We talk through how changes to Bird Global's (NYSE:BRDS) fleet management have dramatically changed its financials over the past few years and how the company stacks up to more robust mobility offerings from Lyft (NASDAQ:LYFT) and Uber (NYSE:UBER).

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This video was recorded on Nov. 17, 2021.

Dylan Lewis: It's Wednesday, November 17th, and we're catching up on the debut of Bird. I'm your host, Dylan Lewis, and I'm joined by fool.com, phantom boss of bulldozing, busy busted bikes. Brian Feroldi, Brian how is the going?

Brian Feroldi: I really struggled with that last where thereby I wanted to fit scooters and somehow, but it just didn't start with a B, Dylan.

Dylan Lewis: I think with alliteration, people can usually tell where we're heading with an episode. In this case, we're talking about Bird global, a business that I think probably some listeners, especially if they live in a major US city, have probably interacted with.

Brian Feroldi: I actually got to go on a Bird scooter for the first time, about a month ago. This is one of the companies that I've actually had experienced with first hand, even though I myself live in the suburbs and I checked my app this morning, there are no Bird scooters anywhere close to me, but I did have an experience and I got to go on a roughly 10 mile trip on a Bird scooter overall, a positive experience.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah. Really this business model became super popular, really burst onto the scene a couple of years ago. Bird is one of the companies that's really synonymous with the scooter rental market. Just for a little background for folks who maybe aren't as familiar with this business known primarily for these, these scooters that you'll see in these major metropolitan areas that came public via a SPAC earlier this month at roughly a two-billion-dollar valuation. Brian, currently in over 350 cities and boast over a 100 million rides to date, those are staggering numbers for a company that's only been around for a couple of years.

Brian Feroldi: They really are and it's company with equally as impressive is that the rate that this company has grown, even today there are dominant in North America, that's their initial market, but they are also available in Western Europe and Australia and they are expanding quickly.

Dylan Lewis: If you're not like Brian, you haven't had the chance to actually hop on a Bird and you're not one of those 350 cities that they are currently in. The business model is pretty simple. They have these electric scooters. They basically have them available in certain parts of cities and then you can rent them. There's a set fee, I think it's a dollar to secure the rental and then you pay per minute for all the time that you're driving. It's a mix of a reservation model, and user model.

Brian Feroldi: You literally download the app as a consumer to sign up the same way you would do for an Uber and then you walk up to a scooter. The scooter has a QR code on that you scan with the app. Once the signal is sense to the scooter, it unlocks then you can use it as much as you want. They bill on a per minute basis. It's one dollar to unlock it and then 39 cents per minute. These things are just everywhere in major metropolitan cities that they blanket. It really is a convenience decision that you decide, "Hey I'm going to be traveling," and if you see one of these on the way, you might decide to pick it up and take.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah. The major tailwinds here are pretty straightforward. You have a very effective last mile transportation system. What I think these scooters are really excellent for is connecting the dots, particularly within cities that have their own public infrastructure. Depending on the way that that may be set up, the metro lines are underground, they're expensive, they take a long time to build. Sometimes city development outpaces the development of bus lines or off underground metro lines. This is a great way to stitch together. Getting from a stop to maybe a restaurant that's a mile away from a stop. They do have multi mile battery lengths and they are something that's super popular. At Brian, I think a lot of people may be familiar with this space because there have been no shortage of articles about the space. Particularly because if you live in one of the cities where these scooters are available, some people feel like they're a little bit of a nuisance. They've been littered all over the sidewalk subsidies. We've seen increasing regulation in the space. I've seen it here locally in Washington DC. A little bit more restrictive in where these are used, but this feels like a very effective way for people to get around. It also ties into the eMobility movement, which we know is absolutely huge right now.

Brian Feroldi: Yeah. Before I gave the scooter a chance firsthand, I was under the impression that these things have a shelf life of a month or two. If you look in the first generation, that a Bird was using, that was pretty close to reality. The average Bird bike at the time and they bought off the shelf. They lasted about three months. But we've seen from this company has continued innovation and every time they've rolled out an updated version of the Birds that aren't as the battery gets faster and the distance seat longer. The shelf life of these things has increased to the point where they average scooter now can last for 18 or even 24 months. The dynamics there have changed completely.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah, that was one of the major criticisms of this market in general. Early on, I think I remember saying, if you rent a scooter for four dollars or whatever it might be, you're going to ride it like you've rented it for four dollars [laughs] and if you have these basically fresh off the shelves, Xiaomi M365 scooters, that's when they launched with. They weren't necessarily built with ride-sharing in mind and the gig economy in mind, where you have a bunch of different people using it over the course of the day, there's a lot of wear and tear that winds up working its way onto that that vehicle. They are now designing their own. They seem much more rugged. They have much more efficient batteries and also better safety features, some anti-theft firmware as well. That has moved along and I think we've been able to see the light a little bit more of profitability, because of that it's a little bit less turnover within the fleet. We've also seen some evolution in the company's business model even in just a couple of years it's been operating Brian.

Brian Feroldi: When this company first launched, its business model was to essentially do everything itself. Buy the scooters, it would spread them around the city and it would take on the responsibility for maintaining them, for moving them, charging them, etc. It was basically doing everything itself in-house. That's a capital-intensive process and very costly front, especially since they're getting such a little money per ride. What we've seen in the last couple of years, is they've been shifting toward a fleet model where they essentially outsourced all of the in-person maintenance of these things, the charging of these things, the storage of the scooters to fleet. If you and I were interested, we can actually go to Bird and become a fleet manager ourselves. We could take ownership of 25,50, even 100 of these scooters and then we would take on of all the maintenance responsibility. That decision by the company has changed the company's business model for the better.

Dylan Lewis: We'll talk about that when we get to the financials. It is a dramatically different looking business now than a couple of years ago. It's much more favorable for them. I think one interesting side effect of that is that it also makes growth within the geographic footprint a lot easier for them. Because they can work with people who have local knowledge and our physically already on the ground in these places, they want to expand to. I imagine that it was probably pretty helpful for them in joining more metropolitan areas and just expanding the footprint of Bird scooters?

Brian Feroldi: Imagine how much lower Uber would have to go if it bought the cars itself, if it maintained the cars itself, if at hire the drivers itself, versus basically outsourcing all of that to local. That decision to outsource it to the sleep managers have allowed the company to grow much faster.

Dylan Lewis: You just mentioned Uber Brian, I think there are a couple of easy ways to think about some of the market dynamics here with these businesses. One of them is, it looks an awful lot like Uber. In fact, Uber plays in the space. There are parts of this market that also remind me a little bit of meal delivery Brian, in that there are multiple providers and a lot of the big markets, the major metro areas, there's not a lot of mutual exclusivity to them. The difference is they have their own branded fleets here, but there's nothing to keep one customer necessarily from using Lyft, Uber, and Bird for local mobility.

Brian Feroldi: I think that's a key point because as you read through the company's presentation. The materials that are available to you, they really try and push that they have a strong competitive advantage. If you were to just think about it, you can see that they do have some. They say that they are first mover in this space. They believe that there are a local network effects at play. If you are going to be choosing one of the scooter companies to go with you want the one that has the most availability in your area and conversely, if you're going to become a fleet manager, you want to be on the platform that has the most demand. Once you get this app installed on your phone and start to using it, there are some switching costs and even at the company level, there are permits that have to be obtained. There are local government regulations that have to be complied with. There's also just the data effect of where do you actually placed these things and to make them more useful when you combine all those things together, I think it's easy to walk yourself into saying, "Yes this company does have a very strong competitive advantage." But like you said, perhaps I have some mental scars from my experience with Grubhub when many of these dynamics are in play, and I thought the company's boat was unassailable and oops turned out to be not the case.

Dylan Lewis: Yes, I think it's one of the hard parts about some of these very fast-growing, newer markets. There are parts of it that looked like meal delivery, but then they are not using the same vehicles the way an Uber or Lyft are. I mean, one of the interesting things with Uber and Lyft is by going into a market and creating a workforce of these contractors who are willing to do ride sharing. One of those companies creates a workforce for the other one because there's no mutual exclusivity between driving between them, at least in the case of the East scooter market. You're only riding that one piece of hardware. You can't use that same scooter to hop on a Lyft ride or an Uber ride, you have to use it for Bird ride.

Brian Feroldi: For sure. Right now there's a lot of competition and you're going to list off those competitors later. I do wonder what this market looks like long-term, it wouldn't surprise me if we see something similar in this market better than we've seen in New York delivery, where eventually leads to consolidation because how many of these companies do you really need in any given market? I would say one, maybe two at most.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah and actually, the spectrum of consolidation has been there for a while. There were rumors that Bird is actually going to be acquired by one of the larger ride-hailing businesses. We'll get into that in a little bit but it has fit into the roadmap for these businesses because that core,. They're really more mobility businesses than just just ride-hailing businesses. One thing that I do want to highlight is this is a founder-led business and one that has the pedigree of the people that have worked in this industry for a while. Travis VanderZanden is the founder and CEO. He is the former CEO at Uber and the VP of International growth at Uber. I think safety say he knows what he's doing in this market. and the company's CFO, Yibo Ling, is also a former Uber employee, led corporate development strategy M&A and expansion in China. Just in terms of looking at the checklist here Brian, I think this is probably a leadership team that is very qualified to be in the space.

Brian Feroldi: I love to see that. If you could pick any company to have on the leaderships resume, it would have to be Uber given the market dynamics that you're going out there. If you'd like to invest in founder-led businesses, as you should this company certainly checks that box.

Dylan Lewis: You mentioned the Torrid growth in this space before Brian. There was a little bit of wonkiness with the year-over-year numbers because this was an industry that was hit particularly hard by the pandemic. We're going up against some interesting comps when it comes to revenue. But in the recent quarter, revenue was 65 million, up 63 percent year-over-year. I think one of the most interesting things for me in watching this business is we talked about the fleet management practices before. We are seeing that benefit the company in its gross margin. Gross margin was 21 percent in the most recent quarter. The company has achieved positive gross margin for the past four quarters. If you look back, 2018 in particular, they were posting negative 300 percent ride profit margins after factoring in vehicle depreciation. That right there says how important that switch was in their business model.

Brian Feroldi: It really is and that is something that you're going to have to take in mind when you're looking at this company's financials because the company reports gross transaction value, and that figure in the most recent quarter was actually $80 million up 60 percent, but they only recorded revenue of $65 million. There is a difference between those two depending on how much money they are actually sharing with those ride partners and to your point, the gross margin here has improved dramatically because of their decision to go with fleet managers. Now, one thing I will point out about this company is they really try and highlight gross margin before depreciation and say, look how wonderful this number is. To me, I call [inaudible 02:44:08] on that. This is a company you absolutely have to factor in depreciation given the shelf life of these products. Don't look at adjusted gross margin and be wowed here. Focus on the actual gross margin that accounts for depreciation because that is a major expense for this business.

Dylan Lewis: That's a great point, Brian. I will say, I have a lot of experience firsthand seeing scooters out in the wild in Washington DC, and there are a lot of people who are good stewards of their electric scooters. They put them where they're supposed to be, but there are a lot of times where I see them ditched on the side of the road, thrown into a bush or left in a pile rocks or whatever it might be. People are not necessarily taking care of these the way they would their own property and that means that the fleet management is huge and it also means that until we see that stabilize, we've seen that the life of these vehicles has improved over time as they've been more involved in design process. It just a necessary part of looking at this business. To ignore it would be silly.

Brian Feroldi: I think this number can continue to improve over time as new versions of this come out and perhaps if they discover that at some riders have a history of trashing their devices, maybe they would lock them out and just get them out from being a customer altogether. I think there is room for this number to improve, but the key point is you have to factor in depreciation when you are looking at this company income statement.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah, it's a huge part of the equation. I think one of the other opportunities for upside with them with that margin number is the utilization of the scooters that are out there. To some extent, that gross margins can be kept a little bit because they are electric and because they need to be charged in order to work. But there is upside and we saw just what they did in activity due to COVID that they are able to work back to a number now that resembles where they were pre COVID, I think there's probably still some upside for them as well. Rides hit 15 million for the quarter, which was up 100 percent year-over-year, which like I said, we're lapping COVID numbers, so it's impressive growth, but I think the key to normalize those a little bit is to look at the average rides per day, 2.1 for this most recent quarter versus 1.6 a year ago. So 31 percent year-over-year growth. If you look back pre-pandemic, they were getting just under three rides per day. So there's clearly room for them to grow there. Then if you look at some of the other measures and then the way that they can grow that top line, the deployed vehicles number is going to pay attention to that hit 78 million in this recent quarter up 50 percent. Brian, if you take the average rides and you take the average deployed vehicles, those two more or less round to the increase in overall rides for the company.

Brian Feroldi: Those two numbers are solid and it definitely paints a very bullish picture for the companies to say we think we can get that 2.1 rides per day backup to pre-pandemic levels of three times per day. Offsetting that, of course, is the fact that competition now is much higher than it was previously and what's more, I don't think these scooters are going to have the same utilization in all cities that they are deployed. You could very much see these being extremely popular in walkable cities like say in New York City, Miami for example, but there's only so many of those cities where these scooters makes sense, so it's hard to suss out where that number normalizes in the long term.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah, it would be interesting to see what that looks like broken out by geography or by local market and just see where are the high utilization cities, where the low utilization cities because I think you're right. I think they're going to be cities that are just generally a little bit more lucrative for them to be in. Not to say that they shouldn't be in as many markets as they feel like they can make money, but I think, yeah. I think if it's more walkable and if the local infrastructure, whether it be sidewalks, bike paths, all that things lend themselves more to this form of mobility, especially for people who are a little bit less comfortable on them. It's going to have an impact on what that number looks like long term. If you're looking at the books and you're trying to figure out where there's companies going over the course of the full-year, they just increased their guidance. We're looking at somewhere around 200 million for the full-year and they also adjusted down their EBITDA losses in this most recent quarter they reported. Brian, 200 million for the full-year revenue. The business is currently worth about two billion dollars. Some simple math there, that's about a 10 times multiple on sales.

Brian Feroldi: It doesn't seem too bad, does it? When you're comparing that to some of the SaaS companies that we're likely to look at. However, this is why it's helpful to go one step below the top line and look at that gross profit because not all high-growth companies are created equally. Gross margin really, really matters here. Just as an example, if you look at this company's trailing 12 months gross profit, so after factoring that gross margin, that number goes from say, 200 million down to 29 million. While they're already trading at 10 times sales, they're trading at closer to 68, 69 times gross profit. That shows you how important gross margins can be. I don't think this is a business that will ever garner a 15 or 20x sales multiple just because of the gross margin dynamic.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah, I think that's 100 percent. I think there's upside from where they are now, but let's be real, this is a capital-intensive business, and even when they're able to do things like fleet management and move some of those costs off to the side, you're constrained by battery life. There are just physical constraints to this business that don't necessarily exist for software businesses, and that is both a pro and a con because in some ways, it's a barrier for competition along with the government permitting and those types of things, but it is something that is going to restrict the financials a little bit. I think if you're looking at this business and trying to figure out, what is anything look like outside of this e-scooter market? We talked about Uber and Lyft are really mobility focused. They've talked a little bit about expanding their footprint, being in more cities, but they've also looked at e-bikes, launching bike shares, it's similar to what we see with city bikes and Capital Bikeshare is here in Washington DC, and they're also eyeing retail opportunities in the e-bike market. This is in a lot of ways, Brian, an electric mobility play in addition to just being a city mobility and e-scooter play.

Brian Feroldi: I like that. Their move into bike sharing clearly makes sense. They already have a marketplace of consumers that are using this and there are some trips that you want to take locally that an electric bike is more suited for, especially if you want to go somewhere and pick up packages or make delivery. In addition to that, they are planning on taking their e-bike and not only making it ride shareable, but they're also going to go into straight e-bike sales, and that is a market that is growing rapidly and expected to continue growing for a long period of time. If you look at any of the company's forecast for how big the total addressable market opportunity is, they're just doing some quick math thing. Blank people times blank rides per day equals all the money on the face of the Earth, but the point is that our company, there's no shortage of growth opportunities for this business. It just boils down to execution.

Dylan Lewis: Yeah. I've been pleasantly surprised so far with this company. I had some serious unit economic questions when I started seeing all of these e-scooter companies really gaining traction over the last couple of years. Looking at the books now, seeing the pivots that they've made, I think they've built a much more sustainable business. I think the big question for this company is going to be, can they exist in carve out a meaningful part of that market being a smaller player where there are the Ubers and the Lyfts of the world who have these types of options available in their apps, but then they also have ride-hailing. They also have food delivery and Uber says you can rent a car from the app. They have a much broader scope. Our people are going to be willing to download the bird app.

Brian Feroldi: That was the choice that I made because I was with a group friends that were all taking Birds. That's why I gave Bird to try. I will be honest if I had the choice to go with a different company and just use the Uber app that already existed, that's what I would have done because of the convenience of keeping everything in one. I'm also not a power user. The absolute cost between the two wasn't a big factor in my decision. It was more of what is here right now and what are other people doing. But I would like this company much more if it had a direct tie into Uber or Lyft, one of its competitors aligned us.

Dylan Lewis: Yes. Uber has a minority stake in line, the E-scooter company and Uber users can book Lime Scooters via the Uber App. Lyft has good operations in some of the biggest US cities as well. I think if I had to guess, Bird has the lead in E-scooter, specifically, Uber and Lyft have the lead in mobility. It's just a matter of where you see the future going. There is for this market, I think, something that can be underappreciated with the local permitting and relationships with local governments. Because [laughs] the Scooters can be such a nuisance to people who don't want to use them, especially if they are littered all over the place. Having good government relations is key. That can prove to be something that makes them the exclusive provider in some markets, which would certainly be beneficial. We have to see how the market shakes out a little bit first of.

Brian Feroldi: But that would be huge. Even when you're actually on the scooter, I was impressed with how hyper-local the GPS is. For example, there are some spots that they don't want you using the scooters, for example, on dirt trails or just certain geofence parts to the cities. I can tell you that when you are on a Scooter, the scooter literally turns off if you go to a location that you don't want to be. That hyper-localization of these devices, I think, should appeal to certain government officials and government regulations so that in itself could be a moat long term.

Dylan Lewis: Brian, putting it all together, I think there's some elements here of businesses that we really like. There's some solid optionality with bikes and as a founder led business. I think I've been most impressed with just how they've been able to navigate over the last couple of years and create a more financially viable and sustainable business by adjusting the business model.

Brian Feroldi: To your point, it's a founder-led company. I've used the product and I can attest to it that it does have some merits. I like their move into fleet management with offloads some of the maintenance costs and allows them to grow faster. The term here is obviously huge. Revenue is recurring and perhaps most importantly you-all this is a two-billion-dollar company. If this company is successfully executes against its opportunity, could I see it being a $10 or $20 billion company one day? Sure, that could be in the realm of possibility. The upside is definitely there. On the flip side, the competition is really something to keep an eye on. I don't have a strong feeling for how large the competitive advantages actually are. It's also hard to say how price-sensitive customers will be if there gets into a pricing war for one of these companies to grab a market share. Does the company have the deep pockets to compete against Uber and Lyft? No, the gross margin here is also pretty low. There is also seasonality elements of this business. You're obviously not going to be want to using these scooters in the winter, especially if there's snow and stuff on the road. Factoring all that in together, this would be more of a interesting watchlist idea, but perhaps that's because I still have those metals scars from Grubhub.

Dylan Lewis: [laughs] That makes sense. I think for me I had enough hurdles being interested in Uber as an investment. I think this is a more pure-play version of that I will say it's a business I'm rooting for. I think the last mile element of things, the electric future element of things. Those are all things I'm excited about, especially in the city dweller. It just really comes down to, can they carve out their own space in this market and continue to meaningfully grow, create margin growth opportunities as well, maybe expand to some other markets? I think a lot to like here. One of the fun things Brian is, regardless of whether or not you buy the stock, they are really fun to ride, the scooters. [laughs]

Brian Feroldi: For sure. I'm happy that these things exists because they do offer a utility out there. But to me, this is just one example of a company that's, it sounds good on paper, but I would prefer to watch the company executed and pay a higher multiple down the road. I will be happy to give upside potential for more clarity of the situation.

Dylan Lewis: Trade upside for certainty. Right Brian?

Brian Feroldi: That's right. Makes complete sense in some cases.

Dylan Lewis: Brian, you always make sense. Thank you so much for joining me on today's show. [laughs].

Brian Feroldi: I don't know about that, but sure I will take the compliment, Dylan. [laughs]

Dylan Lewis: They're going to do it for this episode of Industry Focus. If you have you any questions you want to reach out and say, hey, just email at industryfocus@fool.com. Or you can tweet us @IndustryFocus. Looking for more of our stuff, subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. As always been in the program, may own companies discussed on the show and the Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against stocks mentioned. Don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hear. Thanks Tim Sparks, for all his work behind the glass today and thank you for listening. Until next time. Fool on.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.