“We founded VanMoof 14 years ago with the crazy idea of changing the world. The only reason we've been able to do anything is because of you: the hundreds of dedicated and loyal people who have helped us in our mission to change cities for the better. We are grateful to each of you and we regret that we will not be able to accomplish this mission together." So Taco and Ties Carlier, the two Dutch brothers who founded one of the most famous e-bike manufacturing companies in 2009, take their leave of their audience. VanMoof has been declared bankrupt and the two directors appointed by the Amsterdam court are evaluating the possibility of a restructuring that allows the company to continue operating, but also the sale of all or some assets.
Pride and sadness
"We feel sadness, but above all an immense sense of pride for what we have achieved together", reads the Carlier brothers' email. And in reality, the numbers seem to prove them right: VanMoof has sold almost 200,000 e-bikes worldwide and has grown internationally, reaching around 700 employees and about twenty single-brand stores in many large cities.
The latest e-bike, presented a year ago, starts at 2498 euros; in the catalog there is also a more expensive model, with two engines, which however never arrived. In the midst of the pandemic, the company decided to lower prices to 1998 euros, and between contributions, subsidies and discounts, it was able to make the most of an unrepeatable moment for the growth of alternative mobility.
The reviews, in Europe as in the US, were always excellent, and here too it was easy: the design of all the models was original and impactful, appealing to both young and old. The bikes were robust, and conveyed an indisputable feeling of novelty thanks to tech touches such as the dot display integrated into the frame, the sounds of the interface, the smartphone app, the multiple customization capabilities. And, last but not least, the safety and peace of mind guaranteed by a remote activation and locking system that could make the bike unusable if it were stolen.
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However, the reality was very different, as a person who worked at the VanMoof repair center in Los Angeles recounts on Reddit: “We didn't do maintenance on spare parts: we were advised to throw things away and replace them with new ones. Batteries and entire frames were dumped in dumpsters and inevitably landfills, customers returned their loaner bikes and asked for a second replacement loan due to mechanical problems. There were at least 40 bikes regularly sitting in the workshop queuing for service and we never seemed to be able to do anything except lend bikes to customers and throw away salvageable components. The pay was great and we were given about 20 days off a year, so it's no secret that these opportunists ran out of money. Vanmoof sucks - I'd rather ride a scooter or, God forbid, a real bike. My prayers go out to those struggling to get a refund and those who own this crap. Peace and love to all of you, there is nothing wrong with using a normal bicycle without pedal assistance”.
At a loss
The controversies had been circulating online for some time: unlike many other competitors, VanMoof designed and engineered the bicycles in-house, working with suppliers to produce customized components. A very demanding approach, so much so that according to the Dutch economic newspaper FD, in January he was losing money for every bicycle sold, mainly due to repair costs. The owners were unable to repair the bikes themselves and therefore had to send them to the company's repair centers to have them fixed: an estimated cost of 8 million euros in 2021. What's more: the bikes were covered by a guarantee that allowed to return them within one year; apparently 10 percent of customers took advantage of this opportunity. Our experience was similar: a few years ago we tried to test the S3 model, but twice we were forced to return it because the security systems didn't allow us to unlock it. We can therefore only observe that the finishes were not up to the best competitors and that the bike was quite heavy, but on daily use we are unable to express an opinion.
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Rise and fall
VanMoof's success stemmed from three reasons: design, timing, storytelling. And in short, claiming to be "the most funded electric bicycle company in the world", the Carlier brothers' startup really has become one. In 14 years, he raised just over $225 million from investors including Balderton, Norwest Venture Partners, Felix Capital and China's Hillhouse Capital Management. The company has never disclosed its valuation. Yet, in January 2023, the company entered another negotiation with investors to raise between 10 and 40 million euros needed to remain solvent, but raised less than expected: only $ 5.23 million from TriplePoint Capital in the United States.
In May 2023, Gillian Tans left her post as president who had enthusiastically welcomed the position exactly one year: "Having practically been born on a bicycle, I have seen firsthand how this vehicle can open up cities. As a VanMoof enthusiast, I have I've followed the path of Taco and Ties over the years and I'm thrilled to participate in the development of this unique brand," he said at the time. No trace remains of her experience with the Dutch company: only Booking.com is mentioned on her LinkedIn profile, of which she was first CEO and then president. Some photos of her remain on the VanMoof website, next to (but not riding) a bike.
Thus ends the dream of the European startup that more than any other has pushed for more efficient transport in cities, looking for more ecological alternatives to cars and, with Covid, has proposed an easy way to avoid crowding on public transport. It has had the support of public opinion and exploited the green thrust of the administrations, which in recent years have created better road networks and kilometers of cycle paths. She embraced the latest technologies (it was the only bike trackable with Apple's where's app), collaborated with artists, designers and influencers. But that wasn't enough: other companies will carry on VanMoof's vision, in Europe and beyond, even if it is not excluded that the brand may not be able to return to the market, with another property.
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The match in hand
Meanwhile, it is no longer possible to buy new e-bikes on the site, and all warehouses are blocked; those who have ordered one and are awaiting delivery have no other solution than to join the list of creditors who have initiated bankruptcy proceedings, which was quickly accepted by the Dutch authorities. Anyone who sent their bike to a service center for repairs won't get it back, at least not any time soon, but even those who still have it could run into serious problems: if the company can't find a buyer, it could be forced to close the servers, and so the bicycles in circulation would lose most of the connected functions. Instead of unlocking the bike with the app, you may need to use the backup unlock code on the start button or bell to get the bike started without your phone. The code is unique and changes every time: so a competitor of VanMoof has launched an app, for now only for iOS and in beta, with which to generate it. The application is called Bikey app, is produced by the Belgian Cowboy, and also allows you to access the essential functions of the bike (however, it is only compatible with the most popular S3 and X3 models). But Cowboy also has its financial problems and is looking for new investors, so it doesn't necessarily mean that it will really be able to guarantee the "tranquility" it promises to users. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Blurby seizes the opportunity and offers up to 1000 euro discount for VanMoof owners who buy a new e-bike on the site.
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