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Text & production: Iain Treloar
This story starts – as any good story does – with a Lamborghini hanging off a bike frame suspended from a crane.
Or maybe it starts a little before that, with the record-breaking Kickstarter campaign that created that bike. Or maybe, a year later, with the bikeshare scheme bankrolled by the money from the Kickstarter.
But there’s definitely a place this story ends: 800,000 bikes abandoned in fields and construction sites around China.
The tale of the Chinese start-up SpeedX is one of rapid growth, dizzying expansion and total collapse. In the space of two wild years, the company blossomed from the seed of an idea to hogging headlines around the cycling and tech world. It was poised to disrupt the big brands with its competitively priced and highly integrated ‘smart’ road bikes. And then, seemingly overnight, on the eve of shipping its ambitious second model, SpeedX disappeared without a trace – leaving in its wake a trail of unfulfilled Kickstarter pledges, unpaid suppliers, and unreturned deposits.
This article started with an idle question – “hey, whatever happened to SpeedX?” – and turned into a months-long investigation. By the time it was done, I’d uncovered the strange and sad tale of a smart young business that was born of its high-stakes environment, and ultimately smothered by it.
But it got a fair bit weirder than that, too. The ripples from the company’s collapse spread to include the ghosts of Tiananmen Square, the Chinese secret police, and the collapse of an entire industry.
So: what caused the failure of this heavily hyped, multi-million-dollar company? Was it a case of financial mismanagement, overeager growth, or something more sinister?
What happened to SpeedX?
Would you prefer an audio version of this story? If so, listen to this episode of the CyclingTips podcast:
Beijing is a maze of hutongs and high-rises nestled in a basin surrounded by mountains in China’s north. Across its vast expanse, you’ll find Fortune 500 companies and banks and start-ups and many, many people – an Australia-worth of people – trying to make their mark in the world.
This city – one of the most crowded cities in a country filled with them – is the kind of place where it’s easy to sink into obscurity, and almost impossibly hard to rise to the top.
But when you look at Li Gang, the founder of Beijing Beast Technology Co., Ltd, you get the sense that he was a talent so exceptional, or determined, or both, that success was all but a foregone conclusion.
Because of what happened next – and we’ll get to that – he’s not an easy man to track down. But here’s what we know.
Li Gang’s ascension started early. At Antai College of Shanghai Jiaotong University – the most prestigious business college in the Asia-Pacific region – Li was student union chairman. In 2011, he scored a prestigious internship at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The next year, he was working for a financial services group in the US.
Burnt out, by 2014 he’d returned to China and launched his first tech start-up. Alongside his best friend Gao Jiayang – a development engineer formerly of internet giant AliBaba – Li’s new venture created a smart button for Android phones. It went pretty well for them. Li and his co-founders had sold the company on within just three months; the product they’d developed shifted around five million units in the first year, proving the most successful Chinese hardware start-up in 2014.
So by the time Li and Gao’s gaze turned to cycling in 2015 – partially out of genuine interest and partially, one suspects, out of having seen an opportunity – they already had some runs on the board. The yin and yang of the pair’s success was this: they weren’t just canny entrepreneurs and tech visionaries, they also had a gift for attracting outside investment.
By the end of 2015, the pair’s new venture, Beijing Beast Technology Co – Beast Bikes for short, before rebranding to SpeedX – had launched the SpeedX app. This platform was along similar lines to Strava, offering GPS and social functionality. They’d also come out with their first bit of hardware – the SpeedForce stem – which integrated a computer running the app into an out-front display.
By early 2016, the company claimed a million app users and, as Li told CyclingTips at the time, had secured three rounds of investment totalling around US$15 million.
And with that, SpeedX was poised for its wildly ambitious next step.
Ah, yes. Lamborghinis floating in air. That part goes a bit like this:
The yellow Gallardo slowly drives up onto a metal platform. The camera’s gaze repositions itself. Background: industrial looking coastline; smoggy skies; fishing boats bobbing in a choppy sea. Foreground: massive yellow crane, lifting the platform up off the ground. Suspended in the middle of its cable, taking the weight of the car and platform through the bottom bracket, is the frame of a SpeedX Leopard.
I mean, if you’re going to launch your first road bike, you might as well do it with some theatricality.
The SpeedX Leopard took the company’s app and stem, which first hit the market six months prior, and raised the stakes by adding a full carbon, ‘smart’, aero road bike. At the time, early 2016, aero was the next greatest advance in the cycling tech space; like the Giant Propels and Specialized Venges it was pitched against, the Leopard featured a snugly tucked rear wheel, a wind-cheating profile and hidden cabling.
Thanks to an avalanche of banner ads and social media advertising associated with the bike’s launch, it was hard to miss. I’d say, if you had even a passing interest in road cycling in 2016, you came across the SpeedX Leopard at some point or another. And from that first contact, I’d say your reaction went one of two ways:
If you were a dedicated road rider…
You sneered at the marketing, thought ever so faintly xenophobic thoughts about Asian manufacturing, laughed at the gangly Russian with the blonde mullet in the pictures, riding a too-small bike with hairy legs and ankle socks – in the drops, always in the drops – and went back to the comfortable familiarity of your bike from a brand you’d heard of (probably made in the same country; maybe the same factory).
If you were new to cycling…
You saw what looked like a pretty good deal, complete with brand-name parts and marketing that highlighted the time and effort that went into the bike’s development. Perhaps you were attracted to its ambitious smart features, too – because hey, it’s 2016! Who wouldn’t want to be seamlessly connected to their bike? Who wouldn’t want to pledge thousands of dollars on a sight-unseen road bike from a new company?
Whilst the crowdfunded release of the Leopard was unusual, the integration of smart features was what truly differentiated it and made it catnip for the media. And it wasn’t just cycling media, which treated the unproven company with something between curiosity and suspicion, that covered the brand’s debut.
Mainstream media, especially tech-focused publications like CNet, Gear Patrol and Fast Company, breathlessly announced SpeedX’s arrival on the global stage. The company’s marketing was sufficiently forward-thinking for the time that the brand was featured in case studies; articles in publications with names like BrandingMag carried headlines like “How China’s sleekest cycling brand is winning the race”.
And, after all, why not? The SpeedX Leopard was a slick-looking bike, developed with design input from the Frog agency – the visual wizards behind some of Apple’s most visionary products. As for the Leopard’s features? Well, there were just so many of them.
By April 2016, simultaneously run campaigns on Indiegogo and Kickstarter had wildly exceeded the company’s expectations. A third campaign on a Chinese crowdfunding site had netted a further US$2 million, bringing the total figure raised to almost US$10m. By the campaign’s completion, it was in the top 50 projects in Kickstarter’s history. Even three years on, it remains the second biggest bike-related Kickstarter of all time.
But while there have been bigger campaigns since, the SpeedX campaign is still a bit of an outlier. The Leopard campaign flew in the face of conventional wisdom around the Kickstarter platform; there’s a fair bit more assumed risk in a $3,000 purchase on an untested, size-specific product than dropping $50 on a boardgame or a backpack.
Getting thousands of people to spend thousands of dollars each – that’s a rare bit of alchemy.
By late April 2016, the company was left holding a poisoned chalice. SpeedX had made vast amounts of money, but it now had to figure out how to deliver on the titanic task of shipping its first ever road bike, to 4,000 expectant backers, in the space of a matter of weeks.
SpeedX’s journey to this point had been run at a breakneck pace, but as the company pivoted from marketing to manufacturing, things slowed. The initial plan was to deliver bikes to consumers within two months of the conclusion of funding — impossibly fast. Even established brands factor a year or more into the development and production of a bike – and they’ve done it before.
Thanks to the company’s immaturity as a manufacturer, it didn’t take long before problems began to arise. Customs issues, packaging crises, out-of-control quality control, parts shortages, factory changes, the geopolitical implications of mixing Taiwanese and Chinese suppliers, on-the-fly updates to the seatpost … and with each new obstacle, SpeedX’s delivery timelines stretched like taffy.
Month by month, the Leopard’s backers were greeted with new excuses:
It wasn’t until mid-May 2017, a year after the crowdfunding campaigns were completed and 10 months later than the planned delivery schedule, that the Leopard fulfilment had been completed.
And unsurprisingly, despite the company’s efforts to maintain transparency along the way, there was growing disenchantment from those that had pledged to the campaign:
Making matters worse, once the cycling media got their hands on review samples – often before the customers who were waiting to receive them, and desperate for good news – the feedback was scathing. A brutal one-star review on BikeRadar called out a range of issues with the bike, including poor app/computer performance, wheel flex, poor braking performance and a chronically slipping seatpost.
Road.cc’s take wasn’t much kinder, with its 1.5-star review calling the bike “more miss than hit” and highlighting its “subpar performance and integrated electronics that feel like a work in progress”.
All the collected data sat in SpeedX’s ecosystem – there was no way to get it into Strava, for instance. And there were some glaring errors with the bike itself, too – the charging port for the computer, for instance, was located halfway down the seatpost, meaning that every time the battery needed a charge, most riders had to raise the seat to access it.
Despite the rocky road to market, customer response was reasonably positive. Paul Ashbury – a northern Englishman who has been described as an “unofficial ‘brand ambassador’” for SpeedX – is the moderator of the SpeedX Riders Facebook group and runs a website for the community of SpeedX Leopard owners. Across both platforms, it’s clear that there’s affection for the SpeedX Leopard, flaws and all. Riders from around the world proudly share pictures of their bikes, stories of their adventures, and help each other troubleshoot problems with the temperamental ‘smart’ tech.
In Ashbury’s words, “even with the delayed delivery and quality control issues, it is still an awesome bike.”
On the upside: SpeedX had learnt plenty from the mistakes of the Leopard to inform the development of the next model, the SpeedX Unicorn. But rather than allowing for steady improvement, the company doubled down on its rapid pace. Before shipment on the Leopard had even finished, SpeedX went back to Kickstarter to raise funds for its successor.
BEFORE SHIPMENT ON THE LEOPARD HAD EVEN FINISHED, SPEEDX WENT BACK TO KICKSTARTER TO RAISE FUNDS FOR ITS SUCCESSOR.
The driving goal for Chinese start-ups like SpeedX is, I’m told, to gain huge investment from venture capital, pursuing unicorn status (a billion-dollar valuation) and a five-year IPO. In an interview with CyclingTips conducted after the failure of the company, a former SpeedX employee expressed his misgivings with this approach. “A slow but solid growth takes 15 to 20 years,” he told me. “Making bikes is 100% a manufacturing business, and you can never accelerate the maturation. You [have to] experience all the lessons and pass the survival stage.”
But as a product of the start-up pressure cooker, SpeedX was single-minded in its ambition. Bearing the weight of expectation from its investors to pay for itself – and endlessly pushing for growth that would secure its next round of venture capital investment – there wasn’t any time for steady maturation.
So instead, the company took a risky leap into the unknown.
Despite a patchy history, bikeshare is now a key part of the transport infrastructure network in many cities – and nowhere has it been more enthusiastically embraced than in China. It was there – across China’s dozens of enormous cities – that the dockless bikeshare industry took flight.
In June 2015, ofo launched in Beijing; by 2017 it was valued at over US$1 billion and expanding its yellow-biked operation into Singapore, Cambridge, Seattle and Sydney. Mobike, the biggest bikeshare company of them all, is also headquartered in Beijing. In 2017 it was valued at over US$3 billion; by 2018 it had expanded into 200 cities globally.
So, with these two unicorns proving the untold riches to be made from the bikeshare phenomenon, it didn’t take long for a bunch of other companies to see an opportunity.
SpeedX, with its millions of dollars of established venture capital backing and US$10 million of crowdfunding from the Leopard, had considerable financial reserves to call on as it went in to compete with the heavy hitters.
In November 2016, bikeshare’s newest contender – Bluegogo; in Mandarin, ‘little blue bike’ – entered the market. Li Gang, at this point just 28 years old, would split his time as CEO between Bluegogo and SpeedX.
Explaining how the two companies coexisted, a company insider told me: “Bluegogo [was] a sort of side-project for SpeedX … [Li Gang] wanted to do something that would [have an impact] in the mass-market.” In an ideal world, the two companies would grow together, feeding one another’s success in a symbiotic relationship. “How this ecosystem might look like is that through the bikeshare business we get more and more people involved in cycling, but then transfer people to … the higher-end [SpeedX] bike,” my source explained.
That growth might sound nurturing and organic, but when you consider the pace of growth in the bikeshare industry, you get whiplash just thinking about it. Early 2017 was hyper-competitive, with all the contenders burning through capital in an attempt to win market share. Within a month of launching, Bluegogo was operating 70,000 bikes across three cities, and, according to Li Gang, churning out a bonkers 10,000 bikes a day as it tried to gain scale. The company set its sights on new markets with less competition to slow its growth. “Within six months we were in six different cities and expanding overseas,” a source who worked in Bluegogo told me.
Multiply this growth across the 30 or so bikeshare companies that sprung up in China during 2016-17, and you begin to get a sense of the vast scale of the boom. And with dockless bicycles suddenly, magically appearing on every street corner of China’s big cities, there were devastating repercussions felt throughout the cycling industry.
As everybody suddenly started riding bikes more, bike shops were, ironically, the first to feel the pinch. There’s a cruel logic to it, though. Why would anyone buy a bike when there’s always one that you don’t have to service or look after or treat with care, just metres away?
According to data from the Beijing Bicycle Electric Vehicle Industry Association, at the peak of the boom in the first quarter of 2017, the bike market more than halved, with sales of cheapest bikes most affected.
Now, digest this fact: in just those three months, 50% of all the bike stores in Beijing – a city with a population of 21 million people – were forced out of business.
That’s not a market fluctuation. That’s a bloodbath.
IN JUST THREE MONTHS, 50% OF ALL THE BIKE STORES IN BEIJING – A CITY OF 21 MILLION PEOPLE – WERE FORCED OUT OF BUSINESS.
But on the flipside: as retail suffered a catastrophic decline, manufacturing boomed. Entire towns rode the bikeshare wave, servicing the almost overnight demand for production of millions of bikes. Wangqingtuo, in rural Tianjin, is perhaps the most striking example. At the peak of the bikeshare boom, the town styled itself ‘China’s capital of bike manufacturing’; 60% of its workforce and 75% of its GDP were reliant on bike production.
Our plucky little blue SpeedX offshoot, Bluegogo, rose and fell with these tides. But more than most other companies, it would become emblematic of the folly of the bikeshare boom. In a topsy turvy way, growth in itself became the goal, rather than the creation of conditions that would allow that growth to happen organically.
WITHIN A MONTH OF LAUNCHING, BLUEGOGO WAS OPERATING 70,000 BIKES ACROSS THREE CITIES, AND CHURNING OUT A BONKERS 10,000 BIKES A DAY AS IT TRIED TO GAIN SCALE.
At its peak the company had a colossal 800,000 bikes on the road, and 20 million registered users, making Bluegogo the third biggest bikeshare company in the market behind Mobike and ofo. But that growth necessitated immense and unsustainable investment. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, within less than a year, the company “[burned] through 600 million yuan (AU$119 million) in venture capital churning out bikes.”
The world of Chinese start-ups is high-stakes, costly, cut-throat, gladiatorial. As one Bluegogo employee explained it, “competition in China is really risky. If you’re not going to be #1 or #2, you’re just going to die.”
And once the better-resourced Mobike and ofo had established themselves at the top of the tree and gobbled up 90% of the market share, that’s exactly what happened to the other 30 companies vying for a slice of the finite bike share pie.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Through this blissful period, Bluegogo was riding the top of the wave, and SpeedX, learning from the failures of the Leopard, was intent on disrupting the big brands with its new top-of-the-line creation, the Unicorn.
In early 2017, no-one saw the crash coming.
Despite the record-breaking response to the SpeedX Leopard’s crowdfunding, there was a distinct feeling with the Unicorn that the company was hitting its stride. In virtually every respect, the bike seemed a drastic jump forward from its predecessor.
Not only did the company score an industry-first arrangement with SRAM to spec the new eTap disc groupset, but SpeedX also advertised a crankset-based power meter of its own design – with claimed accuracy on par with industry standard SRM, no less. Add to this carbon wheels and finishing kit, and a substantially improved spec and presentation. If seasoned cyclists had laughed at the Leopard, they were paying attention now.
And all this from a company that was barely two years old.
There was nothing left to chance in the marketing of the Unicorn, too, which was significantly more polished and targeted at a western market. Cheesy gimmicks like Lamborghinis and cranes were cast aside. Having weathered the sniggers of the cycling industry with the lanky hairy-legged model they’d used in the imagery for the SpeedX Leopard campaign, the company’s marketing department were more careful with their casting this time around.
Shannon Bufton – an Australian cyclist based in Beijing, who CyclingTips audiences may know from our Everest and Silk Road features – responded to a casting call on Chinese social media. “They wanted someone who was Caucasian and could actually ride a bike,” he explains. “I think previously they used a Russian model that didn’t look the best wobbling about on the bike …” Bufton was signed for a three-day shoot on the outskirts of Beijing, piloting a never-released aluminium road bike.
He wasn’t the only Australian to get pulled into SpeedX’s orbit during this time, with the company apparently seeking the credibility of western faces. A pair of riders from the Australia-based Kenyan Riders Downunder Continental team, in China for an Asia Tour race, were cast to provide earnest scripted pieces to camera extolling the virtues of the Unicorn. “I was just at a race over in China and they approached me to spend a few hours shooting the video and asked me to read that script in the video,” one of the riders tells me. “They paid us a little, [but] not really enough to make it worthwhile doing.”
The other Kenyan Riders Downunder rider, a Queenslander called Jackson Wardrop, is falsely represented in his video as a SpeedX “mechanic”, and provided a scripted reading talking up the carbon layup of a bike he’d seen for the first time a few hours earlier. When contacted for this feature, he stressed that he was “not proud” of his participation in the advertisement – especially when he found out where the story ended.
SpeedX launched the Unicorn on Kickstarter in January 2017 – an audacious move, considering the company was still only halfway through delivering the Leopard. Within 75 minutes, the project hit its initial target of US$50,000. Within two hours, it’d quadrupled it.
By the end of the campaign, 200 backers had pledged over half a million dollars – each having committed to a spend of between US$2,999–$5,299. Some riders, disgruntled with the delay on the Leopard and seduced by the brand’s improved second offering, opted to transfer their pledge to the new model instead.
The amounts of money pledged were substantial, but you can understand why the backers had faith. An established brand, with a record-breaking crowdfunding effort already under its belt, was behind the campaign. The SpeedX of early 2017 – and its sister company, BlueGogo – seemed unsinkable. The bikeshare business had millions in the bank, 20 million registered users and great prospects internationally. SpeedX was just about to deliver its defining statement, a high-end road bike that would unsettle the major players and turn the brand into a legitimate player in the market.
What could possibly go wrong?
In the heart of Beijing, separated from the Forbidden City by the imposing Tiananmen Gate, lies Tiananmen Square. Its 109 acres of perfectly placed pavers have been witness and stage to some of China’s most important historical events – but nobody outside China remembers the good times now.
Today, Tiananmen Square is one of the most politicised spaces in the world – a taboo landmark synonymous with suppression, censorship, and revisionist history.
In early June, 1989, an unspecified number – some say hundreds, some say thousands – of unarmed civilians were killed as the result of a government crackdown on student protests at Tiananmen Square. The events are immortalised by one of the most iconic images of the 20th century: the famous ‘Tank man’ standing in front of a convoy of tanks on their way to suppress the unrest.
June 4, 2017: the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident. Images start to circulate on Chinese social media – screenshots from the Bluegogo app, but with a twist. The company had replaced the usual avatars of little blue bikes with tanks, rolling in a neat convoy down Chang’an Avenue, toward Tiananmen Square.
It’s a move that’s so catastrophic, so tone-deaf that some commentators reason that it must have been nothing less than industrial espionage.
According to a source at Bluegogo, who asked to remain anonymous, the truth is more mundane but no less shocking. It was, they tell me, part of a “collaboration with a gaming company”, seeking to gamify the bike rental experience and increase use. The promotion was originally scheduled for May, but was delayed. If you believe Bluegogo, the fact that the icons were tanks, and the date aligned with the anniversary of one of China’s most notorious events, was nothing more than dreadful coincidence.
In some places, the implications of this might have been little more than a brief social media storm. But that place is not China.
Having a conversation with someone in China about Tiananmen Square is to colour in the spaces between what is said and what is meant. Mention it and people might refer to the geographical location, but never the specifics of what happened there. One source I talk to calls the events of 1989 “the Tiananmen Square … thing”. Another relates a story of how a university cycling club he co-founded organised a ride to the Square on the evening of June 3rd. That was the club’s last outing; it was shut down by the Government in retribution.
Given China’s willingness to exert its “soft power” in control of its citizens, the reluctance of those citizens to engage with the country’s darker recent history lies somewhere between genuine oblivion, wilful ignorance and justifiable paranoia.
Actually, scrap that last one. It’s not paranoia at all.
It felt delicate discussing this phase of Bluegogo’s past, like I was tiptoeing around a sensitive issue. But there was more to it than that. These conversations took place through the filter of a company suffering enormous backlash because it had touched the Tiananmen Square nerve.
One awkward interview went something like this:
“You’re sure you weren’t trying to be provocative? You’re sure you weren’t trying to make a political statement? Was this just an accident?“
A pause here, a weighty second or two, before the downcast response: “Yeah, it was an accident.”
Knowing what I know about what that ‘accident’ would eventually mean for the company, I almost laugh at this candour, before saying: “That’s a bad accident.”
Another pause. Another measured response – and this time the answer comes back laden with the weight of a company’s downfall.
“Yeah. I know.”
Imagine, in this moment, that you’re Li Gang. In a matter of months, you’ve built an empire out of nothing, rattled the cycling industry, started a bikeshare side-hustle with 20 million registered users and secured tens of millions of dollars of investment.
Now imagine the scramble – the sense of hopelessness – when this all starts to teeter, because of an ill-judged marketing promotion and a few screenshots on social media.
At first, you’re probably not immediately aware of how long the shockwaves will last, or how badly they’ll unsettle the foundations of all you’ve built.
But by the end, you’ll understand.
Some months later, when everything you’ve created is about to be lost forever, you’ll refer to this day in June 2017 as the moment your company falls under a “curse”.
THE CURSE CAME HOME TO ROOST WHEN THE CHINESE SECRET POLICE DESCENDED ON THE COMPANY HEADQUARTERS.
The social media backlash to the tank promotion was the first step, but the curse came home to roost when the Chinese secret police descended on Bluegogo and SpeedX’s shared headquarters.
A company insider tells me that “more than 20” police officers – some in uniforms, some in plain clothes – “stayed in the office for a couple of days”, probing the circumstances around the “accident” and making their displeasure clear. Another source says that the police visited the office several times after that as well.
And so, with the Party firmly offside, Li Gang’s empire entered its endgame.
The company, like most Chinese start-ups, had been built on a series of rounds of investment – growth, cash injection, more growth, more cash – and in June 2017, was days away from landing its next funding round. But with Bluegogo suddenly attracting all the wrong kinds of attention, investors baulked at the prospect of attaching themselves to the company. A source inside the company told me that while he wasn’t sure whether the Chinese government’s displeasure with the management was solely to blame for the company’s failure to secure new investment, there was a palpable sense of pressure within the company as a result.
Another source succinctly summarises the company’s fatal flaw thus: “In China, you … need to separate business and politics”.
Bluegogo, and SpeedX with it, slowly but inevitably began to spiral downwards. Without outside investment to prop up the capital-guzzling bikeshare scheme, the company quickly started burning through its cash reserves.
“Bicycle sharing is such an operations-heavy business,” a former Bluegogo employee explains to me. “You’ve got to have enough density in a city that you can acquire the users … the production is really expensive, and you need the people out there to operate it.”
Fighting on two conflicting fronts – burning vast amounts of cash to gain scale, and simultaneously, desperately seeking investment to keep the doors open – the company was swan-diving into the abyss.
Faced with no other alternative, Bluegogo began making cuts. Having met an unreceptive market and stiff opposition from city leaders in San Francisco, Bluegogo’s first international operation was shuttered, but with the company’s newfound status as a pariah killing their growth in China, increasingly urgent attempts to spread into other foreign markets were made: Australia, Europe, Japan, Korea.
“The main goal was still to get the business up and rolling … how can we, through this, get sufficient income to support us?,” a source at Bluegogo told me. “And at the same time … money was running short.”
With a shared CEO, shared manufacturing contacts, and a shared office space, SpeedX and BlueGogo existed in a state of symbiosis. Their growth into one of China’s biggest bike dynasties was rapid and giddy. But now, just as they had nurtured each other’s growth, they would find themselves tied to the same fate.
Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat are pervasive and fast-moving. They can build fortunes and reputations, but when the tide turns, the undertow can be brutal. In mid-2017, with the company humiliated by its social media faux pas and chided by the Government and its secret police, things were bad, but they were still in control – just barely. That was about to change.
When rumours of Bluegogo and SpeedX’s financial woes started to spread through Weibo and WeChat, they spread fast.
“Some of the suppliers … [began to wonder] if Bluegogo was going to be able to pay back their debts,” one insider told me. “They started to come to the office asking for money … it actually carried on for a couple of months, without a resolution. But we still thought they [the company management] could solve the situation.”
There’s the hint of a hollow laugh at the end of the next supremely understated line that comes over our Skype call: “It was a bit messy back then … Yeah.”
Chandler Xu, global operations manager for SpeedX, recalls a slow period of deterioration before the company entered its “darkest time”. A number of employees saw the writing on the wall and got out before it was too late; when wages and entitlements stopped being paid, that forced the hand of most of the rest of the staff.
Most of the Bluegogo employees, Xu says, were “typical mercenaries”, who escaped before things got too bad. From the SpeedX side, a core team of staff who’d been loyal to the company since its beginning stayed to manage the increasingly aggressive creditors.
“We were united to stay with the management [out of] responsibility. We knew it would mean working for free, but we volunteered.” They weren’t afraid, he says, despite the threats of violence from creditors that kept showing up at the company’s slick Beijing offices – “we know how to handle tough situations.”
He continues: “The mood was getting lower and lower. You keep hope, even though there are more creditors coming, but you lose a bit of hope every day. Until one moment, [when you realise] it’s 100% hopeless … Welcome to the real world.”
Li Gang, as the company’s public face and CEO, was directly in the firing line. As frustrations boiled over, there were legitimate concerns for his safety, to the point that he disappeared from the public eye. Some of the more gossipy corners of the Chinese press took this as proof that Li had fled the country, insinuating that he’d also taken what was left of the company’s wealth with him – a point strongly disputed by my sources on the ground. They’ve no reason to protect him, but they’re adamant about this point: no matter how dark it got for the companies he led, Li was no fraudster.
“A lot of media didn’t report the [truth] and think there was a lot of corruption involved,” one contact tells me. “Near the end of Bluegogo, there were a lot of people/suppliers that were threatening and ruining things in the office. Employees had to move to other locations, as they were being followed … A lot of employees were burned out and scared.”
“THERE WERE A LOT OF PEOPLE RUINING THINGS IN THE OFFICE. EMPLOYEES HAD TO MOVE TO OTHER LOCATIONS AS THEY WERE BEING FOLLOWED. A LOT OF THEM WERE BURNED OUT AND SCARED.”
You might idly wonder what it feels like in a big and optimistic start-up that is in the process of imploding. From a video passed to me from the company’s last days, let me paint you that picture.
Bluegogo’s modern office is about eight floors up in a Beijing tower. It’s breezy, windows everywhere, with the silvery glisten of highrise buildings outside. It’s November, which explains both the weak sun and haze. There are long rows of desks, but weirdly, hardly any computers on them; just piles and piles of boxes. Deskchairs and bikes, both whole and dismembered, are scattered haphazardly around the floor.
Whoever’s filming walks a circuit of the office, methodically, bearing witness. Off to the side, there are a couple of small clusters of people, talking in hushed tones to each other, but no one looks up. The mood is somewhere between ‘last day of school’ and ‘existential dread of a wake’.
You can feel the despair of all these people trying to keep routine, trying to keep it together, because if they don’t … what then?
The final days of the besieged company are full of small but heartrending human moments of courage amidst crisis. Entry into the office was blocked by property management and enraged creditors; they knew the faces of the senior management, so it was the workers of the company that were left to nurse the company through its dying days.
“The four HR girls stayed on the last day to file hundreds of dismissal documents to employees,” Xu tells me. “I believe they were afraid in front of rough creditors, but showed great bravery to work until the last moment.” Without these formal dismissal documents, he explains, the hundreds of SpeedX and Bluegogo employees would have run into serious difficulties finding new jobs.
“The last time I left the office was moving the furniture,” Xu says. “The property management was forcing us to leave – you can’t reason with them. I helped the HR head to transport as much stuff as possible. Every last office chair was counted. She was helpless and cried.”
Given it’s since been reported that the company defaulted on RMB200M (around US$29 million) in property costs, it’s little surprise that the property management’s patience had worn thin.
An abiding narrative in the aftermath of the company’s collapse, spread mostly by those that lost money as a result, is that the company flippantly burned through investment and ran gleefully away with its backers’ money. One of my company sources forcefully disputes this: “A lot of employees, both from SpeedX and Bluegogo also [loaned] money to the company. Everyone was all-in in this startup … [we] couldn’t believe that things turned out this way. No one felt [the company’s collapse] was a reality of business.”
“WE COULDN’T BELIEVE THAT THINGS TURNED OUT THIS WAY. NO-ONE FELT IT WAS A REALITY OF BUSINESS.”
Another tells me that “no one wanted this to happen. Everyone put a lot of effort into it. Working in the start-up field, this was our baby. From the very beginning. It was really hard for us to see it go, and really hard for us to (lose) the job.”
In May 2017, SpeedX and Bluegogo were at the zenith of their industry – a company of more than 500 staff, valued at more than US$150M, with an attractive high-end road bike on the way, a fleet of 800,000 sharebikes, and 20 million registered users.
Within six months, it was all gone.
If you ever want to know how it feels when you’re in a start-up that goes bust – when hundreds of people lose their jobs and everything they’ve worked so hard to build – just ask a former Bluegogo or SpeedX employee. They’ll tell you; it feels like total despair.
Whilst the company’s journey was drawing to an end, for some, the nightmare was just beginning.
For the backers of the SpeedX Unicorn, there was little indication of any issues – until everything went quiet. On June 6, 2017 – two days after Bluegogo’s Tiananmen Square tank promotion, but before the shit had really hit the fan – came the last official communication on the Kickstarter page: “I’m sorry to tell you that we have a delay in the Unicorn project. Don’t worry. Don’t panic. Everything is under control…. No chance we will have another delay like the Leopard project.”
At the time, that was a true statement – the frames were built, the wheels were boxed and waiting at the assembly factory, and the groupsets were on the way. But nobody from SpeedX could have anticipated how quickly the situation would spiral out of control; how its sister brand Bluegogo would send both companies plummeting into insolvency.
The two companies were both centred around bikes, but there were key differences in their approach. Bluegogo’s experience was predicated on the anonymity of the sharing economy – a faceless interaction, the automated borrowing of an anonymous bike, the seamless transfer of funds from one account to another. SpeedX, meanwhile – with the greater financial stakes for its backers – had a higher-touch customer service approach.
So when SpeedX’s official channels went quiet, Chandler Xu, in his role as the company’s customer-facing representative and best English speaker, fielded the increasingly desperate pleas for assistance – and acted as something of an internal advocate for the Unicorn’s Kickstarter backers.
For months, Xu pushed the company’s senior management for an update to pass on to his customers, but they were unable to provide a definitive answer. “I thought I could do something for them – but in vain,” he tells me.
In early November 2017 – the week before the company was kicked out of its offices – a final email was sent to the Unicorn’s Kickstarter backers, sincerely apologising and blaming the delay in production on an “unsettled assembly factory”. Assessing this charitably, there was a glimmer of hope that the company could be revived with a last-minute injection of investment. With a more pragmatic view of the situation, Xu was acting under instructions to keep up appearances.
For the 200 backers of the SpeedX Unicorn scattered around the world, each missed shipment deadline brought a growing sense of unease – but at least at first, there was hope that missed deadlines might just be part of the Kickstarter experience.
Fabio Collavo – an Italian backer from a little mountain village in the Dolomites – “realised that something was going wrong when the communication stopped and the [delay] from the plan was huge … [but] till the end I hoped that this delay was ‘normal’ in a crowdfunding project.”
Dhashrath Raguraman, from Chicago, had experienced crowdfunding hold-ups before – and indeed, with the same company. “I originally backed the SpeedX Leopard Pro. The project shipping was so delayed that by the time the shipping time was announced, SpeedX was already crowdfunding the Unicorn,” he tells me. “I obviously was annoyed by this and requested SpeedX to update my order from the Leopard Pro to the Unicorn.”
The sad implication of Raguraman’s decision was that he traded a delayed bike for no bike at all.
By December, with no official announcement in sight and the company having been scattered to the winds, Xu found himself inundated with abusive messages. “My Messenger and WhatsApp were full of unpleasant messages for updates. All the Unicorn backers [were] doing the only thing they could do — contact me. I fully understand how they feel, and I don’t think it inappropriate to reach me in an aggressive way,” he says. “Thousands of dollars is a serious amount of money.”
Early 2018: realisation was beginning to sink in for the backers of the SpeedX Unicorn that their thousands of dollars had disappeared. The urgency – the powerless rage – in the comments thread on the Kickstarter page becomes palpable. “I work too hard for my money to have it be wasted on a BAIT AND SWITCH!!!”, says Cisco Jimenez. “We are screwed, and our money is gone. Kickstarter is going to screw us over … I will be paying this debt off for years. This was supposed to be an end-game bike for me.”
Every backer of the SpeedX Unicorn lost every last dollar they’d put in – sums that varied depending on the spec that they’d pledged for. For Cisco Jimenez, that was US$5,300; for Fabio Collavo, that was US$3,799 + $400 shipping; for Dhashrath Raguraman, US$4,000. Raguraman places that sum in a devastating personal context: “I am originally from South Asia and that amounts to almost a year of my family income growing up. This is really heartbreaking.”
Raguraman sounded out the possibility of a class action lawsuit with his fellow Kickstarter backers, but as they were spread around the world, “it was difficult trying to coordinate a front”. And besides, as he says, “Who do we really sue here? An entity based in China? Kickstarter?”
In the end, there was little that could be done – and eventually, a numb silence descended.
I can understand why. I can’t help but get the feeling, for many of the Unicorn backers I tried without success to contact for this story, that it’s simply less painful to let the memory of their lost investment close over and scar, rather than pick at it and revisit the ache of throwing thousands of dollars away.
THE LOST $600,000 FROM THE SPEEDX UNICORN KICKSTARTER DISAPPEARED INTO DIGITAL ASH, A LINE OF FIGURES ON A BANKRUPT COMPANY’S BALANCE SHEET … EVERY BACKER LOST EVERY LAST DOLLAR THEY’D PUT IN.
The lost US$600,000 from the SpeedX Unicorn Kickstarter disappeared into digital ash, a line of figures on a bankrupt company’s balance sheet. Any hopes for recompense were thwarted by the fine print in Kickstarter’s contract with their backers – once a project on the platform is fully funded, the backers have their pledged amounts debited, Kickstarter takes its cut, and the remainder flows through to the creator.
I reached out to Kickstarter to ask if they had any comment on the failure of SpeedX to deliver their project, and received a somewhat sterile statement asserting that “it’s important to remember that Kickstarter is not a store”, highlighting that a majority of the projects funded on the platform complete their projects as promised, and stating that they “encourage[d] the creator to live up to the obligations outlined in their contract with backers, but unfortunately the company went out of business before completing the project.”
That’s a bitter pill to swallow for Raguraman. “Typical Platform cuts range from 10% to 30% … Kickstarter made this amount (10-30% of the US$600,000 pledged). If Kickstarter claims to be a matchmaking platform – I am sure they have amended their TOS accordingly to absolve them of this – they should at least refund their platform cut.” (In response, Kickstarter issued the following clarification: “Our fee is 5%. There is an additional fee for our payments processor of 3-5%.”)
Collavo was also under the misapprehension that the Kickstarter platform would offer some level of protection for the backers, telling me that “I thought that Kickstarter [gave] us a ‘warranty’ and [would] help the backers to recover part of the ‘investment’.”
For the 200 backers of the Unicorn project, the bikes never showed. Like the fantastical beast that the bike took its name from, it turned out to be nothing more than a myth.
The decline of the SpeedX empire was shocking in its speed and scale, but as I dug into the story, I began to understand the broader implications of the company’s collapse – the societal and personal toll.
Bluegogo was the biggest casualty of the bikeshare boom, but it precipitated the decline of an entire industry. By late 2017, bikeshare was a semi-trailer rolling at speed towards a cliff, with cut brake lines. Seeking to reduce urban clutter, the Chinese government finally started regulating the industry. Bikeshare companies quickly buckled – their bikes, in every shade of the rainbow, were consigned to scrap and storage.
Bluegogo’s contribution alone was 800,000 bikes, impounded in cities across China – wave after wave of blue bikes, piled two high, sitting in construction sites and empty lots on the outskirts of megacities, waiting. Decaying.
Multiply Bluegogo’s failure many times over to account for the other companies that rushed to join in the fictitious feast, and you begin to get a sense of the enormous toll of China’s bikeshare boom. When the house of cards fell, the collateral damage was vast. As one Bluegogo supplier told the Global Times, the company’s failure left them in dire financial straits: “We have been entangled in debts, which amounted to over US$1.51 million”.
Remember – that’s just one guy, speaking for just one of the six factories that this one company contracted to build its bikes. In total, when SpeedX and Bluegogo went under, around US$30 million was owed to more than 70 suppliers, bringing some to the brink of bankruptcy.
And there were so many more fallen bikeshare companies.
Zoom out from the specific, and you quickly start to drown in the enormity of it all. Millions of bikes, assembled by thousands of hands. Entire towns like Wangqingtuo, built around servicing a rapacious demand. Restaurants and hotels and supermarkets, constructed and opened and shuttered in what are now virtual ghost-towns. Countless families relying on the bikeshare industry to survive. Seats and spokes and tyres beyond number, consigned as fast as they were made to technicolour scrapheaps around China. All of it, this vast mound of human toil, left to rust and rot among bamboo and rubble.
This is industrialisation’s gleaming black heart.
But despite the enormous human and environmental cost of the bikeshare boom, there are glimmers of hope to be found. Shannon Bufton – you met him earlier; he’s the Beijing resident, recruited as a SpeedX model – sees the outcome as a net positive. “The share bike schemes … had the opportunity to redefine inner city urban mobility,” he tells me. “For once the bicycle was centre stage and fulfilling its potential as an efficient, cheap and sustainable form of moving around the city. While the growth was unsustainable and the wastage irresponsible, the bikeshare revolution … changed Chinese cities forever.”
It’s an opinion echoed by a former Bluegogo employee, who tells me that bikeshare “changed the Chinese lifestyle in a healthier way … it’s such a convenience.” China was once colloquially known as the bicycle kingdom, but in the mad rush to industrialisation lost its way in that regard. Now, it’s come full circle. “Every day,” Bufton says, “millions of ordinary people are riding these bikes instead of taking taxis and other forms of motorised transport. The net effect is … overwhelmingly positive and forward-thinking.”
Eighteen months after the company hit the wall, Bluegogo and SpeedX’s bankruptcy liquidation remains incomplete. If you look hard enough, you can still see little traces of both brands strewn about the digital landscape as the company and its creditors seek to recoup any crumbs of its former wealth. For a while, you could pick up SpeedX frames, divorced from their electronics, in bulk quantities on Alibaba for bargain prices. In San Francisco, an auction house flogged off the 4,000 Bluegogo bikes abandoned when the company left town. Ingloriously, they were sold in lots; bids started at just $5 for five bikes.
And what of Bluegogo’s vast fleet, consigned to China’s bikeshare graveyards? Improbably enough, some have been resurrected. In January 2017, DiDi Chuxing – China’s Uber – announced a “cooperation agreement” with Bluegogo, allowing users of the DiDi app to access Bluegogo bikes through the service. When I pressed DiDi on what that meant for Bluegogo and SpeedX’s debts – and, more pointedly, whether it saw any obligation to repay the company’s Unicorn backers for their lost pledges – DiDi’s PR team declined to comment.
Despite reporting that DiDi had assumed Bluegogo’s debts, DiDi’s official line is, bafflingly, that the brand name, deposits, debts and operational responsibilities remain with Bluegogo – a company that now exists in disgraced name only. Owned by no one and owned by everyone, an unknown number of these little blue ghost bikes still roll along the boulevards of Beijing – a poignant reminder of a business that was once poised to take on the world.
If there’s one happy outcome from this administrative shuffle, it’s for the 20 million Bluegogo account holders in China, whose 99RMB (US$15) deposits were finally converted into DiDi credit. US$290 million dollars, accounted for at last, rather than lost in the ether.
For the thousands of riders who own SpeedX Leopards, the company’s decline is bittersweet. They bought into a bike with a now-redundant lifetime frame warranty, yes, but they also bought into an app, an ecosystem and the concept of connectedness and integration. And whilst they at least received bikes in exchange for their pledges, those bikes are ‘smart’ bikes running off an app that no longer exists, with software updates that will never come. On Paul Ashbury’s ‘SpeedX Riders’ Facebook group, riders share hacks to remove the integrated electronics, replace the SpeedForce stem, shed battery weight … convert their visionary ‘smart’ bikes back into, simply, bikes.
Now, it seems clear: the slow decline of the SpeedX brand to obscurity and complete extinction is inevitable. One day, soon enough, there won’t be any Leopards left in the wild. But until then, Paul Ashbury determinedly tries to fight off the inevitable. “I want to keep the brand alive and support the guys and girls who bought one of the bikes,” he says. “I don’t want it to be a here today, gone tomorrow bike.” Through his website, he runs a small webstore, designing and ordering batches of chipper SpeedX-branded clothing and drink bottles which he sells to the SpeedX community.
For those that saw SpeedX and Bluegogo implode from the inside, emotions are mixed. A source at Bluegogo describes it as “like a year riding on a rollercoaster” but doesn’t look back on it as a painful time, “even in the last few months when everyone was struggling. The good times outranked the bad.”
In some cases, the shared trauma of the company’s collapse forged enduring relationships. Just last week, two former SpeedX engineers got engaged in Beijing, and celebrated the happy news with their former colleagues.
But for many, the company’s memory is more uncomfortable. Chandler Xu, on the frontline as the Unicorn campaign went bust, is still haunted by the failure of SpeedX, a year and a half later. “I’m the person who knows the customers best and cares about their interest most. I remember their names and faces,” he tells me. “I let them down. I feel guilty.”
The company’s failure took a heavy toll on Xu’s health, plunging him into what he describes as a “serious depression.” Eventually, he moved to Guangdong, 2,000km away from Beijing – the “farthest place I can find a job I like” – to try to escape the memory of that time. “Every day I stayed there, it reminded me of the intense and stressful last days [dealing with] the cops, creditors and property management,” he says.
Xu is unflinchingly honest as he tells me about this period of his life: “I started soliloquizing [talking to myself] … it was so bad for my mental health.”
Nonetheless, as painful as the recollection is, he sees it as important that the company’s tale is told, warts and all.
“There has to be an end … the people involved deserve an announcement of the final ending. We can’t disappear as if nothing ever happened.”
“THERE HAS TO BE AN END. WE CAN’T DISAPPEAR AS IF NOTHING EVER HAPPENED.”
In the writing of this piece, I reached out to Li Gang and several of the most senior figures from SpeedX and Bluegogo for comment. There was a predictable caginess from the few that responded, but no answer from Li Gang. I tried texting, LinkedIn, and even tracked him down on WeChat – China’s closest equivalent to Facebook – but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get a response.
I spend a lot of time thinking about him, though: about this prodigious talent who in his 20s started a company that, for a brief period, burned so brightly that it deserves a 9,000 word feature written about its demise.
I think about Li’s extraordinary mea culpa as the company crumbled around him, in which he shouldered the blame for its failure and called himself “full of arrogance”.
I don’t know if that’s true. The many people I spoke to who worked with him tell me that they believe he always had their interests at heart. “Until the very last minute … I could see that [Li] was fighting for us,” one Bluegogo staffer tells me. “He was trying his best. No matter what result he (got), I believe he was working on that.”
Xu agrees: “I don’t know how he is doing now, but I believe in his success in the future. The harder you hit the bottom, the more motivated you are to bounce back.”
One morning, 5am on a rainy Melbourne Tuesday, I wake up with this story on my mind and resolve to make one last attempt to contact Li Gang. In the dark, I lie there, wondering how I’ll formulate the questions that’ll tell me if he’s recovered from the collapse of his empire; how he’ll articulate what the ripples of that look like in his life.
I reach for my phone, open WeChat, find his profile again, and click on the thumbnail.
In his profile picture, Li Gang stands on a wide sandy beach, mountains and palms in the distant background, his bare feet in the sea, swinging what I assume to be his son above the foam. His mouth is open in a joyful laugh.
He doesn’t look like the villain his critics have made him out to be, falsely accused of skipping out with a fortune. He doesn’t look like a CEO who, before he was 30, had presided over the birth and death of a multi-million-dollar business.
In that stolen glimpse of mundane parental love, he looks content and relatable, like he’s come out the other side.
But most of all, he looks human.
That’s how I choose to remember him and all he created.
Composite feature image: AP via AAP Ri Xi/Xiquinho Silva/SpeedX. All other images as credited.
Thanks to Matt de Neef for wading into the edit, Phil Golston for video production, several kind Mandarin speakers for translation assistance, our VeloClub members for allowing us to produce this kind of content, and all sources – named and anonymous – for trusting me with your story.