Latana x Lime logos with person on a bike (cover image)
Brand Deep DivesAugust 9, 2022

How Moving Quickly Helped Lime Become A Micro-Mobility Giant

August 9, 2022
Michael Metcalf Photo
Michael Metcalf
Content Strategist & Freelance Writer

They're everywhere these days. Take a walk through any major global city and you’ll be looking over your shoulder more than usual to avoid many a passing e-scooter.

They're loved by many and derided by some — but you can't deny they've made a big impact on the way people get around town.

Micro-mobility brand Lime is known for its white and green e-scooters and bikes that you can rent for short trips around cities. By many metrics, they're one of the biggest brands in the personal transport space, at one point reaching a $2 billion valuation.

Their rise hasn't been without controversy, though.

Lime's story can prompt lots of discussions — sustainable transportation, personal freedom, and private companies' rights to use the public commons, for a start. Like any “disruptive” brand, Lime provides some serious benefits to its users while causing a few headaches to others caught up in its path.

But so far, this mobility company has managed to swerve its way around most major roadblocks — including that couple of years where everyone stayed at home.

So what can we learn from Lime? How did they build such a huge brand, and do they have a sustainable future? Let's take a look.

A Fruitful Start in the Valley

Lime is, in many ways, a traditional Silicon Valley success story.

Lime didn't invent scooters — but Apple didn't invent computers, either. The consumer market for e-scooters was already growing when Lime arrived, and they weren't the first to develop an app-based scooter rental scheme.

But a combination of maturing technology, consumer appetite, and a thriving venture capital scene meant that Lime was in the right position to make moves when it was founded in 2017. Brad Bao and Toby Sun, executives at Fosun International's VC division, initially started the company as LimeBike — raising a $12m investment to provide dockless pedal bike sharing in various cities throughout the United States.

Just over a year later, Lime started offering electric bikes, and shortly afterward, electric scooters. Since then, e-scooters have been their main focus, and they've continually refined each model to make it more comfortable and efficient to ride.

Tasty Growth, Juicy Challenges

Santa Monica Beach, California was the focal point of many e-scooter companies during their 2018 boom, and Lime was one of the major players in the scene. Since then, the concept has gone truly global (while e-scooters are now in fact banned from Santa Monica beach).

Around four years after its inception, having gone through various pivots and partnerships — and having acquired other electric mobility companies along the way — Lime has reached a strong position. By the end of 2021, its riders had taken over 250 million trips, more than any other shared micro-mobility operator.

Getting to this point has involved multiple challenges and controversies, though. One of the main hurdles facing Lime has been negative reactions from everyday citizens that encounter them in public spaces.

Ordinary Things' “E-Scooter Apocalypse” documentary shows footage of disgruntled citizens destroying e-scooters (Lime and otherwise), throwing them off buildings, dumping them in rivers, and so on. "They're definitely a menace," says one interview guest, along with a stream of citizens at a town council meeting sharing their experiences of getting hit, and sometimes injured, by e-scooter riders.

What this shows is that the challenges Lime has faced are the same as those for many other e-scooter brands. In fact, if you read our deep dive into Bird — Lime's major US competitor, also founded in 2017 — you'll see a litany of similar issues that came up.

As one of the biggest brands, they're one of the most visible — which means it's easy to think of some problems as Lime problems, when they're actually general e-scooter problems. And they simply can't be ignored.

The site of cities littered with thousands of scooters from multiple brands seems to be rarer than it was a few years back during “Peak Scooter”, just before the pandemic.

This indicates that the craze might have cooled down — not just because of the public nuisance they sometimes cause, but because cities don't need them as much as initially thought. As Crunchbase reports:

"Today, a scooter rental ride hardly seems like a bargain. At typical rates, which include an upfront and per-minute fee, a 20-minute ride would cost about $6. That’s more than a quick bus or subway ride in places that offer those options."

Some municipal governments are much more progressive than others when it comes to transit innovation, and their competitive power is shifting. It's not that they can just ban companies like Lime — it's that in some cases, they can provide better options than them.

Testing Times for Lime

In November 2021, Lime closed a funding round of $523 million, taking on debt to finance growth in preparation for a public listing on the stock market. Its aims included expanding its fleet of e-bikes and e-scooters and developing more sustainable hardware while lowering the carbon footprint of its supply chain.

These seem like sensible goals. Countless cities around the world would benefit from a more efficient, human-centric transport network — and the post-pandemic conversation around commuting vs. remote work is still very much underway. Sustainability is also a hotter topic than ever, and it's a core part of Lime's business.

Strange things happened in November 2021, of course: tech stocks were at an all-time high, and eye-watering funding rounds were an everyday sight in financial news. Nine months later, the global economic situation is in a much less optimistic place.

It's worth looking over to Bird, Lime's biggest competitor. Since its November 2021 valuation of $2.3 billion, the point at which its shares went public, Bird's stock price has tumbled 90%, instigating a big round of layoffs with no signs of revival.

Would Lime be able to raise the same amount of debt in late 2022? Probably not. While there are a lot of factors that go into stock price — and it's certainly not the only success metric for brands — it's difficult to see Lime getting through the current economic difficulties unscathed.

Still, $523 million makes for some serious financial backing, and if their funds are deployed sensibly, Lime could cement its place as the world's number one micro-mobility brand.

Despite its never-ending stream of brand scandals, Uber has survived and bounced back relatively well after the mobility industry's pandemic shock. Can Lime do the same? In time, we’ll find out.

3 Branding Lessons from Lime

Source: Lime Press Kit

The way mobility brands grow and operate has a lot of specifics. They're a unique mix of physical products, software logistics, and public-private partnerships. Some of these don't translate too well to other industries, but there are some general lessons that any brand manager can implement in their own company.

1. Don’t Interfere With Public Space Too Much

“Stay in your lane” is great advice for riding a scooter through busy city streets. But it also applies to any brand that relies on public infrastructure to do business.

Just like Uber and Airbnb, Lime has spent plenty of time fighting legal battles for their rights to operate while making a big impact on the physical world. City councils, regional cultures, and the public themselves will all have a say if you get on their bad side — and it can be an uphill journey you're not guaranteed to ever complete.

You might not be running a transport company, but the same message applies to brand activations, advertising, and retail operations — being in a public space comes with responsibilities.

2. Your Brand Can Always Be More Sustainable

Operating sustainably is super important in today's consumer landscape — but it's not a unique selling point.

Lime isn’t the only micro-mobility brand to have strong environmental credentials. The simple fact of being electric, rather than fossil-fuel-based, is core to their existence as an alternative to cars or motorbikes.

So, for brands like these that already exist in a sustainability space, they have to continue innovating. They need to treat environmental improvement as a continuous cycle, just like product development.

Whatever industry you're in, remember that making the leap into ecological responsibility is a worthy move, but it’s not just a single event. Lime knows this and remains committed to funding this side of its business, at the potential expense of short-term profit. But in the long run, they (and their investors) are confident it'll pay off.

One way of following their lead as a smaller brand might be to gain accreditation as a B Corp, which involves transparently meeting standards of social and environmental responsibility. To remain certified, you'll have to continue to meet its standards on an ongoing basis.

3. Pivot, Pivot… and Pivot Again

It's not just their scooters that move fast — the company does, too.

If LimeBike had stayed as LimeBike, they probably wouldn't have pedaled their way to a multi-billion dollar valuation. Battery technology went through some huge advancements in the late 2010s, and when it was clear that consumers wanted to go further, faster, with less effort — e-bikes and e-scooters made much more sense than bicycles. It would have been silly to ignore this seismic shift in personal transportation.

So is your brand riding with the times? Or are you stuck at walking speed?

If you want to grow, you're going to have to listen to your customers and try new things. Experiments won't always work out; LimePod, Lime's car-sharing service, lasted less than a year. But you won't know if things work unless you try.

Final Thoughts

Lime has an interesting few years ahead.

2022's economic turbulence threatens to stretch over the next few years at least, according to many predictions. The Silicon Valley growth-at-all-costs venture funding model will really be tested during this time. So, Lime's going to have to figure out how to make its business more profitable, efficient, and popular if they want to stick around for the long run.

They'll have to remain strong while facing up to competitor brands, including public transit systems, and stay on the good side of consumers and governments. But in an era where more sustainable travel is sorely needed, Lime has an opportunity to make a positive difference.

Still, Lime really has its work cut out to remain a financially sustainable brand, not just environmental.

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