Marathon Series: The Estonian bike sharing startup

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was surprised to learn that Estonia is one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world.

Kids start programming in first grade. There’s more startups here than anywhere else. Joining me here is Teet Praks. Teet is the founder of coModule, a bike and scooter sharing service.

I want to find out how he built it up.

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Teet Praks

Teet Praks

coModule

Teet Praks is the founder of coModule, a bike sharing service.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. I came to Estonia to get to know entrepreneurship here. To be honest with you, Teet, I’m going to be fully honest with you, when I was considering going to Europe, I thought Germany is the place to go. And then this guy, Ragnar Sass, am I pronouncing his name right? Look at me, I’m becoming Estonian. He comes to San Francisco. He’s the co-founder of Pipedrive. He says, “Andrew, I’m here to convince you to come to Estonia.” I said, “Great. It’s going to be interesting to go to Kiev.” He goes, “No, no. It’s Estonia go.” “Okay, great.” I pretended I remembered or knew where it was on the map.

I had no idea. But he was so full of fire. He so convinced me by telling me about entrepreneurship here in Estonia, that I said, “I’ve got to come.” Immediately on the spot, I committed to change my whole plans and come here. And then I started doing research. This country from what I understand is the most technically advanced country on the planet, right? Voting done electronically. How old are kids when they start to learn to program?

Teet: First grade.

Andrew: First grade. And Wi-Fi everywhere, internet everywhere, and really, per capita, from what I understand, for every 1,000 people, they have more startups here than anywhere else in the world?

Teet: That’s something with [Estonians 00:01:26]. I think Israeli is also pretty close to Estonia but . . .

Andrew: The idea that this existed and I didn’t know about it and that there’s so much innovation here and enthusiasm and optimism is why I came here. I want to discover entrepreneurship where it is. And so here I am. And joining me is Teet Praks. Did I get your last name pronounced right?

Teet: That’s correct.

Andrew: You guys rolled Rs here, huh?

Teet: R, yes we do.

Andrew: I saw a video of you. I am so ready to join your religion. Here’s why. You said, “Look at this picture of the world the way it was 100 years ago, then look just a few years later,” 100 years ago was horse and carriage and you circled the one car that was on the road.

Teet: In New York.

Andrew: Was in New York?

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: And then you said, “Look, I’m fast-forwarding,” do you remember how many years?

Teet: Ten, 15 years.

Andrew: Ten, 15 years, it was all cars. And you were saying things have not really changed since then but now it’s time to change. And I as somebody who now lives in California, where the weather is beautiful, I don’t understand why we’re so excited about being stuck in a car. And being stuck underground on BART is supposed to be a great thing. No way. You said, “Look, there’s a new world.” And I’m totally with you. Anyone who believes that entrepreneurship doesn’t change the world, that startups really have gotten flat and staid and whatever has not seen the dramatic impact, that just a few electric ride sharing scooters and bikes on the road have had on San Francisco.

Suddenly, they’re more of them out there, which means the city has to finally accept, hey, people want to be outdoors and they want to cycle to work and the weather is actually very accommodating. Let’s just finally build out these bike lanes instead of forcing cyclists to just cram in with cars and accept all the accidents. And that’s your vision. And so you created a company called Comodule. What you guys do is say, “Look, this is the world that’s coming. But you know what? There isn’t the software, there isn’t the technology to support this.” And I want to ask you what that means. But your vision is we are going to create it. You are very proud to be Estonian. I don’t know why. I’m going to ask you about that. And you’re doing incredibly well.

I didn’t know about you until I started coming out here. One of the people who told me about you is this guy Sven Illing, who runs an event here. He’s an investor. He said, “Look, come out here too.” So I’m so excited to come and have a conversation with you. And we can do this thanks to two phenomenal companies. The first is saying, “Hey, look, everyone is learning how to code in Estonian everywhere else. You don’t need to code in order to build software.” It’s called Bubble. I’ll talk about them. And then the second company says, “If you need developers come to us.” Toptal is a place to hire developers. Good to have you here.

Teet: Thank you for having me.

Andrew: Tell me about a customer of yours who you’re especially proud to have signed?

Teet: I believe that we are working with a couple of leading companies in the mobility industry. So one of them is being the largest ride hailing company in the role . . .

Andrew: What’s their name?

Teet: . . . which also has shared bikes and share scooters. And another one is . . .

Andrew: Wait, what’s the name of this company?

Teet: That’s something which is still confidential. So I’m not allowed to say the name yet. But we’re working together already for a year, and we have been enabling them to launch shared scooters globally, mostly in the U.S. and in Europe to 30, 40 different cities. So transforming the cities into [car-centric 00:04:55] to be hopefully in the future bike and scooters-centric.

Andrew: I know this company. We talked before we got started. Why do they need you? They’re all about creating software that manages logistics for all . . .

Teet: I believe that our value is not in the software. I think the customers of ours, many of these are very software-centric companies. But I believe that the value that we are able to bring to the table is a combination of software and hardware. So our product consists also of hardware that you can attach to the scooter or to the bike which knows the position which enables you to remote control it. So if you press start the ride in your smartphone application, then the scooter or the bike opens up.

Andrew: They are not creating that themselves. You guys are doing it?

Teet: So we are doing, the middle layer, the kind of technological layer in the middle. So first of all the hardware that communicates with the scooter and sends a command to the scooter and gathers the data from the scooter, but we also provide our cloud layer and everything which is between the smartphone and the scooter.

Andrew: Again, they can’t do this for themselves? They’re super smart company.

Teet: I think they could but we have enabled them to launch the business very quickly to the market. So I think this has been one of the success criteria for us that we have had a right technology at the right time.

Andrew: Got it. Okay. And so they’re signing up with you. How many customers do you guys have now?

Teet: We have roughly 15 different customers, and this is one of the largest ride hailing companies, but we are also working with large automotive with their new mobility divisions who are also making experiments in the field of either light electrical vehicles, which are bike, scooters, rickshaws, etc., or also bike sharing, scooter sharing, etc.

Andrew: Wait, rickshaws?

Teet: Even rickshaws.

Andrew: There’s a place in the world where I can go and use my phone to get a rickshaw?

Teet: There is a place in the world, which is New Delhi in India where you can take a cab, which is electric rickshaw and which has our technology on it.

Andrew: And your technology does what? It lets me bike ride myself or another person bike rides?

Teet: This one over there it’s for fleet management purposes. So it doesn’t give any direct value to the consumer in that specific use case.

Andrew: Got it. Okay. So it’s for fleets. I see what you’re enabling. I did, by the way, I think I saw . . . what was it? It’s a self-driving bicycle.

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: You guys created that?

Teet: When we started the company, then we were bunch of engineers and then we were about to participate at the very first trade show that was four years ago, the largest bicycle trade show in the world and . . .

Andrew: Eurobike.

Teet: Eurobike. Where we had a very small booth and then we just discussed within the team that, “Hey, how should we get the media attention?” etc. And then one of the guys comes to the office and says, one of the founders saying that, “Hey, but maybe we could build the kind of a self-driving bicycle.” And that was kind of a stupid idea, but it got a lot of media attention to us. So we took a three-wheel bicycle, and we made it semi-autonomous so that you could control the bicycle from the smartphone. And we got a lot of media attention thanks to that.

Andrew: Like a self-driving . . . but it’s not even self-driving. It’s a tricycle not a bicycle. It’s not self-driving, because I still use my phone to control it. But it got tons of media attention. This is not a thing that you guys are planning on putting on the road. But it shows what you guys are capable of and it got your attention. I understand now what that was.

Teet: This guy got attention and also showed the capability of the internet of the things or connectivity that we are putting into the vehicles or our customers. And if you look at the mobility industry today or micro-mobility industry, then you see that a lot of leading companies in the field, including Uber are developing their own autonomous scooters. Or at least that’s what they have told publicly that they . . .

Andrew: Autonomous scooters.

Teet: . . . might be doing that.

Andrew: Do you get the feeling that maybe they’re doing the same thing you are which is just going after PR?

Teet: Many of the companies are going after a similar thing. So that’s funny that did happen to us four years ago and now the world is really here.

Andrew: And really think they’re going after an autonomous scooter or they’d going after media the way you are?

Teet: I think it’s semi-autonomous scooter. Segway already launched one couple of weeks ago. And the value there is that you can invite the scooter to front of your house. So it drives to front of your house itself. And then you can take it from here to . . .

Andrew: It’s not me standing on it and having it take me to work. It’s coming over to me. I have to admit I was spying on you online. You were doing a little bit about me. I saw.

Teet: I did.

Andrew: But I went back and I was looking at like Pinterest for example over the years. You must love bicycles because you created a whole bike board on Pinterest just collecting different bicycles, interesting people on bikes, right? What were you like growing up?

Teet: I don’t know. I don’t know how to . . .

Andrew: What was your passion? What was the thing you’re most excited about?

Teet: I think cycling was definitely one of the things. So I think that’s also interesting coincidence that when you are a child, then I really liked cycling. And I used to do a lot of first country skiing. But some of my friends or many of my friends were also professional cyclists. And it’s fun that you see that the brands or the bike brands that you liked a lot when you were a child now you’re talking to their CEO. So that’s also cool coincidence.

Andrew: So were you a geek growing up?

Teet: I don’t know. Maybe a little bit.

Andrew: Yeah. Did you date?

Teet: I did.

Andrew: You did? Is it inappropriate to ask you about that? I don’t know.

Teet: Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew: Oh, it’s okay. From an early age you felt comfortable?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: You did? And what’s it like growing up here in Estonia?

Teet: Hard to say. I were exchange students also in South American Chile for a year just after I got 18. So I think Estonia is super nice place to grow up.

Andrew: But?

Teet: There’s not but. I don’t know.

Andrew: Just is. It’s super nice and safe. I see kids walking around they’re like seven years old just walking on their own. No issues?

Teet: No issues.

Andrew: It’s so weird. I was running. I did a marathon yesterday. I was running, I couldn’t find water. I said, “Well, is it weird for me to ask these two kids? Maybe their parents are around.” Their parents were not around. So I said in English because I was so tired. I forgot I was in a different country. I said, “Is there water here?” And the girl say, “Oh, yeah, right down there.” This is unreal. The confidence that they have, the freedom that they have. This was you?

Teet: I believe so, yes.

Andrew: Okay. The other thing that I saw about you was you were racing cars at what age?

Teet: So that’s also a little bit related to the story how the company got founded. So when I were at the university I was building the racing cars. Not that much racing but the focus was on building the racing cars. So it’s a program called Formula AC or Formula Student where students are.

Andrew: Formula Student. Instead of Formula One, it’s Formula Student.

Teet: And instead of Formula One, it’s called Formula Student, yes. And actually relation to the Formula One is that 70% of the Formula One engineers are coming out of that series.

Andrew: Really? And the cars look very similar. These are cool looking cars. To you, that might not look. To me, they do but I’m not a car person.

Teet: Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew: Yes.

Teet: They are smaller versions of kind of Formula One car. They looked a little bit funny but the main purpose of the series is that the series is designed by a Society of Automotive Engineers. In U.S. for engineering students, when they come out of the university, then they would have more real life experience with engineering.

Andrew: That’s why they created it.

Teet: And that’s why they created it somewhere in the ’80s. And by today, there’s 500 teams all around the world globally competing there.

Andrew: So why did you get involved in this?

Teet: I remember that I applied to the university in Singapore, but only one person was accepted from my university to study there. So then I thought, “Okay, if I don’t get to Singapore, then I might want to do something else which is very challenging and which would help to develop me.” And then I found the Formula Student team in Tallinn in Estonia.

Andrew: You just wanted to developed yourself?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: Develop yourself for what purpose?

Teet: I wanted to learn more because I felt that I’m not learning enough at the university.

Andrew: Really?

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: Is this part of your culture or what? Because I feel like most people in the U.S. are a little embarrassed to say that they want to learn or they feel dorky about it. You don’t feel that?

Teet: I don’t feel that.

Andrew: No, you just have to learn and learn from what? When I was learning in school, my one goal was to build a business one day, everything else was insignificant. For you it wasn’t like that.

Teet: I think one of my dreams was always to become an entrepreneur because my mother and my father are both entrepreneurs as well. But at that time, I just wanted to learn more about engineering since I started learning to be an engineer.

Andrew: What was it about engineering that fascinated you?

Teet: I was super interested in how things work, how they are built, etc.

Andrew: Just that. Even as a kid. Were you the kid who would take apart their stereo. Yeah, I saw your eyebrows go up. What was it? What was the thing that you . . .

Teet: I think the most exciting thing for all the engineers is Legos.

Andrew: Yeah. And you would play with Legos for hours?

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: You would. And then did you create anything electronic?

Teet: Before university? No, not really. Although my father used to have a hobby called ham radio or amateur radio where people are talking across the world with custom built in antennas. But I think that that hobby was driven a lot from the times of the Soviet Union that he could communicate to the outside world outside while being in the Soviet Union.

Andrew: And it was safe to do that.

Teet: I think it was safe to do that.

Andrew: Okay. So you said your parents were entrepreneurs.

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: What were they doing?

Teet: Also software.

Andrew: Really?

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: This is after the fall of the Soviet Union, right?

Teet: That’s after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Andrew: What do you remember about them growing up with their business?

Teet: I remember that they were working quite a lot. And since it was related to the computers and not everyone had computers at home, for me, it was super exciting that I got a chance to play computer games and that I had computers at home.

Andrew: Oh, that’s it that you had access to this stuff?

Teet: Correct.

Andrew: And when they worked hard or long hours did you feel resentful?

Teet: No, not really, because I think all the weekends we still spent together and we used to go a lot to different family trips, etc.

Andrew: And one of the things that stood out for me when I was living in Argentina, we were both living in roughly the same part of the world when you were studying and I was there after getting married, was watching parents and teenagers get together for like dinners, for asados. And I remember asking people, “Tell me about the time when you rebelled against your parents.” And there was always this like look on their face. They didn’t understand what I meant. I didn’t realize. I just assumed all over the world people rebelled against their parents.

Teet: I think it’s actually the same here in Estonia as well.

Andrew: Rebel or not rebel?

Teet: Rebel.

Andrew: You did. So tell me about your rebellion against your parents?

Teet: I don’t remember that.

Andrew: Come on. You must remember something. What were you most upset about?

Teet: Upset?

Andrew: Dad and your ham radio?

Teet: No, not really. Really cannot remember anything specific. But what I really remember or what was the mindset different while I grew up in Estonia was whenever, let’s say, 15, 16, I wanted to have a birthday party. I throwed out my mom from the home in order to throw a party. But what happened when I moved to Chile, then when there was a birthday party, then parents, uncles . . .

Andrew: Oh, they would all come to the party?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: That’s so unusual to me.

Teet: They would all come to the party, and they will even drink together. They will dance together. They will do everything together. So that’s I think it’s still the difference.

Andrew: I wonder if it’s better to rebel or not. Like maybe a culture that encourages rebellion in kids create rebellion against the establishment in adults and then comes up with new ideas. Do you feel that with you? No?

Teet: No, not really. Or at least I haven’t thought about it. I remember that whenever in Chile, I thought why the culture is different in Estonia in that sense but haven’t thought about it that much.

Andrew: Okay. All right. Let me take a moment talk about my first sponsor. I want to tell you about them and see what you think about them. It’s a company called Bubble. I interviewed them because the founder said, “Everybody is saying you’ve got to learn to code.” He says, “You don’t have to learn to code. If the software is written right, it should encourage you to create without coding.” And at the time, I was so skeptical, I said, “Yeah, yeah, right, maybe you can just create web pages. That’s it.” And since then, I’ve really started to look at companies that are using Bubble to create full-blown apps. And I realized these people are creating full software as a service, full businesses using Bubble without any coding. It’s a drag and drop. And it was a time . . . I don’t know. Do you remember this? Were you a kid who was building websites as a kid?

Teet: I did actually in the high school.

Andrew: HTML?

Teet: HTML.

Andrew: You just sat there and coded it, right? I get it. And then I remember the time when suddenly WordPress made it so simple. You just pick what page you want. You pick the URL. You just type. You know, you get a theme and the theme does the work. And I realized, “Well, this may not give me as much control over the page, but it also keeps it organized and I can actually produce.” That’s what Bubble is about. And so I’ve seen that there are several different companies. Now look at this, I’m actually going to show you on my screen. Look, just drag and drop the map as you want it if you want a Google map as part of your app. Full control. One click hosting. They do everything for you with your app. All you have to do is come up with the idea and then use it to experiment there.

Lots of businesses that are building on their platform. Anyone who wants to try it right now is going to get 40% discount for the first three months that they sign up and start using it. But I’ve got to tell you, it is just something you should be experimenting with, playing with, trying out for yourself to see how you could create maybe not your long-term version app. I think actually people could create their long-term app with it. But maybe I can convince them to go and bank everything on it.

I’ll convince them to go and create their first product or their prototype, their minimum viable product. And then they’ll be convinced that they could go beyond. All they have to do is use this one URL if they’re interested in signing up and they’ll get that big discount and they’ll get to start right now. It’s bubble.io/mixergy.

You were doing well when you were competing at Formula Student. And then you said, “Hey, this combustible engine thing, we’re going to do what with it?”

Teet: We switched the drive train over from combustion engine to electric drive train.

Andrew: A combustible . . . Yeah, combustion engine.

Teet: Combustion.

Andrew: Combustible is whole other thing. Okay, combustion engine to?

Teet: To an electric drive train.

Andrew: Why? Do you get more points for switching to electric?

Teet: No, we don’t. But the series had introduced a new vehicle class, which were electric race cars or electric cars, fully electric cars. And back it was I think in 2011, 2012 when electric cars still were not a thing. Electric cars were still unsexy small and kind of weird looking. Tesla was just becoming a thing. And as the main purpose of the Formula SAE series is to build and develop better humans or better engineers than we saw that we have everything what it takes to be one of the top three teams globally while building a combustion car, but then we decided to switch over.

Andrew: You compete against combustion engine cars?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: You do.

Teet: They’re super exciting series because within the same second in the new race [we’re in 00:22:16], you can have combustion cars, you can have electric cars, and you can have even different concepts. You can have cars with very large aerodynamics. You can have cars with tubular steel frame. You can have cars with carbon fiber, monocoque, etc.

Andrew: So were you thinking, “If we switched to electric, we get an advantage over the other cars?” That electric was going to make you faster?

Teet: We saw that potential. But we also knew that it takes couple of years to get . . . or our assumption was at least that it would take at least couple of seasons to get an electric drive train as reliable as the combustion one so that we could compete for the top three positions.

Andrew: You talked to me before we got started about how it was going to cost you money. It was going to cost you time. You potentially were not going to win for a few years while you made this transition. And still you said, “I’ll hunt for the money. I’ll spend the time. And I’ll do it because?”

Teet: Because we wanted to learn.

Andrew: Just to learn.

Teet: And I think that wasn’t just my personal decision. That was collective decision that the team made that we want to go a step ahead or take a step further to build electric cars, fully electric racing cars. And that’s what it is. And as you told we had to raise more money, which also led actually, which is also the starting point how we founded the company. That’s something what I can tell you as well.

Andrew: Tell me about how did you raise money for this as a student?

Teet: As a student, we get roughly one-fourth or one-third of the budget we get from the university. So that’s a joint project between two universities in Estonia, and the rest of the budget comes from the public sector. And the main purpose or main motivator for the private companies to give money to you is that they would get good engineers out of us. Because if you’re graduating as an engineer, you’re still super junior level. But if you’re getting engineers out of us, then they already have certain experience.

Andrew: Wait, this is the government the whole country investing in you . . .

Teet: No, no, no, sorry. That’s one third of the budget comes from public sector, which is two technical universities in Estonia. And the rest of the budget comes from private companies.

Andrew: And you have to go to private companies and ask them for the money?

Teet: Correct.

Andrew: Got it. And the incentive for them is they get to know you and then they might hire you.

Teet: Correct.

Andrew: But are you willing to just make phone calls go network and find the money?

Teet: Yes. That was one of the things what I also did in the team. And then while we were looking for the money, then one of the team members found a fund called Product Fund, which provides funding for the super early stage ideas in order to validate the product side. And then we said, “But we are all engineers. I don’t know. Why should we get funding for the startup? But because we are building a racecar. And then I don’t know, let’s give it a try because we need more money because the budget is much larger.” And then we did an all-nighter. Submitted an application to get it. Then two weeks later, we get an email saying that, “Hey, congratulations. You got to the second round, which is that you have to . . . ” I think it was to compile a one pager.

And then we were like, “What is one pager?” And then we Googled. What is one pager? Then we compiled quickly a one page. We sent over the one pager. Then a week later, we got another email saying that, “Hey, congratulations, guys. It will go to another round. Please provide us your business plan, kind of a basic numbers.” And then we were, “What is the business plan? We’re all engineers.” And then we compiled. We did all-nighter. We compiled the business plan. We send it over. A couple of days later, we get another email saying, “Congratulations, guys, you go to the next round, which is pitching to the jury.” Then we were thinking, “What is pitching?” Googling pitching. And then we understood what it is. We prepare for it.

And then Kristjan, who is now the CEO of the company says, “Hey, guys, but we should also prepare some sort of a prototype. They’re going to show to these guys.” But we didn’t have anything then which is the program. One of the electronics ports to switch red and green LED light. And we attached one of the battery cells to it because the idea of the application was that we would build formula battery management system so which is an electronic switch controls the battery so that it wouldn’t overheat, it wouldn’t overcharge, etc. And then we go through the front of the jury. We have this hideous prototype with green and black or green and red LEDs flashing. We do the pitch. And then one of the jury members said, “Hey, guys, your business plan is childish and ludicrous. But you guys you rock.”

Andrew: Childish and ludicrous but you guys rock?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: Why do you guys rock?

Teet: Probably because we were geeks. We were engineers. But also Kristjan I think has this charismatic kind of a being.

Andrew: Yeah, look at him. So I’m looking at a picture of him right now. Look how he’s squinting like a model at the camera. Go to your website. Wait, let me see if I understand this right though. You just wanted to raise money for your Formula Student car to convert it to an electric car and compete? They say to you, “Why don’t you just compete in this competition, this business competition?” You said, “All right.” You had no idea. And what were you going to do with the money.

Teet: So then we pitched it to the jury. We got the money, €10,000. We spent the whole money on the battery cells for the Formula car. And then we built the Formula car.

Andrew: That’s it? And that’s what they would do winning this competition and using the money for your Formula Student car.

Teet: Well, I believe that we also pitched the idea that later on we could take the same technology that we have developed for the Formula car to the commercial market.

Andrew: Oh, okay. All right. And so were they getting equity in whatever future idea you had?

Teet: No. That’s kind of a fund which is funded by Swedbank, which is one of the largest banks in the region.

Andrew: Okay, got it. So, while you were looking for money for your electric car, they said to you, “Enter this business competition. You could win some money and do whatever you want with it as long as it further your business idea.”

Teet: Kind of. After that, we also had to go in front of the jury saying how the development is going or the prototypes because the whole purpose of getting the money was to build the prototype and validate the idea in front of the customer. So what we . . .

Andrew: Were you willing to go to that level just . . .

Teet: We did, we did. So first of all, we built the car. The car was so last minute because it was the first electric car that we built. We went to the very first competition, and we did a first test rides while we were driving from Estonia to Hungary. And usually, we did like hundreds of kilometers testing before the race, but this time, we didn’t have any time. And at the race, we had this Endurance run. So we were going after the Endurance run. And as we had built this battery management system, which the purpose of that is that it shuts off the car if it detects the failure in the battery.

Then Kristjan was the second driver in Endurance. He says to the team that, “Hey, guys, maybe we should have this fuck-all-button,” which means that it shuts down this battery management system. So the battery management system wouldn’t shut off the car. And then the team says that, “Hey, but it’s kind of risky because batteries explode, etc., etc. No one knows what happens with the batteries.” And then Kristjan, “Oh, don’t worry. I’m the second driver.” And then we do the Endurance. Kristjan the second driver, he goes in. He has two laps to go and then the car shuts down.

And then he has this fuck-all-button. And then he presses the fuck-all and then . . .

Andrew: He presses the fuck-all-button.

Teet: Fuck-wall-button.

Andrew: Yeah, let’s just take a risk.

Teet: And then he goes forwards and then still half laps to go the car shuts down. And then we didn’t win the competition, we didn’t win the Endurance race, we didn’t finish it. And we didn’t have money. We didn’t serve the company anything. And then after that, we graduated from the university. We had to do something. We knew that we have a super strong team because we became one of the top three teams globally. I actually continued building racing cars for some time. Some other guys including Kristjan they graduated already. And then we thought, “Okay, what we will do with the idea? Because we don’t want to go to work because it’s boring and there is nothing interesting. We want to create something interesting on our own.”

Then we looked again at the business plan and thought, “Maybe it’s not too bad.” And then we did kind of engineering service company but at the same time also try to develop an idea of providing batteries then we travelled the world. Travelled different kinds of electric vehicle companies such as electric boats, even electric planes.

Andrew: You were traveling to look at them?

Teet: Yes. We travelled to the fair. I went to the electric boat fair in Amsterdam for . . .

Andrew: Just to look for ideas to see can you help them with what they’re doing?

Teet: Kind of yes. We had some supporters from Estonia as well. One of the VC funds in Estonia really wanted us to start building electric drive trains for boats. So he kind of sponsored the trip.

Andrew: Got it. He said, “Come out here and see what we got and then maybe you’ll create something.”

Teet: Yeah. And then we visited electric motorcycles, electric bikes, etc., etc. But none of the companies really believed that three, four, or five young Eastern European boys were able to build batteries.

Andrew: How old were you at the time?

Teet: Twenty four.

Andrew: Okay. All right. And so Estonia isn’t Eastern European, is it?

Teet: I think we want to be Scandinavian but as a region we are still Eastern European.

Andrew: And so if you were Scandinavian, don’t you feel like you’d have more credibility, and they’d feel more comfortable with you?

Teet: I think they still see us as . . .

Andrew: Foreign.

Teet: . . . part of Eastern European or part of Eastern Europe. But I think that wasn’t that part. I think the larger part was that we just had an idea. And what all the companies really liked was the idea that you can pull a lot of data from the batteries and put it to the cloud because back then everyone were super uncertain about batteries, how they behaved when they were at the market, etc. So then we decided to pull out this part from the battery that is able to pull the data from the batteries and provide this back then we call it communication module, which is Comodule.

Andrew: That’s where it came from.

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: So the reason that they wanted to know what their battery was doing is . . . tell me if I’m wrong. I love the Lyft bikes that are going through San Francisco. The electric ones. You’re smiling. These freaking things caught on fire. They pulled them off the streets. It took them all of last year and no electric bikes. And no bikes at all for months. Then they finally come out with these beautiful electric bikes. They were all over. I was comfortable with them for two days. And then they caught fire. And the whole city was up at arms at them because they caught fire when they were just parked. This is what the people who installed batteries in their devices were worried that something could go wrong and they wouldn’t know about it or what?

Teet: That’s one part of that that you could remotely monitor it and prevent those things happening. So that’s one of the things. Yes.

Andrew: What was the biggest thing? What else were they worried about?

Teet: Everything. How long the batteries would last whether they would last 1 year, 10 years.

Andrew: Overall health of the battery. They wanted to know . . .

Teet: Overall health of the batteries.

Andrew: Okay. What else?

Teet: So that’s one part. But everything around batteries was super uncertain back then. So how long they would last better, whether they were safe, whether they get into the fire, etc.

Andrew: So basically they said, “Look, you’re looking for ideas, here’s the problem that we have. We want to know more about our batteries. We don’t know. Once we put them out in the field, that’s it. If you can give us that, then we’d be happy to pay you.” Is that right?

Teet: Yes, that’s where the idea got started. And then we already had back then kind of small engineering service kind of company set up. And we saw that we have to get out of the country in order to get our own product established. And then we applied for a couple of business accelerators. We got accepted to three of them. And we decided to go to Berlin for accelerator called Startupbootcamp. Then we were. Shortly after that we got a first funding, kind of VC funding from German VC.

Andrew: After you got your first client?

Teet: I would say that we had a lot of interested clients, but none of them back then wasn’t paying customer.

Andrew: They were just interested, “Create this for us.” Give me an example of one of the clients.

Teet: We had a lot of electric bike companies piled up.

Andrew: These were electric bikes that were doing bike share?

Teet: No, these were electric bikes that were building or producing electric bikes for consumers.

Andrew: And they still wanted to know the data even after they sold to consumer?

Teet: Correct.

Andrew: So one of them for example is Gazelle, right? Am I pitching the name right?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: Gazelle. So Gazelle is a big electric bike company. In fact, I think the company that Lyft bought to put electric bikes on the road, I believe they were using their stuff.

Teet: Actually not, but yeah.

Andrew: No, what?

Teet: Lyft bought another Canadian company called Motivate. So Motivate is a company who is focused on building shared bikes. And Gazelle is part of the group called Pon Bicycle, which is one of the largest bicycle group. But I would say 99% of their businesses building bikes for consumers.

Andrew: For consumers. No, but they did buy . . . the company that Lyft bought, they used to use them for a little bit. And then Lyft after the acquisition said, “We want to make our own bikes.” And that’s when there was fire.

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: Right? By the way, do you think you could have avoided the fire if they had your software in it?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: In your hardware, you could have. How would you have helped Lyft avoid these fires?

Teet: We could have had remotely monitoring the batteries in a better way that, of course, would have been requiring a cooperation between the battery company and us as well as so that we would know which parameters to look into and when to kind of set up the flag that, “Hey, there is something wrong in that specific battery.”

Andrew: What’s the indicator of an upcoming fire?

Teet: Since I’m not a battery engineer, I might not be the right person to answer but my assumption is that it can be over voltage, over temperature, etc.

Andrew: And you would know that ahead of time, you would signal it back to Lyft and somebody at the office would know, “This bike could cause a fire or maybe not. Take it off the market right now.” Got it. Instead, they didn’t know this happened until the city found it and the city told them and then people were tweeting out fires.

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: That’s the thing. It’s so burns me that they picked up those bikes, especially because they missed a huge opportunity, two summers of no bikes, number one, and number two, they crowded out all the other competitors. They sued the city so that Uber can’t put their electric bikes out there, which means I’m suffering. All right, I get all fired up about this. So I see what you’re doing. But once somebody buys a bike, what right does the company that makes it have to get data from the bike about how the bike is doing?

Teet: So as a company, we have two different target markets, one of them being shared mobility companies such as shared scooters or shared bikes, etc. And our target group, our manufacturers of electrical bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws, etc. And then the main value there is that manufacturer can push over their updates to the batteries, to the software inside of the vehicle but we are able to also to pull the data from there so that they could learn more. But also, there’s value for the consumer. So if you are a consumer of the bike and then your bike gets stolen, then you can track down your bike.

Andrew: You were helping them with that in the early days too?

Teet: Which one? Which company?

Andrew: Were you helping clients with theft also?

Teet: Yes, yes.

Andrew: You were. Got it.

Teet: So that’s where the company got . . . where we got the very first customers that they saw the value also in the fact that we have the GPS inside of the bikes and that people can track down the bikes which are stolen. And then we have different deals with insurance companies as well that sort of if your bike gets stolen, then insurance company will go and pick it up. Or there’s a promise that you either get your bike back within 24 hours or you will get a new one.

Andrew: Okay, I understand now why the consumer would be okay with that because data goes back that makes their bike safe and keeps their bike updated. And at the same time gets the bike back in case of theft, right? This makes sense. Let me talk about my second sponsor and then I want to come back and find out you got your funding, you know what you’re going to do, how do you get your first customer, and then how did you evolve the business, okay? All right. My second company is a company called Toptal. How hard are you guys having finding developers? What’s going on with you? Toptal is a hiring platform.

Teet: I think it’s pretty difficult to find developers.

Andrew: How long did you go finding developers? What’s the hardest example of finding a developer that you’ve ever had?

Teet: In terms of time or in terms of any other metric . . .

Andrew: Time, agita, anything. Frustration. Your eyes did that . . .

Teet: I think there is a lot of developers in Estonia, but I think since there’s a lot of technology companies or three companies in Estonia, then it’s difficult to get grasp of them.

Andrew: Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s kind of like Silicon Valley where there’s suddenly, yes, there are a lot of developers but there are a lot of companies trying to hire developers. Did you have a nightmare scenario trying to find a developer for any position?

Teet: No.

Andrew: No, not yet. All right. When you do, I’m going to tell you about Toptal. There’s a company called Tatango that now I was cycling into work on my bike because Lyft doesn’t have electric bikes, doesn’t even have regular bikes. So they took the regular bikes off. So cycling to work. And I freaking see Tatango ads now on Market Street in the heart of San Francisco. This is a company that started out really small doing text-based marketing, started getting a lot of clients. They became what MailChimp does via email they now do via text. They had a hard time finding a developer.

Finally, they said, “You know what? We’re going through dozens of resumes, dozens of interviews, it’s mind boggling difficult and it’s taking our eye off of talking to our customers. Why don’t we just listen to what Andrew is saying because the founder is on Mixergy twice. Let’s just try it.” They called Toptal. Toptal gets them in front of two people. After, first of all, Toptal interviews them and understands what they are like and then Toptal gets them two developers. The CTO talks to two developers and says, “You know what? Either one of them could be good. I know the one that I like, but either one is good.” They go after the person that they like, within days, that person gets started. The CTO a little while later says, “You know, these guys, actually, the person we hired, could be the CTO of the company. He’s that good.”

And they kept on hiring from them. So now this thing that was a huge problem, no longer a problem. Solved very quickly with the best of the best developers. That’s what Toptal is about. They’ve got this network of phenomenal developers. And it allowed them to grow and grow and grow by focusing on their customers not on hiring. So you can use them. I can use them. Anyone from company like your sophistication down to mine. I just use WordPress, but I still sometimes need customization. All we have to do is go to toptal.com/mixergy. That’s top as in top of your head. Tal as in talent.com/mixergy. When you go there, you’re going to get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours in addition to a no-risk trial period. When I say Toptal it’s like too fast for you? Like I know I talk . . .

Teet: No.

Andrew: No? No Estonian has trouble hearing me.

Teet: I don’t.

Andrew: No. You know, where they did have trouble, it’s Singapore. And then I also had trouble in Singapore listening to them because they’ve got like this merging of English and Chinese almost. And I don’t understand what they’re saying. They don’t understand what I’m saying. But here . . .

Teet: I think it’s called the Singlish or . . .

Andrew: Is that what it is?

Teet: I think that’s what they call it locally that the . . .

Andrew: Singapore and English together is Singlish?

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: Cool. I freaking love Singapore. I love that they’re willing to destroy the old, like buildings that have been there forever. “No, get it down. We got to build something new.” And exchange for growing. All right, toptal.com/mixergy. And I’m grateful to them for sponsoring for so long.

All right. Let’s talk about the first customer. Now you got funding, you figured out what your product is. Where did you get your first customer?

Teet: From Germany because electric bike boom started from Germany from Europe. And we got as a first customer one of the company which is great. It’s one of the coolest bikes in the industry or kind of a portion of the electric bikes Coboc, C-O-B-O-C.

Andrew: C-O-B-O-C?

Teet: Yeah.

Andrew: I’m going to look them up. Okay. C-O-B-O-C. By the way, do you want some water? Yes, you do. Let me pour it out. Okay, this is the cool electric company?

Teet: Yeah. So that was the first customer that we got like . . .

Andrew: Oh, yeah, I see what you mean.

Teet: : . . . four years ago.

Andrew: Were they on your Pinterest board?

Teet: No, they were not.

Andrew: They weren’t? No. You know, what you like? You seem to like the old fashioned bikes. Am I right? Very few gears, very like more minimalist, right?

Teet: I do.

Andrew: Do you have gears on your bike?

Teet: I do.

Andrew: You do. Okay. All right. So how did you get them as a customer?

Teet: We reached out to them, met them at some of the fairs and then it got started some from somewhere there. They had an idea already back then that they would like to do something similar what we do and they initially, they were planning to develop something similar internally, but we were able to convince them that it’s much faster if they would just start from us.

Andrew: How did you figure out what to charge for this? By the way I can’t stop looking at their bikes. I’m into beautiful bikes, too. I hate cars. People tell me about their cars, I have no fricking interest, but when I look at a beautiful bike on the road, I look at it so hard that sometimes literally this one guy gave me the finger. I swear. Just the other day, I was looking at his bike and his backpack and he just looked at me and gave me the finger. And it wasn’t staring him down, I was just admiring. What was I asking? I was asking about.

Teet: What’s on pricing?

Andrew: Yeah. How do you know how to charge for this?

Teet: We didn’t but we figure it out.

Andrew: On a per basis?

Teet: Yes, we are charging per bike basis. So every bike that they produce . . .

Andrew: And per month.

Teet: Yes, there’s a fixed monthly fee but most of the fee is coming from per bike fee.

Andrew: From just the initial setup?

Teet: From the initial setup, yes.

Andrew: Okay. And then you continue to do other bikes by companies like that were direct to consumer?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: At what point did you decide that you were going to start to switch over or spend more time focusing on bike sharing.

Teet: The first customer in the field was a company based out of Vienna which actually did e-moped sharing, so that you can rent an electrical moped from a smartphone application.

Andrew: E-moped, that’s like Scoot in San Francisco has done that.

Teet: Yes, exactly, exactly. So the Scoot was one of the first players. I’ve also met Scoot couple of times. They are now acquired by Bird, but yes, so that was one of the first companies that we started working on.

Andrew: How did you find them? Is this called escooter.co? Is this them?

Teet: The third one, this one.

Andrew: Gorban.

Teet: Yeah. So . . .

Andrew: Oh, Gorban. goUrban.

Teet: goUrban, goUrban.

Andrew: Like how to pronounce it the flyer way.

Teet: I think we were introduced to them through a scooter or through a moped manufacturer.

Andrew: Okay. Since you were going after . . .

Teet: They suggested us, yeah. We went after moped manufacturers, then they introduced us to them saying that in order to launch your business, you will need this and this.

Andrew: And it’s still at that point about batteries.

Teet: It’s not that much about batteries, but you cannot operate a business like that without having our solution inside, because our . . . the hardware that we produce, the electronics that we produce, we are now starting to produce, or we will have our own factory as well to produce the electronics. But in order to enable the shared mobility, you have to have electronics inside a vehicle which knows the position, which is able to communicate with the cloud and pull the data and send the commands to the scooter or to the e-moped itself.

Andrew: Oh, and you were already building that for bikes because you were allowing the bike owner to find their bike fast within 24 hours since you already had it. The moped company needed that to know where their mopeds were.

Teet: Correct.

Andrew: And you were able to just offer that to them. Were they building anything like that on their own before?

Teet: No, they didn’t. So they just purchased the mopeds from one particular vendor. And then they purchased the whole technology stack from us, which is harder for the scooters or for the mopeds that enabled to unlock and lock them to monitor the fleet remotely, etc.

Andrew: They didn’t have that, this is not a core competence. This is not something they create themselves?

Teet: No, no.

Andrew: What about the mobile app? Who creates that?

Teet: The mobile app, we started offering also a full technology stack in the beginning for them. So we also offered the mobile app. We also offered the fleet management tool in the web, etc.

Andrew: You created this app just because they needed it.

Teet: Correct. And we also saw a potential that there is potentially more of those shared mobility companies who need an app, who need a fleet management solution, etc. As of today, most of the companies that are using us, they’re just using the core technology layer, which is still electronics at cloud server, but from the . . . but there’s just API link from the cloud server to their application.

Andrew: Because they want to take on more of that management?

Teet: Because they don’t . . . because they see that customer is something or smartphone application is something which is customer facing for them. And sometimes, let’s say, if it’s a ride hailing company, they also have auto-functionalities in the same application, so they’re not able to give this over to us.

Andrew: Got it. Yeah, you know what? I have been noticing now that it’s all getting merged in. So Bolt has scooters here, their app is encouraging me to hit the button to switch to the scooter. Uber has bikes, their app is letting me know I could switch and get a bike. And so once it’s integrated, it’s not something that you guys are creating. And it’s also becoming important for them to be able to adjust it based on customer needs.

Teet: So the value of us for companies like Bolt and Uber is that they can take different vehicles from the market, and they would be plug and play into their application, because our link between our server and their server is always the same. Nevertheless, whether it is e-scooter, whether it’s e-moped, but or whether it’s an e-bike, or whether it’s a different type of an e-bike.

Andrew: What’s the biggest challenge so far? Has it just been easy for you?

Teet: No, it definitely hasn’t been easy. It has been very challenging.

Andrew: What’s an example of a challenge?

Teet: I think over the last year, we have grown a lot. And I think scaling is part of that how to structure the company, or how to structure the team, how to get the good new people, how to get everything, all the systems in place, and at the same time as a founder also to go out to the markets and talk with the people so that you wouldn’t get somehow behind. And you would get . . . and that you would also close new deals.

Andrew: And you’re the one who’s talking to customers and understanding what’s going on so that you’re not falling behind.

Teet: I’m one of them, yes.

Andrew: You’re one of them. What’s an example of something that you learned by talking to customers that kept you from falling behind?

Teet: So far, there hasn’t been anything, but there’s always . . . it’s always important to understand what is happening in the industry. So what are the things that companies urge to develop internally? How’s their internal situation? How are their numbers internally, whether we are empowering their solution, or their business, or we are kind of a not helping them to succeed?

Andrew: So internally, it seems like the car sharing companies are seeing scooters as a threat or opportunity at the same time, right? You tweeted out a little while ago, this chart that showed that more Uber, I think it was, drives are short distance drives, it’s somebody going under five miles, much more so than the longer ones, right? And so Uber saying, “Well, maybe people don’t need a car, if they just need a two mile drive, maybe an electric scooter is a thing. And if we don’t get on this, then someone else will and they’re going to eat our lunch, right?”

Teet: Absolutely.

Andrew: And that’s what you’re seeing that internally by talking to companies like them.

Teet: That’s what we are seeing, and I think that’s something you’re seeing anyway, that’s something you don’t . . . that’s not the purpose that you need to talk with the customer. I think that’s something, that’s the reason why we have been focusing on light electrical vehicles as well.

Andrew: I do need to talk to customers. What’s an example of something you’re getting?

Teet: We are getting a better understanding, which are their challenges and how we can help them better with our solution.

Andrew: Like what? What’s the challenge that they have?

Teet: The operation of the scooters, how an IoT or our solution can support operations, or how we can monitor more data from the fleet so that we could help to prevent fires such as Lyft that we . . . and we have also done that once. One of the Segway scooters got into the fire somewhere in U.S. We launched or we made an over the air update to the whole fleet.

Andrew: To fix it so that others won’t catch fire, too.

Teet: Correct.

Andrew: Got it. You know, by the way, Bolt uses Segway over here, too, right? Is Bolt one of your clients?

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: They are. Okay. What was I going to say? I feel like I was wondering why you came here to do this interview with me. I looked at . . . you just rolled your eyes like, yeah, I’m wondering the same thing, Andrew. Okay, I was looking at here you can see right here, Ahrefs. I was trying to get a sense of what kind of content marketing you were doing. And Ahrefs lets me do that and you’re not doing much. You’re not out there. You’re talking more like enterprise conversations, right?

Teet: Correct.

Andrew: Do you think there’s any value in you going publicly, going public and talking?

Teet: I think there’s always a value, but I believe that most at the moment, we feel that if we visit the companies in our field, in the mobility field, in light electrical vehicles, and we see that people already know who we are and what we do . . .

Andrew: In your space.

Teet: . . . in our space. So it’s very niche, kind of a small space.

Andrew: So the only reason you’re doing this is because Ragnar asked you to, who right? I kind of care about Estonia, which comes back to some . . . yeah, look, you just like I could see it in your eyes. It comes back to something we talked about before we got started. What do you care about Estonia? You’re young guy building the company, right? Why not focus on the company? Focus on yourself? When you’re 70, come back and say, “I’ll help Estonia.” Why do you have to help Estonia? Why do you care?

Teet: I think I really like Estonia. I think how Estonia has been to grow up, I think it has been very different if I would have grown up, let’s say, in Chile, or in United States, because Estonia is super young country. So when Estonia got freedom after the Soviet Union, then the first prime minister was like 30, 31, I believe. So the whole country was led by super young people who had no previous experience. And I think the same attitude has been also shifted, or a transition through all of the private companies as well. So because almost of the private companies were founded in the early ’90s. So and they were led by super young people as well. But if I go to Germany, for example, then all the companies are led by people who are more than 60. So they sort of look at me like I’m a high school student, and it’s kind of difficult to get in there. But I think the mindset is much more liberal.

Andrew: I’m more of an American, much more of like what’s in it for me. So let’s talk. What’s in it for you? As somebody who is . . . let’s talk about the self-interest part of helping Estonia. My sense is that by helping Estonia, you are also being helped by Estonia, being helped by other entrepreneurs, right? Like, you’re helping Ragnar by saying yes to something, you might need something from him at some point, he is going to open up the door for you, right? And even if you hadn’t come here at all, he’s still supporting this. You know what he says? I think I saw it on his Twitter account. Estonian mafia, right?

He said, “Look, there’s this PayPal mafia. They’re all helping each other build companies. I think we should have the Estonian mafia. We’re small enough, that if we keep helping each other out, even if it’s not a quid pro quo. He helped me by doing this interview. I’m going to help them by making this introduction, but it’s more like we’re all helping each other. We’re all going to grow and it’s small enough that we could keep an eye on all this and make sure that it’s really happening.” That’s what it is?

Teet: Absolutely. I think that’s one part of that being part of the Estonia startup community that everyone is super close. And if you want to build the company and you have any kind of challenges or struggles, and you go to any of the conferences, then it’s difficult not to bump into someone who could help you.

Andrew: What about this? As soon as I came in here, they gave me these shoes. What are they called? What is this? Like slippers.

Teet: Slippers.

Andrew: You’re in your socks.

Teet: Yes.

Andrew: This a cultural thing here? You take your shoes off when you go into the office?

Teet: Yes, we do.

Andrew: Really? So if I were to come to your office, I’d have to take my shoes off, maybe be in socks, maybe give me slippers, maybe not?

Teet: I would offer you slippers, but you could also be in your socks.

Andrew: But I could be in my socks. What if I walk around with my shoes, is that weird?

Teet: If you’re a visitor, it wouldn’t be a weird but . . .

Andrew: It’s like, why are you dirtying my office?

Teet: No, not really. I think it’s more of a practical reason, because if it’s winter, then there can be a lot of slush on the streets.

Andrew: Oh, yeah.

Teet: So then can bring a lot of dirt inside. I think that’s one part of that and another part of that it’s just part of our culture that when we go inside, when we go home, then we also take off shoes.

Andrew: I get, home, I’ve never seen in an office before, but it feels kind of interesting, because I’m seeing your socks here. You got very colorful, very design sock. I’m so glad that I wore interesting socks. These are my socks from Australia when I did my interviews in Australia. My wife got them for me on the way out. All right, thanks so much for being on here. For anyone who wants to go check out your website. Is there a reason for them to check out your website? No. If they know you, they know you.

Teet: Kind of.

Andrew: Right. I feel like . . .

Teet: But I think there could be also if they would be interested to join us as a team member, then absolutely, they should check out the website.

Andrew: That’s the part that I saw. Again, I go through Ahrefs and we’ve got a partnership with them. So I use them to get a sense of what people’s top content is. It’s the hiring pages that are the most active on your site. Those are the ones that are most like topical, most interesting. All right, so it’s Comodule, and now, I understand what it is, comodule.com, right? It’s not even .ee?

Teet: Absolutely.

Andrew: .com.

Teet: .com.

Andrew: All right. And I want to thank the two sponsors who made this interview happen, the first, they are on a quest to keep people who don’t have to code from coding. And if you want to go check them out, check out bubble.io, excuse me, bubble.io/mixergy. You’re going to get 40% off your first three months when you sign up with them. And if you want to hire developers go to toptal.com/mixergy. I’m fricking loving Estonia. Good, thanks for doing it.

Teet: Pleasure.

Andrew: Thank you.

Teet: Thank you.

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