“In the transportation sector, it is 97% men” shares our first guest, Maria Folkesson. Maria is on a mission to create the world’s first electric-pod-sharing subscription, that is driven by women for women.
The concept was built from her own personal story and something many, I am sure, can relate to. Not only is Maria trying to improve diversity in the transportation sector in an environmentally friendly way, she’s also creating a business she plans to scale across Europe. Listen as she shares her story, as a founder, and as a responsible business owner on her journey towards growth.
To listen to the episode, go here: https://anchor.fm/gigapod/episodes/Levelling-the-transportation-sector–while-driving-growth-e820pk
Levelling the transportation sector, while driving growth.
Gigapod as a podcast where we interview companies, building exciting and economically sustainable business models and the gig circular and sharing economies, make sure to subscribe and to find out more, go to https://gigapay.co/gigapod.
So excited to have you here joining us today, Maria, as this is both something that I’m very excited about your business idea, and I see a lot of great potential. So, can you just tell us about your foundation story now for Cities Up Now?
Yes, Cities Up Now and the Cities Up Her. Cities Up Her is one of our lite services that we just launched like three and a half, four weeks ago. Cities Up Now is about providing micro-mobility in urban environments. And Cities Up Her was one of my ideas that I’ve been thinking about for almost a year. My daughter came home from riding the bus, in Vostro’s, Sweden, where we live and it was in the afternoon in a normal neighbourhood, normal bus. And she was like harassed by an older guy who didn’t leave her alone, and nobody came to her aid and she came home and she was angry and upset. And we had like a lot of discussions around the dinner table, like, why is it like this? And how can we make this difference? And, she’s a tough girl, so she managed, but there was like more the whole issue about this happening here than during the daytime.
I’d be just thinking about, doing something new and fresh, and I’m passionate about female entrepreneurship and, making girls and women, take more place in society. So, like half a year ago, or maybe even longer, I just talked to my cofounders in Cities Up Now that I have this idea, could we maybe do like a service that is only for females and by females, like really a niche service. And they supported my idea and we got some funding and a lot of work behind it. So, we said, let’s try, let’s see if the world is ready. And we worked on it pretty hard and got this like a basic application that you can use. And we have like our vehicles, the same ones that we’ve been like using before, but Swedish produced now. So, we said that let’s go for it because I have seen, I have followed the debate in society. And I feel like maybe this is something that’s needed, whether you like it or not. I still think that a lot of girls and women can identify with that. And one more important thing is that, as I said, it’s only for females also the drivers in the transportation sector. In a bigger perspective, it’s like 97% of men employed. No, that’s low, so we felt like this is an opportunity for us to give women jobs in a sector that they normally don’t work. And only this three and a half, four weeks, we have received a lot of emails from girls wanting to work with this, which I think is fantastic because that’s like the best that could happen, so that’s the short version.
Love that. I think there’s a lot of like you said, there’s a lot of demand, both from the safety of women and for children feeling that they can feel safe and also from the driver’s side.
Yes, of course, that’s probably, I mean, it’s a lot of reasons I said that this is not like a political statement and this is about how women feel. I can’t like, I don’t know exactly what makes women feel like this. It could probably be a lot of different reasons, but I do feel like that that need is real. So yes.
I think some of the best business ideas often come from facing those challenges yourself but talk us through a little bit about how Cities Up Her works. So, you are based in Vestros right now.
We are based in Vestros because…
Vestros is just outside of Stockholm, Sweden
It’s like one hour outside Stockholm is like one of Sweden’s top ten biggest cities. It’s not that big. It’s like 160,000, it’s a normal city in Sweden. And it’s more than one reason, okay. We live there, the company is based there, but citizen now has vehicles all over Sweden, so that’s not like necessarily. But I believe that Vestros is a difficult city to launch because it’s so close to Stockholm. So, we are never first with anything. It’s always launching Stockholm first and then maybe Gothenburg and one or two years later, it comes to Vestros. So, I feel like if we can launch in Vestros and make it work, we can make it work anywhere.
That’s basically, and I feel like Vestros has good potential because this vehicle is Moped so you drive them on like boardwalk, or was it…
Maria: [05:03] Yes, exactly. And Vestros like most towns in Sweden at the same growth, they are like really adapted to bikes. So, compared to maybe Stockholm that made people bike over here as well, but it’s like, in between cars and buses in Vestros is more separated. So, it’s perfect for this kind of vehicle plus that we don’t have the subway, we only have buses, so that’s the only like commuting. So, this is a really good compliment because it is door to door. We can pick up people like right outside their front door and deliver them like exactly where they want to be. Not like 1Km or 250 meters away. We can drive like up to the shuttle door, which I think it’s also like a unique selling point for us that our vehicle is sustainable. That’s important for us, that’s like, it has to be sustainable, like with the electrified vehicles. And, and also that we don’t use the roads we don’t compete with… because it’s a lot of traffic problems even in Vestros, even though it’s smaller than Stockholm, it’s still getting a lot more and more and more cars and fewer and fewer parking spots. So, we feel like we’re doing something good there too; we don’t push more pressure on the infrastructure, this is like in the bike lane. So we don’t have anything similar in Vestros or so I think it’s a good city to try it, and we are like living there, so people in Vestros like, they’re helping us to come with good feedback and try to help us develop this service. It’s good.
And you launched only a few weeks ago. So, tell us a little bit about how was it just getting a new product out there, a new solution?
Yes, it was really exciting because we’ve been working with this for quite a while and keeping it a secret because you’d be like it’s happening a lot of things in this sector. So, we will be not been talking to that many people. And when we’re getting closer to the launch, we start discussing like, is this going to be noticed maybe, nobody cares or it’s going to be a big thing we didn’t know. And then the press release came out and we got such good feedback. It was amazing. We did not expect that’s positive and that good feedback that we received. So, it was exciting and a lot of fun. So, we still riding on that vibe right now. Like this, like talking in podcasts and meetings and, talking to a lot of interesting people in the sector about maybe how we can work together further on.
And actually, that is how I found Cities Up Her was through the press release that you guys, the media piece that’s covered about you.
It was really good.
So, it was, it was fantastic to see that both the innovation has been covered and also from a smaller, and important city for Sweden as well as having some great innovation coming out of there.
Because that’s one of the things as well, that Vestros, close to Stockholm, in the middle of Sweden we have a lot of innovation coming out from Vestros. We have a lot of like global companies and it’s nice to be able to put it on the map like it doesn’t only happen in Stockholm. Stockholm is fantastic, but we have a lot of innovation power in the whole country.
So, tell us a little bit about the business model for Cities Up Her?
It’s based on member fees; this is a subscription model. So, you become like a member of our community.
And how do you become a member?
Yes, you download our app and then you get like a link to that. You just fill in like this web membership. In the future, we’re going to add everything in the app, of course, but now it’s on the web. Then you become a member and then you just book, you just have the app and its on-demand. So, you can’t like, pre-book yet a trip. So, if you’re standing somewhere and you just push, like I want to go there from here to there. And then you get like this time estimate and you see what driver like Anna is picking you up in, in eight minutes, for example. So, that’s one of the things new members fees, but we are cheap. It’s comparable to like a bus ticket. And it’s because we really, truly want a lot of women and kids to be able to use this service. If it’s really expensive, we know it’s not going to be common, it’s going to be like a small group that can use this. And we believe that the more our vehicles are driving around, it’s more sustainable because they don’t go in a car or anywhere else. And we helping and serving a lot of girls.
The other side of it, we selling commercial, like, yes, both outside of the vehicles, like brand empowerment, like vehicles with striping, but then we’re going to have only in two weeks from now, we have these LED screens with shorter commercials that can run in the vehicles that, and we know exactly where in the city of the vehicles are. So, we can decide where what commercial is going to be played when and so on.
I guess, on the other hand, since you have a very specific niche that you’re working on.
Exactly. Yes, we know exactly, and they are driving around in the city centre. So, it’s a really good way to show your company’s logo; and also if you stand with us, you stand for something. So, it’s kind of a way for a company also to make like a statement like it’s sustainable and it’s about like women and, it’s one way to make a statement for the companies. So, the more members we have, the more vehicles we can have, and the more powerful the commercial gets and so on. So as many as possible.
And tell us about how you go about… so one as of course attracting users, but then you also have, a really important part is finding the right drivers as well. So how do you go about that process?
Today we have six drivers and only in Vestros and then a couple more coming in only this week and they are between 18 and 60 years old. So that’s yes, it’s so cool, that’s exactly the way we want. And, they need to have some kind of driving license. It’s not the required Mopeds in Sweden, this kind of Moped, but we feel like if you’re going to drive people, it’s good, if you have like a car or motorcycle, like driving license. And it’s more like positive, happy girls that do help other women. And right now, we haven’t been able, we haven’t been like forced to go out and search because they are coming to us. So, we’ve been really lucky like that; so, I meet a lot of girls and I hope as I have had girls standing in a queue becoming a driver, which is so amazing. So, I just hope that we can scale this up fast so I can get more girls because they are employed by us.
They are employed by you?
They are employed by us. So, they get like fair pay and that’s important for us as well.
Yes, that’s great. And so, one really important thing, first Vestros, then the world is your oyster. So, what’s your sort of expansion plan?
Maria: [12:50] We’re planning, it’s the end of October now, and our goal is to in early next year, be at least one more location and it doesn’t have to be within Sweden. We are like having discussions already in one country in Southern Europe and one of our Nordic neighbours. But of course, we want to become bigger in Sweden as well. I can see it a lot, at least 10 to 12 cities Stockholm included where our service would be really good.
I wanted… I think that was the first reason why I reached out to Maria. I was like, “oh, when are you going to come to Stockholm?
Yes, and you’re not the only one I’ve got emails and it’s really fun, and we really would like to be in Stockholm so of course. But also like other countries, because I think that our business model is scalable, fairly easy, like across the world. And our goal has always been to not just be a Swedish established company, we want to go like abroad. So next year I don’t want to be like too many details, but we have plans to scale up fairly fast.
And tell us a little bit about your funding and how has that been? Because the journey has gone very quickly for you.
We, are like four co-founders or three, three private co-founders and one more like an incubator- ish. And we are kind of good at networking and hustling. We’ve been working hard, like taking no money and, just really work hard, taking some loans, of course, and we using [inaudible 14:32] like Swedish public-owned founder for a bit of like soft loans to help us develop. And we also get some money from [inaudible14:44], which is where Vestros is based. They have given us a little bit of money to be able to develop new software because it is new and it’s innovative and it’s for a good purpose. So we’ve been really, really trying not to spend as much money, like all the money goes to our drivers basically and developing our software. And we tried to be clever with the marketing and social media, and try to listen to good advice from people in like collaborations with others, like lifting other companies, working together with other companies. We can lift each other in each channel. So, we’ve been doing this with basically no money or very little money. So yes.
If we talk about it… because it’s still a very short journey, but I’m sure that you have already had so many learnings.
Is there anything that stands out for you?
I think it’s being able to be brave and just go out there. Like I said to you a bit earlier, it’s not about evenly… we can sit and plan and discuss and develop in our office forever, but we just decided that no, we go out, we meet the people, we meet the customers, we hear what they have to say, and then we go back and we develop a bit better and then we’d go out again. And I think that was a good decision for us; because we’re launching in October and Sweden in October, it’s tough because it’s cold and it’s rainy and snow is coming. So obviously it would be easier in April or May. But I’m really happy that we didn’t wait, plus this is a bit of a controversial idea because it’s for females and all females, and most people love this, but it’s also this little crowd that doesn’t approve about what we’re doing. And I also have learned that if we believe in this, and we have been thinking a lot about all these different questions and ethics and morals and what we want to stand for and why, why are we doing this? So, I have learned that if you just really believe yourself and, why are you doing this and how it’s way easier to go out and meet all these questions and maybe negative feedback as well. So, for me, because I’m not used to being in the spotlight, I mean, now this is a really smart startup, but for me, there’s been a lot of questions.
It’s just the beginning.
Yes. So, I’ve been learning like this last couple of months, I’ve learned more than I have done in maybe the past five years. So, it’s amazing, yes. This is my first startup, my co-founders, they have been like running companies before like different types of companies, but this is my first. I have only been on the other side of the table helping other companies before, but this is my, first time. And it’s, I’m really happy that I took the step and did it.
Raiha: [Inaudible 18:02]
When it comes to that type of business that we’re doing when you’re like business to consumer, it’s a lot about branding, of course. And as I said earlier, like really been thinking about what are we doing and why it’s like genuine in the business. It’s not just about making money or being new it’s first with something new, it’s believing in what we’re doing. So, for us, I think branding is important. And to think about all the steps, like the vehicles, the staff, like I’m trying to work a lot with women, like in all different, it’s not only women in our company, but I believe in highlighting competent women, get that as a, it’s a really important part of our company equality. So for us, it’s about, and being fast, not just like, if you have a product or a service that is okay, then launch it, it’s better because you can always, I mean, I have met the customer in my previous job that they’ve been just developing, developing, and developing and you’ve never done. I think you just have to accept the fact that you are never done because even after the launch, you have to launch again, then you have to launch again. So, I think that’s one of the knowledge I’ve gained so far. Like just be brave enough to go out there and launch and just see what happens and be fast to rethink and launch again.
That’s great. And one last question is just a bit about the… because I think to have your bravery, then you also need to be surrounded by great people as well. So just tell us a little bit about the… you said that you’ve got three other co-founders, but two others that are…
Yes, it’s my husband [inaudible 20:17] that also been working like for 10, 15 years with like business advice, and was running his businesses and we have a lot of girls together, so this is true to the heart issue for us. [Inaudible 20:34] is, the third co-founder and he has probably the most experience from running companies before, and he’s a really good salesman. So, we have a startup, we’re doing everything, but we try to be responsible for different areas. So, we’ve been together like in this company almost from the start, we need to add more competence. Obviously, we have a lot of collaborations that are like in our company, but they are close to us, so we have these mutual agreements between us. So, we believe in building a big team with people that know what they’re doing in their specific area. And we seeking more financing and then grow quicker.
With H.Q and Vestros.
Yes. We are going to stay like in Vestros, that’s the, where we belong, but we going to scale-up.
Yes. That’s fantastic. So, Maria from Cities Up Her, we get the app by going to the app store, or Google Play.
It’s a pink App.
That’s great. And then also the websites.
Okay, perfect. Alright. Thank you so much.