refine and even accelerate their business plan. They’ve attracted some of the most innovative big company names as clients while creating a new niche within the PETS market. There’s an enormous amount of research and planning behind what Swiftmile is doing and we’re all likely to see it play out more in the near future.
Mark: Swiftmile has a really interesting and exciting story, with Reinvently being very proud of their role within the journey. It’d be great if we could start at the beginning of how Swiftmile came together – about any defining moment that convinced you, Colin, Keith and John that you really had something special?
Leo: Sure, as you noted, starting out it was just the four of us – Colin, Keith, John and me. We had known each other since high school but worked at different companies over the years. At the time, pedal bikes were the mainstay and products like Segway were just starting to meaningfully push the PETS market. Our thesis was that the BikeShare mode of the Micro-Mobility trend like we’re seeing now, would eventually be electrified.
We focused on the commuter’s last mile to work, in part owing to the second phase of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. At the time, there was nothing else really out there that we could buy into, so we set out to test our idea starting by incorporating as a Delaware Corporation in January of 2015 and developing our business plan.
Later that year, we applied to Verizon’s Powerful Answers competition by presenting a business idea that would serve commuters by getting to work without having to drive – get cars off the road, reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Verizon’s competition involved over 1500 companies from 78 countries, and while we didn’t take the top prize, we were one of the finalists to win $250,000. That was in December of 2015. It really helped get the company moving in earnest, providing the financial means for us to reach out to Reinvently, alongside attracting additional investors.
Mark: In the time between incorporating Swiftmile and winning Verizon’s competition, when did you know you’d need help with development and what were your primary considerations in choosing a development agency?
Leo: From the start, we knew a development firm would be needed for at least three things:
- A mobile app for customers so they could engage with the eBikes and charging stations.
- A customized and very flexible backend.
- A very customer-oriented database to handle our fleet and battery management systems.
Ideally, we wanted an agency we could keep throughout the entire development process. One of the most important criteria was the ability to work with us to help create and define the requirements of our business concept – not just what we defined for them.
We knew how we wanted the business to work and how users would interact with us, but didn’t have clearly defined specifications for developers to work from. That was something we needed help to define alongside being able to track progress – to know where we were at any given time relative to what we needed to develop. That’s different from a lot of companies that have a platform and already have it specced out. When they look for outside development assistance, they shop it around.
Mark: So, part of your criteria was to find a development agency that could build what you needed but also serve as a consultant for you. Because there are other companies you could’ve gone to other than Reinvently, was there any other criteria that played a part in your decision?
Leo: As I was with IBM for many years, I’ve been involved with many software development projects. So, I’m comfortable relying upon a mix of onshore and offshore resources, and this was part of our plan from the beginning. I appreciate having someone with an onshore presence in helping with the project management but then also being able to realize the price advantage of skilled and competitive offshore developers and QC specialists. With a tight budget, offshoring helps you get much more value for your dollar – that’s also something Reinvently helped us with.
I’d say most companies are really good at what they’re building in their business. But I don’t think they always know what’s really working from a technology standpoint for mobile apps on the backend and with communications protocols. We’re not experts in that, so we couldn’t tell the developers the exact tools we want them to use. Part of what made Reinvently a great fit for us is that we didn’t have to. We told them the outcome we needed and their developers selected the best tools and practices from their knowledge of technology to help us build what is, to our knowledge, a best-in-class system.
Mark: Can you tell us about how Swiftmile has evolved from the MVP phase to where you are today?
Leo: The MVP was finished around April of 2017 and we launched shortly afterward, really aiming for large corporate clients here in the Bay Area. We started deployment in the summer of 2017 by getting stations and vehicles on the ground, then using them with real commuters to start generating feedback. We used SurveyMonkey with live users to get feedback in a standardized format. That helped us understand what they did and didn’t like, defining a list of items needing improvement.
We had regular calls with our software and hardware teams to share customer feedback, discuss the improvements and rapidly get to version 2.0 of our system. Now, we’re really into our third version because we’re incorporating new eBikes, eScooters, and other PETS. A large part of that owes to the market change which started to rapidly emerge in early 2018.
While very focused on the eBikes system, suddenly we saw lots of these electric scooters hitting the streets. So, we quickly went to our hardware engineers to have them adapt our system to accommodate and support electric scooters, as well as the eBikes. Fortunately, this process went pretty fast as we already had about 90% of the solution developed. At this point, it only takes us about a month to integrate a new system. This is another extension of our system that will be ready soon.
Mark: Artem, our CEO, is very excited about Swiftmile’s growth, from the day Colin first walked in our door to being able to visit your facility today. How many people do you have working for Swiftmile now?
Leo: It’s funny as we always answer that question by including the team at Reinvently. We’ve been really lean from an employee standpoint – there’s only five of us. We use a lot of contractors though, which get us to about twenty. That includes an administrative team, our hardware, and firmware engineers, along with developers from Reinvently. We’re not a traditional company when it comes to hiring. Often, when companies in the Bay Area get funding, they hire a lot of folks increasing their overhead. Instead, we bring in contractors to help with projects which helps to keep us lean and give us more flexibility. We’ve taken a different approach and it’s worked very well for us.
Mark: That’s a tight integration across your company and indicates a very deep relationship. How did that evolve? Because that’s not the way it’s always done. There must have been some steps along the way where the closer collaboration the better the results became evident.
Leo: I think it’s something that Artem has been developing himself. You know he and his partners engage in a way where they really want to get involved in the customer’s business. To them, it’s not just a six-year time and materials kind of contract. I think you mentioned this as a consultative sales approach, but it’s a lot like how we approached product support with IBM back in the ’90s, and I think it’s very effective.
From my point of view as a company owner, it allows us to have a flexible budget for external resources who are experts. We don’t need to have a long-term commitment for as long as we’re growing and the business is going well. We can rely on them to be responsible for the software.
That’s very comforting when looking at how to evolve the software – not just for the improvements we may propose, but for their engagement in suggesting new development ideas to us. That, as you know, means generating all of the requirements in the ideation – they know what they can do to continue improving our product and the value it can bring for us. That’s something you normally don’t get when hiring folks for a job. I think this is a great approach for Reinvently to take with customers, and it’s a good fit for companies that don’t have a lot of resources. We liked the input Reinvently brought to the table.
Mark: Because an app has to cover so many different things, it sounds like that any mobile-first company should look at outsourcing as a means of orchestrating or buying “the best of everything” than do it in-house. How do you see it?
Leo: Yeah, I think the lynchpin to all of that is whether the software layer, the app, the backend or a combination of them have a direct impact on the operation of your business? If so, then I think what you just outlined is the right approach. Probably not if it’s simply an extension of your website, but I don’t think most companies would view it that way, and look at it more as a project.
In our case, the backend of the app is really critical to our entire business. That’s what really separates us from simply offering a charging plug that you can put anywhere in the field. It is the data itself, along with the way we manage it that’s actually part of our IP. It relies on a lot of remote fleet management capabilities that we developed from scratch. We view the code as critical for business.
Mark: What keeps you loyal, what maintains your patronage and keeps you coming back – as Swiftmile has evolved past the initial requirements it needed from Reinvently?
Leo: They have some really good people that I think have evolved with our business and have taken an interest in learning about the complexities of our business. They know what we need to do and have brought solutions. We continue to have weekly calls and we’ve got a great product manager and proactive technical lead developer who we can rely upon. So, it’s the people who are so important to any consulting firm or outside developer.
You may have a firm that had a great methodology, and that’s fine and may work great, sure – but ultimately if you don’t have folks involved week after week, then it’s hard to put as much value on them. It’s kind of the same with some of the big consulting firms here and others on the accounting and auditing side. If they aren’t engaged, it starts to become a money issue and that’s when you start looking around for a different agency. We haven’t thought about looking around for another development company because we’ve had the same folks involved with us week after week and they’ve been evolving with us. We really see them as an extension of our team and until that changes, we’ll probably keep working the same way.
Mark: That’s a huge compliment right there. I’d like to understand a little more about Reinvently’s role in your evolution because it’s one thing to be in for the ride in developing an idea and another to validate the idea upfront – it’s a different type of collaboration. I’m trying to understand the dynamics of that.
Leo: When we looked at the scooter side, we probably didn’t involve Reinvently completely from the standpoint that we weren’t too concerned about our systems. We really wanted to explore that part of the industry and see if we could play a role in it and take advantage of the market change. That’s something we decided and set out to do ourselves and once we were satisfied with the customer feedback, we were pretty quick to get on the phone with Artem and talked through the process.
After that, Reinvently started bringing us the solutions so we could move in this direction – like the tools, the payment system, the platform — and Amazon Web Services has worked very well for us… Reinvently’s team brought that to the table before we needed to research it, or ask.
So again, I think having a firm that does the research and presents that for you is great. Now you’re really just looking at making a decision as to whether you agree, have the money to do it, and want to move forward. That saves time and money in having to figure out what you need while trying to anticipate future changes in technology and figuring out if you can safely allocate your investments.
Reinvently did that for us, and I think that’s huge and again, here we are about 30 days away from launching the scooter platform.