GGV Capital’s Hans Tung and Zara Zhang interview Toby Sun, the co-founder of Lime, a GGV portfolio company that’s disrupting last-mile transportation in the US. A few months ago, we had Brad Bao, the other co-founder, on the show, back when the company was still called “LimeBike.” At that time, Lime’s operation was still pedal bikes only. A lot has changed since then. In a short span of a few months, LimeBike has expanded into 20 markets in four countries, changed its name to “Lime”, added other transportation modes including e-bikes and e-scooters to its services, and announced a $335 million funding round led by GV with participation from Uber, which will become Lime’s strategic partner in the electric scooter space. Lime is currently working with Uber to co-brand its scooters and make them available in the Uber app.
In the episode, we discussed why scooters have a future in the US, how Lime envisions its partnership with Uber, and whether Lime sees itself as a “super app” going forward.
ZARA ZHANG: Hey, everyone. For those of you who are in Silicon Valley, you are invited to join our next 996 community meet-up on September 27th, which is a Thursday, at 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the Stanford campus. You will be able to meet Hans and me in person, and also mingle with other like-minded people who care about tech in China.
We have held these meet-ups in four cities so far, and are always impressed by how global-minded and talented our audience is. The specific location will be included in a confirmation email that you’ll receive upon registration. You can register for the event at 996.GGVC.com/Stanford.
And as a reminder, the 996 community is open to all and you can join the community via WeChat or slack at 996.GGVC.com/Community.
HANS TUNG: Hi there. Welcome to the 996 Podcast, brought to you by GGV Capital. On this show, we interview movers and shakers of China’s tech industry, as well as tech leaders who have a US-China cross-border perspective. My name’s Hans Tung. I am the managing partner at GGV Capital, and have been working at startups and investing in them in both the US and China for the past 20 years.
ZARA ZHANG: My name is Zara Zhang. I’m the investment analyst at GGV Capital and a former journalist. Why is this show called 996? 9-9-6 is the work schedule that many Chinese founders have organically adopted. That is, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
HANS TUNG: To us, 996 captures the intensity, drive and speed of Chinese Internet companies, many of which are moving faster than even their American counterparts.
ZARA ZHANG: On the show today we have Toby Sun, the co-founder of Lime, a GGV portfolio company that’s disrupting last-mile transportation in the US and beyond.
A few months ago we had Brad Bao, the other co-founder on the show, back when the company was still called LimeBike. At that time, Lime’s operation was still pedal bikes only. A lot has changed since then. In a short span of a few months, LimeBike has become Lime, added other transportation modes including e-bikes and e-scooters to its services, expanded into 20 markets in four countries, and announced a $335 million funding round led by GV with participation from Uber, which will become Lime’s strategic partner in the electric scooter space. Lime is currently working with Uber to co-brand its scooters and make them available in the Uber app, so we thought we would have Lime on the show again, and this time with Toby, to discuss the company’s recent progress and the hot topic of the day, scooters.
So congrats, Toby and welcome to the show.
HANS TUNG: Welcome.
TOBY SUN: Thanks for having me. Great to meet you, Zara and Hans.
HANS TUNG: So it’s been a bit of an interesting journey since you started this process at the end of 2016.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, it’s actually technically early 2017. We incorporated the company January 3, 2017.
HANS TUNG: So thinking about it in Q4 more seriously, and then started incorporating it in early 2017. Obviously the first year throughout 2017 you were mostly in bike sharing. What prompted you guys to make the change or start the evolution and the shift or pivot into scooters?
TOBY SUN: It’s actually interesting if you look at our original plan from day one, right? We never positioned the company as a bike-sharing only company. So we started with bikes, and we named the company as LimeBike just to be more focused. Starting from day one, if you talk to some of our friends and even our investors, we had a bigger vision than just bikes.
HANS TUNG: Yeah, I remember that.
TOBY SUN: We believed Lime is, in the long run, a brand that’s empowering the urban living, starting from bikes and we’re adding new products and services along the way to fulfill different user needs. So I would rather call Lime a user-centric company rather than a bike share company or a scooter share company.
With that said, because we have a bigger vision to create a micro mobility platform to serve people, move people from A to B, so bike share is the starting point and we’re also constantly evaluating and innovating different products like e-bike, scooter, Lime is the first and only company in the world that has dockless bike share, dockless e-bike share and dockless scooter sharing. What matters to us is really finding what the users need, what the city needs and customize the program for them.
HANS TUNG: Right. So how did you go around testing and deciding that e-bike and scooter are the next product you should be offering in early 2018?
TOBY SUN: Electric products have very, very strong power and we’ve seen that from a lot of user research and user feedback that we collected from the field. So the electric product has been in our roadmap starting from day one. So we actually started our innovation on e-bike in Q2 2017 and then Q3 we started to look into scooter sharing, started deciding what was the right market for us and also what’s the right product mix to enter different markets to better serve users.
So it’s an ongoing discussion internally, but also what we are proud of is because we envisioned to create a platform that we can constantly innovate a hardware product, so it enables us to innovate and iterate the product really fast.
HANS TUNG: So from your perspective and the data you see, what is the common usage case for bike, e-bike and scooter, and what is the unit economics or payback period for these three? Are they different?
TOBY SUN: These three products have a very different kind of use case. For scooter sharing, we’ve seen very strong usage in the high-density areas and people use that to get from A to B much faster, and also the fun factor kicks in. So when you ride it, we see people smiling when they are riding scooters. And then e-bike, we’ve seen people using that for longer distance. So for example, for a scooter, the average distance is roughly a mile; for e-bikes it is actually 1.5X or sometimes 2X of the distance versus a scooter. We see people taking e-bikes not just for longer distance but also climbing the hill, right? So for example, in Seattle, people are choosing e-bikes for getting around a lot of the hilly terrains a lot more often than the other modalities. And of course the pedal bike, a lot of cities like that and also a lot of communities like that, because it’s more affordable, and some of the people who want to get a little more exercise, they still choose to use pedal bikes. So I would say, you know, the three products actually serve different needs.
HANS TUNG: The average use for the pedal bike is what, roughly half a mile, two miles?
TOBY SUN: The pedal bike is very interesting. Some people ride it for really long because they use that for exercise. Some people use that for a short distance, half a mile or 1.5 miles, so anywhere between that, I would say kind of similar to a scooter, so on average about a mile. So I would say the pedal bike really serves the equity program that we provide for a lot of the cities and also allows the users who want to do a little more exercise, it is a good fit.
Economic-wise, of course, the e-product is a lot better because people are willing to pay slightly more to have that better product experience. But the cost associated with that is also slightly higher, because we need to change the battery or charge the scooters more often than maintaining the pedal bike. So I would say slightly higher but not kind of crazily different.
ZARA ZHANG: I remember when scooters first took over San Francisco, everyone started talking about it. It became like, it was all over the news all the time and every time at the Caltrain Station, you see the scooters are gone in like one minute, especially during the transit hours. Why do you think scooters work so well in the US, and do you think it can be replicated in other markets like China?
TOBY SUN: Yeah, that’s a good question we ask ourselves all the time as well. So funny enough, we also see a lot of kind of a quick turnaround using the scooters, right? So sometimes our operational team can’t even put the scooters, touch the ground. So before it touches the ground, people are grabbing that away. So it’s amazing utilization and then the passion that we see from the users is just fantastic. We’re passionate about what we’ve seen so far, because we see the scooter could be a very interesting way to promote or excite people to embrace alternative mobility, other than just driving around. So that part I think is good.
And also back to your question, I think it is a very interesting culture-related product. A lot of people growing up in the US riding Razor scooters, push scooters, so there is actually a culture and a fun aspect of that and people are doing that as a kid, so that’s great. And also speaking about international, we’ve seen some of the European markets have a very strong and similar use case on the scooter as well. We’re not just in the US. We just launched Paris about three weeks ago, about to launch a feel more markets soon in Europe. We’ve seen equally good usage in Europe too.
ZARA ZHANG: Do you think it will ever work in China at all, given the cultural difference and just the condition?
TOBY SUN: Yup, so China is a wildcard, I would say, especially for the scooter. I’m not sure, but if I were to guess, I would say it will be utilized well, but will that be kind of a “few X better than bike”? That part I don’t know.
So I think bike is already doing a very, very good job already. So China, in general, cultural-wise it is a good fit for bike sharing. I think in order to get that marginal improvement on utilization and economics on a scooter by investing a lot more on the operational side for charging and maintenance, I’m not sure if that’s a wise kind of a go-to-market product for China. But I think it will be also utilized very well, it’s just the bike is so popular already and there’s less of a reason for people to use a different product.
ZARA ZHANG: To the extent that you can share, could you talk about the unit economics of scooters and the payback period as compared to bikes and e-bikes?
TOBY SUN: Unfortunately we can’t share too much about it, but it’s very healthy. I will say in some of the markets it is super, super good. We are profitable in many markets already and the companies are financially growing very, very well. We are expanding to many markets and we’re seeing the market become profitable with our operational efficiency very, very rapidly.
HANS TUNG: Obviously when one talks about scooter sharing in the US, another name that pops up is Bird. From your perspective, how well do you think they are doing and what differentiates the two services? Ultimately, do you think this is an Uber versus Lyft situation, or it will turn out to be something quite different? I think they raised, what, around $400 million in less than six months? And supposedly they raised about $2 billion, so it’s fast rising as well.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, Bird is a very respectful competitor. From our perspective, we welcome competition and we respect that. I think that’s something that will only get us better, push us to improve and iterate even faster.
HANS TUNG: And also help to educate the market.
TOBY SUN: Educate the market and then we can both grow. I think the ultimate goal is the same, just to bring more people off the car and then embrace the Lime green transportation. As long as we can achieve that, we think anybody who is doing this is respected.
In terms of how this market will play out eventually, I don’t have an answer. I think two companies competing could be an option, but also this is a market and space that requires a lot of different, I would say, skillsets and capabilities. For example, supply chain and hardware, there are a few things that we think really differentiate us from the competitors. One, supply chain and hardware, building the team capability, and then being able to scale the product with low cost and a high quality and then sustained that. So it’s hard. I don’t see many teams out there who can do it as well. That’s one.
And then two, the city relationships, right? So we take this part really, really seriously and starting from day one, we set the strategy to really work with the city. Now we’re in over 70 markets already across four countries, of course primarily in the US for now, but every single market that we go into and we’re operating now, we have either an agreement or SLA or MOU. So we really work closely with the city to develop something that we can localize and customize our program, not just going rogue and then rock the boat. I think it’s super important for us to establish that relationship. I think the city relationship, in the long run, will help us to win bigger.
And the third thing is really operational efficiency. We have two interesting kind of models to operate. One is the Juicer Program, which we crowd-source the people to maintain and charge the scooter for us, and also we have our own operational team. That is very important for us to maintain a higher level of quality of the operation that people see way less mis-parking, vandalism or problematic bikes or scooters in the market versus our competitors.
So I think competition is great, but the ball is in our court. We just need to focus on the most important thing and then do our thing well.
HANS TUNG: The supply chain, a lot of that is based in China, you guys are much better at operating and managing that piece than almost anyone else.
ZARA ZHANG: Has charging been a challenge? And how are you guys resolving that?
TOBY SUN: Yeah, charging is an exciting challenge for me, because this is an issue that has never been solved for a while across the space. So if you look at EV charging, if you look at some of the shared mobility which require electric kind of power, it has never been solved very well. Now we’ve seen very, very powerful tool using the Oracle platform, using our Juicer Program, allowing people like you or me to just go out, collect a few scooters every night with our personal cars to get that done.
So it’s very, very scalable and they’re very, very efficient. So I think this a very exciting and interesting challenge that as the cities and then our mobility is getting more and more electrified, we are kind of leading the way to solve that with our company-unique platform and operational effort.
ZARA ZHANG: So I also want to discuss your recently-announced partnership with Uber. The Uber CEO Dara has said on a number of occasions indicating that Uber wants to be a transportation super app. So besides the partnership with you guys, they also announced a partnership with Cargo which is a mobile convenience store, and at Fortune Brainstorm Tech, he said cars to Uber are what books are to Amazon. So they started with a premium service, UberBLACK, and then expanding into UberX, UberPOOL, and then food delivery, Uber Eats, and then partner with JUMP for bikes and now you guys for scooters. He said going forward they will have bus and metro systems show up on Uber as well. So how do you envision this partnership play out?
TOBY SUN: Yeah, we’re super excited about the partnership with Uber. We will be cobranding in the market that we have, joint branding scooters and then we will also integrate our scooters in their app. We see our service very, very complementary to Uber, especially for the short distances, it is always better to either walk or use a bike or scooter to get around and it’s more affordable. So I think we’re uniquely positioned to do something that’s serving a lot of the users we both have for that short distance. I think we look forward to pushing this through together with Uber.
And also, the other thing we’re super excited about Uber’s partnership is around international. Uber has a very strong international footprint and we look forward to expanding quickly, internationally, together with Uber.
HANS TUNG: A super app is a concept that a lot of people connect to WeChat, but what a lot of people don’t know is that people in China were inspired by Facebook with the Facebook Connect as a super website back in 2008, 2009, with a single login. And then now you can see Uber borrowing the super app concept from WeChat or Meituan, which is a super app service in China, and to a lesser degree Didi as a super transportation app. You guys know both US and China markets extremely well. In what scenario can you imagine Lime might be a super app of its own as well?
TOBY SUN: That’s a very interesting idea and we’ve seen especially the Chinese companies or Chinese apps have done a lot of things way faster and then execute really, really solidly at a very fast pace. That’s something that we are always inspired as we’re growing our Lime business. I think for the near term, we still want to make sure that we are leading and owning this micro mobility space, and moving forward I think what matters to us is really still users, right? So what the user really wants and what the user can naturally use our app for. So I think we’ll leave that for users to guide us to move to more territory.
HANS TUNG: Sounds good. I mean, we have seen time and time again users come up with ideas for additional value-added services, so your users quickly, they are very good at leading you to new things.
ZARA ZHANG: What are your thoughts on other verticals you could expand into such as delivering food or goods?
TOBY SUN: We don’t know yet. I think a lot of areas are very, very exciting and then big markets and then also highly correlated to people’s daily lives and very close to the way that people are using our service. So definitely we want to carefully analyze what’s needed out there, what’s not being solved very well and then what we can do better. By considering all this, we’ll figure it out next.
ZARA ZHANG: I’m personally very excited for food delivery on bikes because that’s how it works in China and it’s so fast, because cars get stuck in traffic all the time.
TOBY SUN: And plus, we have a big basket. So on our bikes and e-bikes it fits two grocery bags, so it could be a good fit.
HANS TUNG: What are your thoughts in terms of what will be the future for last-mile transportation? Imagine what’s it like five years, 10 years from now with a lot more autonomous driving being more prevalent in this society? What kind of a last-mile transportation solution could it be out there and how multimodal could it be?
TOBY SUN: I would say for micro mobility, short distance, it will be either bikes or scooters or something else that we have not figured, but it will be more personalized, like fit one or two people, mostly one, and then very flexible, so you can basically hop on, hop off without waiting.
HANS TUNG: Some kind of pods or something.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, and it should be very affordable, so for that short distance, you don’t want to pay more than $5 or $4 for that. Anything that fits that criteria I think could have a very, very good potential. That’s one.
And then for longer distance, I think cars will be around for a long, long time. That is the current cars driven by people or autonomous driving. So I think for the longer distance, cars will be around for a long time, but what we care about is other than cars, what we can do. What can we do in addition to that? Bikes, scooters are what we are starting now, but also if there’s other forms of transportation that’s also solving this more efficiently and more affordably, we are also open to that.
HANS TUNG: Yeah. I mean we’re definitely bullish on local space, whether it is you guys or OfferUp in local commerce, it just seems there are a lot of things that can be done. Over time, having stuff delivered to you locally, have things paid for in some kind of mobile payment solution, you almost operate as an escrow service seems to make a lot of sense. I think you guys are at the cusp of doing something quite interesting starting with the transportation space, but there’s a lot more room for imagination with additional value-added services.
TOBY SUN: Of course. Yeah, we see the value and also we’re open for partnership, right? I think having partnership, not just like integrating with Uber but other location-based services will be really, really interesting.
ZARA ZHANG: So now that you’ve been running the business for a while now, has your vision of what the company could be evolved? How has it beaten or matched your expectations when you started out and what has surprised you?
TOBY SUN: It’s a good question. I would say surprising, but also expected. When we first started, we know that this area is big. This is not just a billion-dollar industry, but also potentially trillion-dollar, right? Because we’re touching people’s most frequent, highest frequent way of getting around, which is short distance. If you think about the way that you get around every day, counting all of the walking as a trip, I mean, the territory that we are tapping into is possibly 80 percent or 70 percent of your daily trips, including walking. So that’s an exciting area. We know it’s going to be big and we know the solution that we provide is something the current alternatives are not solving very well, or providing as a more efficient way for people to get around.
So we’re pretty confident about our product and the market and also we’re proud of the team as well. So putting all this together, I would say things are expected growing relatively fast, but also it’s somewhat surprising to me that the cities are also embracing this a lot faster than some of the technology innovation in the market in the past. So when we talk to the cities, a lot of the cities are a little bit skeptical, but primarily around how is this really going to solve our problem? But I think the vision is aligned.
HANS TUNG: Do the cities react differently, bike sharing versus scooter sharing or e-bike sharing?
TOBY SUN: Yeah, it’s definitely quite different. So bike share is a familiar area for cities. They know how it’s working. We just need to educate them how dockless bike share is better than docked and then how is it working and how can we do it differently than some of the other players in this industry.
So for scooters it is brand new, so it requires a little bit more education, but I think our reputation of managing this well, it’s important. That’s why we spent a lot of time and effort working with the cities, making sure the operations are in good shape so that we can serve more and more cities. But to answer your question, I think the readiness and the attitude from cities is a lot better than we thought. I think they’re welcoming anything that is reducing congestion and then reducing the pollution. That’s surprisingly fast from our experience.
ZARA ZHANG: Here in San Francisco we’ve seen a lot of changes with regards to policies. What do you think we can expect going forward, especially with regard to scooters?
TOBY SUN: San Francisco is working on a permitting program now. We are closely working with the city. We don’t know the exact time. What we’ve heard so far is anytime in August. We are thrilled to continuously work with the city to make that happen ASAP, because San Francisco, after we launched about three to four months ago, it just very rapidly became one of the very, very big markets for Lime. We’ve seen huge adoption. People love it, and then also the behavior of parking and then vandalism is generally very, very positive. We have seen way less vandalism and that kind of parking issue in San Francisco than the other markets. In San Francisco, we’ve had almost 100,000 users within just a few weeks.
HANS TUNG: That’s amazing.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, so considering that San Francisco only has 700,000 people, so that is one-seventh of the total population, and we are really working hard to get back to San Francisco and we are patient.
HANS TUNG: Some of the other cities seem to be much more open, like Dallas, for example.
TOBY SUN: San Diego.
HANS TUNG: San Diego.
TOBY SUN: Seattle.
HANS TUNG: Is there any general pattern that exists with the cities that are much more open?
TOBY SUN: It’s hard to generalize, I would say. So it’s really city by city and sometimes it’s from time to time, right? For example, Seattle, when we talked to the city, their initial reaction was to push back from the city. They said, “Hey, we like this program. We think this possibly can be really powerful, but let’s wait a little bit, because we just had a failed dock-based program called Pronto. We want to figure out, what’s the next step?” And there, we waited for about two months and then continued to work with the city to try to convince them how we can do things differently. And all of a sudden, they opened that up. I think the cities also have the incentive to look for better options to solve the problem. So that’s one kind of extreme case. So pushback, you know, making us feel like, oh, it’s going to take forever, but eventually it turned out to be good very quickly.
And then some of the markets are generally very open, like Dallas and San Diego, they don’t have a cap and also they want to just test it out and see how it goes without setting a lot of limitations. I think if there’s one thing that we can generalize this pattern, I think they all come from the southern part of the country. It is warmer, there are a lot of tourists.
HANS TUNG: There’s a lot more traffic.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, a lot more traffic, and then they just are eager to find a way to—
HANS TUNG: To solve those problems.
TOBY SUN: To solve the problem, yeah.
ZARA ZHANG: On a personal level, what is it like to build an American company in a relatively regulated sector as a first-generation Chinese immigrant?
TOBY SUN: Interesting question. It’s definitely not easy, but also, I think to me it’s finding that sweet spot, right? So I think not many things are a good fit for me. So I think finding the proper market fit is important.
HANS TUNG: Right, the same applies to all three of us.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, but also I really like what Hans has mentioned about the past is about proper founder fit. So there are certain things I can do well, certain things I am possibly better just to stay behind the scenes as an investor and just work for that company. I think for this particular industry, I’m so proud that I can serve as a bridge between the US and China, empower the technology and product with the supply chain hardware capabilities that we have in China, and also coupled by the knowledge that I had by living in the US and working in the US in the past many years, to customize a program from an operational perspective, GR perspective 32:26, PR perspective, to make that work. So having that cross-border perspective and then capability, I think that’s something that I can offer for this business. I think that’s also one key differentiation for us to win, not just for the short term but also potentially in the long term. So that’s something as a founder and first-generation Chinese founder, I feel proud of.
HANS TUNG: We have said repeatedly on this show, on this podcast, that politics are local, but that fusion of technology, business model, idea, talent and capital is very global.
TOBY SUN: Global, yeah. I agree with that.
HANS TUNG: So your knowledge of what’s happening in China started with bike sharing, it definitely gives you a leg up in analyzing the potential in the US market. There are quite big differences between the two markets. As it turns out, it is scooter sharing that’s more popular in the US and the e-bike rather than the original pedal bike sharing. But you guys made a lot of changes in localization to make that work in the US.
As you expand to Europe and other regions beyond the US, what are the things you look out for and how do you make sure that you can continue to localize to the needs of the local consumers, in their local conditions?
TOBY SUN: Totally. There are two things that I think matters a lot when we’re thinking about international expansion. One is the market itself. Is it kind of similar to the US market in terms of the socioeconomics and then the willingness to pay? And then in general, the kind of open minded perception around bike sharing and then scooter sharing. So if there is room, I think that’s a good fit for us. That’s why we’re thinking about Europe and some of the more developed countries which we can add more value by leveraging what we’ve learned in the US. So that’s one around market.
And then the other thing is really about the team. One thing that we think that we do right, or I think we position around really well is that we set up a local team in the US and also in any markets that we go into and we trust the local team, we give them a lot of autonomy by still enabling them with our central knowledge and tools. But the autonomy is super important, so we want to replicate that and enable the local team and local hires to make the right decision for us, because we can’t understand everything single market ourselves. I think making sure that we mobilize the team remotely with the right incentive, with the right focus, is super important.
ZARA ZHANG: Do you envision our cities change as how we get around changes? So like maybe scooters and e-bikes requires its own infrastructure, and do think cities will actually build that and adapt our environment to how we’re getting around?
TOBY SUN: I do believe in that, and we are seeing that nowadays. We’ve seen cities are using our shared data to identify where people are riding more scooters and bikes and they are using that real data to make their own infrastructure decisions. So in the past, it was really an unknown area for them to decide hey, should we build a bike lane here? Should we add more bike racks here? And now they have the data. In Seattle, we know they’re working on that.
Also for bike and scooter parking, so in the past it was really just around bike racks, but dockless bike share and scooter share does not require any station, any physical location. So that provides flexibility for people to target, but also creates some challenges. So how to make sure that people can follow the rules? With our model, we actually work with the city to come up with a lot of white line boxes, just along the sidewalk where the cities are investing very limited capital to draw all this, kind of like street parking white zones for our bikes and scooters. We’ve seen that in South Bend, Indiana. We’ve seen that in Austin and then also Seattle, and we’re also spreading all these best practices around the country. So the cities are doing that already. We feel very, very happy about that.
And also the way that we’re changing people’s life now is in the past in the US, when people are going out, the way they’re thinking about transportation is can I walk, can I drive? Or maybe sometimes can I take a subway, if you live in New York or Chicago. In the future, we really want people to think bike or scooter or greener transportation first, if they feel walking is not an option for them, instead of starting with cars.
TOBY SUN: Right. You obviously have become very successful over the last two years as a founder and as a CEO, so I was very happy and glad to see that. If you look at your own background, what prepared you to do well in this opportunity, and what were some of the biggest lesson that you learned on the job over the last two years that you think would be very useful for young founders or first-time CEOs to learn from?
TOBY SUN: I would love to share more. So I started my career as a marketing guy. I was a marketing manager at PepsiCo. I was born and grew up in China. I worked in PepsiCo China for about six years. I launched Gatorade in China, I managed 7-Up, Pepsi Cola. I think that consumer product training is very helpful.
HANS TUNG: Super helpful.
TOBY SUN: I got a chance to work on operations, product innovation. I worked on the beverage formula and then package innovation, so that’s kind of similar to the way that we innovate the bike design as well, or scooter design, and also go-to-market strategy. So the CPG experience definitely helped a lot. And then after I came to the US, finishing my MBA, I spent a little bit of time in consulting which was great, it got me a lot of exposure to different industries. And also, I spent four years as a VC before starting Lime. The VC experience is definitely very rewarding and prepped me further to completely open my horizon. So I got a chance to look at so many interesting consumer-facing Internet companies which shared my vision.
So I love consumer products, I love creating and working on products that touch people’s lives multiple times, every day, and as a VC I got a chance to work with the founders and then to really continue that journey. But I’ve never thought about being a founder.
HANS TUNG: Being a founder yourself.
TOBY SUN: I think I’m open to that, but I’ve never thought about it.
HANS TUNG: Seriously thought about it.
TOBY SUN: Seriously thought about, hey by this time, I want to create my business. My biggest, I have two pieces of advice for the amazing people out there want to start their business. I would say two things. One, be patient. I mean, set a goal for yourself, but set a goal for yourself to learn instead of set a goal for yourself to really, I need to do this by what time. Which is great, right, but I think as a founder to start a business, timing and then everything you’ve accumulated in the past from a knowledge perspective will get you’re a long way, so don’t rush to start any business. That’s my biggest advice.
And then secondly, I think just keep the eye open and then always think about what excites you the most by looking broadly at what’s out there. And then you will find the product-founder fit eventually.
ZARA ZHANG: So what excites you now?
TOBY SUN: Making Lime the amazing consumer brand for the US and globally. I think it’s exciting to start Lime with mobility service first, so in the future, I really want people to consider Lime as a brand that they trust, a brand that can help them get things done, a brand that touches their life multiple times and then they feel very excited whenever they talk about Lime. So that’s something that I want to achieve, yeah.
ZARA ZHANG: Cool.
HANS TUNG: So how many employees do you have in the US now and how many do you have in China and elsewhere?
TOBY SUN: Yeah, we have a couple of dozen employees in China, and in total we have close to 300 already, employees around the globe. About one-fourth are in China, or one-fifth, but we are expanding really fast. We’re hiring. We’re looking to add another few hundred people to grow across the globe to support our international expansion, product, innovation, engineering work, government relationships, operations. Super excited, yeah.
ZARA ZHANG: A lot of our listeners are potential employees because they all know the US and China markets really well. So how can they reach out if they’re interested?
TOBY SUN: So first, download the app, Ride Lime. And then there is bikes or scooters or e-bikes, just try the product first and then form your perspective, because I mean, this thing may not be a good fit for you, right? I would love people to love the product and then love the problem that we’re solving first, and then think about if there’s any good fit. But we are open, just log onto our website on Li.me that’s the new website that we just- it’s a short domain name. And then we have plenty of openings out there for great people to join.
HANS TUNG: Right. And then as you know, our show is called 996 because we are impressed by the efficiency a team that does the 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. six days a week can achieve. What kind of work schedule do you guys keep and do you notice any differences amongst the different colleagues in different countries?
TOBY SUN: Yeah. For me, I’m 24/7. Seriously, seriously. People can reach me pretty much any given time.
HANS TUNG: Any time.
TOBY SUN: But I still sleep a little bit, but I enjoy my work so I think 24/7 definitely works for me, but it’s not the expectation for my employees or the people who work at Lime. But I think, you know, 996 is definitely something I’m super impressed by the counterparts or the founders, startups in China. I think that’s also something our team in China is doing.
HANS TUNG: Very common.
TOBY SUN: Without telling them to do so, they are voluntarily doing that now, right? And also that’s influencing and impacting the people’s perception in our org in the US. By seeing our Chinese counterparts working so hard—
HANS TUNG: And still very efficient.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, and very efficient and generating a lot of outcomes, good readouts, I mean our US colleagues are also working their asses off, right? So really, really hardworking. I think 996 is a symbolic term. But more importantly, I think people are working on something that they’re super excited every day, no matter if it’s early or late. I think the philosophy behind it is important. So it is basically work on Lime as your own business.
HANS TUNG: That’s right. It has to be some kind of mission-driven thing for people to want to spend that much time on it and enjoy it. We also notice that some of the other Chinese bike sharing companies that have come to the US early, like Mobike and ofo, seem to run into some issues. ofo has said they will pull out most of their operations in the US. From your perspective, what are the things that they have done right, and what are the areas they could have done better, with hindsight being 20/20?
TOBY SUN: Yeah, o fo and Mobike, we know the company well. We respect them as well. I think both companies have done tremendous, great work around the globe, especially in China. They pioneered the industry, so this is something that inspired us to start the business in the US, and we learned a great deal from them. And also the speed that they’re executing is really, really fast.
A few things I think has been quite challenging for them also, we try to avoid some of the pitfalls. Number one, I think having the local focus and then the local team really focusing on the market and then provide the support for the local market to iterate fast is important. That’s the number one thing.
Number two, I think really finding the right fit for expanding globally. So I think instead of assuming everything will work similarly as it does in China, maybe do a little bit more research and then pilot, small scale. So sometimes it’s okay to start late, that’s what we’ve done. We’re not the first one to come up with bike share, we are not the first one to launch e-bike, we are not the first one to do scooter, but we took — of course, once we think that through, we execute really fast. So finding that right balance, think through everything, think through the most important things and then execute and then run as fast as possible. I think that’s important.
HANS TUNG: That’s actually a great lesson. You don’t have to be the first. As you know, we’re an investor in Hellobike as well in China and they came from behind, six months later, and now they are number one. So execution is much more important than just rush to the market.
ZARA ZHANG: It’s a marathon.
HANS TUNG: That’s right, not a sprint.
ZARA ZHANG: So we’re going to the last part of the podcast, which is a round of quick fire questions, so just say the first thing that comes to your mind. The first one is, who is the entrepreneur you admire the most and why?
TOBY SUN: Steve Jobs. Great innovator, has a very, very kind of unique—
HANS TUNG: Perspective.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, a unique perspective and extreme level of product perfection, to really drive things through.
ZARA ZHANG: What’s something you read recently that you recommend?
TOBY SUN: Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to read.
HANS TUNG: Work and sleep.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, I don’t have much time to read, but there’s a book I always liked, From Good to –
HANS TUNG: Perfect.
ZARA ZHANG: From Good to Great.
TOBY SUN: From Good to Great, yeah, sorry. I was reading the Chinese version, but that’s a good book and I always got inspired by a lot of the things from the book.
HANS TUNG: Makes sense.
ZARA ZHANG: What do you do for fun?
HANS TUNG: What did you used to do for fun?
TOBY SUN: Well professionally I talk to the founders a lot, so as a VC I really enjoyed, I mean it.
HANS TUNG: I can tell.
TOBY SUN: Whenever I talk to the startups, I just love the passion, I love talking to the founders.
HANS TUNG: The founders like you a lot.
TOBY SUN: Thank you. I used to play golf and I used to play soccer. But now, these are all time consuming, so I save that. So now I will say in my spare time I do, I watch some drama just to get myself relaxed and then, but you know—
HANS TUNG: Chinese drama, American drama, Korean drama?
TOBY SUN: Like Silicon Valley.
ZARA ZHANG: Watch your life.
TOBY SUN: And try to go running once in a while. I think it’s so important to keep a work-life balance.
HANS TUNG: Sure. Kobe Bryant has a famous saying that he gets up at 4:00 in the morning and trains 20 years in a row. A lot of people will think that that’s a lot of hard work that he is making a lot of sacrifice, but he says to him, that’s ice cream. That’s something he enjoys. How do you feel and how do you and Brad feel about what you’re doing?
TOBY SUN: I can’t speak about Brad, but I think he probably feels the same. I think it’s really about finding your passion and then finding the thing that you can add value and sometimes it’s just really one or two things in your life.
HANS TUNG: That can be huge.
TOBY SUN: Yeah, that can be huge, that can be super, super meaningful that you’re willing not to put in money, you’re willing to put in your time and even your life. Maybe that’s a little bit too extreme, but this is one of the opportunities that I feel super excited and then I feel that I can add value.
HANS TUNG: And make a huge impact.
ZARA ZHANG: Well Toby, thank you so much for your time and we can’t wait to see where Lime will go next.
TOBY SUN: Thank you so much.
HANS TUNG: Thank you. Really enjoyed it.
Thanks for listening to this episode of 996. By the way, we also produce a weekly email newsletter in English, also called 996, which has a roundup of the week’s most important happenings in tech in China. Subscribers have told us it is informative and fun to read. The newsletter also features original content and analysis from Zara and me. Subscribe at 996.ggvc.com.
ZARA ZHANG: GGV Capital is a multi-stage venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley, Shanghai and Beijing. We have been partnering with leading technology entrepreneurs for the past 18 years from seed to pre-IPO, with $3.8 billion in capital under management across eight funds. GGV invests in globally-minded entrepreneurs in consumer and new retail, social Internet, enterprise cloud, and frontier tech. GGV has invested in over 290 companies with more than 45 companies valued at over $1 billion. Portfolio companies including Airbnb, Alibaba, Ctrip, Didi, Domo, HashiCorp, Hellobike, Houzz, Keep, Slack, Square, Toutiao, Wish, Xiaohongshu, YY and others. Find out more at ggvc.com.
We also highly recommend joining our listeners WeChat group and Slack channel where we regularly share insights, events and job opportunities related to tech in China. Join these groups at 996.ggvc.com/community.
HANS TUNG: I’m going to tell you about our sister podcast, Founder Real Talk. It is a biweekly show that gets real with founders about the challenges that founders and several other executives face, and also how they have grown from tough experiences. This show is hosted by my fellow managing partner at GGV Capital, Glenn Solomon at our Menlo Park office, produced by our colleague Fischer Yang out of our San Francisco office.
ZARA ZHANG: Past episodes of this show include Stewart Butterfield from Slack, Sarah Friar from Square, and Nate Blecharczyk from Airbnb. You can take a listen by searching Founder Real Talk in any podcast app.
HANS TUNG: If you have any feedback on this podcast or would like to recommend a guest, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.