Meet Fredrik Hjelm, Co-Founder and CEO of VOI

19 March 2021

With the sharing-economy estimated to grow to US$335 bn by 2025, and a growing demand for sustainable solutions among an aware audience of consumers, SCC member Voi has the course traced out to revolutionise our means of travel, and to challenge the transport industry with its e-scooters. “We are slowly but surely transitioning from an e-scooter company only, to one that is truly transforming urban landscapes via a range of micro-mobility vehicles,” says Fredrik Hjelm, Co-founder and CEO of Voi.

Fredrik began his entrepreneurial journey at a young age. When he was merely 12, he started running commercial projects, including forestry work in rural Sweden where he grew up, as well as events and website sales. After graduating high school, he attended the Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, within the intelligence branch of Sweden’s special forces, where he studied Russian and linguistics. “I served a total of four years in Moscow in the Defence Attaché Office, where I worked as an interpreter and analyst, covering Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. From there, I went on to study business and economics at the Stockholm School of Economics.”

Before embarking on the Voi journey, he founded Guestit, the most successful Airbnb management company in the Nordics, and worked in business development for Avito.ru, Russia’s leading – and the world’s third largest – classified advertising site. Fuelled with inspiration from these experiences, an idea that would take care of many of the issues he’d seen during his years in hospitality and in Russia was born. “At Guestit, we hosted thousands of guests who’d regularly ask for advice on how to best get around town. There was a clear demand for quick, easy transit options, even in cities such as Stockholm, where there is good public transportation and infrastructure. During my four years in Moscow, I saw close up how polluted and dysfunctional cities can become when they are choked with traffic. I set up Voi to help solve those issues.”

An exciting and humbling ride
In 2018, Fredrik co-founded Voi Technology with the vision to improve the way people move around congested urban centres by offering fleets of electric scooters as a cleaner, affordable, and exhilarating alternative to cars. Today, the company provides shared e-scooter services to more than 50 cities in 11 countries across Europe, where it has served over 35 million rides to 6 million users to date. “It has been an exciting and humbling ride so far,” he says as he reflects on the key ingredients that have taken the business where it is today. “The success boils down to a combination of things: having a clear passion and vision, assembling a great team who can collaborate and execute on that vision, dogged determination, and never losing sight of why you started your business in the first place. For Voi, that is to create cities for living and truly improving people’s quality of life.”

Transforming urban landscapes
According to Fredrik, e-scooters are just the start of a revolution in how we move around in cities. Riders are not tied to a time table or a route and can connect the last or first mile of travel, when there can be a temptation to use a car or taxi and for short journeys. Apart from accessibility and convenience for the users, the micro-mobility service comes with an array of environmental benefits. “Our aim is that e-scooter use should be affordable, safe, and efficient, particularly for those who need to go farther than they can walk and don’t have access to a car. We’ve been operating carbon neutral since January 2020, and micro-mobility helps to lower our collective environmental footprint, with huge potential to improve air quality and reduce climate change. We are slowly but surely transitioning from an e-scooter company only to one that is truly transforming urban landscapes via a range of micro-mobility vehicles.”

Sharing-economy is the future
The sharing-economy is estimated to grow to US$335 bn by 2025. With tech as a major driver, companies can tap into emerging technologies that are scalable to provide services that Fredrik sees a growing demand for. “I think people are more aware of consumption patterns and see less need to buy and own certain items. Customers are becoming more and more aware of environmental impacts of supply chains and production processes, and they have a greater say in those processes than ever before. Sharing is a more cost-effective, sustainable model, and people see the benefits of that approach.”

Fredrik believes that the sharing-economy is “the future”, as he puts it. “Whether it’s through for-hire autonomous vehicles in the near future or shared micro-mobility and car hires now, technological advancements make owning one’s own vehicle less of a priority. Ultimately, shared vehicles will democratise the transport industry, as they make transit much more affordable and accessible to everyone.” As an early adopter of new advancements, he sees e-scooters as a trigger for change in the entire transport industry. “We introduced slowspeed zones back in 2019, which is something the automotive industry has had the technology to do for a while, but has simply chosen not to pursue. We hope that by making these changes, we can encourage others in the industry to follow suit.”

Safer option during the pandemic
When the pandemic swept over the world, e-scooting proved to be a safer choice for commuters, allowing for social distancing by riding in open air and relieving the burden for public transport systems. “Even before the coronavirus, governments were talking about how micro-mobility solutions could encourage active alternatives to short car journeys and promote low-carbon transport. We know both anecdotally and through our data that people have really embraced e-scooting during the pandemic.”

To make sure the fleet is safe, Voi has increased its cleaning and maintenance frequencies. The scooters are fitted with handlebars made of a material that inhibits the transmission of viruses and bacteria, thus offering antibacterial and antiviral protection. All scooters are disinfected at least every 24 hours and riders are provided with COVID-19 information through the app. “We are also very proud to offer free rides to medical and emergency response workers during this time, through our Voi 4 Heroes programme.”

Entering the UK
In July 2020, when the UK Department for Transport announced its e-scooter trials to support socially distanced travel and to bolster a green restart of the economy, Voi was there for the ride. “We’re now the UK’s numberone operator, with 17 cities and counting. We currently have over 100,000 active users in the UK who have taken more than 500,000 rides over nearly 700,000 miles since we launched in September.” It is not only the size of the UK market that makes the expansion advantageous – the town and city infrastructures have proven to lend themselves well to micro-mobility. “We know we can make a positive difference to how people move here. Our e-scooters can seamlessly blend into the existing public transport systems to help to solve the first- and last-mile challenges. We know from close discussion and collaborations with UK regions that air quality and traffic congestion are key issues, and we can make a demonstrable change to improve both. As the government is still working out the legislation to legalise e-scooters, we see these trials as an opportunity to positively influence regulations going forward. E-scooters can be a key instrument in city transport planning,” Fredrik says and explains that safety, parking and integration with public transport have been key focus areas during the trials. “As legislation moves forward, we will continue to work to make our services even safer and more accessible, especially as we enter new areas and expand our operations. “

Limiting pollution and gridlock with new innovations
Looking ahead, Voi is launching a new escooter model, the Voiager 4, that will be rolled out in partner cities during the spring. “As cities seek to limit pollution and gridlock, we have designed the V4 to contribute to lowering traffic congestion and fuels, as well as helping cities to collect data for improvements. Equipped with smart sensors that measure noise and as an option, air quality, as the scoot- LINK Meet er travels along streets, the V4 will open a new frontier against pollution and poor air quality.” Apart from continuously improving its services, Voi recently started its City Innovation Fund, offering a pool of US$3 million to like-minded partner companies and research institutions that help solve micro-mobility challenges, including safety and parking.

Passion, resilience and perseverance key to success
When asked about his entrepreneurial spirit and what advice he would give to other aspiring entrepreneurs looking to realise their dreams, Fredrik says that everything begins with the right attitude. “Passion, resilience, perseverance, and proactivity are the key ingredients in business success. If you don’t love what you do, you won’t stick with it, and starting a business demands long hours and sacrifices. Acknowledge that challenges and failure are as much part of the process as the wins and successes. Every entrepreneurial venture involves risks and setbacks, so you cannot be afraid to take those risks.” Apart from finding a niche where the idea can fill a demonstrated need and listening to customer feedback, research and networking are crucial for understanding the industry and the problems you want to solve. “Surround yourself with motivated, inspiring, smart people and choose your partners wisely. Believe in yourself, don’t let fear guide you, and visualise your goals. Baby steps lead to real results because success doesn’t just happen overnight. And never forget you are only as good as your last success.”

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