“I once had to rob a cashier at a retail store in a town near Los Angeles and wait for them to call the police so I could get my scooters and money back from the owner of the shop…”
I had the pleasure to interview Jay Sung. Jay is the CEO of EcoReco, a San Francisco-based, eco-friendly transportation start-up that has transformed the traditional scooter into an IoT platform. EcoReco’s mission is simple: provide eco-friendly alternatives to today’s energy-depleting, environment-threatening norms.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’ve always had this motivation to do something that could have a meaningful impact on the world. I got my PhD in electrical engineering and physics at UCLA, but I struggled for years to identify an avenue through which I could apply this expertise to benefit society beyond just earning a paycheck.
One day, an old high school friend came to visit me in college and we both decided to attend a local event in Los Angeles. Thirty minutes into our drive, we found ourselves stuck in traffic gridlock for what felt like hours and, naturally, pedestrians were moving faster than our idling car. What made it worse was that the event was just a few miles away, yet the journey felt like we were driving from Wilmington to Bakersfield. After seeing a kid fly by us on his kick scooter, my friend and I started joking that a scooter with a motor would have been a much greener option for us to visit local spots around town without having to waste time in traffic.
This idea sat in the back of my head until 2008 when I read a book titled, “Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty” by Muhammed Yunus, which helped me connect the dots between this idea I had at graduate school and my overarching goal to make a positive impact on the world. This brilliant work helped me realize that you don’t have to work for an NGO to do something good in the world. If you have a sound business model that incentivizes others to do good, you can actually have a tangible impact and, for me, that came in the form of finding a way to address climate change and promote environmental sustainability using a combination of my technical expertise gained from college and business acumen having worked at McKinsey for several years.
Once I had a concrete idea, several friends and I started to play around with the prototype and polish the business model and go-to-market plan in our spare time. Eventually, I left my job at McKinsey to start the EcoReco operation with a small team. Fast forward to today and we’re continuing to build EcoReco in ways that encourage people to reduce their individual effect on the environment in their own way. Thousands embracing this goal certainly adds up.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One story sticks out — I once had to rob a cashier at a retail store in a town near Los Angeles and wait for them to call the police so I could get my scooters and money back from the owner of the shop.
I should probably explain…
Early on in our company’s history, we made a deal with this retail skateboard shop that wanted to carry our product because they believed they could sell large quantities and also offer the scooters as rentals near tourist attractions. We were a new company, of course, so we were enthusiastic to enter into such an agreement and provide several units on consignments and revenue sharing.
They initially reported that they were selling a lot of our products and the rentals were a hit. Unfortunately, that was the also the last time we heard from them and we weren’t seeing any of the agreed upon revenue share. After months of calling with no answer, I jumped in my car and drove six hours from our HQ in Silicon Valley all the way to the South Cal. I get to the store and the owner was nowhere to be found. There was a teenage cashier there who let me know that they actually planned to close the shop in two weeks. I tried explaining the story to the cashier; that I needed to see my fair share of the profit from them selling our scooters and their rental business. After several hours of stonewalling, the owner finally gave me a call back saying he would handle it but couldn’t meet that day. I didn’t want to stay in that town for another night so I told him that I would wait at the store until the owner could show up. When it came time to close, the owner still hadn’t shown up, so I let the cashier know I would need the store to stay open until the owner came. To keep the store from closing, I took the iPad used for sales and told the cashier to call the police. The kid called 911 and yelled “we got robbed!” and I immediately jumped in and said that I had no intention of doing anything stupid. I just need an officer here.
The police arrived and, after I shared my story, they told the cashier to call the owner. The owner came to the store in less than 5 mins, apologizing profusely and writing a check to pay back the money he had owed to me. I also took the scooters he hadn’t sold and left. By the time I came back to the SF area, it was already time for work. The moral of this story: when in doubt, get collaterals and documentation!
So what exactly is your company doing to disrupt transportation?
EcoReco aspires to be the flag-bearer of the personal transportation movement. Besides being commercially viable, we aim to be the thought leader in educating consumers about the benefits of personal EV and pushing the scooter form factor as the primary solution for last-mile transportation. We have transformed the traditional scooter into a full-fledged IoT platform.
The Model R — our flagship scooter — is equipped with dynamic battery switching, unique riding modes, Tile integration, advanced sensors, extendable smartphone applications such as Lightvigation and Smart lock. Our company operates with two goals: first, decrease the environmental footprint of commuters while easing commutes, and second, build a B2B foundation for future smart mobility and smart cities by transforming “last-mile” transportation in cities across the US. We’re well on our way, having sold to businesses such as valet services, rental/tourism, sports teams and Silicon Valley campuses.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We have always aimed to reduce energy waste, pollution, traffic and parking issues. 90 percent of Americans commute to work by car each day and more than half travel alone while doing so. More than 50 percent of daily trips are those that are within a distance of less than 3 miles. The operating costs of an EcoReco scooter is about 1 percent of that of a regular fossil-fueled car and there’s no CO2 emission, never mind the initial cost of a car purchase, maintenance, parking and energy consumption.
We are seeing so much gridlock and energy misuse with large vehicles for “last-mile” usage, like going to the local store. By providing a solution in the form of our scooters, we can encourage people to use this alternative, become energy efficient, and have a positive impact on the environment. It’s a sustainable solution to these issues and is also versatile — you can use it in addition to your car (housed in the trunk). Once you find a free space to park, you can ride your scooter to your destination — a concept that we believe has the potential to change how cities are built.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
Be mindful of documentation and always take collateral.
As you can see in my story above, this is one of the most crucial lessons every business leader should know and uphold.
Understand the nature of Silicon Valley
As an entrepreneur, especially in Silicon Valley, you have to be optimistic about your company in the face of the challenges you will undoubtedly encounter. However, you also need to merge this optimism with a healthy amount of realism. This region is unique in that companies are valued both in dollar terms and in how well they are contributing to societal good. But don’t let this completely fool you — it’s also an extremely competitive landscape that requires a level head.
Don’t hesitate to ask for advice.
You would be surprised how many successful people and companies are willing to share their knowledge — a lesson that took a lot of trial-and-error for me to realize. As a first-time entrepreneur operating a start-up, I initially thought that as long as you have an idea and people like it, it’s a simple sell. This could not be further from the truth. With our extensive supply chain, we have to consider part support, customer service, fulfillment and much more. Most of my time in the early years was sucked up fulfilling one-off part orders and a lot of this back-and-forth caused me — the CEO — to spend a ton of time doing many different admin tasks. We’ve worked with SAP for several years and they have been instrumental in guiding us through some of the challenges we have faced building a company. Based on their reputation, we decided to invest in the SAP Anywhere platform and haven’t looked back since. I hope that one day when EcoReco becomes a larger company, we can continue finding valuable partnerships like this that enhance our business and help me focus on the front-office responsibilities of building a company.
Make meaningful social engagements and be selective
When I first started my company, I felt pretty good to be called an entrepreneur and attended many startup mixers in the Silicon Valley. After a while, I realized I might be among the many in Silicon Valley that mistake sharing success stories and name dropping fuels startup success. There is a fine balance between meaningful networking and overdoing it. Time is the most valuable asset of a startup CEO. In the end, no matter how many people you know and meet, an entrepreneur needs to make the business work in order for others to join them on their journey.
Be prepared for the unexpected.
As I said, Silicon Valley is an intense area of innovation and competition that requires entrepreneurs to be considerably flexible and adaptable. Take your losses in stride and use them as learning opportunities — never take anything as certain, especially in business and relationships with your partners. Embrace the ups and downs — they could make for a cool story to tell in the future.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2006 for his microfinancing social enterprise at Grameen Bank and his book, “Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty.” He tackled a huge and global social issue, poverty, by providing micro-loans to the rural poor in Bangladesh, helping them get out of the vicious cycle of dealing with loan sharks. He proves that by constructing a sustainable business model, one can enable more.