June 27, 2018

#24 - Last mile transportation with Boosted CEO Jeff Russakow

CEO of Boosted, Jeff Russakow, shares his vision for Boosted and how the company fits into the future of transportation.

#24 - Last mile transportation with Boosted CEO Jeff Russakow

As cities expand and more people are encouraged to use public transport, there's an increasing need for technology that can help people travel the 'last mile' to their destination. One of the companies that is really defining this category is Boosted - known for their electric skateboards. In this episode, CEO of Boosted, Jeff Russakow, shares his vision for Boosted and how the company fits into the future of transportation.


This episode of Moonshot was hosted and edited by Kristofor Lawson (@kristoforlawson).

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.


KRIS: Welcome to Moonshot, I’m Kristofor Lawson… and If you live in a big metropolitan city… chances are you are probably trying to find the quickest way to get around…. And as cities increase in size and become busier, we’ve traditionally been pushed to ditch our cars and switch to the train… tram… or even a bus. But those options follow set routes, and once you get to your stop you probably have a remaining distance that you still need to travel.

KRIS: Now in recent years there’s been an explosion of companies providing options for people trying to travel that last-mile to their destination… there are bike share schemes, electric scooters, and also skateboards. And one of the most well-known of these last mile transport companies is Boosted.

[Video] “The maiden voyage of the Boosted mini…. wooh… feels zippy!”

KRIS: Ever since it launched on Kickstarter in 2012 - Boosted has been building a reputation as the go-to company in electric skateboards.

[Video] “So I’ve often thought of Boosted as the Tesla of electric skateboards”

KRIS: The company is known for its sleek designs… fast speeds… and often expensive price tag….and they’ve become a popular transportation option amongst youtube creators….

[Video] “After living in New York City for 17 years now, nothing has changed the way that I interact with this city more than getting a Boosted Board”

KRIS: But Boosted don’t want to be known as just a skateboard company… they see themselves as sitting in the light electric vehicle market.

KRIS: So today on Moonshot we’re talking with Jeff Russakow the CEO of Boosted, to find out what the company is doing to improve last-mile transportation.

[Music Starts]

Jeff Russakow: Today's commuter is still trying to find a last mile solution that works. And so if I kind of look a little bit at the challenge, more than half the human race lives in urban environments and after decades of going down, it's going up fast. And per capita income is going up fast even more quickly and so people are buying actually ever larger vehicles and the streets are just not working anymore.

Jeff Russakow: We've reached a nadir or a point where I think most people are coming to a conclusion that cars just don't work in most environments the way they used to. Half of all car trips are less than three miles and so the thought of a person in a 3500 pound vehicle that's 15 feet long for short trips, it’s just, it's a drudgery. You're spending all this time getting the vehicle, being stuck in traffic and then having to park the vehicle and it's not worth it. And then as we look to electric vehicles, all we're really doing is making the traffic jam cleaner but so long as you're still in a 15 foot long, 3500 pound, maybe 5500 pound with the batteries vehicle, it hasn't really changed.

Jeff Russakow: I'm Jeff Russakow and I'm the CEO of Boosted.

Jeff Russakow: Boosted is a premier provider of high performance light electric vehicles and we are most known for our first big commercial product, the Boosted board which is an electric skateboard that does about 24 miles an hour and will take a 250 pound person up a 25% grade hill and stop on a dime coming down the other side.

KRIS: Now the original Boosted board was a longboard that could travel at up to 20 miles per hour and around 6 miles on a single charge. Boosted focused their manufacturing on producing the drivetrain and making sure that the electrical components worked well - and then sat the assembly on some traditional skateboard components.

KRIS: However Boosted has just released their third generation of boards which are now designed and built entirely in house. This move to internal production has allowed the company to increase the durability of the boards, whilst also improving the range. Their premium version, called the stealth, can travel at up to 24 miles per hour with a range of 14 miles, or around 22km, and it costs around $1600 US dollars.

KRIS: They have also released a version that is more like a traditional skateboard - it’s called the Boosted Mini - it’s shorter and most importantly it’s cheaper with a price point of $749 US dollars.

Jeff Russakow: And the rationale for the short boards were for people particularly in urban or campus environments where they want additional agility, having that short type of board was really more of their preference. Whereas the long boards tend to be more for longer distances and higher speed carving.

KRIS: What are the sorts of people that are buying boosted boards? Is it your traditional skateboarder, or are you targeting more the commuter…. Who is buying these boards?

Jeff Russakow: You know it's actually been incredibly broad. It is almost everyone. So when we look at the folks who buy a Boosted board, they divide up pretty evenly into four quarters. One quarter have never been on a board in their life, one quarter tried it as a kid once or twice and didn't love it which might have included me.

Jeff Russakow: One quarter skated a bit years ago but not since, and then maybe one quarter say they self identify as a skater. So they're definitely a very fun product but the primary use case is commute followed by running routine errands. So 82% of Boosted board owners indicate that they use their Boosted board as part of their commute and the vast majority of them say they use it as part of their commute daily. So they really are using it as a last mile vehicle, having fun while they do it, but it's primarily commute followed by errands followed by pure fun.

Jeff Russakow: And then in terms of the demographic, it's ages 18 to 50, it's actually quite broad. Another question people ask is, "Well is it all urban? Is it just a bunch of people in Brooklyn and San Francisco?" And actually what we found is it's incredibly broad. I did a sample of 10,000 boards just for fun and I found there was 3800 different cities and towns and about 40% did over index a bit on, you know, greater metropolitan areas, but the other 60% were just about anywhere. And what we basically realised from that, I did certainly, is that everyone takes short trips. And so it's been incredibly broad across urban, suburban and campus and across ages and demographics.

KRIS: How important is design, do you think to the success of Boosted? Because when you look at Boosted boards compared to some of the other electric skateboards in the space, you seem to have much more of a focus on the design profile than many of the others in the market.

Jeff Russakow: Yeah, I believe it's very important and I'm going to interpret your question on design in a couple different flavours of design. One flavour is you know the style or the attractiveness, and then I'm gonna take the broader meaning which is the reliability and the performance of the vehicle as well. So against the first one I think most people naturally understand the excitement of a Tesla or an Apple compared to other products in their category. And so without question people really do like to have a great product with great styling and great visual appeal cause commuting or transporting is one of the things you do most in your life. So it's quite a big deal.

Jeff Russakow: But as I think you may have meant also from the broader question, we take an incredible pride in being a light electric vehicle company as opposed to a company that's attaching batteries or motors to a leisure or toy grade product. And so this is a product that you can slam 10,000 times at 200 G's worth of force, and it's built to go thousands of miles a year with very very little trouble or maintenance. So we really are building something at that level and so mechanical design, electrical design, firmware and software design, all of these elements as people who have ever even seen or touched a Boosted board know, the build quality through and through, they know they're touching a vehicle that's built to perform and last.

Jeff Russakow: But yes, we definitely believe in speaking softly and having a very good industrial design department because there's an emotional connection people have to these products that really industrial design helps to translate through.

KRIS: How far ahead are you planning designs?

Jeff Russakow: We definitely have a three or four year kind of road map in mind in terms of the things that we're excited to be working on. From the time something goes from a concept to something which is rolling off thousands a week is probably about 18 months. And once again, in a hardware world, if you're building something that's that robust and reliable in volume, you know, the last six months are just entirely dedicated to scaling production and testing and certification to be able to ship and be safe all around the world and meet many different standards of hardware, electrical, mechanical, shipping. So we're starting to understand a lot of the things that an Apple goes through.

KRIS: You've mentioned that you're a light electric vehicle company. Are you the Tesla of skateboards?

Jeff Russakow: Yes, I mean we are often referred to as baby Tesla and I think people are referring to that broader than just skateboards but our first initial wave of exceptional technology really is around light electric drive trains that are high performance and high robustness and as we are starting to grow as a company and apply that to many other form factors in development, I think people really see us as a baby Tesla or Tesla of light electric vehicles. We're similar in that way.

KRIS: Boosted currently makes skateboards, but do you see Boosted ever moving beyond skateboards?

Jeff Russakow: Yes, I mean we're not at liberty to share specific form factors or dates but we've definitely been public that our mission is fun, fast, simple transportation for everyone and there's a variety of different form factors ranging from the ones people would expect to things that may be kinda oddly unique that we have in store coming up for 2019 and beyond.

KRIS: One of our listeners asked us whether you had ever considered making an all terrain model of your skateboards.

Jeff Russakow: Yes, either an all terrain version or I think a lot of people would like to actually just see some kind of an all terrain wheel kit to be able to retro fit onto the board they already have. And that's for folks that are really thinking all terrain and in some cases people thinking about cities that have really really nasty streets. And so the answer is yes, we have something in the works. I'm not at liberty to share time frame, but it's definitely something that we're working on for sure.

KRIS: And we’ll have more of our interview with Boosted CEO Jeff Russakow right after this break.

[Ad Break]

KRIS: Welcome back to Moonshot - I’m Kristofor Lawson, and before the break we were speaking with the CEO of Boosted Jeff Russakow about the future of last-mile transportation.

KRIS: Now Jeff isn’t actually a founder of Boosted… in fact he joined the company around a year ago - but he is someone with a lot of experience as an executive and CEO. Now this idea of bringing in an experienced executive is actually pretty common amongst companies that are looking to grow. So I wanted to know what actually inspired Jeff to join the company.

Jeff Russakow: Several things, first, my kids. My kids were actually fanatical about Boosted and said "Dad, you have to join this company." And I said, "I'm interested but I could just buy you guys Boosted boards." And they're like, "No Dad, you have to join that company." But in addition to that, to be honest with you it was love at first sight. I finished a PhD in this field about 23 years ago and the founders of the company John and Sanjay and Matt left the same programme at Stanford that I finished back then. Same classes, and to this day many of the same professors. So when we met it was kind of like meeting long lost brothers and it was just kinda true love coming back to my original passion. So there was quite a pull once I met the team at Boosted.

KRIS: How big is Boosted now? How many people do you have working there?

Jeff Russakow: We don't usually share our high count size, so what I'll simply share at this point is we're a global company shipping in 34 countries around the world currently US, Canada, all of the EU and ANZ and looking forward to expanding to Asia and LatAm shortly.

KRIS: Now how are you approaching those international markets? We put a call out for some questions, one of our listeners asked about this because he was concerned about how warranty issues might be resolved in some of these other countries. Can you talk a little bit about how you're approaching these international markets?

Jeff Russakow: Absolutely and I'll answer that I guess last question first. Boosted has always been extremely service minded and has always been very good about trying to make sure that our riders keep riding wherever they are around the world and regardless of what type of issue they may on the rare occasion they do encounter with their board. As we've gone out to different geographies, the challenges that we've seen in terms of being able to be able to move these vehicles around the world is… each country or sovereignty may have different rules or understandings about what is this product? Is it a toy? Is it a vehicle? Is it a car, a motorcycle and needs VIN number?

Jeff Russakow: And so when we initially go into a new country there is sort of a sorting out process by which we need to get that all resolved and get, what's the recipe for getting into that country? But once we do that then you know I think what our customers have found is we tend to flow. Cause once you solve the recipe you've usually solved the recipe. There's been some learning curves in the past.

Jeff Russakow: The second thing is it has been and we've seen very important to have field service, which is part of your question, in geography. And so at this point we've opened up service centres including in Sydney, in Europe and we're looking to continue to expand. And the reason why that's a challenge is when we ship a product, particularly with a battery on the way out to the customer it's a brand new vehicle and the chain of custody of that battery is well understood, it's us and our manufacturer and it's licenced and it's brand spanking new. If somebody rides it for two years and you know have been bouncing off walls on it and then they say there's something wrong, sometimes it's harder to ship that thing back across the ocean. And also customers, they're dependent on the board, it's their commute vehicle, they want it back in a day like they would their car. So we've been very very focused in trying to open service partners in geography around the world both for the speed of being able to get product back to the customer repaired as well as the ease of shipping of things that have powerful batteries.

KRIS: Now there's a lot of discussion around the legalities of some of these last mile transport systems. There's a war on electric scooters in San Francisco at the moment. In Australia here there's a lot of grey areas in legislation that might lead like electric skateboards or even electric scooters to be classified as a motor vehicle, meaning they need to be registered displaying a number plate...  which doesn't really work with the ethos of why someone would own one of these devices. What's your opinion of the regulation of these devices and what is Boosted doing to help change the perception of these transport options?

Jeff Russakow: Yes, great questions all. So I guess the first one, our view is we're very much in favour of there being common sense legislation and rules of the road if you will, broadly. And so I'll explain you know what we mean by what's common sense regulation, but part of the biggest challenges for the vast majority of municipalities and countries around the world, there's very little regulation on the books one way or the other. And so it's more of a grey zone of what is illegal or what should be or what's not.

Jeff Russakow: And the reason why is because the rise of these type of light electric vehicles is so recent and so new it just hasn't been a high enough priority for most public officials to need to actually resolve it, which has been starting to get pressed more recently because of the proliferation of vehicles hitting the streets very, very quickly… We think there should be common sense regulations so that consumers know what they could and should buy and how to use them and for public officials to actually be able to indicate what they think's appropriate.

Jeff Russakow: Here in California we actually have state laws which we think actually make a lot of sense. At least for the skateboard, the rules are a speed limit of 20 miles an hour, you can be either in a bike lane or on a road where the posted speed limit is 35 miles an hour or less. You need to wear a helmet and need to be 16 years to ride or older and if those things are true you do not need a licence. In general I think that is a very reasonable set of rules. And so part of what we've been trying to say is we'd love to see, you know, authorities around the world adopting something like that.

Jeff Russakow: One of the other things that we've seen which has been problematic is a lot of authorities get very hung up on what is the nature of the vehicle? Is it gas powered, is it electric, is it pedal powered, is it motorised? We think it should just be made very simple. You have vehicles that go fast, medium and slow and you have street bicycle lane and sidewalk and then you need to consider youth or people who are young enough they may not have good judgement around traffic, and just solve for that. If you're doing 20 miles an hour even if you're Usain Bolt and you're just running, should you be on the sidewalk?

Jeff Russakow: In terms of what we're doing to try and get the word out, the challenge is how to educate an entire world and a lot of what we've been trying to do is focus on key cities and states and countries that seem to be ones that are tip of the spear for a lot of these kinds of dialogues and to try and work with those municipal and local officials on these sort of templates…There really is two different piles of regulations. So one is, what's the rules around the vehicle in motion? Speed limit, what road you can be on, things like that. And then there's another set of things that seem to come up about where can you park it, which is really more of an artefact of the share model. When people own the vehicle they just take it inside and throw it under their desk. So for vehicles that are owned or financed where it has an owner, it's pretty simple to just come up with the rules of the road. I think most of the things that you're seeing in a San Francisco that are much more controversial are associated with the share model and the challenge is in a share model because no rider owns the vehicle, it's left outside between rides and then you have the issue of where to park it, is it blocking roadways, is it in the way of other things?

Jeff Russakow: But also there's no owner to take it home and charge it at night, so who's accountable for the care of the vehicle, the charging and the safety of it? And so these additional challenges which seem to be driving most of the public policy headaches are actually really an artefact of just that share model which we have not seen as much in the direct consumer model.

KRIS: That share model has been an issue in Melbourne where we had oBikes here in Melbourne, and they were just thrown in the river, and thrown in trees, and all over the place.

Jeff Russakow: And we've all seen the pictures of mountains of dead bikes that you can see from space in China. At Boosted we're very much in favour of public officials actually being vigilant about trying to come up with good guidelines and to avoid that type of debacle… Share models work really well for ad hoc travel. If you try and put enough vehicles on the street to actually meet people's commute needs, you need to put a bazillion vehicles on the street. Which is what we saw happen in China, because if you start to put enough out there to meet commute demand, that's a lot of vehicles. And then that really starts to cause all kinds of downstream effects.

Jeff Russakow: And so that's one of the things that I know here as we're seeing things roll out, particularly in the US, we've seen the city officials try to get much more ahead of it. For example here in San Francisco they're only gonna permit five companies to operate shared vehicles and initially only gonna be 1,250 total scooters in the whole city. SO it's a city I know at least in the US that people are spending a lot of time looking to. And once again these are issues that are really more an artefact of the share model. Officials don't seem to have anywhere near the same concern when people buy these vehicles, because they just take them home and throw them behind the couch.

KRIS: When you're looking at some of the vehicles that have been in the market, your Segways, there were the so called hoverboards and then there was these issues around would these hoverboards explode from the batteries overheating? I feel like it's created an issue amongst policy makers where they don't really understand the technology. I know that Boosted ran into its own problem with some of the batteries. Is there a perception problem that needs to be changed?

Jeff Russakow: When we meet with public officials, they run the gamut from people who totally, totally get it and are well informed, to folks that are still looking to be informed. And in some cases there are some distortions of perception. The thing that public officials are trying to solve for which seems very reasonable to me are a few things. One is they really are looking for a way to have better transportation options to get more people out of cars and reduce congestion and make better use of public transportation.

Jeff Russakow: And so when that is their orientation, things like electric skateboards or scooters or light bikes are wonderful and they actually see it as a great opportunity to improve their city, have more people be able to work and get in and out of their city, and they're very, very supportive. I think at the same time though they need to balance that with public safety and the state of the city.

Jeff Russakow: And so two things that they're trying to balance that with is with the share model when a lot of vehicles are being left outside as an artefact of that model then it starts to get them into issues of public life and violation of right of way. And then the second thing with electric vehicles which is less of an issue than it used to be a few years ago but these vehicles need to be street worthy. So I think when I look at the hoverboard era, but even if I look at a lot of the scooters that are being introduced on the street today by a lot of these companies. With no disrespect intended at all to the engineers that made these scooters, they were intended to be a consumer leisure product. They're not meant to be a street vehicle. So other than passing some rules of safety, like you can now charge it without having an electrical fire, there's no standards about the vehicle part of the vehicle. Like if you take a rental car off a rental lot, there's laws about whether or not the breaks have a certain amount of stopping power and the engine and reliability. And so one of the things that's been interesting for us at Boosted is, as I mentioned, we make street worthy vehicles, high acceleration, tremendous confident breaking power, extreme durability and robustness.

Jeff Russakow: So for public officials in addition to trying to find ways to get increased access to cities by the benefit of these vehicles, they are trying to balance it with both the public right of way issues that may be introduced by vehicle share, but also think about just vehicle safety and are the vehicles bing put on the street really vehicles versus toys?

KRIS: What has Boosted done to deal with some of the potential issues around batteries overheating or exploding and dealing with those from a public safety perspective?

Jeff Russakow: So in our case, as you noted, we're very focused on a very safe product and despite a lot of work, we did have some issues in earlier years around batteries still having some quality issues around manufacture. Which ironically made us an extremely strong engineering organisation around these things today. So there's several things that we do. So first around battery safety, we've spent over 10 million dollars on our battery research and design for our latest generation battery. So it is extremely mechanically robust. It is extremely electrically robust.

Jeff Russakow: For example, we passed something called a nail propagation test, so our ability to make sure that if anything does happen to a battery pack, it will not have a runaway event. A hoverboard or a Samsung seven fire. We've gone to a great deal of lengths to make sure that these batteries are extremely safe in mechanical and electrical conditions. Every one of our battery cells is in it's own explosion retardant cylinder. If you looked at the inside of one of our batteries you can see it's quite an engineering marvel.

Jeff Russakow: In addition to that, another historical issue for electric vehicles is to make sure that the battery pack can't be overcharged. And so with our latest generation of products we left a tremendous amount of extra capacity into the battery to ensure that the vehicle is not likely to enter such a condition. And then we have ways to warn the rider and bring the vehicle to a stop in the extreme edge case.

Jeff Russakow: The other thing historically that people that make such vehicles have been challenged by is making sure that the connectivity between the remote of the vehicle and the vehicle cannot drop and as people have demonstrated online, there's about a 250 or 300 foot range before our hand controller is not in strong connection. SO even in the most crowded cities with the most crowded telecommunications environments we have an extremely robust ability to make sure the vehicle is always in connection with the control.

Jeff Russakow: Compared to five, six seven years ago I think these are the kind of lessons that Boosted has come up the learning curve on as a result of just an incredible safety record. And it's the sort of thing that most other vehicles on the street today haven't yet come to because they aren't approaching this as an electric vehicle as opposed to putting a battery and a motor onto some kind of a toy.

KRIS: Are you looking at future battery tech options that are beyond the lithium ion batteries and do you see some of these technologies being incorporated into Boosted products in the future?

Jeff Russakow: Yes and yes. One of the exciting things about being Boosted… [has] been the opportunity to work directly with a lot of the world's leading companies that make various types of battery technology and they like working with us because we do a very good job getting the utmost performance out of the technologies commercially available today. So we've been working with a lot of these companies R&D teams to look at the next generation of technologies to get order of magnitude power levels of greater density per weight.

KRIS: When you're looking at the future of Boosted, I know that you're product lineup you're looking sort of like three, four years ahead. But what do you see in sort of like a five to ten year sort of time frame? Where do you see the company heading and you know what sort of products can people expect in the future?

Jeff Russakow: So we very much fashion ourselves as the Tesla of light electric vehicles and so I think what we imagine is continuing to grow as an independent company providing an increasing variety of different types of light electric vehicle form factors to meet various customers needs around the world. And continuing to build out that portfolio of products and services around it.