Students race every which way across the USC campus between classes. With 10 minutes to get from one to the next, every minute counts. New white and orange bicycles sail by beach cruisers, skateboards, scooters and pedestrians.
The bicycles are the brainchild of Kim Sanderhoff and Johan Bender, former students from Denmark who came up with the idea for their startup, the FreeBike Project, when they were studying at USC in 2011.
The bikes are free to students on 23 campuses, including USC, UCLA, the University of Arizona, Stanford and MIT. By the end of the fall semester, about 800 bikes will be part of the nationwide fleet.
“It’s just a fun way to get from A to B and not feel isolated the way you would in a car,” Sanderhoff said.
It also turned out to be a good idea for a business. Sanderhoff and Bender saw an opportunity to partner with advertisers and use their bicycles as miniature, mobile billboards by attaching advertisement posters to the frames.
Since ads expand their reach over social media, students riding the bicycles serve as marketers by using the #freebikeproject hashtag on photos of themselves with their bikes.
The company is backed by investor Tim Draper, a founding partner of venture capital firm DFJ, which also invested in Skype, Hotmail and Baidu.
“There was a clear painpoint on the student side, as well as a compelling value on the advertisers’ side. It seemed like a high-value proposition from the beginning,” said Helena Yli-Renko, director of the entrepreneurial studies center at USC’s Marshall School of Business.
It was in her introductory entrepreneurship class that the co-founders met. Bender and Sanderhoff were students at the Copenhagen School of Business in their native Denmark, but didn’t know each other at the time.
Both had a bit of culture shock when they first arrived at USC.
Sanderhoff, 35, thought he was going to spend his study abroad experience partying. Bender, 24, was under the impression the U.S. wouldn’t have a biking culture as Denmark did.
How wrong they were. A semester abroad turned into a full academic year as they tested whether their bicycle business would fly in an independent study advised by Rex Kovacevich, a professor and industry expert in marketing.
“They’re a couple of characters in the best way possible. The glass is half full, and they’re very positive, diligent, flexible,” Kovacevich said. “They’re young guys, but they naturally have the DNA to be good entrepreneurs.”
Part of that is being able to bounce back from setbacks. Kovacevich recalls that the duo initially ran into trouble trying to get major national advertisers on board. When that failed, they went back to the drawing board and approached smaller businesses, which got the project off the ground.
“I just remember them as these really entrepreneurial go-getters,” Yli-Renko said. “They really bootstrapped it from their resources and connections.”
At any given time, FreeBike Project has a dozen active advertising campaigns. Clients include the American Heart Assn., rideshare service Lyft and music events specialist AEG Live.
Students pay a deposit of $149, which they get back when they return their bikes at the end of the academic year. A lock and maintenance come free, the latter provided by campus “ambassadors” that the company hires, such as Eamon Barkhordarian at USC. He tightens frames and ensures tires are good to go for about 50 students.
Before he became a representative for the group, Barkhordarian used the service when he was fed up with riding his longboard because “every crack on the street, you have a chance to make a fool of yourself.”
“This seemed like an easy way to get a free bike,” he said.
Sanderhoff and Bender, who strongly identify as USC Trojans, were thrilled to offer the bikes to their classmates where the project was born, but wanted to make the program global.
“It stems from a greater sense of social entrepreneurship where we recognize that there are opportunities to do good in the world,” said FreeBike Project Chief Executive Scott Ferreira in a phone interview from Phoenix, where the company’s headquarters relocated in December.
The company formed a partnership with Bikes for the World, a nonprofit that supplies bikes to locations in Africa, the Americas and Asia where transportation isn’t easily accessible. Together, they gave 100 free bicycles to people in the Philippines last year.
Their latest campaign involves donating enough money to send one bike overseas each week in the name of a person with the best FreeBike photo on Instagram using the #bikesfortheworld hashtag.
“We wanted to connect with people in the U.S. Obviously they have a need for it, but in other places that need is even greater,” Bender said.
Their goal is to keep up with demand and keep the love of cycling rolling.
“It truly makes me happy whenever I hand out a bike to someone who has been wanting one for a long time and can’t wait to ride it,” Sanderhoff said.