'FreeBike Project' Gives Students The Resources To Ride

It’s cheaper, healthier, and more sustainable than driving. No wonder more and more Americans are biking as a form of pleasurable exercise and transportation. While studying abroad at USC, former students Johan Bender and Kim Sanderhoff were determined to make biking more accessible for their classmates. These young entrepreneurs created a bike rental system that puts Manhattan’s Citi Bike and Boston’s Hubway to shame. Why? Because it’s free for users and has a charitable component.

Danish students Bender and Sanderhoff defy the stereotype that studying abroad during college is just one long party. As tempting as it may have been to lie on the beaches of southern California all day, they had a mission to help make biking as popular in America as it is in Denmark. They came up with the idea to start this business in 2011, and founded the company in 2012. The FreeBike Project began as a hypothetical concept that they created for a course on entrepreneurship. But with educations from Copenhagen Business School under their belts, the students quickly set forth transforming ideas into actions.

“Kim and I strongly felt that our concept had the potential to create positive change in the world. The idea was to promote green, healthy and free means of transportation for college students, while providing a better youth-marketing alternative for brands and businesses,” Bender said. Born on USC’s campus, the FreeBike Project has already reached colleges and universities nationwide, in cities such as Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Tucson. The founding duo currently resides in the United States, dedicating their lives to the project’s expansion.

The company’s goals are twofold: leasing bikes to American college students, and giving free bikes to students living in poverty-stricken nations. How does it manage to lease bikes for free and give to a charitable cause? It’s actually pretty simple. In addition to serving as a mode of transportation, each bike acts as a rolling billboard. Bender and Sanderhoff tweak the design of each bike they build (yes, they build their own bikes too) by attaching a custom-made sign between the seat and the handlebar. Sponsor companies, including The North Face, AEG and My Social Cloud, pay to have their advertisements placed on these signs.

“We noticed the amount of resources being spent on intrusive advertisements that people of our generation try to avoid (e.g., television commercials, newspaper ads, flyers and salespeople) and felt that a new media channel was needed,” Bender explained.

It’s a pioneering business model, but Bender and Sanderhoff believe that this innovative approach to advertising will be a hit. The more bikes they lease, the more eyeballs that see the ads. The more eyeballs that see the ads, the more money the company can charge its sponsors for ad space. The more money they make, the more bikes they can afford to build. And so on.

The founders have also developed another marketing strategy that appeals to young peoples’ love for social sharing. FreeBike riders do not pay for their semester-long bike leases monetarily, but they are required to upload a minimum of one social media photo of the bike per month — an easy way to bolster publicity.

Now, onto the philanthropic component. In partnership with Bikes for the World, the co-founders have pledged to donate one bike to a student living in poverty overseas for every one that it leases to an American student. “We didn’t want to limit our impact to students in the United States. To support education and transportation in developing countries, like the Philippines, we help provide bikes to high school students in remote villages so they can commute to school,” Bender explained. This makes for a beautiful chain of generosity, in which sponsoring companies help students buy purchasing sign advertisements, and American students help international students just by leasing free bikes.

Bender and Sanderhoff are currently working toward a goal of leasing bikes to 10,000 students nationwide by the end of 2016. Prospects for the FreeBike Project’s expansion look promising, considering Americans’ growing interest in cycling. From 2000 – 2010, the number of bicycle commuters in American has grown by 40%, a report by the League of American Bicyclists shows.

A bootstrap endeavor from the start, Bender and Sanderhoff are currently concentrated on finding the right investors. They believe this will be a key step in gaining momentum for the organization’s continued growth. The FreeBike Project may still be in its early stages, but the founders imagine a fruitful future: “As we continue to grow and improve our organization, we see the potential for becoming a very profitable enterprise.”

- forbes.com


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