DETROIT — There are now six brands of rental e-scooters cruising the sidewalks and streets of Detroit, up from none four years ago.
All but one are stand-up scooters. For the casual rider, those brands are more or less interchangeable, aside from differing color schemes, logos and smartphone apps to download and constantly update.
The other company, Boaz Bikes, is unique in its design as well as its founder’s backstory. Most noticeably, it’s the only e-scooter in the city with a seat for riders and a basket for carrying things. The company says its sit-down scooters are safer than regular scooters and accessible to more potential riders.
Boaz also is one of the few Black-owned e-scooter companies in the country, and one of only two that are headquartered in Detroit and not the West or East Coast. The other Detroit company, C-Max Scooters, has just 20 of its stand-up scooters deployed in downtown but hopes to double that number soon.
Boaz founder and CEO Emil Nnani, 32, who grew up in Raleigh, N.C., has had one of the most unique journeys to becoming an e-scooter company founder.
He is a former Bloods gang member who, after serving stints in juvenile jail for robbery, found Christ and became a Christian hip-hop artist known as E-Fetti.
Prior to starting Boaz, Nnani had a Christian apparel business that he eventually sold and an errands-on-demand startup based in Dallas, where he resides with his wife and family when not in Detroit.
Since COVID-19 hit, Detroit has been the only city where Boaz’s fleet of 400 scooters operates. However, the company plans to deploy in Los Angeles later this fall, then expand to other cities next year if and when it can obtain more investment.
Last year, Boaz pulled out of Plano, Texas, as well as Atlanta, which declared all e-scooters nonessential businesses early on in the pandemic. The company then doubled-down on Detroit after the initial wave of COVID-19 subsided.
”In Detroit, we were considered an essential business,” Nnani said. “People needed to get around.”
Nnani’s idea for Boaz came after witnessing a nasty e-scooter crash in Dallas in 2018 that involved a young person, and a sidewalk. He recalls seeing blood everywhere and the injured rider leaving by ambulance.
“I was thinking, man, how unsafe these scooters were and for this person, life was going to be different,” Nnani said. “I got to researching and I saw articles everywhere about accidents on Bird and Lime scooters. I was like, OK, I can create something safer.”
Boaz is a biblical reference and the result of brainstorming for the perfect four-letter name for a new mobility startup.
”You’ve got the Ubers, the Lyfts, the Birds and Limes — everybody has a four-letter word,” he said. “And me being a believer, Boaz is a biblical character. He was married to a lady named Ruth, and he was strong and he was wealthy. And so I said, ‘I’m running with Boaz.’ “
Boazthe e-scooter company is still very much an underdog compared to the big nationwide e-scooter companies such as Bird and Lime and Ford-owned Spin.
Bird and Lime have raised hundreds of millions in venture capital, which gave them the ability to quickly deploy in dozens of cities nationwide and internationally. They continue to burn through great volumes of cash by focusing on growth — not profitability.
That approach was never an option for Boaz. Nnani recalled how after he co-designed and built an early Boaz sit-down scooter and app prototype in late 2018 with China-based partners he knew from his earlier business ventures, he made a visit to San Francisco in hopes of meeting venture capitalists and getting investment.
But lacking Silicon Valley connections, he met an indifferent reception.
”It’s really just a relationship model and it’s all about who you know,” Nnani said. “If you’re not in that network, if you didn’t go to that school, if you don’t know the connections from the people who graduated from that school — I was completely out of that circle.”
Growing desperate, he at one point tried posing as an UberEats deliveryman in an attempt to sneak past building security and deliver his Boaz pitch to a venture capitalist. The ploy nearly worked, he said, until he was stymied by a keycard reader in the elevator to the venture capitalist’s office.
Nnani returned home from that trip empty-handed.
”We would probably be in, I don’t know, 50 cities by now if we’d had that VC backing,” he said.
Nnani managed to raise about $350,000 from friends, family and acquaintances, which was enough to order from China his first batch of 500 Boaz scooters in 2019. He soon deployed those scooters in three cities: Detroit, Atlanta and Plano, Texas.
Until that time, Nnani had never before visited Detroit. He launched in the Motor City at the suggestion of an early Boaz investor, Travis Wilder, who lives in metro Detroit and owns the Christian apparel lines God Got Me and Spiritual Sports Socks.
Wilder had been following Nnani on social media and watching the growth of Nnani’s earlier apparel company, Christ Lyke Clothing.
”He had a Christian clothing line, and I also have a Christian clothing line. So I was really intrigued by him and we both shared similar views on our religious background,” Wilder said.
Wilder wasn’t surprised to learn about Nnani’s struggles to get the attention of venture capitalists.
”A lot of times in life it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Wilder said. “So if you don’t have some of those relationships, it can be tough to get VCs to even look your way.”
Nnani twice applied to the popular ABC TV show “Shark Tank” for a shot at gaining investment. His 2020 pitch was initially accepted, he said, but ultimately turned down because of the show’s rules concerning past criminal convictions.
A representative for “Shark Tank” didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
Boaz was operating in its initial three cities, with plans to expand into Dallas, when the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“So we halted everything and pulled out of all cities,” Nnani said. “For a few months we’re just sitting there, and I’m thinking what to do next and what’s the pivot. And that’s when I decided to double-down on Detroit.”
Boaz scooters reappeared on Detroit streets in June 2020, this time in greater numbers, and ridership grew.
A Boaz ride costs $1 to start, then 33 cents per minute. Surveys showed that about 80% of Boaz rides are taken for fun, with about 15% for transportation to work.
In an interview last week inside the the Boaz storage and repair garage in the Russell Industrial Center, Nnani declared that the company is now doing more business in Detroit than all of the other e-scooter brands here.
Asked how he was so certain, Nnani laughed and said he’s not at liberty to reveal his sources.
”Let’s say it’s an assumption, because we don’t know what Lime is doing,” he said. “But we know we are beating Bird and Spin.”
Representatives for Spin and Lime wouldn’t comment about the Boaz claim and Bird didn’t respond.
To grow its scooter fleet, Boaz launched a crowdfunding campaign in late 2020 that raised about $1.2 million from 4,000 investors. The company also raised an additional $700,000 from general investors, he said, and its latest valuation was $35 million.
E-scooter leaders Bird and Lime burned through piles of investors’ cash pursing an expand-at-all-costs business strategy, known in Silicon Valley as “blitzscaling.” To date, Bird has yet to become profitable and Lime has reported only one quarter that it wasn’t in the red.
Boaz, by comparison, never had the option of running massive losses for the sake of fast expansion.
Nnani said the company’s operations are currently profitable. One reason is Boaz’s monthly scooter loss rate, which at about 2%, is below the industry’s common 5% to 10% rate, he said. He credited the lower rate to the durability of the sit-down scooter design and his staff’s close attention to the health of the Boaz fleet.
“We still have some vehicles from 2019,” he said. “We are so small, we have no choice but to look at everything — we can’t afford to lose a vehicle.”
Nnani said Boaz saves money by using an in-house staff of about nine people to do scooter retrievals, battery chargings and repairs. Other companies such as Bird hire gig workers to be “fleet managers,” which Nnani said can get costly because of the significant revenue splitting.
“It’s a horrible model, but it works for them because they don’t care about making money, they care about expanding and growing,” he said.
Investors have recently been warming to Boaz, and Nnani said the company is looking to try again with venture capitalists through a Series A financing round in the coming months to likely raise between $10 million to $20 million to build about 10,000 more scooters and expand beyond just Detroit and Los Angeles.
“We will start talks here in November and December, and kick the round open in January and we hope it closes within 30 days of opening the round,” he said.
Scooters going SPAC
The L.A. scooter deployment, set for later this fall, is being financed from Boaz’s crowdfunding. Those who participated in the crowdfund can see future paydays under several possible scenarios, he said, such as a Series B round that buys out earlier investors, an acquisition of Boaz or if the company goes public.
Bird is preparing to go public on the New York Stock Exchange through a blank-check company, known as a SPAC, at a possible $2 billion-plus valuation. Lime also sought to go public through a SPAC, according to news reports, but encountered difficulties and that plan stalled.
In the nearer future, Boaz plans to debut its first stand-up scooter, which has three wheels and a deck similar to a wide skateboard. Nnani insisted the devices are safer than conventional stand-up scooters and that the first 25 will be deployed later this year around Wayne State University.
Further out, Boaz could introduce a scooter with two seats for which it recently filed a patent.