Home » Two Cologne-based companies produce e-bike fleets for Lieferando and Flink

Two Cologne-based companies produce e-bike fleets for Lieferando and Flink

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Two Cologne-based companies produce e-bike fleets for Lieferando and Flink

The battery makes the difference: Cologne-based Henry Horn (l.) and Konrad Essers have developed robust e-bikes that can withstand intensive use by delivery services. Maurice Schmittem – IMAGE YOU

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The bikes with the pink sticker on the frame are neatly lined up ready to be picked up. They’ve just come back from repairs – ready for the next 10,000 kilometers that a Flink courier covers every year to deliver groceries. On the workshop site in Cologne-Ehrenfeld, Henry Horn and Konrad Essers, founders of Smartvélo, literally keep the wheels of the delivery services running: their startup manages everything from the production of high-quality e-bikes to sales through to repair and maintenance, the entire two-wheeler fleet for corporate customers such as Flink, Lieferando and the luxury hotel chain 25 Hours.

What sets the startup’s e-bikes apart from ordinary e-bikes on the market is the robust battery. “Normally, a battery installed in a standard bicycle lasts around 800 charging cycles. After two years it’s over,” says Henry Horn. “Our battery can be charged over 2,500 times.†According to the founder, Smartvélo is building the most sustainable last-mile delivery bike. They get the batteries from a startup near Hamburg that also supplies Deutsche Post.

There is a smell of rubber in her hall, and wrenches are clinking. Boxes of tires are stacked opposite the Flink bikes. “We get them from a prison in Bautzen, where the inmates put spokes on wheels,” says Konrad Essers. Men’s voices come from the workshop and old music by Justin Bieber is blaring. “There’s always a party here,” explains the founder.

Startup wants to attract craftsmen with startup spirit

Your company now employs 30 people, around half of whom are bicycle mechanics. Like other craft businesses, the startup is affected by the shortage of skilled workers. “Trained two-wheeler mechatronics engineers are extremely difficult to find,” says Essers after the tour. According to the founder, many of their employees originally come from the automotive sector and are switching. According to the Service and Bicycle Association, thousands of positions are unfilled in the industry. The Job-Plattform Stepstone reports around 5,500 vacancies for two-wheeler mechanics in Germany.

At times, Smartvélo trained young mechatronics engineers itself, but no longer does so today. Henry Horn says: “The dropout rate in the skilled trades is very high. You often earn less than 500 euros gross per month – it’s difficult to cope with that. The founder knows what he’s talking about. After school, he completed training as an audiovisual media salesman.

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The boys decide to get more of a startup life into the “long-established craft business”. They want to win over skilled workers with a relaxed work culture, after-work events, fair wages and free weekends. Some things happen via social media, and someone often brings former work colleagues with them to the startup.

From mobile car washes to all-round service for bicycles

Horn and Essers have been friends since they were young. Reasoning is in both of their genes, albeit in different ways. Essers already knew as a student that he wanted to run his own company. For Horn it began artistically: at the age of nine he co-founded the children’s band “Apollo 3” and took on several roles in German television productions such as Alarm for Cobra 11 and SOKO. After his training at his band’s previous music production company, the then twenty-year-old went to Berlin, where he began studying at the University of the Arts in 2019. The pandemic brought him back to Cologne, where he joined Essers’ first startup: “Smart Racoon,” a mobile bike wash.

Essers founded the startup in 2018 after completing his training in event management. “Back then, for example, we washed the bicycle bearings in several cities for Swapfiets,” says Essers. Team members from back then are still on board today. In June 2020 they founded Smartvélo together – a similar name with a new concept.

The friends initially pursued the idea of ​​offering private customers an all-round mobile bike service. The founders used a van to pick up broken bicycles from their front door, repair them and provide replacement wheels in the meantime. In the winter, however, demand fell significantly – the founders saw an opportunity in the emergence of the fast delivery services Lieferando, Flink and Gorillas.

“We started servicing the previous bicycle fleets of delivery services, so to speak, those of our competitors,” says Horn. The bikes were often not well equipped for intensive use for numerous courier trips. The founders gave tips on which brake systems needed to be installed so that fewer repairs were required. “At some point the delivery services asked us directly whether we could build them their own bike.“

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Their first customer was the Munich fast food supplier Burgerme. The Cologne-based company was supposed to produce seven bikes for him in a pilot project. At that time, Smartvélo did not yet own the huge production hall. Instead, Horn and Essers had opened their workshop on the site of an old Cologne nightclub – with workbenches made from stacked Kölsch crates. Their office – a converted car paint booth – “was cold as hell and smelled horrible,” the two remember. The Pina Colada scented trees didn’t help either, because pigeons flew into the ventilation shafts “and never returned,” says Horn.

The duo didn’t let that deter them. Essers set up a production line together with the master fitter. “We placed all the components in a sequence next to the frame and gradually put all the parts together from the handlebars to the saddle.” With success: the Cologne-based company received its first major order in 2021. The order: 180 e-bikes for the startup Flink.

Startup produced day and night for the first Flink order

In order to achieve this, Smartvélo not only needed a larger team of craftsmen, but above all more space – they moved to Ehrenfeld. There they divided day and night shifts for months, set up a large production line and spent the night in the workshop. “That was really cool,” says Essers happily. “In December we brought another 180 bicycles onto the market in Cologne.”

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The startup has now delivered more than 1,000 bicycles. The people of Cologne no longer produce their own e-bikes locally, but have outsourced production to Porto. The largest European competence center for bicycle production has developed in Portugal: more than 60 suppliers and component manufacturers work in the so-called “Bike Value“ together and produce almost three million bicycles every year.

In addition to quality, the founders of Smartvélo are primarily concerned with sustainability – bikes should last as long as possible. When purchasing the e-bikes, customers enter into a service contract. “We don’t just produce bikes, throw them on the market and we don’t care what happens to them afterwards. We take care of everything we develop and build,” says Horn. Depending on the number of kilometers that drivers cover, the number of bikes per location, specific adjustments for bikes and service package, customers pay different prices per month. The founders do not want to reveal details about the exact height for competitive reasons.

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Customers can also have existing bicycle fleets serviced by the startup. This is what the 25 Hours Hotel does, for example. Smartvélo also takes care of the maintenance of the company bicycles for the waste disposal company Remondis. The city of Cologne engages the startup for special bicycle events such as the “Around Cologne” bicycle race in order to check residents’ bikes for safety.

Don’t worry about the delivery service crisis

Different customer groups not only bring variety to the “guys in the workshop”, but also secure business. Fast delivery services such as the startup Gorillas, which was taken over by Getir, or Flink, which received emergency financing of 150 million euros in May 2023, are in crisis. Other providers such as the oriental food courier Yababa had to file for bankruptcy. Horn and Essers believe that their startup is still entering a future market: “We are in the market for now, so no crisis will drag us down that quickly,” emphasizes Essers.

Their focus is not just on the last mile, but on building a range of bikes. The 24-year-old finds it plausible and even desirable that providers in the delivery segment will disappear after the Corona boom. “This brings more structure again.” In the future, the entrepreneurial duo also wants to look at other business areas, such as cargo bikes for transporting children. Smartvélo has already developed a so-called “longtail” cargo bike.

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The investors in Cologne provide both financial and strategic support. For example, Sparhandy founder Wilke Strohman, Sven Oliver Pink, who co-founded the school backpack startup Ergobag in 2010, and investor Adrian Hotz are involved in Smartvélo. According to founder Essers, their startup is making “several million” this year and, according to Horn, could be profitable if they wanted to. The founders are currently planning the next financing steps to advance their growth.

Those in their mid-twenties share the market with providers such as the Berlin startup Cycle, formerly Gethenry, which the former Uber manager Luis Orsini-Rosenberg founded in 2019. The difference: Cycle rents its bicycle fleets for one to three years to delivery services such as Gorillas, Flink and the medication delivery company Mayd instead of selling them. In May 2022, the Berliners raised around 17 million, including from the London VC Local Globe. Smartveló is in contact with the founder, says Horn.

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