Julian Fernau worked for nearly 14 years at Proctor & Gamble in Europe and the Americas, eventually landing in Miami, where in 2018 he launched Fluidfreeride, a store devoted entirely to the growing e-scooter category. While still primarily an e-commerce operation with a full coterie of e-scooter explainer videos and virtual demos, Fluidfreeride (fluidfreeride.com) has brick-and-mortar showrooms in Miami and Brooklyn. It also caters to its online and in-store customers via service centers in Miami and Brooklyn, as well as at a network of third-party repair across the U.S. We spoke with Fernau about how Fluidfreeride got started, what’s happening in the escooters market, and how to build an omnichannel business in a fast-growing new category.
What’s the history of Fluidfreeride?
In 2018, I went through what I think most of our customers go through, which is that I tried Bird and Lime for the first time, when they got to Miami. At that time, it was exciting, and people were chasing them down the streets. I got on a [rented] e-scooter with my wife, and that’s when I had this kind of aha moment, and realized that electric scooters are not just for kids. I think that’s still a bit of a misconception about the category.
Then we tried to buy one, and it was impossible. There were one or two offers on Amazon, and those sold out quickly. There were few independent retailers, but even then, it was difficult to judge what we should even buy, and whether what we would buy was trustworthy or not. I had some contacts in China and had tried a little bit of third-party selling on Amazon already, so I looked at different suppliers, ordered a ton of samples, and eventually, just decided to keep going down that road. We bought a container and set up a website.
The first website was a proof of concept, and we sold a few models, but even though they got to us late, we managed to deliver the first 100 pieces before Christmas that year. We only carried two models. But then we figured out the strategy that we’ve been following since then, which is that we want to differentiate ourselves by offering a wide portfolio of different scooters, and educate customers around what they need to know so that they can pick which scooter is right for their specific application. And then, to offer the service that comes with owning an e-scooter.
Why e-scooters specifically; why not include other electric transport such as e-bikes, e-skateboards, Segways, and the like?
I think you have to focus in order to be good at what you’re doing. A year ago, I ordered a few e-bike samples since we had the customers and the credibility. But then, looking at the technology that we received, and the lack of capability on e-bikes that we haven’t built over time, the way we did with scooters, we decided no, let’s focus on the growing market that we’re good at.
The same goes for Segways and one-wheelers. The scooter is a unique category and I think it’s going to be second to e-bikes as a means of transportation. They’re easy to ride — you don’t need to be a skateboarder, and anyone we put on an electric scooter can basically just go. That’s why I think it’s a big enough category that it deserves full focus. And there’s quite a range if you look at our portfolio: The cheapest one we sell is $500 and the most expensive one is $4,500, and that’s still only a cut of the market that we choose to operate in. On Amazon, you can get e-scooters for $200, and at the other extreme are models that cost $9,000. So I think the category is big enough to just focus on that and then do it well.
Given the ubiquity of rental scooters, why doesn’t everyone just rent them? Why is ownership suddenly on the rise?
Rented scooters, of course, have great purpose in inner cities, and they serve as a driving trial for people to try out scooters. Companies like Lime and Bird have helped create the category. But people figure out quickly that if they want to use them every day, it can get quite expensive. Even if it’s just two miles or 20 minutes a day, it can add up to $200 per month, so you might as well buy a $500 scooter from us and use it every day.
So what’s the range of e-scooter products that you sell, and which ones or for which types of riders?
The brands are not necessarily as much of a determinant on who a scooter is for, because every brand tends to deliver a little bit of range. In terms of range, you have these classic – what we call casual – scooters that are comparable to the rental types These are made by manufacturers such as fluid and INOKIM and run about $500 to $1,000. These don’t go as far, with limited power and ride quality, but they are very portable.
As you move up the segments, you get more power, sometimes a second motor that allows for faster acceleration and top speed. The batteries are bigger, so you have more range. And then a key element that a lot of people disregard when they are shopping for a scooter is ride quality – the quality of the suspension, the type of tires – and this is important. If you ride just two miles a day in, say, Manhattan, and partially on the sidewalk, then it doesn’t matter that much. But if you use your scooter to commute, say, six miles from Brooklyn into Manhattan, you’re not going to ride on a rented-scooter-type model because it’s going to shake you, and it doesn’t enable riding with traffic due to its lower top speed.
The bulk of the business that we do is in the higher segments, where we are relatively specialized and where we even offer scooters that just look like a bigger version of a rented scooter, with a bigger motor. These scooters by manufacturers such as APOLLO and Mercane let you do much longer commutes: They have the same form factor, but they go 30 miles an hour and the board is wider, so you’re able to stand in a more relaxed way. And then above that is the dual-motor segment with a more advanced suspension that lets you take them on trails. We have customers in New York who say they use off-road scooters for back streets. These let you just glide along and let you, say, pass an e-bike ahead of you since you can cut out into traffic, pass, and then cut back in. You need this oomph in order to quickly accelerate even at these higher speeds.
And then there’s the top end — what we call expert. These scooters – the Kaabo Wolf Warrior and the NAMI Burn-E-2 Max — go 60 miles per hour with a range of 90 miles. We try as much as we can to discourage customers from buying these if they don’t have any experience. Yes, it’s an additional level of ride quality, with hydraulic mountain bike downhill suspensions that let you glide along no matter the road conditions. And 60 miles per hour on an e-scooter feels like 200 miles an hour in a car, so this segment is more for hobbyists – people who really want to have fun on scooters rather than use them for commuting.
Which are the biggest markets for e-scooters in the U.S., and where do people ride 60 miles per hour?
Our biggest market, where about 20 percent of our business is generated, is New York City, just because it’s so dense and urban, with lots of bike lanes. The Bay Area overall is big, as well as San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County. Interestingly, Miami, where we are based, is not so good for scooters, despite it being a big city. The roads are bad, there aren’t many bike lanes, and there isn’t really a consistent sidewalk, so those mainstream $500 to $600 scooters that everyone starts on just aren’t good for commuting, say, five miles in between traffic and cars. And that’s why Miami is a bad scooter city.
Apart from inner cities, we sell many of our bigger machines to rural areas, because that’s where one can have fun with them. There’s less traffic, the roads are probably in better shape, and there’s less traffic. We tend to sell the bigger vehicles that can be used for offroad riding, similar to offroad mountain biking, to people who live outside cities.
As for the 60 mph scooters, even those are for city applications, especially if you don’t need to take it on a train, but need to commute 20 miles every day to work, which makes this kind of a scooter ideal, because you can get a 50-mile round trip out of it. And just because it goes 60 mph doesn’t mean you have to ride it that fast.
Name three things you’ve done that you attribute to the success of the store.
First off, choose the right category. The e-scooter market is hot, and the rental scooter companies just popularize the category more by just being there and making it possible for people to essentially do test drives. Secondly, invest early on in SEO, because getting traffic is expensive, so getting good positions on Google searches is ultimately the only way to make this sustainable. And third, invest early in customer service. We don’t see anything as a one-off sale; we see it as a long-term customer experience. Customers might start out with a small scooter and then, six months later, they want to go faster and have more fun, so they upgrade. But this only works if the first experience with us is positive.
Is there anything in the building of your business that didn’t go as you expected, and which you learned from?
We had to organize a recall on one of our biggest products in 2019. We noticed that its brakes were starting to fail. This is a new category and with some of the manufacturers, especially if they’re right out of a factory, we’re often the only people who hold up the safety flag. We had to replace 2,000 calipers with customers, and it was a huge expense at a time when we didn’t have a big organization.
What we learned was that before you launch a new product, do your homework. Everyone always tells you, hey, this is the best product we’ve ever had, and the sample might be perfect, but the first 100 pieces you deliver really tell you what happens on the production line. This made us change how we assess products before we actually go all-in and buy large quantities to launch.
Fluidfreeride is launching a new ultraportable e-scooter under its own brand name. The fluid Mosquito ($899) is available for pre-orders now (see video below).
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]