Maria De La Croix didn’t get the barista job at Starbucks. “According to its dress-code policy at the time,” she says, “my hair colour wasn’t acceptable.” So, instead, she set up a competitor. Three years later, her solar-powered Wheelys bicycle cafés serve coffee in 900 locations across 73 countries – and Stockholm-based De La Croix, 28, is already eyeing the next target.
She’s just launched Wheelys 247, a “staffless store,” in Shanghai, where shoppers walk in, pick their items and pay without assistance. A rival to Amazon Go? “Our ambition is to be bigger than Starbucks and Amazon,” she says. The “About” section of the Wheelys website puts it more succinctly. There, it just reads: “Fuck brands.”
Wheelys began rolling in 2014, when De La Croix built her first café cart out of a bicycle and a box. “It was basic,” she recalls. Even so, coffee drinkers liked it and the low running costs made the business profitable. So, along with her co-founders and fellow art-school graduates Per Cromwell and Tomas Mazetti, who she first met through a feminist protest movement, De La Croix launched a spruced-up red-and-white version on crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
Sixteen would-be café owners bought carts for a total of £46,429, which left the trio pleased, but facing a problem: now they had to build them, by hand, in De La Croix’s Malmö basement. “It turned out to be quite expensive and logistically a mess,” she says, “but after shipping these bikes a bit later than planned, we got really good feedback.” Boosted, De La Croix starting to think about making Wheelys a full time thing. A friend told her about an incubator called Y Combinator, which supported companies through their early growing pains. She’d never heard of it, but it sounded good, so the next year she put in an application, and was accepted to the programme.
Y Combinator introduced De La Croix to the world of Silicon Valley startups. “It was very inspiring,” she says. “These other people thought we would become bigger than Starbucks as well.” A more concrete help was the connection to funders: after graduating in August 2015, Wheelys raised a $2.5 million seed round from angel investors including Gmail creator Paul Buchheit and Justin Waldron, co-founder of Zynga (money supplemented by regular crowfunding campaigns).
The café cart also got the Y Combinator makeover treatment. Today, the basic boxes of the early days are long gone; now, each one comes with an app and a smorgasbord of add-ons, including a crêperie and an ice-cream bar. To get one, buyers go through a short interview – “we check if you’re ready to do this, if you’re ready to work hard,” De La Croix explains – then pay between $7,000 and $9,000 depending on what they opt for (the wholesale cost is around $3,000).
But although the kit’s important, what really matters on the street is the distinctive Wheelys look and logo: in other words, the brand. As De La Croix puts it: “It works much better to have a brand behind you, to have proper branding.” Isn’t that a bit contradictory, given her “Fuck brands” message? It turns out that slogan only applies to big brands such as Starbucks and Amazon. Y Combinator taught De La Croix the art of talking up her startup’s “disruptive” capabilities.
Now the Wheelys brand is undergoing an expansion, which may actually give its bold talk some genuine backing. Inside Wheelys 247, a store that launched in May in Shanghai, there are no staff – instead, shoppers download an app, which they use to scan goods and pay by credit card. (Cameras check people aren’t stealing.) The team have been practicing for a year with a store in the small Swedish town of Viken, and De La Croix says she’ll be opening applications for storeholders “within a few months.”
“We want to make it super easy to start your own café and that’s our wish for the shop as well,” she says. “The Amazon shops are run by Amazon, our shops are run by entrepreneurs.” With whatever hair colour they want.
Wheelys will be amongst the companies attending WIRED Retail in London on October 11. The one-day conference brings brand, payments, supply chain and logistics executives together to discuss the innovations and trends impacting virtual – and bricks and mortar – commerce. Click here to find out more and to book your ticket.