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Building a Successful Company and Perpetuating Growth – Euwyn Poon

Spin’s Co-Founder and President Euwyn Poon discusses his experience on building a successful business in a highly competitive market and how he fueled his company’s growth strategy with an acquisition.

Sam Parr: Well, we have one last speaker before lunch. His name is Euwyn Poon. He’s the president and founder of Spin. They’re a scooter sharing company that was acquired only 18 months after starting for reported $100 million. They now have 300 employees, are in 70 cities, and we see these scooter companies all over the place, particularly in Austin, where we have an office in, and LA, and now a little bit in San Francisco. So it’s going to be exciting to hear how he connected the dots and made this all happen. His whole story’s going to be through his amazing journey and through the exit. So let’s give it up for Euwyn Poon.

Euwyn Poon: Thanks guys for inviting me to share my story here. [inaudible 00:00:46] said, I’m the cofounding president of Spin. We are the electric scooter sharing company now a part of Ford, the Ford Motor Company. As he said, we’re in 70 cities across the U.S., several hundred employees now based here in San Francisco, and serve millions of rides over the last three years since we’ve been in existence.

Nothing kind of sums up my whole entrepreneurial journey as a quote that I like to steal from Steve Jobs where he said, “You can never connect the dots going backward. The only … ” Sorry, “You can never connect the dots going forward. They only make sense when you look at them backwards.” Along the way, each step along your path might not make any sense where you stand right there, but one day magically they’ll all fall into place. Whether it’s you trust your gut, you trust your instinct, you trust fate, someday it all happens. I want to share these dots that that happened in my life from all different tracks my past and how these all magically one day lined up for me about three years ago.

So the first thought I’ll draw from was from where I was born, this tiny little island in Singapore. I was born there about 35 years ago. Singapore is a very interesting place. It’s a nation of Chinese people, and it turned into a British colony, and this East/West kind of story has kind of takes importance later on in my path. So I was born there. I then moved to Vancouver and then went on to obtain my computer science degree at Cornell University. After graduating from Cornell, I went onto the law school there. My next step was actually getting a job at this law firm named Simpson Thacher.

Now on the first day there, I was assigned an associate mentor named Andy. Here’s another dot in my life. Andy and I became good friends. We kept in touch. If you remember in 2007, 2009 when I was a lawyer, there was this small thing called the financial crisis. I actually one day had the opportunity to take a sabbatical. While receiving salary, I had the chance to take a year off and pursue my own entrepreneurial adventures. That led me down to San Francisco where I actually crashed on a friend’s couch for a good three months and tried to figure out and navigate the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

Now the first person I met in Silicon Valley was actually a prominent investor who in turn actually introduced me to Paul Graham who was just starting in the early days of YC. My next dot. This was YC 2010. There were about 20, 30 companies a batch. I somehow fortunately made it through the interview process and was part of the December, 2010 batch. Amongst my batch mates was Adora, the Homejoy. We had Solomon of a Docker. We had the guys behind PagerDuty as well. So these are some of my early friends in Silicon Valley. They would come back in the story a little bit down the line, too.

Now when I started in Silicon Valley, had tremendous fortune. I had been [inaudible 00:04:35]. A few months in, I had been part of YC, I did TechCrunch Disrupt. I was doing everything right except for one thing, which was that I didn’t get product market fit right on my first company. It was a struggle. I was starting an enterprise social networking company and I didn’t realize that I knew nothing about enterprise sales. So it was an uphill battle. It was a period of tough reflection and it really tested everything that I had to make it through those first couple of years.

When I started realizing I wasn’t getting anywhere, that’s when I started trying different ideas. I was down a path that maybe some of you might be familiar with where I knew I wanted to start a company and you wanted to do something interesting and special, but I didn’t know what. So tossed idea after idea, failed after failure, but I sort of always believed in that I had a good instinct for spotting the right opportunity when it came along. So knowing that I was amongst the best and brightest, I actually started personally investing in some companies, small checks to some friends and fellow YC companies. That could have opened the pathway. I realized that I sort of started having a knack for investing in and spotting ideas at the earliest of stages. So I teamed up with another group of friends. Personal investments became a collective of other YC founders.

In 2016 I had the sort of the spark to say … I mean, I noticed a trend of there was a lot of foreign investors looking to invest in Silicon Valley companies, namely from China. I drew upon my Chinese skills that I had learned as a kid in growing up in Singapore. In 2016 on a whim boarded a plane to Beijing to attend an investor

[inaudible 00:06:38]

hosted by another publication. This was just on a whim, didn’t know anybody there, and got off the plane. Within 20 minutes ran into a fellow founder who I’d known from the YC community. We had this conversation where I said, “I am interested in starting a venture fund and investing in companies.” She immediately said, “Well, I might know someone you want to meet.” Turns out that someone was a member of one of the largest real estate families in China. That quickly escalated to where in a couple of conversations later I was starting a venture fund [inaudible 00:07:16].

Euwyn Poon: From that chance meeting, that led me to spend about six months living in Beijing where I proceeded to do paperwork and also started to close out the fund and raise additional capital. So China falls into play in the spin story as well. I was wasn’t thinking about starting another company then. By that time I had been thinking of ideas for about six years, couldn’t find the next thing I wanted to build.

But while living in China, living in Beijing, I was living in this area called [inaudible 00:07:55]. There was this Starbucks about 15 minutes away by by foot. So I had this daily morning commute where I’d walk to the Starbucks, get my cup of coffee, walk back. It started getting really annoying. One day there was this yellow bicycle that popped up. It had a little locking device on it with a QR code. Thinking nothing of it, I just continued my walk, came back. The next day, a dozen more yellow bicycles popped up. Then the next day, many more dozens popped up. Eventually I started taking notice and I started using them. Here was a product that was amazingly convenient, solved a real problem that I had in my life, and also came in with its own built in distribution engine. I mean, nobody had talked to me about this product, nobody had sold me this product. I had download the app on my own and used it. This was a company called Ofo that had launched in China.

So I started imagining, immediately thinking here I was running a venture fund, I should fund something like this. Maybe this would work in back in home in San Francisco. I had grown up and realized that the same mobility challenges, even if Uber had solved this problem, it didn’t really solve the last mile problem. I think in journeys and trips of less than 5 minutes, 5-10 minutes was still a huge pain point. So I had then started reaching back in my history. I looked back at the many different things that I had done in my life. Through the many years where I had started my YC company, and was frantically looking for ideas, and looking for interesting people to bring into the mix.

I did come across a friend named Derrick who is also coincidentally from Singapore, someone that I had bumped into on the way. He had visited from Singapore while he was running his own startup and looking to be part of the Silicon Valley community. So I had also realized that right about the time when I was looking to kickoff this bike share concept in the U.S., I had seen that he had recently left Lyft. Here was this perfect opportunity to bring a couple pieces from my past together attached by some common bonds. So we did that. I think that I was still in China when I got excited. Here I was with a fund, had an idea, and had a potential cofounder. Gave him a call. It turns out he was working with who turned out to be our third cofounder [inaudible 00:10:44] at the time. Another fellow Singaporean, how convenient.

Euwyn Poon: So we all grouped together and around Christmas of 2016 funded by the venture fund I had started and also a group of my fellow YCS10 alumni. Here’s another piece that I started to draw from. We got to work. We ordered 300 orange bicycles launched at South by Southwest. Amidst all that fanfare, a prominent Russian investor got in touch with us and wanted to fund our Series A. We were three people and he was offering us an $8 million term sheet for us to get to our next stage. So kind of being frantic, I thought back to what great lawyers I knew. This gentleman named Andy kind of popped in my head, Andy who I’d worked with about 10 years prior. My first day on the job, gave him a call. He had since moved out to the Valley and started his own practice and had become one of the most respected lawyers out here. He helped us get the paperwork done, and we were off and running. That was basically the start of a crazy year for bike share. If you think back, it was us and Lime at the outset.

I had drawn upon my experience as a lawyer, and I realized that the key to this industry was not just about dumping bicycles on the streets, it was about working with cities and implementing programs and permit systems so that we could scale this solution sustainably. With that kind of mindset, we got to work. In July that year we launched in Seattle with our first permitted program. That fall, Bird came in the picture. That set off another wave of crazy expansion [inaudible 00:12:45] with scooters swapping out for bicycles in that that field.

So here we are in about winter and January of 2018. We were in the midst of the scooter wars at full scale. We had also along the way fallen behind a little bit in the fundraising game. Bird and Lime had each raised at that point probably a couple of hundred million dollars. We were still on our Series A, but we still stuck to our principles. We realized that this was going to be a long game and we could gain an advantage in the market by trying to secure permits and [inaudible 00:13:27] cities. That summer, we continued growing. We won city after city and campus after campus.

Euwyn Poon: That summer, fortunately enough, one of our competitors launched in Detroit. So this caught the eye of Bill Ford, who is a great grandson of Henry Ford. This is another kind of crazy chapter to our journey, obviously. Never did I think that we would kind of link up with a huge multinational company. So Bill Ford, he’s an interesting person. He’s a great forward looking thinker and also an environmentalist. If you think back, the Ford Motor Company itself was an original mobility pioneer. They solved the problem of mobility in an era where the biggest problem was the availability of cars itself. I mean, they have to invent the Model T in 1911 and come up with innovative processes like the assembly line to solve mass production issues and make cars affordable. Clearly that problem doesn’t exist today. We have too many cars on streets, and the problems involve congestion and environment.

So what kind of brought Ford and us together was this recognition that micro mobility, trips of less than five miles, were becoming hugely important. 60% of all trips are less than five miles. We’re also transitioning to an era of mobility as a service where users are not just simply owning vehicles but want them on demand. These two forces brought us together, along with our core principle stemming from my legal background that we really needed to build a permitted system throughout the U.S. and around the world so that these solutions can be scaled in a sustainable way.

Ford being the world’s most trusted company, that aligned ourselves in a fairly whirlwind process. We consummated an acquisition in the middle of 2018. We have been off and running since. In the last year or so, we’ve grown from a team of 24 to several hundred people. We’ve scaled across the country, and have been looking at plans internationally as well, and have been hard at work on the next generation of micro electric vehicles along with integration into Ford’s other technologies.

So that was a quick whirlwind ride stemming from covering from my background in Singapore, to being a lawyer, to YC. As you can see, the many dots just sort of fell into place once there was this spark that really led to a cascading series of events. That’s sort of the story from my perspective. Another big key in our success is obviously our founding team and my cofounders. As I’ve sat back and gotten a chance to think about what led to our success today, it’s in big part due to the composition of how I assembled that initial team.

We’re fairly unique in the sense that we are all software engineers by background, but each, I would say, have a different type of specialty or characteristic or trait, one being more adventurous, one being more conservative, one more being more thoughtful. We’ve had this kind of interesting mix of personalities that has lent itself well to working as a team. Part of that was due to the fact that we were attacking a … The reason why we set up this team this way was we’d gone into this adventure really knowing, having a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do. So having a strong execution focused team was fairly important for us at the outset.

So that’s a bit of my adventure. I think that I normally don’t like to tell people specific lessons. I like to share my stories, share all the different things that happen, how they all happened, and how they all fell into place. Hopefully you can draw some inspiration from that as you challenge your own … as you proceed in your own kind of journey and overcome your own different challenges along the way.

Q&A

Sam Parr: All right, we’re going to ask a few questions. They’ll be behind you, and we’ll just kind of go through. Let’s start with the top one. What are the best ways to break into the Silicon Valley scene if you don’t have any entrepreneurial friends?

Euwyn Poon:  So I did this by [inaudible 00:18:35] back in the day. So you figure out where people are hanging out, whether it’s Hustle Con, whether it’s at the meetups, whether it’s an alumni network, breaking into networks and identifying where people are online and offline is probably your first bet.

Sam Parr:  I will say that right now Twitter is the place to be. I’ve met so many friends through Twitter. It’s a very easy place to meet people if that’s what you’re trying to do for the first question. There’s this funny thing called VC Twitter. Have you heard of this?

Euwyn Poon: Yup.

Sam Parr: Anyway, Twitter is the place to be. You want to answer the second question here? What’s the key advice to finding product market fit?

Euwyn Poon: Man, I don’t even know whether I’ve … So for Spin, we just observed in the market. We saw an analogous opportunity work in a different part of the world. I feel like I’ve heard it said before that when you see product market fit, things just happen. It certainly does from investors finding you to customers kind of clamoring at your door for what you want to build.

Sam Parr: Let’s go straight to the bottom one, because you guys and the companies like you get a ton of flack. So how do you deal with that flack? What do you say? I would actually like to know how do you solve this particular problem, and how do you deal with all the negative press and how does that make you feel, and what are you thinking through on all that?

Euwyn Poon: Yeah, I think that’s Spin takes a unique position on this. I mean, from very beginning, as I’ve mentioned, we’ve been all about working with cities. The big key to this is actually infrastructure. So building proper … and this also applies to safety, not just clutter. We think that the cities are still in a very early stage of development when it comes to micro vehicles, or micro mobility, and proper lanes, charging stations, and better designed systems. We rolled out things like GPS fencing so that scooters can’t get into crowded, congested areas, and always worked with cities to design better and elegant parking solutions.

Sam Parr: Let’s talk about the middle one about YC, and when it is this the right time to apply, as well as bootstrapping versus raising venture capital.

Euwyn Poon: I think that YC is a tremendous community and has formed the backbone of my whole network here in Silicon Valley. The partners there are really … they’re big thinkers. There’s never really anything too early. I think that what I’d recommend for bootstrapping or VC, I think that if you have an idea that needs scale and support, venture is always a good option for that.

Sam Parr: Will you raise money for your next venture?

Euwyn Poon: Likely, yeah. I think that whatever I do next will probably have the same amount of scale if not more. So I think the best part about venture and finding the right partners there is that they allow you to scale in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily otherwise be able to.

Sam Parr: What about Uber and Lyft? They have not been able to show profitability. You guys and companies like you are constantly compared to them. Can you talk about how you’re able to be confident with the model?

Euwyn Poon: Yeah, I think that Uber is actually starting to turn a corner. I mean, from a unit standpoint, [inaudible 00:21:58] has been adamant that they are … in fact if not already on a unit based [inaudible 00:22:03] very soon going to be with its … at the scale that they’re working with, clearly the demand for the product is there. It’s about tuning the right the business as it scales.

Sam Parr: Let’s do two more. I like this one. Working under a big company. Before you were calling the shots, you had a smaller company. Ford is a behemoth, probably not like a startup where you can kind of be a little wacky. What’s that been like working underneath them? Was it what you thought it was?

Euwyn Poon:  It’s actually been amazing, and maybe a very unique situation in our case. Ford is … I mean, the entire partnership was driven by Bill Ford and the highest ranks of Ford. We’ve been allowed to grow as a wholly owned subsidiary. We’ve maintained our … we still run our own offices here in San Francisco. The founders are still very much in charge. It’s actually been unique learning experience learning what culture at a historic company like Ford is. It’s been an amazing partnership and they help us scale.

Sam Parr: Let’s do this last question about growing in a crowded market. Can you talk about how you’ve been able to be different?

Euwyn Poon: I think that in a crowded market, you always kind of need to find your differentiator. For us, it was our approach with cities. I mean, I come back to that again. Now that we’re a part of Ford, we are working on more different form factors and unique vehicles that will push the industry forward. We’re still in the very early days of the industry. I mean, this industry is maybe two years old now. So technology will evolve, vehicle form factors will evolve. We’re pretty excited to see what the next three to five years will hold.

Sam Parr: Cool. Well, thank you for coming.

Euwyn Poon: Thank you.

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