smide is a true success story. And like so many success stories, this success was rather unexpected, and the journey took many twists and turns. After all, reality rarely makes allowances for big plans – that is also the reason that agile approaches pay off in the end, and not only in the development of complex communications systems.
Kickoff with pilot project
It all began with an innovation project of the Swiss insurance company Schweizerische Mobiliar Versicherungen AG. The idea was to use e-bike sharing to come into contact with their own customers – outside the context of damage claims or contract signings. INNOQ was there from the very start: as consultant and coach and also in planning and implementing the IoT platform.
It was not long before the potential of the idea became clear. The pilot project became a separate company: smide was born. Initially, the e-bike rental system was designed to offer a fast, environmentally friendly solution to commuters and leisure travelers in Zurich.
The next step was to create a workable business model. In this process, we played the role of sparring partner: How to earn money? How to increase the degree of automation? Which technological solutions to consider?
Technology and business intertwined
In an IoT-driven company such as an e-bike sharing platform, the technical conception of the platform naturally plays a decisive role. However, the essential factor in the success of smide was the interplay of technology and business model. For example:
- Strict budget restrictions: That means that the development of the platform would require a lot of “savvy”: not too much, not too big, quickly testable and usable, but still workable for the long term.
- Future business developments: It had to be possible to adapt the system to unforeseen ideas to ensure continuous expandability.
- Flexibility: For example, we did not organize the microservices based on technical but on functional criteria. The system is based on the IoT protocol MQTT, which is extremely adaptable.
- Keyword big data: For the development of the business model, it was decisive that we have access to the complete history of the e-bike use and telemetry data. Therefore, we decided to use Apache Kafka. That makes it possible to detect patterns and use them to generate new ideas for monetization, user integration, and automation.
- Technical solution in the overall context: For example, it makes no sense to develop a highly sophisticated and expensive solution for a single task, a task that could be solved much more economically by organizational means. In order to find the most efficient solution, ideas must be found that bring organization, business, and IT together.
- Integration of the customer: for example the creation of incentive systems to induce them to charge the e-bikes or leave them at particular locations.
That provides plenty of opportunities to learn – and not just for start-ups. That’s because digitalization affects not just business processes but also the business model itself. Only when everything is combined intelligently can the result be a profitable business.
The e-bike sharing platform utilized, among other things, the following technologies:
- Container management system Kubernetes
- IoT approaches with MQTT
- Microservices with self-contained subsystems
- Message bus Kafka
- NoSQL database MongoDB
Start-up spirit against setbacks
Did the development of smide always go smoothly? Of course not. In such a complex project, there are always a few setbacks. But the whole team was so motivated that it was possible to master them. The start-up spirit is simply contagious.
For example, it is irritating for the customer if – for whatever reason – it is not possible to unlock an e-bike using a mobile phone or if the booking fails. Especially when it happens on the weekend in the middle of the night! There were times when one of us had to do some troubleshooting way outside normal business hours, in order to help the customer. Of course, these acid tests made the system increasingly more robust as we gained more experience.
For IT-driven start-ups, very agile project planning and implementation are recommended. In this context, we appear in various roles: sometimes as sparring partner for the development of the business model, sometimes as IT service provider, sometimes as product owner, sometimes as consultant and coach. This makes it possible to achieve innovation together and, above all, to make the company profitable.
- Sparring partner for the development of the business model
- Architecture development
- Implementation of the platform
- Coaching and consulting
- Support during ongoing operations
One thing is clear: Good ideas are one thing, but turning them into a profitable business is a true challenge. Just what do the customers do with e-bikes? How can we serve these specific needs even better? Which new customer groups exist, and which attractive offerings and functions should we offer? Such questions led to ideas, such as a targeted approach to customers who ride an e-bike to go shopping, or the opening of the platform for business customers.
The challenge of turning good ideas into good solutions can be seen, for example, in the topic of incentive systems: In this area, we worked with a technical university, which developed statistical models to answer the question: How many bonus minutes must we offer the users, so that they, for example, park the e-bike a little farther away or connect it to a charging station? Such incentive systems are the only way to reduce overhead costs so that the business model pays off.
smide has now also been launched in Bern as well as Zurich and is thus still on a growth track. We are still part of the team – and we are happy to be part of this innovative and future-oriented project.
Christian, in this project, agile methods and microservices were used. What’s behind that?
Since the business vision of smide initially formed slowly and over time, it was decisive that the architecture and implementation keep pace with the dynamic development. For this reason, from the very beginning, we designed and developed a new increment of the solution at short iteration intervals and put it into production at the latest every two weeks. Of course, this was not a linear process – again and again, we changed and improved functions that had already been built, in order to adapt them to new findings from real life. In order to also keep control of the architecture and structure of the system, we broke it down according to functional criteria into several highly independent subsystems or microservices. Both approaches were absolutely decisive to the success of smide.
Is it true that at INNOQ the boundaries between IT and business consulting are blurred? How do you handle that?
Yes, I see it that way, too, and, personally, I find it very exciting. Furthermore, it is simply necessary, if we want to help our customers succeed. Even in the digital age, it’s not just about hip technologies; it’s about knowing the business, the relevant goals, and the constraints. Since the customer – particularly a start-up – often does not yet have this perspective 100%, we help to actively shape this perspective through critical questions and alternative ideas. For smide, therefore, we slipped into different roles depending on the situation: sometimes coach or sparring partner, sometimes software specialist, but often mediator as well – for example between e-bike manufacturers, external suppliers, smide, and other stakeholders. In order to help our customers, it goes without saying that we assume the necessary responsibility, even going beyond programming.
For the nerds among us: What was technologically exciting about the project?
Even though, as already mentioned, it was not primarily about technologies, there are still a few aspects that should be mentioned. For smide, historical data and events, for example, are very important, so they can be used for new business models. For that reason, we use an Apache Kafka cluster, which can store the entire event history as an ideal basis, so that it can be analyzed as needed or used for new functions. And, of course, the implementation of the overall system in the form of multiple microservices, which also use Kafka for inter-communication of technical events and are thus highly independent of each other. The large number of individual services naturally necessitates an automated testing and deployment pipeline and a suitable container environment for operations, in our case a Kubernetes cluster.
In INNOQ Switzerland, we have found an innovative partner, whose expert consulting and professional implementation have made it an important pillar of our business. The employees distinguish themselves through great flexibility and agility. Paired with sound expertise, this enables them to find pragmatic and goal-oriented solutions, even in hectic situations.Nick MüllerCo-Founder & Partner, smide