With its planned global expansion, Chinese dock-less bike-sharing company Ofo wants its yellow bikes to be a familiar sight around the world

Elaine Zhu

Ofo’s trademark yellow bikes now number 2.5 million, with over 400 million rides taken in 46 cities around the world

“The act of bike-sharing could someday become a lingua franca, connecting people around the world,” said Dai Wei in a speech this Thursday at the Boao Forum for Asia, a high-level meeting for Asian leaders in government, business, and academia held in Hainan annually. Dai, the 26-year-old founder of China’s wildly successful bike-sharing startup ofo, is the youngest entrepreneur ever to address this prestigious forum.

In 2009, Dai Wei, Zhang Siding, and Xue Ding met at a Peking University cycling club. In 2017, the trio and two other former Peking University students are running China’s latest unicorn—ofo, the bike-sharing startup currently valued at US$1 billion dollars. In a country that worships car ownership and bought 28.3 million road-clogging, smog-emitting, highway-choking cars in 2016, ofo’s innovative cycle-sharing platform has helped China’s younger generation rediscover the joy and convenience of biking.

Ofo’s trademark yellow bikes now number 2.5 million, with over 400 million rides taken in 46 cities around the world. In China, it has captured 51.2 per cent of the market share and is first in number of app downloads, number of users, number of bicycles, and average daily rides.

Ofo is the pioneer in China’s burgeoning dock-less bike sharing industry, where users find a bike using an app and park it anywhere without worrying about finding a nearby dock. In old bike-sharing programs, like New York City’s Citibike, the expensive cycles are borrowed from and returned to docks in inconvenient locations. Citibikes, at US$163 dollars a year, are also prohibitively expensive for many.

The sharing-bicycles in China, in contrast, are well distributed throughout the city and are among the world’s most cost efficient: a mere 1 RMB (US$0.15) an hour for a sustainable and comfortable alternative to the crowded metro or the grid-locked highway.

Also read: Ofo pushes ahead of rivals with 10 million daily rides

Since early 2016, dozens of companies have attempted to carve out their own niche in the market: Shanghai-based Mobike, Shenzhen-based Bluegogo, Ningbo’s Hello Bike, and Chengdu’s 1 Step Bike are among those playing for dominance.

Ofo

Competition in the rapidly growing Chinese bike-sharing sector is fierce. But Ofo believes it will come out on top because the company’s DNA is firmly in the sharing economy. Their business, like Uber’s, is based on connecting their users to vehicles, and not on making vehicles. Ofo bikes are manufactured independently by Chinese bike companies, including the iconic Flying Pigeon, Fujitec, 700Bike and Phoenix.

The platform also encourages users to register their own bikes as Ofo shared bikes in the future. Dai Wei’s participation in a Boao roundtable celebrating the sharing economy underscores his commitment to the model of development.

The sharing model

At Boao, Dai Wei and the CEOs of Didi and Xiaozhu.com — a home-sharing site in China — discussed the rapid expansion of the Chinese sharing economy, and expressed hope that people of all backgrounds and social levels can reap the benefits of sharing resources.

The model is not new. Uber normalized sharing cars; Airbnb made home-sharing a player in the vacation, short-stay, and long-term rental markets. Ofo’s founders see bicycles as a logical next step. Ofo flips the script, and will use its success in the world’s most populous country to provide a firm footing for an overseas expansion.

Dai and Ofo’s plan is ambitious, but Ofo’s modern offices in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s Silicon Valley, are full of bright, ambitious people who have every hope of dominating the world’s bike-sharing market.

Ofo is backed by some of China’s biggest tech companies — Didi and Xiaomi have invested in the bike-sharing startup, and Ofo also counts DST, Citic Private Equity, Matrix Partners, and Coatue Management as supporters in their latest successful round of fundraising that brought in an eye-popping US$450 million.

Even Apple’s CEO.Tim Cook has noticed the company, visiting the Beijing offices in March of 2017 to inspect Ofo’s technology and bike fleet. The founders of Ofo are part of a new generation of young Chinese entrepreneurs who are transforming China into an innovation-led economy.

Tim Cook with ofo


Dai, it is apparent, is not afraid of thinking big. As he remarked in an interview conducted before, “In the future, our bright yellow bikes will be accessible anytime, anywhere, in every city in the world.” An Ofo user who commutes to work in Paris could use the same app to ride the same type of bike on a business trip in Buenos Aires or on vacation in New York.

Flexibility and familiarity

Ofo’s goal is to give its users both flexibility and familiarity in any location, to build a smaller, more interconnected world where Berliners, Beijingers, and Bostonites are connected through the ability to explore their cities on a bike.

Ofo’s push towards globalisation may well be a very profitable move. Ofo started its operation in Singapore this February and has launched thousands of bikes in the city. Local press has been glowing, and tens of thousands of Singaporeans have used the bikes. Ofo’s bet that their system of a convenient, healthy, and environmentally friendly ride will be a hit overseas is paying off. The company has also been running trials in the US and the UK and is expected to expand to 10 countries by the end of 2017.

Ofo is changing the way people move about the city with a model based on a shared social-livelihood. They are proud of their efforts to build a fitter, more active, green society that is not bound to cars and congestion.

It is Dai and Ofo’s hope that people of all nationalities, races, cultures, and backgrounds can experience the magic of exploring the world by bike. Dai believes, regardless of any individual company’s economic success, dockless bike-sharing is bringing about a more sustainable future.

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