The CEO of one of the companies rolling out new e-scooters on Adelaide’s streets, Tom Cooper, sits down with InDaily to discuss his ambitions for the nascent transport mode, his grand plans for South Australia and their implications for the private car.
Ride RIDE CEO Tom Cooper. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily
Tom Cooper was born and raised in Adelaide, and educated at St Peters College before starting digital allied health reservation business Nextin Bookings and later leading Kubofit – a fitness app business eventually sold to the corporation that owns own Goodlife, Jetts and Fitness First.
Now, he’s back in Adelaide, working as the CEO of Australian startup Ride: one of the two companies that pipped Lime at the post this month to secure six-month permits to roll out of hundreds of electronic scooters on city footpaths.
Cooper has grand ambitions for the business and for the battery-powered scooters.
He believes they will form a key part of a radically different, integrated future public and private transport system for South Australia and beyond.
InDaily: Do you come from a family of businesspeople?
Yeah, Dad (Richard Cooper) has had his own accounting practice in Adelaide forever and my extended family have all always run their own businesses. We all love South Australia. We all grew up here. If you’re prepared to work hard, it’s a wonderful place to do business.
What brought you back to Adelaide?
The opportunity. The (Adelaide City Council) permit came up and we had to demonstrate a number of key characteristics that the council was looking for. We successfully did that and we were ecstatic when they called to say that we’d won the tender. The City of Adelaide has been really progressive in this. Brisbane is the only other city in Australia that has legalised shared scooter usage. It’s really exciting.
Tell me about Ride’s e-scooters. What makes them different?
Our handlebars are five inches wider than others you’ll find on the market. That’s purely from a stability point of view: once you hop on you’ll feel that you’ve actually got a bit of movement and you can relax a little bit. A lot of other units on the market (contain batteries) in the front shaft. This makes them very top-heavy.
Our battery is in the base, so we have a much lower centre of gravity. We’ve got a rear brake on the back wheel like you’d have on a Razor scooter – a kick-down break that works, and we’ve also got a bicycle-style handbrake, like you’d find on any pushbike – rather than some of the other companies, which use electric brakes.
How many of your e-scooters are on the streets in Adelaide?
Today we’ve got close to 100 on the streets and we’ll just be scaling up as we need. We’re here for six months and our plan is to provide the safest possible solution for the people of SA and scaling up gradually is the way to do that.
How quickly will you scale up the numbers?
We’ll probably reach a number of about 400 by early May. Then, it’s just a case of watching demand. If demand drops off, we’ll put less out on the street and if it increases we’ll (do the opposite). That will be a day-to-day proposition. We’ve already seen that between 6pm and 8pm in the evenings is one of our busiest times, with people commuting home.
Can you know, at this stage, whether e-scooters area a sustainable business?
Yeah, I mean definitely it’s a viable business long-term. Like any business, we have our challenges. We need to keep scooters on the street, we need to keep people safe using them and we need to keep helmets available.
But we’re pretty confident South Australians have taken to it. They love it. We get people knocking on our office door saying ‘hey have you got any more scooters?’ There’s nothing more satisfying from our perspective than seeing someone’s happy face as they’re scootering past. You never see an unhappy person riding an e-scooter.
It’s the first business that I’ve ever worked in where there’s just inherent demand. In a lot of businesses, you have to spend a lot of time marketing and selling to people. With the scooters, people want to try it and once they do they often stick with it and use it regularly. We’ve been really impressed over the first eight to 10 days with repeat usage.
Where can you find e-scooters around the world at the moment?
In the US, Europe, Asia.
How long have e-scooters been around for?
Almost two years in the US, now; 18 months in Europe. It’s becoming quite established and you’re starting to see some of the biggest players in the world enter this space.
What is the link to Adelaide pedicab business EcoCaddy?
A lot of the (environmental) benefits of people riding the scooters is diminished because of the cars it takes to pick them up and charge them, and put them back out onto the street.
Being from Adelaide, I’d seen EcoCaddy around. I knew Daniels (Langenberg, EcoCaddy founder), so I reached out to him just when the council tender was released. I said: ‘hey, we’ve got this idea that your caddies – battery powered – would have trailers on the back of them that could go around and pick up scooters’. We had the first caddy go out and do that last week and it was really, really quick. And there are huge advantages to it. A caddy can pull up on a curb or in a slipstream; it can ride through a park.
EcoCaddy will, within three months, be collecting 80 per cent of our fleet off the streets.
This is something that’s not happening anywhere else in the world. We wanted to bring it to South Australia. We’ve got the most environmentally efficient and friendly pick-up and drop-off solution for e-scooters in the world.
South Australia needs to be promoting things like that. We are at the cutting edge.
That might work if you lived in Mile End, but you wouldn’t think that someone far out into the suburbs would be taking an e-scooter all the way into the city.
Then hopefully they’ll jump on the train. Then hopefully when they get to the city they’ll know that they can get around really easily.
We need to integrate train travel, car share, scooters, all into one platform, so that when you leave home in Reynella or Plympton and you need to get to North Adelaide (a mobile application will let you know to) catch this train, and when you hop off this train there’s a scooter reserved for you and you can jump on the scooter and you’re there in 45 minutes.
That’s our big goal: we want to get cars out of the CBDs as much as we can, open them up.
We’re sitting here in Ebenezer Place. It’s one way and there are a few car parks and it’s beautiful. That’s what we want to create throughout the city. I know during the Fringe they close Rundle Street. Creating more opportunity for people to interact with shops and move through a city rather than just driving through it is great not only for the show owners but for the culture and the vibe.
What does the future of share-mobility technology look like from your perspective?
Scooters will evolve. What we’re riding now, potentially in 12 months will look slightly different. We’re focused on employing South Australians. We brought our team over from Melbourne to train them. We want South Australians to be skilled in product design, battery technology and safety features that can be introduced. One of the biggest challenges that every company in the world faces is helmets – how do you keep track of those? At the moment, it’s an honour system where people hang them on the handlebars.
How many employees do you have in South Australia?
Four, currently full-time and we’re just finalising the fifth person’s full-time contract. And then we’ve got about nine casuals – and that’s going to be up to 20 over the next couple of weeks.
Have you moved back to Adelaide permanently?
I’m here for the next month while we set up and then I’m back to the operations – whether that’s in Melbourne or another city in Australia. We’re actively looking to expand throughout Australia at the moment.
How do you manage the scooters on a day-to-day basis?
We use digital tools to see every scooter, every ride that’s happened. We can see the route that was taken, the time, the distance, who the rider was at that time. We get warnings if they hit geo-fences (boundaries of the permit area). We get warnings if they are tipped up for more than four minutes.
And we send teams out to pick up scooters that are in vulnerable areas, areas where they are not going to be used and rebalance them throughout the city. We have certain areas where we deploy scooters in the morning, and we have certain areas where we re-balance them in the evening.
What does your day look like?
I start at about 5am most mornings. I review the data and emails from the night before to make sure that everything has run smoothly. I grab a quick breakfast and head to the office by about 7am. From there it’s just ensuring everything has gone out to the right locations, look at data and how we’re going to improve. Then it’s monitoring rides, picking up any scooters that need to be re-balanced into more popular areas and then usually finish up around 8pm in the evening.
Are the scooters manufactured in Australia?
No, they are designed in Australia. But we manufacture in China, like everyone else. (Nonetheless) part of our focus in Adelaide is working with local manufacturers and designers to create market-leading technology around batteries.
What do the next two or three years look like for you?
That’s a pretty difficult one.
But you must have a plan. What’s the plan?
We hope to have 2000 scooters around Australia by the end of the year. And we’d love to have 10,000 scooters in the next two or three years. As cities embrace them, there will be the opportunity for them to move out outside the CBD areas and become a viable transport alternative to driving.
Adelaide’s getting worldwide attention for this. We’ve had companies reach out from all over the world to say congrats and good luck. People all around the world are watching Adelaide and this trial.