How to Build a Successful Startup: Key Takeaways from Northwestern’s eo Bike-Share

How to Build a Successful Startup: Key Takeaways from Northwestern’s eo Bike-Share

On April 1, eo — a startup founded and run by Northwestern students — launched its bike-share system on campus.

Using an app called Koloni, eo subscribers can unlock any nearby eo bike and ride it to any bike rack on campus. Once the rider parks the bike at the bike rack, they can simply end the ride on Koloni and the bike will automatically lock again.

The system’s dockless bike-share model has garnered significant attention from students and faculty alike. Within the first week of their release, the 40 eo bikes in eo’s inaugural fleet were used for 600 rides spanning a total distance of 275 miles. “It’s crazy to see how far it’s come,” said eo founder and Weinberg junior Drake Weissman. “The ridership’s been there for sure.”

Of course, running a startup is never easy, especially for undergraduate students. Many students suffer from a lack of know-how, whether it be in early-stage capital fundraising or effective marketing. Naturally, students who fall into this category might wonder: what are the keys to success for undergraduate startups like eo? NBR investigates.

Weissman emphasizes that all aspects of eo’s business model are centered specifically around serving the Northwestern community. “We wanted students and staff to get to classes, meetings, and wherever else they need to go efficiently and affordably,” said Weissman.

George Javitch, a Weinberg first-year and current eo user, finds eo to be particularly useful for students who need to commute between North and South Campus. “I have a class that ends in Tech at 10:50, and another one at Locy at 11. It’s not always easy to walk that distance in 10 minutes, so I’ve definitely been using eo for convenience.”

eo also tries to make its bike-share service as affordable as possible. The service offers unlimited 1-hour rides for an entire academic quarter for a one-time payment of $30. Members who signed up before April 1 were also given an early bird discount of $10, meaning they only had to pay $20 for unlimited rides. Given that many students are on a tight budget, this low cost of subscription appeals directly to both the undergraduate and graduate population at Northwestern.

Lastly, all eo bikes are primarily colored in a distinct Northwestern purple. This is a visual statement of eo’s mission, which is to eliminate barriers between different parts of the Northwestern community. Weissman believes this visual element allows Northwestern students and staff to realize that eo is truly “for Northwestern,” incentivizing them to ride the bikes for themselves.

Part of what has contributed to eo’s success is that the eo team constantly strives to raise user satisfaction by responding promptly to comments from riders and other members of the Northwestern community. “Right now, we’re listening very closely to feedback and reaching out to a lot of users to see what works for them and what doesn’t,” said Weissman.

Some users have expressed that finding the bikes is not as easy as they hoped, since the app only shows the number of bikes at each rack instead of individual bikes’ locations. “There have been times when I had to do a little bit of [manual] tracking,” noted Javitch. This feedback did not go unnoticed, and the eo team is currently working to improve GPS signaling and the user interface to make it easier to locate the bikes.

Members of the Northwestern community have also voiced their concerns that the eo bikes would be mistreated or abandoned, which has been a major problem for dockless bike-shares in other parts of the world. Such neglect would lead to congestion on campus roads and sustainability concerns for eo.

To ensure this scenario does not play out, eo is currently developing a feature that will require riders to take a photo of the bike once they park it. Weissman added that the eo team is “coming out with safety material like videos and FAQs to educate users on proper guidelines” for using the bikes.

eo does not hold a monopoly over the bike-share scene at Northwestern. This is due to the existence of Divvy, a bike-share system owned by the Chicago Department of Transportation. Three of the 580+ Divvy stations in Chicagoland are located on the Evanston campus at Chicago & Sheridan, Sheridan & Noyes, and University Library.

Given Divvy’s presence on campus, one may wonder why eo felt the need to launch a new bike-share system. In response to this question, Weissman revealed that the eo team had conducted over 100 user interviews prior to launching its service and found that “many responders didn’t even know what Divvy was.”

Furthermore, interviewees who were aware of Divvy expressed that it was inconvenient because they had to “go out of [their] way” to grab or drop off a bike at one of the three stations. “With eo’s dockless model, you’re able to drop the bike off at any bike rack on campus,” said Weissman. “So it solves the problem that people have [with Divvy].”

A cost breakdown also reveals the benefits of using eo over Divvy. eo provides unlimited 60-minute rides to users at $30/quarter, while Divvy’s University Membership gives riders unlimited 45-minute rides at $75/year. For most students — who are on campus for three quarters each year — this is the equivalent of $25/quarter. eo, then, has a lower cost per minute of unlimited rides ($0.50) than Divvy ($0.56).

The most striking difference in cost, however, is the late fees. eo charges a prorated fee of $2 for every extra hour. An eo rider who goes one minute over the allowed time, therefore, only needs to pay $0.03. On the other hand, Divvy charges a flat rate of $3 for every extra 30 minutes. This means a Divvy rider who exceeds the permitted ride length by one minute must pay the full $3 in late fees — nearly 100 times greater than the fee that eo would charge.

Weissman initially conceived the idea for eo in Innovate for Impact, a course held by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Northwestern. “[Innovate for Impact] was great because it gave us a space to ideate,” remarked Weissman. Consulting with Farley faculty — both in and out of the classroom — helped the eo team prototype its ideas and launch its first mini-pilot last summer.

Another resource that eo benefitted from was The Garage, Northwestern’s startup incubator. Weissman’s involvement in The Garage’s Little Joe Ventures Fellowship — a program that focuses on assisting undergraduate entrepreneurs — allowed the team to meet regularly with business mentors and receive seed money for their Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 pilots.

eo also made headlines in February when it placed second in ImproveNU, an annual pitch competition hosted by Associated Student Government. The organization received $3,500 in University funding through this event, allowing the eo team to further develop their project.

Although eo currently operates only at Northwestern, the team hopes to expand to other universities in the U.S. in the coming years. “Hopefully we can have it be accessible to everybody, so that other campuses can benefit as well,” stated Weissman. “But we definitely want to focus on getting this [pilot program] right first so that it works exactly for Northwestern.” With its progress so far, eo is right on track to accomplish this vision — and more importantly, it continues to set a great example for budding student entrepreneurs who wish to launch startups on campus as well.

How to Build a Successful Startup: Key Takeaways from Northwestern’s eo Bike-Share

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