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Opinion | A startup that teaches us sharing

  • Vivekananda HR is the co-founder of Bengaluru’s scooter rental startup Bounce
  • Bounce aims to provide mobility to people who don’t have access to their own transport

Vivekananda HR with a pile of retrieved helmets at Bounce.
Vivekananda HR with a pile of retrieved helmets at Bounce. (Photo: Vivekananda HR)

Vivekananda HR spends a chunk of his workday figuring out how to outfox badly behaved Indians. It wasn’t exactly something he thought he would be doing when he co-founded scooter rental startup Bounce with friends Varun Agni and Anil G.

Mobility is access to livelihood and less than a fifth of Indians have access to their own transport. The rest of us largely depend on overcrowded trains/buses and autorickshaw drivers who never seem to be headed our way. The three friends were eager to build an inclusive solution to crack this problem—and they have, at least in Bengaluru.

Just one year after its launch, Bounce logs 110,000 daily rides, or one-third of Metro rail traffic in this city. “It is already an alternate mode of public transport," says Vivekananda when we meet on the balcony of a Starbucks coffee shop in south Bengaluru.

But while they were building the world’s largest sharing network for any city—and as they figure out how to increase supply (ideas include bringing autorickshaw drivers and scooter owners in their ambit and assisting small shopkeepers to buy and run Bounce scooters)—the friends involuntarily became experts at preventing Indians from gaming the system.

Most customers are rule-abiding and considerate, Vivekananda emphasizes, agreeing that the minority offer “interesting behavioural challenges" that have made the company’s founders draw repeatedly on their inner reserves of innovation. In the last year, the company has blacklisted 10,000 users.

“Look," says Vivekananda, pointing to a privately-owned two-wheeler that drives past. “There’s a Bounce helmet." The pillion rider is wearing one of the company’s distinctive yellow helmets with the red Bounce logo. “Some people are shameless, they think it’s their right to steal stuff. And it’s usually the techies who wear Nike shoes and drive 2lakh bikes, not our poorer customers."

Bounce has fought the battle against theft using every tool from Artificial Intelligence to public shaming. Remember, we live in a country where the Indian Railways releases an annual list of how many bedsheets, pillow covers, pillows, blankets, toilet mugs, taps and, yes, flush pipes are stolen every year.

With Bounce, thieves are drawn to the helmets, tyres and fuel. “The first thing we had to figure out was how to reduce the second-hand value for everything," says Vivekananda, adding that they took inspiration from the three-pronged jacks on airline headphones that are useless off the plane.

The company first experimented with custom nuts and bolts for its tyres. When that didn’t deter thieves (who usually steal the rear tyre because it’s faster once you release the scooter stand), they started cold-welding the tubeless tyres, making removal impossible. “Now we are working with manufacturers to change the radius of the wheel, so that the tyres don’t fit other vehicles," he says, laughing at my saucer-sized eyes.

The company has managed to bring down the theft of its helmets from 150-200 a day to one-two a day. After proximity sensors proved unreliable, they began inserting a Bluetooth beacon in the helmet which alerts them the moment the helmet moves out of a 5m radius from the scooter.

A message goes out to the customer, “Our system has detected that the helmet was not present in the bike after you completed the ride…. In case you think this is an error or you have taken the helmet by mistake, please reach out to our customer care at…"

Customers are charged 300 if the company is sure they have taken the helmet. Bounce also incentivises riders to send images of people wearing stolen helmets on two-wheelers. Then they look up the ownership details of the vehicles photographed on the regional transport office website and send the registered owner a legal notice. They have sent out around 10,000 legal notices for theft of helmets in recent months. “People have started returning helmets to our office," says Vivekananda, showing me an image of the helmet mountain located on the ground floor of the Bounce corporate office.

They enlist customers to help them retrieve helmets. Mechanical engineering student Aditya Nair says he decided to take on this task because he was often inconvenienced when he booked a Bounce scooter and found the helmet missing. Eventually he turned helmet ninja, retrieving 56 in six days.

Nair says thieves offer all kinds of excuses: “It was lying on the road and I picked it up", “My friend gave it to me", “I left my helmet in a Bounce scooter so I took this one instead", “I bought this from Bounce". Many hand over the helmet. Nair counsels those who don’t and informs them that once he sends a photograph of them to the company, they will receive a legal notice. That’s usually enough for them to hand over the stolen property.

Three months ago, the company started working with two psychologists to ensure their messaging would yield maximum results. “They work on what to say and how to say it. One focuses on deterring negative behaviour, the other on reinforcing positive behaviour," Vivekananda says.

One recent campaign, Pass Safety On, effectively tapped into public shaming. “We managed to turn the attitude from ‘I stole a helmet and nobody even noticed I took them for a ride’ to ‘playing with another person’s safety is not cool’. We managed to convey that it’s not about the 300, it’s about the safety of the next user," says Vivekananda, adding that emotional messaging usually hits the spot. “That worked really well for us. Even non-Bounce users started telling those who were wearing stolen helmets to return it."

This past year the company has introduced many other safeguards too. When a mesh over the fuel tank didn’t prevent people from pilfering fuel, they introduced fuel sensors. Customers would abandon the scooters anywhere once they were done, including the middle of a busy highway. Now, no-parking roads are geo-fenced and an SMS goes out to the customer saying he has parked the scooter in a no-parking area. The technology doesn’t allow you to end your trip in a no-parking zone. Users would take the scooters into their buildings and park them where the next customer couldn’t access them. Now they are penalized if the next user cancels his trip and picks “private parking" as a reason.

“For simple mobility we have done a lot of stuff," Vivekananda concedes, laughing loudly.

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