China is a big country with big cities and big roads. Imagine what it must feel like to know that the closest subway station or bus stop is 20-30 minutes away. Imagine getting in your car at 2 pm on a Thursday thinking that the traffic should be okay only to find that traffic definitely isn’t okay. Imagine taking a cab to the nearest supermarket because it would take 30 minutes to walk there.

Welcome to the life of over half the Chinese population.

The last 6 km problem

Usually, when we talk about the last mile problem, we’re referring to connectivity or logistics, i.e. how does an ISP ensure efficient investments to few people? However, for transportation in China, it’s the last 6 kilometers that’s the real problem. That’s exactly the problem that Token Hu, co-founder and head of product at Niu (pronounced “new”), set out to solve.

Token Hu at the Niu’s launch event in 2015

“The goal we set for ourselves was to find the solution to the problem of city traffic. After a lot of research about the situation in China, US, and Europe, we don’t think electric cars can solve the problem. There are enough cars on the road already,” he says. “We thought about the last mile problem when we first started thinking about the product, but when we were doing our research, we found it’s not only the last mile. Every day people travel to work, meetings, grab a coffee, or meet friends, the average distance is 3-6 kilometers. Everyone does about that distance. So we asked ourselves, what kind of vehicle can conveniently travel that distance?”

The answer, as we now know, was e-scooters. However, they were about to enter into an already saturated market: 20-30 million e-scooters and e-bikes are sold each year for a total of more than 200 million. These bikes, however, are relatively cheap to make and buy; the most expensive and inconvenient part is the battery, traditionally a heavy lead-acid block weighing anywhere between 20 to 50 kilograms depending on power and capacity.

The three biggest problems

Looking at Token’s industrial and graphic design background, one might easily assume that the first problem they would look to solve would be the most obvious and visible: the look and feel. Niu, however, came from a different angle.

The company’s full-size model

“The first major problem we wanted to solve was the battery mobility problem. We wanted to make something that was removable, light, and small,” says Token. “A major reason people don’t buy an e-scooter is the battery. Removable, small, and really efficient was the first problem we tried to solve.”

So, they created a lightweight, but powerful, lithium-ion battery. However, as anyone who has spent any time in China knows, a bane for any bike or scooter rider (electric or no) is theft. Theft of the battery, theft of the vehicle, and sometimes just theft of parts.

The best way to prevent is obvious: make it hard to steal. There are a few different ways to do that: you can add more locks or you could do what the car and mobile phone industry have done.

“Before Niu, every e-scooter company uses different suppliers for the batteries, motor, controller, dashboard, different parts,” Token says. “There’s no operating system. We want to make the whole system communicate with each other and communicate with our cloud services. Every time you change a piece, our servers will know.”

M1 KV_4-min
Niu’s single person e-scooter

Only after did they solve the two most fundamental problems, did they begin to consider look and feel. As China’s economy is developing, consumers are beginning to expect more and are willing to pay for it. That’s the market they targeted.

“Why are people buying a 2,500 RMB bike? Because they have no other choice. The older people are buying the older generation of products, the young generation doesn’t want to buy that stuff because it doesn’t fit their philosophy. It doesn’t fit their beliefs. It doesn’t fit with their style,” Token says. “People like us, we use iPhone or Xiaomi. We want things that are simple, elegant, friendly.”

A successful strategy

Their strategy seems to be working.

Crowdfunding pre-sales campaigns for their first full-sized e-scooter and mini e-scooter have been major successes: 72,022,526 and 81,380,425 RMB, respectively. Even with prices 40-130% higher (3399 to 6899 RMB), their sales is growing along with their fanbase. To date, they have sold over 90,000 units of their the latest full-sized model, the N1S, and 60,000 units of the M1.

Image credits: Niu

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...