What does it take to revitalise a family business? Ironically, family connections seem to be the key. Entrée.sg had a chat with Mr Sean Tay, 26, chief operating officer of SG Bike.
Like Father, Like Son
Many youths spend their school holidays playing computer games or going for outings with friends. But at the age of 13, Sean Tay was helping out at his father’s bicycle rental shop in East Coast park.
At 16 years old, he and his school friend worked to roll out a loyalty programme to sign up new customers. It was during these sessions, that he would have long conversations with his father on business strategy and philosophy. And so the seeds were sown in his teenage years.
He knew then, that he wanted to start his own business.
“Like father like son. For the longest time, I’ve always been inspired by my dad to do business,” he says with a laugh. “Through my father’s lenses, I saw the potential of this market, that there was a huge demand for bicycles.”
That was how SG Bike came to be launched in August 2017, when at 25 years old, Sean took on the role of Chief Operating Officer. The bicycle-sharing firm is a joint venture between leisure bicycle operator Cosco Recreation, and estate upgrading company ISOTeam.
At that time, it became the fourth bicycle sharing player after ofo, oBike and Mobike.
The Search for a Solution
But there were challenges that Sean had to surmount – chief among them, theproblem of indiscriminate parking.
He had considered electronic docking stations, similar to what was done overseas. But the costs were too high. At the heart of it all, he sought to answer this: Can I find a way to run a geographic allocation like a bicycle shop? It was during a university trip to San Francisco that a solution emerged.
At an exhibition, a start-up was showcasing its radio-frequency identification (RFID) solution for inventory control and stock-take. Pondering over it, Sean believed the technology could be applied to bicycles. An idea took shape: Geostations – designated parking spaces with devices incorporating RFID technology. If users do not park their bicycles within the Geostations, a built-in alarm will ring, and the user would receive a warning message on the app, risking a penalty charge.
“It’s a technical challenge to decide and design, what type of frequency are you running, what is the range, how will this be affected by the estates and landscape in Singapore? Thankfully, I was reading physics at the National University of Singapore and had some theoretical knowledge of what I was trying to look for. That helped a lot – at least I understand the concept of electromagnetic waves.”
“The other challenge is the lock. At that time, there was a boom in bike-sharing technology. There were many off-the-shelf solutions for bike-sharing locks out in the market already. But we didn’t want to just do that. We wanted to find some way for our bicycles to take advantage of our Geostation idea.”
His father then stepped in with his connections – business partners in China that they could tap on. With his father, Sean travelled to Guangzhou in search of a manufacturing solution.
Armed with the technical requirements and desired outcomes, they engaged in numerous meetings with factories.
“It’s really quite tough. We’re talking about weeks and weeks of research. We’re talking about contacting many different manufacturers. This product is really not something that’s built from one factory, in fact, it’s something that’s built up from at least ten factories. It’s quite a miracle that we managed to pull it off after at least half a year.”
And the last step of the puzzle:
“When we settled what we wanted to do, we realised, ‘wow, this is really expensive!’ We can’t do this alone.”
His father tapped on another contact for this – ISOTeam, which had expressed interest to go into bike-sharing. The organisation came to be the main source offunding for SG Bike.
Today, SG Bike employs 17 staff. It boasts a fleet of 2,000 bicycles spread out over 2,000 Geostations. Its bicycles are available in Holland-Bukit Panjang, Bedok and Sembawang. It is expanding into more areas in neighbouring towns such as Khatib, Yishun and ChuaChu Kang.
The company aims to grow its fleet and install over 20,000 Geostations islandwide by 2020.
A Mode of Transport
Sean’s vision is to expand the business so that all Singaporeans can use SG Bike as a mode of transport.
He fondly recalls his father’s words: “He told me, ‘son, your dad has been doing business for some time. The bicycle business is one that you should seriously consider’.
“He felt that the business has been supporting our family and has become part of our lives. He said that we can’t let go of this business and hoped I can take over one day. These words have been etched in my mind. From there, fast forward to today, I am proud to say that I’m still able to keep the game going.”