eScooters Can Be Smart and Cool in China
City of Humans talks with Joseph Nelson, Chief Designer at NIU: The China based smart eScooter maker.
For anyone not familiar, what is NIU?
We are a startup known for our two eScooter models, the N1 and M1. The N1 is bigger and more practical and we designed it like that because in China, bigger means better. I believe it’s a status thing and also that people here just like that powerful feeling of driving something large. The geometric and robust form language is also more masculine and so more preferred by male users. The M1 on the other hand might be suitable for smaller people because it is lighter and smaller in size than its big brother N1. It’s form language is also softer and female users tend to find this model more attractive.
Which market is NIU addressing?
I think we’re addressing middle class people living in urban city environments. You can see that throughout the design, its clean and simple and fits harmoniously in the city. Both the N1 and M1 are reasonably priced considering the high quality, good design and technology integration. They’re accessible products to a lot of people.
In China two-wheelers are associated with lower status, how do you address that?
It’s definitely true here that there’s a kind of hierarchy on the road. Number one would be large passenger cars, then the motorcycle, scooter and lastly the bicycle. So what we found is when we started selling the N1, that a lot of our customers actually already owned a car. That means that people who would normally be embarrassed to be seen riding an eScooter don’t feel that way about our eScooters. There is a premium image attached to our scooters, and this is due to the solid construction, clean design and integration and connectivity to technology. We find that our users really take care of their bikes; they clean it often and will replace parts that are broken instead of duct taping plastics like you see on most scooters on the street.
We also noticed Niu owners are forming community groups in cities all over China to go riding together. This is a cultural thing you normally would associate with Western riders, like Harley Davidson riders where some fans just like getting together to ride and have fun. I think the Chinese went so quickly from bicycles to cars and thus totally skipped that opportunity to experience the joy of riding motorcycles. Now they have that chance with Niu to create this culture of riding, enjoying and sharing experiences together.
What is your origin story, how did you get involved with NIU?
I was in Shanghai working for a German design agency designing both automotive and product; Slowly the automotive projects started drying up so I was looking for some type of exciting side project to get my fix on designing two wheelers. I‘ve always been into motorbikes and have always enjoyed doing concept designs. One day I was researching people doing motorcycle related stuff in China and I found a guy named Token Hu who had previously designed and built his own electric scooter and so I sent him and email asking if he was interested in doing a project together. I got a call on the phone almost 6 months later and we met up that night for a beer and we were just talking about how we can make electric scooters so much cooler and smarter, and that’s pretty much when Niu was born. I spent about a month on concept sketches working nights and weekends after my main job while Token was busy searching for investors. We ended up getting a decent amount of funding from a well known technology entrepreneur pretty quickly and within a year we were launching the N1 in Beijing. We’ve now grown to over 300 employees across our main office in Beijing, the design center in Shanghai and our own factory in Changzhou.
How long did the process take from sketch to a working product?
It was super fast; we went from the first sketches to the launch within a year. It was a crazy, hectic year. I quit my job after a month of working nights for Niu and moved up to Beijing and began developing and building our first prototype. We launched a crowd funding pre-sale, which was the largest in China’s history; selling nearly $11,000,000 USD of the N1 eScooter in fifteen days, which was about 16,000 scooters.
Is NIU export worthy to other markets?
Definitely, this year we successfully got the N1s European certified and we entered Europe and have received outstanding feedback. We are working on the certification for M1 now. I put a lot of time into insuring our products coming of the line are consistently at a high quality. Also, the interest from potential international partners at the last two EICMA shows in Milan has been fantastic.
Could you give us an idea of the future products from NIU?
I’m not aloud to say but they will be exciting!