The roadmap to Chinese bike-sharing startups’ global expansion

Chinese internet companies that are successful domestically are often mocked as copycats of American counterparts (Copy to China). However, recent years have seen an increase in home-grown Chinese innovation often beyond that of Western companies.

China’s bike-sharing startups are expanding to global markets after their shared bikes swarmed Chinese city streets over this past year.

Mobike, a leading bike-sharing startup backed by Tencent, announced that it began operation in London on August 1, making it the third British city that it has set foot in.

One spokeswoman for Mobike told AllTechAsia that they are currently operating in five countries and eight foreign cities in China, Singapore, Japan, the U.K., and Italy.

Mobike launched in Manchester, UK in June. Photo from Mobike

Mobike seems to target cities in developed countries often visited by Chinese tourists.

“We want to expand to cities where the weather is good,” said Chris Martin, who leads Mobike’s international expansion, in a written reply to AllTechAsia’s interview inquiries. “People in China can travel to British and Italian cities by flight, and enjoy their stay with the help of Mobike. It will save them the trouble of talking to taxi drivers or figuring out the timetable of buses.”

Mobike has set a goal of expanding to 200 cities by the end of 2017. Martin said Mobike is contacting many cities in different countries. “Which one to target next? It depends on how our communication and mutual preparation goes.”

At the same time, ofo, Mobike’s major rival, backed by Alibaba, claims to be running its business in seven countries, including China, Singapore, the U.K., America, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Malaysia. On August 9, it also announced a partnership with Softbank subsidiary to launch its shared bikes in Japan.

Dai Wei, the founder and CEO of ofo, said earlier this year that his company would expand to 20 countries and regions by the end of 2017.

But it’s not always easy for these bike-sharing startups to go overseas.

Ofo was told to collect its shared bikes after it launched them on the Stanford University campus earlier this year. Bluegogo, a bike-sharing startup smaller than Mobike and ofo, was also forced to leave San Francisco in January because it lacked relevant certification. Recently, the startup told local media that it would launch its business in Seattle by cooperating with local partners, instead of working on its own.

Chinese bike-sharing companies also face competition from American followers.

Spin and LimeBike are two bike-sharing startups based in the Bay Area, and have raised USD 8 million and USD 12 million, respectively. Their bikes are no different from their Chinese counterparts except for their color, but they understand better how to work with American local government.

Photo from LimeBike website

LimeBike has already entered seven U.S. cities and five campuses, while Spin has launched its bikes in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Dallas. Both startups stressed the importance of collaborating with city officials.

On August 14, LimeBike published an open letter on its website, denouncing “rogue” players in the bike-sharing field that “dump their bikes in the streets without the permission of city officials.” The “rogue” players indicated in the letter include China’s Bluegogo and ofo.

Photo from Spin website

Only two days later, Spin made a similar statement to clarify its “stance against rogue bikeshare operators.” Spin claimed that in every market, its policy team plays a leading role in collaborating with local regulators and officials. The statement specifically targeted foreign competitors, and included an ofo news link being removed from the UC San Diego campus.

Interestingly, neither LimeBike nor Spin forgot to label each other as rogue players in their respective statements, though they both claimed that they play by the rules.

It’s easy to see how fierce the competition is in the U.S., where Chinese bike-sharing startups have a long way to go. But in other international markets, they seem to hold a larger stake.

(Top photo from Baidu Images)

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