GGV Capital’s Hans Tung and Zara Zhang interview Yan Li and Token Hu, the co-founders of NIU, or 牛电科技 (a.k.a 小牛电动车) in Chinese. NIU designs and manufactures smart and high-performance electric scooters. It is currently the largest lithium-ion battery-powered e-scooters company in China and a leader in Europe in terms of sales volume in 2017. As of June 30, 2018, NIU had sold more than 430,000 smart e-scooters in China, Europe and other countries.
NIU’s vision is to become the number one brand for urban mobility, powered by design and technology. Before NIU, smart electric two-wheeled vehicles did not exist in China, and two-wheeled vehicles were perceived low-end. The company has changed that perception with their smart e-scooters and premium brand.
NIU just went public on the NASDAQ in mid-October. GGV led NIU’s series A back in 2015 and has backed the company in every round since then, all the way through its IPO. Our managing partner Jenny Lee is on the board. We are very excited to have Yan and Token with us on this episode, almost fresh off the plane from New York.
Yan and Token discussed how NIU became a lifestyle brand in China, the ups and downs during their amazing startup journey, and what it was like to take a Chinese company public on the NASDAQ.
Hans Tung: Hi there. Welcome to the 996 Podcast, brought to you by GGV Capital. On this show, we interview movers and shakers of China’s tech industry, as well as tech leaders who have a U.S.-China cross-border perspective. My name’s Hans Tung. I am the managing partner at GGV Capital, and I have been working at startups and investing in them in both the U.S. and China for the past 20 years.
Zara Zhang: My name is Zara Zhang. I’m an investment analyst at GGV Capital and a former journalist. Why is this show called 996? 9-9-6 is the work schedule that many Chinese founders have organically adopted. That is, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week.
Hans Tung: To us, 996 captures the intensity, drive, and speed of Chinese Internet companies, many of which are moving faster than even their American counterparts.
On the show today, we are extremely excited to have Yan Li and Token, co-founders of NIU, or NiuDianKeJi (牛电科技) in Chinese, on our show. NIU designs and manufactures smart and high performance electric scooters. It is currently the largest Lithium-ion battery-powered e-scooter company in China, and a leader in Europe as well in terms of sales volume in 2017. As of June 30 this year, NIU had sold more than 430,000 smart e-scooters in China, Europe, and other countries around the world.
Zara Zhang: NIU’s vision is to become the number one brand for urban mobility, powered by design and technology. Before NIU, smart, electric two-wheeled vehicles didn’t exist in China, and two-wheeled vehicles were perceived as low end. The company has changed that perception with their smart e-scooters and premium brand.
Hans Tung: NIU just went public on the Nasdaq in mid-October this year. GGV led NIU’s Series A back in 2015, and Jenny Lee, our colleague, joined the board. We have backed the company every round since then, all the way through its IPO, and we are now the largest VC shareholder in the company. We are very excited to have Yan and Token with us today, almost fresh off a plane from New York. Congrats on your IPO and welcome to the show.
Yan Li: Hi. Thanks, Hans and Zara. We are very, very honored to be on the show.
Token Hu: Yeah. Actually GGV is helping us a lot. Especially like yesterday, I introduced my product to my God, Tony Fadell [laughter]. It’s like a dream come true for me.
Hans Tung: Yeah, so you’ve been a fan of Tony Fadell for a long time?
Token Hu: Yeah.
Zara Zhang: So how does it feel to take a company public on the Nasdaq? What was your most memorable moment for your New York trip?
Yan Li: Very exciting. Very exciting. I think the most memorable moment for me and Token was actually— well, we didn’t realize the Nasdaq Bell is actually digital now [laughter]. So we were holding hands together, pushing that bell, pushing that button. It’s on a digital screen [laughter].
Hans Tung: That’s right.
Zara Zhang: You were imagining a physical bell?
Yan Li: Yeah. We imagined a physical bell. And they had a physical Gong at the end. But it is not as fun as that digital one. So that’s most memorable for us.
Token Hu: For me it was just too exciting. I just forgot how to talk. And Yan was holding my hand, pushing the screen. It was just like, yeah.
Hans Tung: Yan, you have a background in private equity and you also worked at KKR before joining NIU. Can you talk about your transition from an investment professional to a startup executive?
Yan Li: I think it was very interesting. At KKR I was with KKR Capstone. It’s an operation of KKR where we’re airdropped into the portfolio companies that we invest in and then become sort of a full-time or part-time executive within the company. And I think NIU is the company that has the most technology and the most exciting work I have ever taken. At KKR, I managed more traditional companies like call farms as well as liquor companies. When I got the chance, when Jenny extended the offer to be part of the NIU family, I looked at it — this is the most high-tech company, the most cool product — and I was super excited. The transition was easy, and it’s been just as exciting for the last four years.
Hans Tung: Right. How did you get to meet Jenny and the company?
Yan Li: Well, it was through introduction. I had heard of Jenny and GGV in the past. I had heard of Hans as well, so happy to meet you as well. And there was an introduction through other VCs who sit on the board. I still clearly remember I met Jenny at Starbucks in Shanghai. We had a two hour chat. It was very interesting and very exciting.
Zara Zhang: So who are your customers and why do you think they’re buying your products?
Token Hu: According to our big data analysis of all the information we’ve got, our users are daily commuters. At NIU we’re not doing a toy for the users. They are aged between 25 and 35, the majority of our customers. And also in our database we can see that their daily trip is around 20 km. And monthly trips is between 300 and 350, which means it’s their daily commute vehicle in their life. We are trying to help them avoid all the traffic jams, all the slow city movement. We’re happy to see that we’re literally changing their lives from super rushed city traffic to freedom.
Yan Li: Just to comment on that, I think we appeal to young users. And by young, I don’t mean age. If it’s 25 to 35, I think Hans and I are already out of the picture [laughter]. Literally yesterday I was talking to some of the GGV LPs and they all love our products. And one LP said, “The people who love your products are the people who have a young mentality.” And I think everyone has a young mentality at this point. Everyone feels young inside. So we want to make sure that when people are riding our scooters, they help to remind them what freedom is, roaming free in the city. I think that’s one of the emotions we try to bring to our users.
Hans Tung: Is that the reason why you guys have become a lifestyle product and brand in China?
Yan Li: It’s not the reason, but I think it’s what the lifestyle represents. We are the first lifestyle brand in China in this two-wheeler market, and we hope to become a lifestyle brand in all urban mobility markets. And I think we’re on on the way to doing that. Token can talk about the accessory part. I think we have some amazing accessories.
Token Hu: Yeah. When you’re building a brand, it’s not only about your major product. It’s building an environment for your users for their daily life. It’s not only about riding a scooter, it’s also about having your product with your brand philosophy in their daily life. And right now we have a really strong approach in accessories. We have different categories like riding gear or brand apparel. For example, the t-shirt I’m wearing today is really hot in our community. We want to have a full life circle around our users.
Yan Li: And just advertising. For the people who haven’t got a NIU scooter, they can get accessories. The t-shirt is on sale on our website, www.niu.com.
Hans Tung: Excellent [laughter]. Good salesman.
Token Hu: Normally our users get NIU accessories first. For example, they have an existing e-scooter and they want to try our accessories. They’re thinking about changing in the next few years, but after they purchase our accessories, they immediately become NIU riders.
Zara Zhang: So in terms of geography, where are they? Are they in first-tier cities or lower-tier cities?
Yan Li: Oh, we cover a wide range. We’re in 150 cities in China and also 23 countries internationally. Because we’re really trying to solve this urban mobility issue. We see traffic congestion not only in first-tier cities, we see it in the Tier 3 cities, Tier 4 cities as well. So if our product is able to solve users’ pain points, I think that is what allows us to penetrate in more depth into China as well as internationally. And lastly, being the most stylish scooter out there adds an excitement point to our users. Riding a scooter is not just your daily commute. It’s actually a demonstration of your personality, a demonstration of your beliefs. I think, regardless of where you live, people want that.
Hans Tung: The company’s only four or five years old. How do you guys figure out a way to enter and penetrate so many different markets?
Yan Li: I think a few things. First of all, I think the product is unique, being a Lithium-ion based battery scooter. A Lithium-ion battery is very light. It’s actually portable, very easy for people to take home to charge. So that solves a big pain point. And the design is unique. Our M Series is the first mobility product that has ever won seven international major awards in terms of product design. This is in the last 20 years. To give you an example, for the U.S. IDEA Award, the I-D-E-A, we won the silver medal and the bronze was the BMW new 5 Series.
Hans Tung: Wow. Very impressive.
Yan Li: At first when we got the silver, we were sort of disappointed.
Hans Tung: Until you find out who’s number three.
Yan Li: Yeah. We were like, “We didn’t get the gold.” But then we saw, “Okay. BMW 5 got the bronze.” At least we feel a little better. And then it is about services. We have more than 570 stores in China now, and globally we have like 700 sales points. We actually want the services to carry us through to penetrate the Tier 4, Tier 5 cities. Because when people buy those scooters, they need good after-sales services, and we have branded stores to provide that service. I think that makes people feel like they’re getting a holistic experience. Not only the product, but actually through the entire usage cycle of our product. That’s what we are trying to ensure here.
Zara Zhang: So Token, what is the design philosophy behind your scooters?
Token Hu: I always have this question. I talked about it with Tony yesterday and he gave me really good feedback, which is that design should have a tyrant. Right now, a lot of companies are talking about when you design a product, it should go through all the surveys, focus groups, and everything. I have been in the consulting industry for many years. Those things are your gods. But the final product should be from your life. The people in our R&D team, even our management team, are riding our scooters every day. We got this guy, the former PE guy, on a scooter. If you’re the first-hand user and you’re riding daily, you’re designing products for yourself and solving your own problems. It’s better than if you want to entrepreneur something and make some money. It’s a huge difference. This is a key secret sauce for us.
Zara Zhang: Could you also talk about your background and how you came to join NIU?
Token Hu: Yeah. My background is complicated. High school dropout. The first job I got was dishes in a restaurant—
Hans Tung: Washing dishes?
Yan Li: So for the international listeners out there, it’s actually very difficult to be a high school dropout in China.
Hans Tung: Very difficult. It’s not easy.
Yan Li: I think in the US it might be easier.
Hans Tung: Yeah. Maybe it’s kind of cool in the US, but in China it’s not easy.
Yan Li: But Token managed it.
Token Hu: I’m not encouraging people to drop out early because we were lucky. We had just been through the whole internet industry, growing super fast. I started learning from the internet, and eventually in 2007, I got to Microsoft. Afterwards I jumped to the top company, it’s called Frog Design. It was founded by Hartmut Esslinger, who created Apple’s design language. I was learning there for four years, literally learning my language and all my professional skills at my work. It was quite a dynamic life for me.
Hans Tung: Right. This is why you respect Tony Fadell so much as the founder of iPod and the co-founder of iPhone.
Token Hu: Yes, yes, yes.
Zara Zhang: How did you meet the NIU team?
Token Hu: Actually, I’m the guy who had the idea in the beginning. In the first year I just spent time on it myself. But it’s a huge product. It’s not only about design and R&D. You should really think about the manufacturing, the marketing, the sales, after-sales, everything. And I visualized that I’m not the right guy to hold the whole company because I truly know myself. I’m good at some things and anything else I can learn. I met a guy who introduced me to his friend Li Xiang, the founder of AutoHome. And he introduced his friend, Huang Mingming. And then—
Yan Li: And then the venture, the VC guys, the Jennys, they came and helped us to set up the team.
Hans Tung: So how do the two of you divide up your responsibilities?
Yan Li: I mean, we draw a line here, right? Obviously, I don’t want to claim that I’m the creative guy [laughter]. That would be the wrong thing to say, right? So draw a line here. Token’s sitting next to me on my right, so on my right, this is all about creativity, all about product, technology, that’s all there. This side would be all about numbers, all about how to get the product to the users, how to make sure users are satisfied with our services, about execution and the more business side.
Token Hu: If you take a picture, it’s like suit guy and hoodie guy [laughter].
Yan Li: Which is exactly what we’re wearing today.
Zara Zhang: So there are so many things you could design in the world. What especially about scooters excites you?
Token Hu: I first had the idea in 2009. During that time I was living in Shanghai. From my apartment to the office it was 4 km across Huaihai Road, which meant no chance of getting a taxi and waiting for five or six buses that I couldn’t even squeeze into.
Hans Tung: Yeah. Always full.
Token Hu: Yeah. And no subway. I had my motorcycle but, every day, all the gears and everything. I also tried riding a bicycle, but when I showed up sweaty in the office, my boss was pissed off. So I tried to find a way to solve my own solutions. I looked around and thought that e-scooters were a good solution. But during that time, they were all really bad quality and design. I thought I was the coolest product and technology guy. I would never use those products. So I thought, okay, I’m doing the products for all the top 500 companies, doing innovation for them. Maybe I can just do it for myself. That was the start. To truly solve my own problem. When I did the first scooters, all my friends said, “Come on, Token. I need one.” Guys like the Creative Director from a huge advertisement company, the VP of a tech company. I just thought, okay, these guys would never think about riding a scooter. But when they see really cool stuff, they will buy it. That’s the thing.
Hans Tung: Right. Makes sense.
Zara Zhang: So we all know that hardware is hard. How do you deal with the whole supply chain and manage this huge operation that’s a lot of operationally heavy stuff?
Yan Li: Well, first of all, we don’t want to take the entire credit. Yesterday at GGV’s event, Tony Fadell said it perfectly. He said he actually envied Chinese entrepreneurs because here in China, there’s a very good manufacturing base and very good hardware manufacturers, whereas in the US there’s a shortage of that. Looking at the China market, annually there are about 30 million electric scooters. Most of them are lead-acid, but they’re still scooters. So upstream supply chains, there are a lot of manufacturing suppliers to provide the key components. One of those key components is the Lithium-ion battery, and that manufacturing is also abundant in China, driven by the electric vehicles rush. So we’ve been benefiting from those trends.
Having said that, we had to spend a lot of effort in terms of upgrading the quality of our suppliers because those suppliers used to provide parts to traditional lead-acid scooters, most of which don’t have very high quality requirements. So we have to have a very strong quality management team to actually sit on our supplier’s manufacturing line and inspect their quality to help them to improve. And that was literally the effort we put in. So it wasn’t about shortage of manpower, shortage of materials. It was shortage of high quality stuff.
Hans Tung: Right. Raising awareness.
Yan Li: The team we hired to manage our supply chains, we hired them from Huawei, some from automobile companies.
Token Hu: Honda, Suzuki.
Yan Li: Right. And some from consumer electronic companies. There’s a guy that manages our quality that used to be a quality guy for a high-precision meter equipment company. So let’s think about that. He’s taking that quality standard and adapting that to the scooter industry. So that was basically how we got our quality improvement here.
Hans Tung: It’s smart to take a B2B standard and put it into the B2C market.
Yan Li: Thanks. I think that’s a great way to summarize it. Next time I’ll use that sentence [laughter].
Token Hu: Also the thing is, in China, we always have really good manufacturing in all the different industries. We have a really diversified supply chain. Some of them from the motorcycle industry, the car industry, even the mobile phone industry. We’re using all the chips. We’ve got the benefit from the smart watch business because they have a huge quantity of all those chips. They have super mature manufacturing. In NIU, we are not designing the chips, but we always say that technology is really cold. Our job, our innovation is to integrate every cold technology to deliver a warm experience to our users. That’s the key point.
Hans Tung: Got it. So on the sales and distribution side, originally you were selling e-scooters online as an e-commerce company. And then you evolved and added offline stores as well. What was the thinking in terms of doing that, and how did you quickly have stores in so many different countries and cities?
Yan Li: It’s a great question. It wasn’t driven by sales, it was actually driven by services. Because when we initially sold online, we were a big hit. In 2015, when we first did the JD crowdfunding, we broke the JD crowdfunding record in China.
Hans Tung: I remember that.
Yan Li: Yeah. We did about RMB 72 million of sales in 15 days. I think, world record we were ranked number six. It was very hot. But what happened when our user got a scooter? Because it is, as Token mentioned, it’s a commuting device. It’s not a toy. So they use it on a daily basis. When you use those things on daily basis, you will need to have it serviced. You know, you may get a flat tire or something. And at that time, our service network was through a third party, not through our own service network. So the user felt like they had a high-end product, but when they received a service, it was a really cheap, knock-off service [laughter]. And there were complaints, because Chinese users—
Hans Tung: They’re vocal.
Yan Li: They’re very vocal. I mean, it’s not a reserved culture anymore. People are very vocal. Then we realized, we said, “Man, we need to build our own services.” And as usual, those branded services naturally evolved to become sales as well. So that’s how the decision was made. And how it spread in China and globally was, we didn’t look at our distributors as distributors. We don’t even call them distributors. We call them city partners. We even made NIU name cards for them. It would be like, NIU Technology, Hangzhou City Partner. We carefully select those city partners. Basically the people who really believe in our cause, and really believe that when they join this path, they can change the way people travel in their city. So yes, we’ve got some really zealous people who really love us. That’s how in each city like Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, all those big cities, we got city partners to come in and start building up stores. Yes, at the end of the day, they enjoy the economic benefit. But when they signed up, the economic benefit was not the first intention. Because if you think about that time, we were a startup. We convinced people, “Hey. Let’s open up a store like an Apple store with that quality of furniture and everything.” Obviously there’s a higher capex involved. But then provide service to our users. On day one you cannot say, “Hey. You will make money.” But they loved it. They thought it was a great idea to carry this unique product to the users in their city. I think they just loved that concept. That helped us to expand.
Token Hu: Also the really interesting thing is that a lot of our store owners were not in this business before. They became NIU users first, they enjoyed being in the community, and they became store owners. The service is for their friends. It’s not only for their customers. It’s a huge difference.
Yan Li: I mean, the benefit is they got a free tester vehicle [laughter].
Zara Zhang: Maybe you could touch on the NIU name. A lot of our listeners don’t speak Chinese, so NIU is spelled N-I-U, which means bull in Chinese but also has other meanings.
Token Hu: Yeah. When we started this company, we wanted to do it internationally. And we selected a lot of words that were pronounced differently. The niu in China is a small bull, but you can also pronounce niu as N-E-W. We’ve got something niu and something new. We’re rushing like a bull but also we’re creating a new industry and a new way forward. It’s a really good—
Zara Zhang: Yep. Lot of puns [laughter]
Yan Li: And just a little touch on that, niu in Chinese is a little bull, right? It has a very good implication. It’s not like you’re super proud, but you’re a little bit proud of the achievements you have done through effort.
Hans Tung: Right. It has a well done, impressive kind of connotation to it.
Yan Li: Right. So I think that’s what we try to build into our users. Basically by riding our scooters, you feel that you’re a little bit proud. And hopefully, the hours you will save on the traffic you can use to accelerate your career somehow so you can feel more proud.
Token Hu: Also, when we selected a ticker for Nasdaq, the first choice was NIU. The second choice was NIUB [laughter]. You know what that means? It means it’s great.
Hans Tung: Super awesome.
Yan Li: Yeah. I think that’s sort of overstretched [laughter]. It’s a joke. It’s a joke.
Zara Zhang: So in the first half of this year, around 13% of your net revenue was derived from sales outside of China. So could you talk about how you plan to go global? I know you’re already in Europe. So what are some other markets that you’re excited about?
Yan Li: I think we’re excited about the entire global market, to be honest. We’re in Europe first because back in 2015, when Token and I were still very young, we’d delivered our product. And a few months after we delivered our product, we had an ambition to debut our product at EICMA. That’s E-I-C-M-A. It’s the largest two-wheeler show worldwide, in Milan every year. Basically, Vespa, BMW, all the heavyweight guys are there. So we wanted to see whether we had a chance at the world stage. But we got a lot of enquiries and and interest from Europe during EICMA. And we were not even in the main exhibition hall. We were in the— what was it?
Token Hu: Spare parts.
Yan Li: Yeah. We were next to tires and suspensions. People usually don’t even show up to those halls. And because of us, we got really big traffic in our area. So that actually gave us the confidence that, hey, we’ve got a chance in Europe. And then there were distributors from America, there were distributors from Southeast Asia who also visited our booth. I think it’s all about how we basically plan out our international expansion, gradually in a step-by-step fashion.
Token Hu: Also I remember on the first day in EICMA, people asking, “Are you guys from Japan?” [laughter] Or Korea. I said, “I’m Chinese.” We’re not trying to fake. As you know, in China, a lot of brands just go register—
Hans Tung: Register elsewhere.
Token Hu: Yeah. But we are a proud Chinese company doing a show. Yeah.
Hans Tung: Let’s switch topic a little bit and talk about your IPO. The capital market right now is not very good. Some argue you could be the last company to go public in the US in this wave. What are some of the lessons or advice that you can share with our audience about what you went through?
Yan Li: About IPO?
Hans Tung: Yes. About what it takes to go public.
Yan Li: Well, I think advice number one is make sure GGV’s on your board [laughter]. And advice number two, get Hans and Jenny involved as early as possible.
Token Hu: Yeah. That’s truly an insight.
Yan Li: Yeah. But I mean, it’s not a joke. It’s not a joke. We’re actually very appreciative. Throughout the process you guys have been extremely helpful. Extremely helpful. But I think the advice is really— looking back, nobody can control the timing. When we started the process, the timing looked much better. So I know the capital markets weren’t good, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
Hans Tung: Right. But you prepare quickly. Prepare early.
Yan Li: Right. Right. And then, the whole thing was actually— I want to talk more about after the IPO. I think both of us felt that excitement when we pushed the button. But after that, tons of pressure comes in and you realize that initially you had the trust of private investors. Now you have the trust of public investors. We feel like everyone who owns even just one share of our stock, we feel—
Hans Tung: Responsible.
Yan Li: Yeah. We feel responsible because we want to make sure we deliver value to them long term. That means we need to work harder. We need to basically do what we do the best and keep rolling out better products. And it never stops. This game never stops. So, yeah, I had more sleep when I was a private company [laughter].
Token Hu: Actually, since I’m the product guy, if I evaluate the launch event in Paris this year and the IPO, I feel more proud of our product launch.
Yan Li: We should talk— we can still cover seconds, but we did want to talk about our product launch. Token can go for it.
Token Hu: This year we launched two products in Paris in the Grand Louvre. It was awesome. It was the first time introducing our products to Europe and a global audience. It was much more pressure for me because we should be thinking about the next three or five years of our product scope around the world. And really digging into all the technologies and designs to help people globally.
Yan Li: I’m not sure if we’re the first mobility company to launch a product at the Louvre, but we’re definitely the first two-wheeled mobility company. And definitely the first Chinese mobility company. And the whole launch was live broadcast in four languages.
Token Hu: Five.
Yan Li: Five. Initially I was thinking English and Chinese. But no, I’ve got a German audience, so they want me in German. I’ve got Italian guys. They wanted me in Italian.
Token Hu: French.
Yan Li: Then I— oh, more languages. Italian, German, French and Spanish. We were lucky the Swedish guys speak pretty good English [laughter]. Because I’m looking at the financial numbers, right? Every single live translation costs money [laughter]. So I was talking to my international team. I was like, “Hey—”
Hans Tung: Can we drop a language?
Yan Li: Yeah. “Can we drop German?” He was like, “We’re doing great in Germany. You need to do it in German otherwise you don’t respect the users.” I was like, “Okay, we’re going to have to do that.”
Zara Zhang: So our audience can watch the video on YouTube, right?
Yan Li: Yes, yes.
Zara Zhang: A lot of people will congratulate you when you go public. But does that give you more pressure? And you mentioned that you actually sleep better when you’re a private company. So what are you most excited and most worried about going forward?
Yan Li: Well, I’ll talk about my part. I think Token can talk about his. Most of the exciting part for me is actually being listed public. It really put us on the spot, globally. It sort of said, “Hey. We have accomplished from zero to one.” We started as a Chinese startup, but now we are a public company that has a chance to gain global market share. It gave us a window of opportunity. I think that’s what excites me about it. What worries me about it is the same thing. Now we’ve been given a chance, can we actually grasp that chance? I think our entire team has to deliver, has to work hard. And I think I would shoot myself if we actually didn’t grasp that chance.
Hans Tung: Right. You don’t get that many that chances like this.
Yan Li: Yeah. And some of those chances are just once in a lifetime. So we saw that window of opportunity. Now it’s actually in our hands to say, “We need to get that.” So that’s where the huge pressure is coming from.
Token Hu: Actually for myself, doing the IPO is a pressure, but it’s not the most pressure part because I’m always a self-pressure person. And also, the day after we got the IPO, I was really like freezing. Because, “Okay. I got time. Come back to my product side.” [laughter] Seriously. There’s too much travel. I never work.
Hans Tung: IPO was a side job.
Token Hu: We have Yan here. He is much more professional than me.
Yan Li: I saw where Token got most nervous. It wasn’t about roadshow. It was about yesterday meeting Tony Fadell [laughter]. This guy. Literally, I’ve never seen him so prepared. He wasn’t that prepared at roadshow. But meeting Tony Fadell, he was like, “What am I supposed to talk about? I spent like two hours yesterday to prep up what I need to talk about.”
Token Hu: Yeah. All the videos, everything in my iPod [laughter].
Hans Tung: So getting to IPO obviously was not an easy journey. And if you reflect on what has taken you to this point, what were some of the most memorable moments that either you experienced or your team experienced that are worth sharing?
Token Hu: For me, it wasn’t about the time we IPO’d. For me it was after the opening bell, when we saw all of the advertisements in Times Square. So literally you’re broadcasting your product, your vision, also your ambition around the world. I took a picture there and I think it probably changed my life because it’s more responsibility.
Yan Li: I think some of the moments for me looking back— I think it’s also a moment for Token, but he’s actually in that picture so he couldn’t remember. There are a couple of moments. The first one was when we got the first product prototype, when the prototype got shipped in Beijing. And you looked at Token’s face and you couldn’t tell whether he was smiling or crying [laughter].
Hans Tung: Or both.
Yan Li: Yeah. Or both. It was like a mix of smiling and crying. It was like freeze that moment, right. Then there was the time when we first did the crowdfunding. We knew we were going to break the record. Not on the 15th day, we knew on day one. Because on day one we saw the number was huge. Usually with crowdfunding, on day one the number is huge and then it starts to cool down a little bit. So it was midnight of day one when the results came in. Everybody was in the office. Nobody left. Even people who were not involved, they didn’t leave because everyone was looking at that number.
Token Hu: Also I’m yelling for the numbers [laughter].
Yan Li: So that moment is like, finally you’ve got something. Because initially the product was a concept, not a product. But finally you put it on a stage where—
Hans Tung: Real money is being exchanged.
Yan Li: Right. Or real users come in. You feel like there are people buying it. So that kind of rush was like—
Token Hu: For the crowdfunding, the most memorable thing is that none of these users had seen this product in real life. As a vehicle. They’d only seen—
Hans Tung: Yeah. Just based on your concept.
Token Hu: Only a couple of hundred people in our first large event had seen it in real life. We had a couple of pictures, one video. And people were buying. Full payment, buying our product. It’s a huge honor to be a product guy and have people love your project. Oh my God. It’s awesome.
Hans Tung: Makes sense.
Zara Zhang: So we’ll go to the last part of the interview which is a round of quickfire questions. The first one is who is the entrepreneur you admire the most and why? Besides Tony Fadell [laughter].
Token Hu: Personally, Elon Musk. This guy’s crazy. This guy is beyond everybody’s thinking with Tesla, SpaceX, even The Boring Company. I really like his fire gun. It’s just dreaming about what no one else is dreaming about.
Yan Li: Since Token said Elon Musk, I would have to say Steve Jobs. It wasn’t about building a product. I think he built a product, but he actually built a great company. And he built a long-lasting company. This is a little bit cliched, but I didn’t know that Apple was listed in 1980. And then look at how Apple grew after the listing. I’ve read his biography and I’ve seen some movies about him. The guy’s driving crazy on the product, but he has a great business sense. Like I understand how to build a great company. He does it all. So you just wonder how that happened, right? And they changed the entire industry. We’re hoping we get a chance to change the urban mobility industry.
Token Hu: Sorry, I have to correct you. Steve Jobs did not create a brand. He created a religion [laughter]. That’s the truth.
Hans Tung: So what’s something you’ve read recently that you’d recommend? Like a book or—?
Token Hu: Actually a book my wife gave to me. It’s a history of KKR [laughter].
Hans Tung: So you get to know your partner better.
Token Hu: Yeah. Because as you know, I’m not a reading book guy. Most of the things I read are not about business. They’re not about finance or something. I read books more like Wuxia.
Hans Tung: The Kung Fu novels.
Token Hu: Sort of. But it’s more like you’re fighting with your brothers, with your friends, to achieve what you believe.
Yan Li: I was actually looking at my— I can say Audible, right?
Hans Tung: Yes. Book or audio. Podcast too.
Yan Li: So the one I’m listening to now is called Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord. I think she was the HR head of Netflix. Because as we’re building our company, the culture is super important. And Netflix has this 100-page PPT about how they build culture and hire the right people. So I think that got me interested, and then she came out with the book to see how they actually build from firsthand experience. To have a long-lasting company, in the end it’s about people. It’s about the culture. And we still have much to learn, so that is a book I recommend.
Zara Zhang: What do you for fun?
Token Hu: Me? Riding, riding, and riding.
Hans Tung: You love to ride?
Token Hu: All types of two-wheelers. It’s part of my life.
Yan Li: There is another part that Token does for fun, but I think their kid is too young, so he doesn’t realize yet.
Token Hu: Oh, about the memories thing. I had my first daughter. And the day after, I went to roadshow.
Hans Tung: Oh, wow. Talk about dedication.
Token Hu: Yeah. Everything just happened in the same two weeks.
Yan Li: Right now besides work, I think the rest of the time I am spending with my daughter. She’s 4 and a half years old.
Hans Tung: Good age.
Yan Li: Yeah. It’s an age where you can engage in interesting conversation with her, but you never can convince her to do things that she doesn’t want to do. So she loves her NIU scooter. My wife is a little bit afraid of taking her out on the scooter. So during the weekends, she’s like, “Dad. You need to take me out on your scooter.” So that’s a 40-minute drive around our apartment complex.
Zara Zhang: So last question, what type of roles are you guys hiring for and how can people reach out if they’re interested?
Yan Li: We’re hiring all sorts of roles from R&D, from marketing, from sales. We were already able to attract good talent, but now, since we’re public, hopefully that will allow us to attract more talent and be as competitive as Baidu or Xiaomi.
Hans Tung: Wow. Very good. Obviously, scooter sharing has become a very popular phenomenon in the US with Lime and Bird. And then that’s spread to Latin America and Europe. Even Hello Chuxing in China is rolling out scooters. Do you ever think about coming up with a product for that market that’s not for someone to own and ride for themselves?
Yan Li: We actually have that already. We are supporting scooter share operations in Europe. There’s a company called Scooty using our scooter share in Brussels. There’s also a company called Movo or M-O-V-O using our scooter sharing in Madrid. And there’s also a company called goUrban using our scooters for sharing in Vienna. So all those scooters are— we provide an open API so that they can link to the backend management system.
Token Hu: The product is not only physical scooters. We provide all the frame management, all the API, all the cloud services as a package to them.
Hans Tung: Oh, good. We have some portfolio companies in this space. Happy to get a link about your product from you later.
Yan Li: Yeah, we’d love to.
Hans Tung: So what motivates you to wake up each morning and what keeps you up at night?
Token Hu: Empty. Always empty.
Hans Tung: When you wake up in the morning you feel empty?
Token Hu: Yeah. Because I’m a really good sleeper.
Hans Tung: So the first second you wake up, you feel great? No worries?
Token Hu: Yeah. I wear my digital watch every day. Some people, they have a really light sleep and then go into deep. For me, in the first 20 minutes, I go deep [laughter]. And it stays deep until I wake up.
Hans Tung: What keeps you up at night then?
Token Hu: At night I’m always thinking about, not product, it’s more like philosophy. Like what problem can we solve? It’s not only about urban mobility, it’s about people’s beliefs. And that’s hard. I’m always diversified and thinking randomly. Always jump, jump, jump, jump, jump.
Hans Tung: Good.
Yan Li: My daughter wakes up at 5:30. So it’s not about what. It’s who. She wakes me up every day in the morning by rushing into our room. She goes to bed around 8pm, so that’s how I explain it.
Hans Tung: She’s always energetic in the morning?
Yan Li: Yeah. So then you’re up. I actually have a— this is one part of that I’d like to share. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but based on Token and me, I think it might be true. I think to be a good entrepreneur, you need to be a good sleeper. I sleep very soundly, no matter what’s out there or how big the pressure. I fall into the deep sleep stage very quickly. I think you have to let go. There will always be things out there. You never know what’s going to happen the next day. But you still need energy to prepare for that, so make sure you get a good sleep. It doesn’t matter if it’s four hours or six hours. Actually, Token doesn’t sleep for that many hours.
Token Hu: The interesting this is that we did calculate it. It was me and Anna and our Design VP, Karl. And we talked about it with our R&D team. And one guy called Chris, a really early employee in our R&D team, said, “Okay. We know why we’re not able to be entrepreneurs,” because we calculated that me and Karl sleep like three or four hours a day.
Hans Tung: Right. Everyone else needs more?
Token Hu: They need at least five to six hours. And also, a good memory is really important.
Hans Tung: So what keeps you up at night, Yan?
Yan Li: Sort of nothing, right, because I’m sleeping [laughter].
Hans Tung: Sure. Come on. Come on.
Yan Li: I don’t want to give big words about how to grow a company or anything. But I do have a habit of planning out the next day. So before I go to sleep, I do spend a bit thinking in terms of what things to do, who I’m going to talk to tomorrow. I don’t meditate every day. I do that once a week. But I do think sometimes it makes sense to step back and rethink the whole thing. One useful piece of advice to give to everyone is, if you do a daily job, you get sucked in. It’s worthwhile to take a step back and reflect and say, “Actually, what matters?” Because when we look back, maybe just three or four things really matter in the end. But when you’re in the job, sometimes you lose that big picture. So in some sense, what keeps me up at night is I need to constantly remind myself to step back and see what matters because I’m so afraid that I will get lost in the daily nitty gritty details and forget the big picture. I think that’s what I worry about.
Hans Tung: That’s very good. I can relate. I travel a lot as you guys know, and I can sleep very well on planes.
Token Hu: Yeah. All the vehicles, any kind of transportation.
Hans Tung: I think in the old days, the good generals could do that as well when they were fighting on the battlefield. Otherwise you’ll succumb to all the pressure and worry and not be able to function properly.
Zara Zhang: Yan and Token, thank you so much for being here with us, and we can’t wait to see where NIU will go next.
Yan Li: Thank you for having us. It’s great.
Token Hu: Yeah. Thank you.
Hans Tung: It was a pleasure.
Thanks for listening to this episode of 996.
Zara Zhang: GGV Capital is a multi-stage venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley, Shanghai, and Beijing. We have been partnering with leading technology entrepreneurs for the past 18 years, from seed to pre-IPO, with $6.2 billion in capital under management across 13 funds. GGV invests in consumer new retail, social Internet, enterprise cloud, and frontier tech.
GGV has invested in over 290 companies with more than 45 companies valued at over $1 billion. Portfolio companies include Airbnb, Alibaba, Ctrip, Didi Chuxing, Domo, Hashicorp, Hellobike, Houzz, Keep, Slack, Square, Toutiao, Wish, Xiaohongshu, YY, and others. Find out more at ggvc.com.
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