Swapfiets • the story behind the blue-tired bikes

If you haven’t seen them yet, you have probably been living under a stone or you just came back from vacation. The ‘Swapfiets’ is taking over our capital city since last summer and it was a gift from heaven during the introduction week as everyone could instantly have a proper bike to use. The concept is pretty clear: “For a fixed price per month we offer you a bike, and we make sure the bike itself is always able to use.”

We’ve spoken with one of the founders of Swapfiets, Richard Burger, and discussed how the idea was born, the successes, the struggles, the future and of course we asked him some advice for potential future entrepreneurs like you. Let’s get to know this successful start-up:

You started Swapfiets together with Dirk and Martijn right? How old were you guys back then?

Yes, that was three years ago. Back then we were 22. Actually, the 7th of November we exist 3 years, but only this last year we are growing as rapidly as we do now. Before that, it was all conceptually finding out how it works. From August last year we grew from 150 customers to 18.500.

Since last summer you’ve been active in Amsterdam, am I right? So, you first started with the smaller cities?

Yeah, that’s right. Amsterdam is live since June this year. We knowingly did that, because Amsterdam is still that big scary city, haha. We started in Delft since we all studied there. Thereafter, you look at what’s the next best step. When you’re expanding to a different city, you have to deal with new unknown things: different people, different logistics, different largeness of the city. At first, you actually want to limit your new variables. That’s why our next step was to expand to similar cities like Leiden and Nijmegen. If these cities work out well, you’re going to look at bigger cities like Utrecht and that is exactly what we did. After operating in all these cities, we were confident enough to introduce Swapfiets to Amsterdam.

Let’s go back to the start, I suppose you’ve been studying at the TU Delft, but what did you study?

Yes, the three of us studied at the TU in Delft. I studied Maritime technology, something which has nothing to do with bikes, haha.

I’ve read that it was part of your thesis, so that’s not true?

No, that’s just some story on the internet. Swapfiets has nothing to do with our study. Yet, we did an assignment together and that’s the reason we met very often and talked about all kind of stuff. Then this one time during a conversation we came up with the idea behind Swapfiets. Why is the bike still the way it is nowadays? You have to buy it yourself, maintain it, bring it to a place to fix it when it’s broken, buy a new one if it gets stolen, etc. Isn’t there an easier way? Why can you subscribe for music or a car, yet not for a bike? Think about Spotify or Greenwheels. They make it possible to make use of a proper product for a certain price per month. That’s how we invented Swapfiets. We offer the bike as a service in the form of a subscription.

So did all three of you guys had the same ambitions to start your own company?

Yes. Together with Martijn we already had our own company and Dirk had a small one too. We had a bit of experience and the ambition was there from the beginning. With Swapfiets we all thought: Let’s do this and make the best of it. It will be exciting and we’re going to learn a lot. This hasn’t changed since we’re still learning and gaining experience. It’s becoming some sort of a dream if we look at how fast the company is growing.

Did you start all by yourself? Started with repairing some bikes with your own hands for example?

Yes, we had to. When we started, we used second-hand bikes. We had some sort of minimal viable product, which means that you’re testing in a very simple way if your idea works. We bought 40 second-hand bikes from Marktplaats (Dutch eBay), gave them a make-over and tried to put the bikes on the market via Facebook and a website. Within two weeks, the 40 bikes were rented out and from that moment on we knew that there was demand for it. We decided to go through with it.

What was the real decisive success? When was that?

Well, after the success with those 40 bikes, we thought about going to 100-150 bikes. Then we would still be able to pay for a warehouse and cover some other costs. At that moment, we had 150 customers to develop our concept. When we reached the 150, we had to close because we simply didn’t have any more bikes. But the customers were still flooding in till we had like 200 customers in queue. At that moment we thought: wow, this is not normal. Then we spoke with some investors and from there on it went very fast. We had the confidence by then that it would be a success. It’s all about the customers, without them we couldn’t be here.

Were there any setbacks?

Yes, there definitely were setbacks. Those 150 customers weren’t enough to pay ourselves a salary. Also, we were spending time at the warehouse almost every evening of the week, so our study suffered together with our social life. We realized that we couldn’t continue like this. 150 bikes weren’t enough and we couldn’t make a living out of it. So we had to stop or continue and go big. The last one is what we did of course.

Did you study a Bachelor or a Master when you started Swapfiets? And did you finish one or both?

When we started with Swapfiets I was still attaining my Bachelor and fortunately finished it. In the end I was also able to finish a Master study.

How many employees do you have now? What is the organization like?

We now have over 300 contracts. Those are in particular call contracts, from swappers and bicycle repairers that make sure customers have a proper bike available. We have a warehouse with a regional manager and we have our Headquarters in Delft. That’s where all the marketing, IT and Financial affairs are done.

Was it in the early stage that you already needed someone with Business studies experience? Or what helped you?

Well, at first it was just clever thinking by ourselves of course. But we benefitted a lot from coaching. We’re also a member of  “YES! Delft” incubator: a breeding pond of young companies where coaches help entrepreneurs with their company. That was very useful.

What are you and the other founders responsible for at the moment? So, what do you and your companions do for Swapfiets now?

Yeah, we’re in the middle of changes in tasks right now. Often when you’re the founder, you do a bit of everything. But on the scale this big it isn’t possible any more. We had to divide the tasks. I am responsible for the operational stuff right now, making sure that the bike will reach the customer and taking care of the customer. Martijn is taking care of new bikes and that they are available in the warehouses. Dirk is focussing on the financial things.

You’re actually doing things that you haven’t learned from your study, right?

No, not really specific. But during your study, you do learn to think logical for instance. We did a scientific study, so you learn about analytical thinking too: you have a problem, what are the conditions, what is the final goal and how to solve it etcetera. So in specific, no, I am not doing anything with boats, but I definitely do something with the things I’ve learned.

Where do you want to go now? What are the next goals? Is it still a lot of student customers?

Yeah of course we have a lot of students as customers because they were our first customers when we started. But what we see now is that in the big cities already 40 percent of the people who sign in, are not students. That’s a lot. We’re now offering the ‘Oma’ bike which is commonly known, but we expect to reach other segments if we offer other kinds of bikes. Bikes with gears or even e-bikes eventually. Then you can really reach other segments and focus on business-2-business too.

And tourists, are you planning to focus on them?

No, for now it’s just serving a bike for the Dutchman. We don’t want to be the next Macbike. Everyone knows that when you’re cycling on a red bike, you’re a tourist and you have to avoid them. Especially in Amsterdam you should know, haha.

But is going abroad the next step?

Yes, we’re figuring that out a bit. For now, we’re looking at what we need to accomplish that. Like what are the taxing rules for instance, and what are the requirements for the bike. In short, we’re looking at it, but the Netherlands is just bicycle country number 1 and there still is so much to achieve here.

Well then last but not least: What would you recommend ambitious business students at the VU who are planning to start their own company?

Yeah, I like that question, haha. Well a lot of people have a lot of ideas. In most cases it stays at just a good idea, but you really have to take action if you believe in it. Don’t do it on your own in your garret. If you have good idea get in touch with many people to figure out if your idea is worth it and if it has potential. Other people are going to ask critical questions which makes you think about all the aspects. If you think you have an answer for every one of them, then you have to find a minimum viable product. So you’re going to find a way to validate your concept with just a few resources. Then you really know if you have customers. Most of the time you will also find out what you have to improve. In short: talk with as many people as possible about your idea, after that you just have to do it on a very small scale which can validate your concept!

And don’t just wait till you finished your study, but start as soon as possible?

Yeah, haha. In my case it actually was a good moment. I had fewer risks, no job that I needed to quit, no mortgage, no household. The challenge indeed was to finish our study when Swapfiets was really growing.