Fifteen years after Kamen introduced the world to an electric vehicle, the world was finally ready for them. By 2017, the sharing and gig economies were in full swing, two things essential to the success of companies like Lime and Bird. People think nothing of sharing rather than owning things these days, and a ready supply of independent contractors makes charging and repairing scooters far easier — and cheaper. It also helped that smartphones, which make it a breeze to unlock a scooter and pay for a ride, are ubiquitous. And the ever-growing number of bike lanes in urban centers provides a place to ride safely.
The business attitude has shifted, too. Segway's attempts at working with cities gave way to a more aggressive attitude of barging into a city with a few hundred scooters, setting up shop, and dealing with city officials later. The tactic rarely wins friends in government, but has allowed Bird and Lime to grow rapidly.
"At Segway we tried to do it the right way, and it was a nightmare," Kleber said. "So I kind of actually respect the fact that they're just blowing in and dumping the scooters in the street and letting it sort itself out."
Scooter startups also follow the Silicon Valley ethos of iterate, iterate, iterate, which runs counter to Segway's perfectionism. The startups favor cheap scooters — they typically cost just a few hundred bucks — that were never designed for the rigors of heavy use and adverse weather. But why worry about such things when scooters are essentially commodities, easily replaced when they inevitably break or get thrown into trees, rivers, or San Francisco Bay? Bird, Lime, and all their competitors prefer to move fast, learn from mistakes, solicit customer feedback, and then introduce improvements like bigger batteries.
The success of these companies draws mixed emotions from Segway veterans, but the most common feeling among the 20 former employees who spoke to CNN Business was excitement. Lightweight electric vehicles, long ridiculed as an expensive toy for nerds, are finally getting their due.
"I love it," Pompa said. "It's a transportation niche that hasn't been properly addressed."
Yet some worry the current growth trajectory cannot continue, and that scooter startups run the risk of litigation and even financial ruin if they don't get serious about safety. People regularly ride without helmets (often in violation of local ordinances or state laws), zip through traffic or along sidewalks indiscriminately, and sometimes ride two-to-a-scooter. Two riders have died on the scooters this year.
"If you want to make this sustainable for a long time, significantly more thought should be put into this," said Stephan de Penasse, one of Segway's first employees. "Everyone's in for a fast buck."