When Htay Aung studied in Australia back in 2012, his primary mode of transport was public transport. He relied on it heavily for a good two years before getting his own car.
“However, like most urban cities worldwide, Australian public transport is proven to be inefficient and expensive,” he lamented.
The distance between his hostel and university was six kilometres away. Taking the train would mean that he would have to walk one kilometre to the train station, and another kilometre from the train station to his university.
Although there was a direct bus from his hostel to the university, it still required him to walk one kilometre to the bus stop. Furthermore, the bus frequency is extremely inconsistent. There were times when it took up to 40 minutes for the bus to arrive, and when it arrived, Htay couldn’t even board the bus due to overcrowding.
When he finally bought his own car in 2014, Htay faced another set of issues: difficulty finding parking lots in the Sydney Central Business District, and expensive parking fees.
Over the years, the traffic in Australia got worse due to urban congestion. He recounted a time back when he got stuck in traffic and kept seeing bicycles whizzing past his car. That was the ‘eureka’ moment that inspired him to start up Anywheel in 2017.
The Myanmar national launched it amid the bicycle-sharing craze in Singapore, and now Anywheel is one of the two remaining players here.
Last month, Htay was also recognised by business magazine Forbes as one of the outstanding individuals in Singapore who managed to make the cut for Forbes’ 30 under 30 Asia list in 2021.
He tried out other bicycle-sharing apps before making his own
When the idea of a bicycle-sharing service first struck him, he immediately started conducting research and found similar existing companies like Mobike and ofo, which were operational in other parts of the world.
Three days later, I took leave from school and flew to China to get hands-on experience of this bicycle-sharing solution. When I reached Beijing, I was thrilled to see that almost all the cities are filled with bicycle-sharing bikes.
I downloaded all the bicycle-sharing apps available and tried nearly all of (it). On my way back to Australia, I stopped by Singapore and was even more excited to find out that there are already several companies providing such service in the country that I grew up in.– Htay Aung, founder and CEO of Anywheel
Just like in China, he downloaded all the bicycle-sharing apps available in Singapore at the time and tried them out in an effort to understand the business better.
In February 2017, he returned to Australia and spent two months reflecting on his learnings and experiences. He was unsure whether it was a good move to enter the saturated bicycle sharing market. Moreover, some of the players were backed by the world’s biggest Internet companies and venture capitals.
“After months of serious consideration and research, I decided to establish Anywheel in Singapore. I did not choose (to launch in) Australia because it is too far from the rest of the world. Even though Australia has a 25 million population, its population density is one of the least congested in the world.”
“This means if I were to operate in Australia, the demand and utilisation rate would be much lower than countries like Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan,” explained Htay.
Beyond that, he also feels that transport is an essential service and a recession-proof industry. His goal was to provide a “reliable, fuss-free, affordable and eco-friendly alternative to the current transport modes” that can make a positive impact.
Fighting for a slice of the market share
Back in 2017, Singapore started seeing a bicycle-sharing boom. Many Chinese firms emerged into the scene, before local players also joined the race.
At its peak, nine bicycle-sharing companies were operational in Singapore — oBike, ofo, Mobike, SG Bike, GBikes, ShareBikeSG, Baicycle, Anywheel and Moov Technology — offering a total of more than 200,000 shared bicycles.
However, Singapore is down to only two players today: SG Bike and Anywheel. SG Bike became the largest player after the acquisition of Mobike, with a fleet size of 25,000. Meanwhile, Anywheel has a fleet size of 15,000.
Although Htay is well-aware that the market was rather saturated back then, he strongly felt that there was an opportunity for a newcomer like Anywheel.
Commenting further about the landscape back then, Htay said that there were mainly two types of players in Singapore: powerhouses from China, and local startups.
China’s powerhouses are well-funded — they quickly flooded the market with an ocean of bicycles. (Many) love them because their service is widely available, and it (is a convenient) first- and last-mile solution.
However, all of these companies’ country heads are also from China, which means their leadership team lacked understanding of Singapore regulations and users behaviour.– Htay Aung, founder and CEO of Anywheel
For the remaining population that has not tried bicycle-sharing, they unfortunately get turned off looking at indiscriminately parked and damaged bicycles.
“(As someone who) grew up in Singapore and understood the local market, I knew that these Chinese companies operating in Singapore would definitely run into trouble with the local authorities, which will give me a chance to compete with them,” said Htay.
He added that local startups on the other hand, are not very well-funded which makes it easier for a newbie like Anywheel to catch up. His long-term strategy is to achieve an organic and sustainable growth.
“As long as I provide a reliable, consistent and responsible service, when other companies that started first run into roadblocks sooner or later, I will have a chance to catch up and overtake.”
“We are not necessarily trying something new. We are trying to do something right.”
Company got cheated on; their bicycles cannot be booked for a year
Over the years, Anywheel has not only survived but emerged victorious against other bicycle-sharing players, including giants like ofo and oBike, which were backed by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Fast forward to today, Anywheel is one of the two remaining bicycle-sharing players in Singapore. Meanwhile, these giants have had their licenses revoked by the local authorities.
It wasn’t an easy journey, of course. Htay recounted the times when the team slept and worked in the warehouse on Valentine’s Day, or when the company got cheated by third-party providers, which made none of their bicycles bookable for the entire year of 2018.
In February 2019, they were forced to abandon their software and hardware from all third-party providers and build everything from scratch internally.
By September 2019, we finally came out and deployed our very first batch of in-house product on Singapore streets. This was a game-changer for us.
As a result of our own R&D, the very first batch of our smart lock and app made almost all our bicycles become (bookable) and provided a better experience for our users.– Htay Aung, founder and CEO of Anywheel
For 18 months (March 2018 to September 2019), they recorded less than 1,000 total users but that number quickly ramped up to over 30,000 total new users within the next three months. Then in 2020, it saw a six-digit growth in terms of new users.
Although Anywheel has grown phenomenally since its inception, one thing has remained constant: its pricing.
Anywheel has two main revenue models. The first is an adhoc model where users are required to do a minimum top-up of S$10. The credit top-up has no expiry date, and they charge S$0.50 for 30 minutes.
As of 1 June 2021 however, Anywheel has updated its pricing for adhoc usage to S$1 for 30 minutes.
“The change in regular trip charges is necessary for us to improve our products and services. As much as we tried to delay the inevitable price change, we believe that it’s time for us to take the leap and ‘up’ our game,” said Htay, justifying its price change.
Anywheel’s second revenue model is the season pass. There are three different tiers: S$3.90 for a seven-day pass, S$9.90 for a 30-day pass, and S$23 for a 90-day pass.
Subscribers can enjoy an unlimited number of rides within the pass period, limited to 30 minutes per ride. If the ride exceeds 30 minutes, they will be charged the prevailing rates of S$0.50 for every half an hour.
Covid-19 challenges and curbing errant users
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Anywheel obtained “special permission from the authorities” to continue to provide its service during the circuit breaker period, where only essential business could open for business.
“During this trying time when public transport has been badly affected, we made an effort to make our services widely available for people to commute safely for their essential daily (routines),” said Htay.
“Our ridership achieved 30 per cent month-to-month growth for (2020). Our users have made about one million trips with Anywheel bicycles, covering two million kilometres. (This translates to) 44 million tonnes of carbon (saved) compared to the same distance traveled by car, which is equivalent to a carbon-absorbing level of two million fully-grown trees.”
Besides the pandemic, another challenge that they are constantly facing is irresponsible usage.
“At peak, we have almost 3,000 bicycles stolen and damaged by irresponsible people,” said Htay, adding that these “people” include those who are not even Anywheel users.
“We have started a very successful enforcer/walker programme where we hire many part-timers and full-time enforcers to go around Singapore to catch these irresponsible users.”
They shared this in their social media accounts and the posts have since gone viral with a reach of about 350,000 people.
The company also makes an effort to constantly upgrade both the software and hardware of their locks to make it more reliable and anti-thief, which has “shown good results”.
Under the licensing terms of the Land Transport Authority (LTA), we also need to issue a penalty of S$5 if the user did not end the trip in the designated area by LTA. This is to prevent users from potentially parking in areas that could cause hazards to the pedestrians on the walkway, or make a tidy city like Singapore look messy.
LTA has done a fantastic job on providing these designated parking stations. … I can assure that almost all the MRT stations and bus stops in Singapore come with a bicycle-sharing parking station now.– Htay Aung, founder and CEO of Anywheel
There are currently over 20,000 of these designated stations islandwide and this number is set to increase in time to come.
Will there be another bicycle-sharing boom in Singapore?
Htay expressed confidence that “it’s a just a matter of time” before Singapore sees another bicycle-sharing boom.
He feels that the remaining service providers — Anywheel included — have a huge responsibility to play in bringing back the bicycle culture/movement in Singapore.
Besides Anywheel’s growing fleet size, confidence and recognition from its Singapore users, the infrastructure and direction of the nation also plays a big part. The Ministry of Transport, for instance, has been investing heavily on developing a bicycle-friendly infrastructure.
Some of the past operators did not operate responsibly by flooding the streets with a fleet size that they can’t manage, which caused huge hazards to the pedestrian and the tidiness of the city. Some of (them) have also left the market without returning the balance left in their app or the deposit that was paid by the users to use the service.
This has caused many users in Singapore to have a very negative and damaging impression on bicycle-sharing, (making them) lose confidence in (the service).– Htay Aung, founder and CEO of Anywheel
What Anywheel did differently is to not collect any deposit from users since day one of operations in Singapore, and they are the only player in Singapore to do so.
“We only deploy the fleet size that our team can responsibly handle without causing any obstruction to the authority or the public, even though we have enough investment to deploy a much bigger fleet size.”
It’s best to grow at a slow and steady rate
“At Anywheel, we are extremely product- and customer-focused. We believe in sustainable growth instead of explosive growth that is likely to lose steam and money (in a short amount of time),” said Htay.
“We have even rejected external investment and lucrative buyout offers back in 2019, when we were rewarded the biggest bicycle-sharing license in Singapore.”
After about three years of operations, Anywheel has become the number one rated micro-mobility app in the countries that it operates in.
Besides Singapore, Anywheel is also operational in other countries like Malaysia and Thailand.
It expanded its service to Malaysia in late 2019 with both bicycle and e-scooter sharing, and launched in Chiang Mai, Thailand in January last year — just a few months shy before the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Amid the pandemic, Anywheel has went ahead to launch in Bangkok in November 2020, which instantly became a popular mode of transport for the students at Thammasat University.
These are the numbers and impact that drive me, not money. I fundamentally believe (that by doing) the right things, money will eventually follow. There is absolutely no reason why companies causing so much harm to the environment can make tons of money, while green companies that make the world a better place cannot.
I would like to believe this is just the beginning for Anywheel. We are constantly trying to innovate and work hard to make it a powerhouse in the transport industry (and) a transport mode that comes to everyone’s mind when they want to get to anywhere. We have a long way to go, and I am excited about the journey ahead.– Htay Aung, founder and CEO of Anywheel
Featured Image Credit: Anywheel