Paris-based start-up Citybird operates like any limo service, except that passengers ride on the back of a scooter rather than inside a sedan.
Two-Wheel Taxis Tap
Upscale Market in Paris
From The Wall Street Journal Online
PARIS -- As a tourist in Thailand and the Dominican Republic,
Cyril Masson hopped on unlicensed motorcycle taxis to get around. Back home, the
33-year-old Parisian and two friends hit on a business idea that some might
consider just as crazy: running a two-wheel-taxi operation in one of the world's
most genteel cities.
Motorcycle taxis are the developing world's limos. Scooters,
mopeds and motorcycles offer a fast, cheap and risky way around snarled traffic
and scarce mass transit. Mr. Masson, who ran sales to French Internet companies
for Britain's Cable & Wireless PLC, had also faced clogged streets and a
shortage of traditional taxis in Paris, and he realized it offered an
opportunity for taxi-bikes, which can squeeze through jams.
What he didn't expect were hurdles faced by entrepreneurs
world-wide: the complexity of executing a simple idea, and of translating a
business concept from one culture to another. Many overseas franchisees of
successful U.S. companies, for instance, have failed because they didn't adapt
the American model to local habits.
Mr. Masson knew that positioning his high-end service would be
tough: The motorcycle taxi could suffer from its association with the
less-developed countries, poverty and reckless drivers. Lining up insurance and
finding qualified drivers proved surprisingly difficult. Protecting passengers
in natty business attire from rain and cold posed additional challenges, as did
little details, like how to keep the passenger's helmet clean from one rider to
In December 2002, Mr. Masson and two friends pulled together
€165,000 ($200,244 at current exchange rates) of their own and from friends and
family, quit their safe jobs and started planning their company, Citybird.
"There were many people who thought we were crazy," Mr. Masson recalls.
Citybird works like any radio-taxi service -- except that
instead of a black sedan arriving on call, a sporty motor scooter pulls up. The
company today employs 11 people and expects revenue of around €420,000 for the
year ending March 31, up from €175,000 in its latest fiscal year. Mr. Masson
expects an operating profit this year, after Citybird's current fleet of nine
scooters reaches 15, around midyear. Managers hope to increase the fleet to 25
in 2007 and eventually operate as many as 200 bikes.
Mr. Masson and his friends weren't the first to try taxi bikes
in a developed nation. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group whisks celebrities and
executives around London on nine fat red Yamaha motorcycle taxis. At least one
other company operates in Paris, where thousands of locals already zip around
the city on their own motorcycles and Vespa-type scooters.
From the start, Citybird's target customers were an upscale
crowd, like Mr. Masson and his co-founders, Guillaume Raif, then a banker at
Soci�t� G�n�rale, and Emmanuel Pery, who worked in advertising and
communications. They believed taxi-bikes would appeal to harried executives who
can't waste time stuck inside a limo. To hone their concept, the partners
quizzed managers at Virgin Limo Bikes in London and studied other small
motorcycle-taxi services. One tip they gleaned: They'd have to have a supply of
disposable paper helmet liners.
A quick analysis also indicated that large motorcycles were too
big to squeeze through traffic jams and too costly to operate. Instead, they
selected top-of-the-line Piaggio and Suzuki motor scooters, which are cushier
than the compact and classic Vespa. The models use about half the fuel of a
large motorcycle and offer lots of storage space for bags. And the partners
figured that for most trips, it wouldn't matter that scooters don't move as fast
"Traffic is so dense that we don't need to go very fast to gain
a lot of time" over a regular taxi, Mr. Masson says, sitting in Citybird's
storefront office not far from the Eiffel Tower.
Citybird's founders also knew that to woo serious professionals
as customers, they needed equally serious drivers. Lots of motorcyclists applied
for the job, and they whittled the pool down to a handful of former police
motorcycle instructors, Tour de France camera-crew drivers and similar
But obtaining insurance for their service created big
headaches. French law doesn't mention two-wheeled taxis, so the founders faced a
legal vacuum. Most underwriters rejected Citybird because they equated the
service with motorcycle couriers, "who crash around 10 times a year," Mr. Masson
recalls. Finally, the specialized insurer that covers Paris taxis consented, but
at rates five times those of normal motorcycle insurance.
Both Mr. Masson and managers at Virgin Limo Bikes say they get
calls from U.S. entrepreneurs who want to start similar services. But high U.S.
insurance rates, extreme weather, and strict American traffic laws that forbid
motorcycles from overtaking cars in slow traffic have thwarted many of those
efforts, the Europeans say.
Paris rarely faces blizzards or torrential downpours, but light
rain is a frequent nuisance for two-wheelers. So Citybird managers spent a long
time finding the best gear to protect passengers. Each scooter carries riding
gloves, boots to cover nice shoes, a loose-fitting jacket that can slide
comfortably over a business suit, and a waterproof leg wrap to protect against
The first bikes rolled in September 2003, promoted by targeted
ads, brochures and direct mailings touting the service at flat rates of €20 for
rides inside Paris and €45 to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
"It was difficult at first," recalls Mr. Masson. But by
targeting people most likely to accept the concept, especially in less
conservative media circles, word spread and early customers became regulars. The
main appeal: guaranteed punctuality and significantly shorter trips. During rush
hour, Citybird promises it can slash the travel time between central Paris and
the airport from around 90 minutes to 30 minutes.
Within a year, business was picking up. One early customer was
Patrick Malval, commercial manager in France for British Airways, who liked the
service because of its speed and punctuality. After a tough audit of safety and
service quality, Mr. Malval struck a deal in early 2004 for Citybird to carry
the airline's passengers to and from the airport. "At first we thought it would
be a niche service," Mr. Malval recalls. Today, he says, demand is taking off
and those who try the service are hooked.
As business grew, Citybird moved to expand. Tapping a circle of
successful Internet entrepreneurs whom Mr. Masson knew from his previous career,
the founders in 2004 raised 300,000 euros to build their fleet. The company even
landed a second insurer.
Today Citybird has around 2,500 clients and adds more than 150
each month, Mr. Masson says. Its bikes total around 70 trips each day.
Down the road, Mr. Masson figures Citybird and its growing
field of smaller rivals could equal around 4% of the total Paris taxi market. He
wants to maintain Citybird's 50% share of the taxi-bike market. "In a few years
we could have 200 motor scooters," he predicts.
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--January 25, 2006