Travis VanderZanden is founder and CEO of the micro-mobility company Bird and has spent the last decade focusing on transportation. His favorite problems to solve are the complex ones that make a big impact—even though they’re the ones also giving him gray hairs.
A pain point is not enough. You need passion. Before Bird, I created Cherry, which was an on-demand car wash service. It was a pain point in densely populated areas, and it looked like a good business on paper. But I wasn’t passionate about it, and that made it tough. Building a company is challenging enough, but to run one at scale and sustain the pace is even more difficult. It’s hard to get up every morning excited to tackle challenges, expected and unexpected, unless you’re working on something you truly care about.
After Cherry I moved into ride-hailing, and we had positive impacts on things like parking and reducing DUIs. But at the end of the day, the biggest problems in transportation are traffic, congestion and carbon emissions—and cars are the center of the ride-hailing universe. Bird is the opposite; our mission is to get people out of cars. That’s good for the world, and it’s something the rest of the team and I are deeply passionate about. I think that’s the reason we’ve been able to overcome obstacles and scale as quickly as we have.
A lot of people have asked me, “Why scooters?” Back when I first started thinking about micro-mobility, no one was riding them. My daughters had kid scooters, but the obvious choice in short-range electric vehicles for adults was a bike. Around that same time, I bought my daughters new bikes for Christmas and spent the afternoon teaching them to ride without training wheels. They had a great time—but the next day, they wanted to go back to their scooters.
That made me think, “Why not try an electric version, for adults?” I started testing different models in the driveway, and then my wife and I took out some of the early prototypes on the boardwalk in San Diego. That was a good trial exercise, because she’d been afraid at first but ended up thinking it was incredibly easy and fun. Plus, people kept stopping us to ask about the scooters—where we got them, how much they cost, if they could take a ride. That’s when I went all-in on Bird.
My mom was a public bus driver in Appleton, Wisconsin for 30 years, and I used to ride along with her. I think that shaped me in a couple of ways. I grew up seeing the good and bad of public transportation. It’s affordable and can be a great way to get around a city. But it usually doesn’t take you all the way from point A to point B, and that’s one of the main reasons people don’t use it. It’s also where Bird comes in. We’re not replacing public transportation. We’re the first- and last-mile solution that makes public transportation more connective and accessible.
Riding on my mom’s bus, I also saw how hard she worked—and how kind she was to everyone. She made friends with the folks on her route; I have great memories of passengers coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. She taught me that no matter what you do in life, it’s important to build that sense of community.
I often ask “Tell me about your first Bird ride,” which accomplishes a couple of things. It’s a good icebreaker and it tells me whether the person has ridden a Bird. If they haven’t, it can give me a sense about what might be preventing someone from trying Bird. If they have, I get to hear some great stories about people rediscovering neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years—because they’re not sitting in a ride-hail car staring at their phone. Unlike most technology, Bird reduces your screen time.
But most importantly, hearing about someone’s experience with Bird tells me if they are passionate and care about what we’re trying to do. You can hear what they felt, but more importantly, what they were able to achieve. They avoided parking problems, they didn’t have to deal with car congestion, they got where they were trying to go quickly and affordably. That’s critical, because it’s not just the founder who needs passion. If you want to scale and be successful beyond the first couple of years, the rest of your team needs it, too. I’m in this for the long haul, so I’m trying to find the people who will be right there with me.
When I was first starting Bird, I read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, and it really stuck with me. He was a track star, so he understood the pain points. But more than that, he was incredibly passionate about building the world’s greatest shoe. Nike was not an overnight success. They had challenges with manufacturing and supply chain, partnerships, you name it. But they persevered. That was inspiring to me when we were going through similar experiences in the early days of Bird.
I’m a big fan of biographies in general. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for reading about someone’s real-life experience. I learned a lot in school, but I learned even more from working in startups and building businesses. So I think there are a lot of great lessons in the stories of other entrepreneurs.
Cities are our number one customer. When Bird was starting out, it wasn’t really clear where we fit in—cities just weren’t thinking about scooters or micro-mobility, and we don’t blame them. We wanted to work closely with them, but we didn’t see them as customers. And at first, it was a bumpy road. We ended up in litigation with the city of Santa Monica.
But we learned quickly, and now we invest heavily in relationships with cities and in the technologies and tools they need to manage micro-mobility in their markets. We’re sharing data, we’re better at communicating. And it shows. Santa Monica is a great example; they love micro-mobility now. They’re adding more lanes for bikes and scooters and setting aside dedicated parking around the city. We’ve been able to make a huge improvement in less than two years.
It’s not one invention, but I think there’s a series of things that will come together to change what cities look like over the next 5, 10, 20, 50 years—and I’m very excited about that future. Cities today are built around cars, but they aren’t built to handle the volume of driving that happens. And that’s made simply moving from one place to another one of the most dangerous things we do, environmentally and beyond.
We’re going to need a lot of different innovations to kick our addiction to cars. Short-range electric vehicles will be part of that, but so will things like tunnels, autonomous vehicles, and vertical takeoff and landing. We need to fundamentally change the game. But when we do, it’s going to be great for people’s efficiency; it’s going to be great for the environment. And it’s going to mean my daughters—and everyone’s kids—can be safe when they’re getting around.
- Build community
- Pain points aren't enough
- Hire for passion