Maria De La Croix has a fine arts degree and an advertising background, and she lives in Stockholm, Sweden -- unlikely characteristics for a Silicon Valley-backed founder. But she does embody the region's status-quo-disrupting ethos.
Two years ago, the 27 year old applied for a barista job at a Starbucks in Stockholm. She didn’t get the job, she says, because her hair was “too blue.” The rejection inspired her to set out to sell her own coffee, so she founded Wheelys, a solar-powered bike café franchise. She’s managed to participate in the Y Combinator accelerator and start a global company in a matter of two years.
To get started, Wheelys launched a series of IndieGogo campaigns. One was titled, “Wheelys. A café in a bike. Deal with it.” As of March 2015, that campaign alone had raised $153,196 -- 253 percent of its fundraising goal. This support helped Wheelys supply bikes to more than 250 franchisees, called Wheelers, in nearly 50 countries worldwide. Meanwhile, De La Croix and her two co-founders applied to Y Combinator and got in.
In April 2016, Wheelys announced its seed round had closed at $2.5 million. Its investors include Paul Buchheit (creator of Gmail), Othman Laraki (co-founder of Color Genomics), Jared Friedman (founder of Scribd) and Justin Waldron (co-founder of Zynga).
Wheelys aims to simplify the experience of those who may have trouble, say, coming up with half a million dollars to open a Starbucks franchise. Startup costs have ranged from $3,000 to $7,000, depending on the Wheelys bike model, and the monthly franchise fee (which includes access to the Wheelys branding materials and other support) is $200 per month.
Each Wheelys cart is compact, leaves a minimal carbon footprint and allows owners to specify their own schedules. All Wheelers have to sell Wheelys house coffee, but they are free to offer secondary varieties of their own choosing along with various pastries, snacks, fruit, magazines -- it’s up to the each individual seller and local regulations. Wheelys also has an app that allows customers to order ahead and pay digitally, though Wheelers can opt for cash transactions.
Today, De La Croix says that Wheelys is expanding most quickly in the U.S. She and her team have worked to improve the bikes to better accommodate health standards, as well as be more efficient -- environmentally and for the Wheelers preparing customers’ orders.
“Everyone working on our cafés, they own their café, their heart is in the café,” De La Croix says. “They decided that this is what they wanted to do. They invested in it. They put a lot of time and effort into it. It’s not like they applied for a job.”
Wheelys built its first 20 to 30 bikes in a basement, selling them to Wheelers for a few thousand dollars and operating at a loss on each. De La Croix and her co-founders tested the bikes themselves, changing outfits and parking in various locations to find out which strategies attracted the most customers. Once, De La Croix parked in front of a Starbucks and out-performed her corporate competitor, she says. She had a permit to sell on the streets, to the coffee house’s dismay. She still does her own testing, as well as gets feedback from the global network of Wheelers.
“One of the things that impressed me is the strength of community of the Wheelys operators,” writes Jared Friedman, Wheelys investor and Y Combinator partner, in an email to Entrepreneur. “For the Wheelys members, Wheelys is not just a job, it is a social movement. Which fits, because the Wheelys founders are the natural leaders of that kind of movement. They are gutsy, high-spirited and entertaining.”
De La Croix’s artistic skills and advertising experience gave her a foundation in branding, which was essential to Wheelys’s expansion. Still, she notes the distinction between branding and big brands. On the Wheelys website, the company proudly declares “Fuck Brands” but censors the word Starbucks as ****bucks. At first, De La Croix and her team tested unbranded bikes, but when they added the name and logo, they saw more repeat customers.
“People like the Wheelys brand because we stand for something organic and we stand for entrepreneurial people,” De La Croix says. “Having a brand also made it possible for us to connect people more.”
De La Croix’s personal brand is nothing if not consistent. She explains parking in front of the Starbucks in Stockholm “kind of pissed them off” and was “fun.” (You can watch a video of the stunt below.) Her LinkedIn page features a photo of her with blue-green hair, scowling at the camera. The “Summary” section of her LinkedIn profile contains a single sentence: “Unlearn what you’ve learned.”
She’s posted minimally produced YouTube videos to the Wheelys Café channel such as “Yc hates money,” in which she and Wheelys co-founder Tomas Mazetti explain their belief that Y Combinator values ideas “that people want” over detailed business plans. In the clip, the founders acknowledge that the accelerator largely responsible for their current bank account balance would likely refute that characterization.
Ultimately, Wheelys’s defiance is meant to call others to action: You can start a business with minimal funds and materials, and you can sell high-quality goods. You don’t have to be limited by corporate constraints.
“Go ahead and do things,” De La Croix says. “The biggest problem is, people have a lot of ideas, but then they make things too complicated.”
De La Croix says she has noticed that the common trait shared by artists and entrepreneurs is that they are creators who focus on building out their visions. As someone who can claim both titles, she perceives that in today’s world, startups as a means of self-expression are more publicly influential than art is.
“I think that art, when it’s good, it affects people, and it can change things,” De La Croix says. “I don’t see art doing that so very much today, unfortunately, while startups actually are doing that and they are changing a lot of things in today’s society.”