The telephone rings in Vienna. A stolen e-bike is reported and Stefan Sinnegger is in the city. Unfortunately, such a coincidence is very probable from a statistical point of view. In 2018, 61 % of the bicycle thefts registered in Austria were committed in the provincial capitals, with Vienna leading the pack as the scene of the crime, with almost 8,000 bike thefts*. The founder of PowUnity doesn’t wait long. He reports the matter to the police and goes on a bike hunt with them.
From then on, it was phenomenal.
That evening, in August 2018, everything changed for PowUnity. A clearance for BikeTrax, the theft protection for e-bikes. The GPS tracker did its job just as it was supposed to. The proof played out before Stefan’s eyes for the first time, and he remembers thinking only one thing: “From then on, it was phenomenal.”
However, just three years before, in its founding year, PowUnity was in a completely different game – winter sports. It all started with “Neverlose”, an anti-theft device for skis and snowboards. “If you want to understand us as a company, you have to talk about Neverlose,” Christian Strassl likes to say when talking about PowUnity’s identity and culture. “Over the first two and a half years, we were on a steep learning curve with a lot of key lessons – maximum exposure in the shortest possible time.”
Blind Date with Investors
In the beginning, PowUnity worked day and night on ancient second-hand sofas in front of a rented hall in Aldrans near Innsbruck. It was a dusty, eight-metre high double storey building with one heater. Just as you would imagine a start-up when there is nothing. For Christian, a ski builder who organised workshops at weekends, and Stefan, who had just returned from studying abroad in Sweden, it was completely uncharted territory. Just like the unexpected blind date with the crucial investor, for which they were only prepared with a good portion of motivation and one product idea!
On a Monday at 1 p.m., the two of them met with Gerhard Stocker, the founder of the company STASTO in Innsbruck. It was quickly clear to Stocker: “The men were passionate about their idea and had a business mind.” Christian Strassl remembers: “From that first investment, PowUnity was no longer a student project. We were entering into a commitment.”
Now, in its fifth year, this business idea has long been a thing of the past for PowUnity. Nevertheless, all three CEOs, Christian Strassl, Maximilian Loy and Stefan Sinnegger, are convinced: “It’s a good thing that we took this path. Had we bypassed it, we wouldn’t be successful today.” This is very true, because even if a kind of road map is needed in their business, it is impossible to plan. Everything else is like reading coffee dregs. STASTO and PowUnity originally met to talk about anti-theft protection for skis and snowboards, but today their partnership involves anti-theft protection for e-bikes.
At PowUnity, we are very easy going – we wear baseball caps rather than a collar and tie! That’s always worked for us.
The run-up: BikeTrax GPS tracking for e-bikes
PowUnity discovered e-bikes for themselves. It was already clear that the company should remain in the sports sector. “At PowUnity, we are very informal – we wear baseball caps rather than a collar and tie! That’s always worked for us,” explains Christian. However, the e-bike sector was new territory for everyone: “The technical connections were just being born,” says Max, the developer.
With this new business model, PowUnity was meant to define itself as a consultant and expert in the e-bike industry. And this venture has had two distinct challenges until today: On the one hand, expensive e-bikes are the perfect target for gangs of thieves. On the other hand, there is a need for technologies that provide digital solutions for the future “connected bike” system of manufacturers, dealers and end customers.
“BikeTrax records and protects your e-bike without you having to do much”
The “BikeTrax” GPS-Tracker was born. The product combines the two functions: The tracker functions both as smart, invisible theft protection and as a medium that connects the e-bike rider to his bicycle – including features like automatic route logging, with optimal 2G network coverage via an app. This was the starting shot for PowUnity’s sales launch.
For two months, Stefan, Christian and Max went on e-bike tours to specialist dealers in German-speaking urban centres. “We managed 20 visits a day. It was very athletic.” Today, Christian laughs about it and admits: “It was the most uncomfortable but also the most obvious way to build up a network.” He continues, “Most of the time, the unsolicited conversation went like this:
PowUnity: “May I show you something? ”
Dealer: “No, I don’t have the time.”
PowUnity: We pushed the mobile phone with the app into their hand and moved the bike. The alarm went off immediately.
Dealer: “Wow! Cool.”
“The app is perfect when I can longer remove anything but the user still has everything.”
With BikeTrax, theft, which is something negative, is cancelled out by all these positive product experiences. “The BikeTrax GPS tracker records and protects without you having to do much,” explains the developer, Max. In his opinion, systems that can do too much, or everything require the user to get intensely involved and be on the phone constantly. Extra locking systems that are linked to the e-bike via Bluetooth need to be activated by the user on the smartphone and additional features have to be started individually. “Those are too many steps that stress the user,” Max continues. “Then, there’s also the network quality. What happens when you have no coverage?”
On the other hand, the PowUnity app system is simple but clever: The tracker simply goes to sleep. As soon as it is moved, it wakes up! It automatically logs the routes, and it is not possible to start or stop a route. The user always has coverage and he doesn’t have to do anything else.
That’s what makes PowUnity so elegant. It offers the user to have all they want and not to have to do anything. The background system is clever enough to recognise that. For Max the app solution is only complete if the programmer “can no longer remove anything, but the user still has everything”. There are three things that PowUnity wants to perfect with their app: The anti-theft alarm, the route logging via GPS tracking and the Bike Pass Feature, which, like a fingerprint, can assign the e-bike to its true owner, in the case of theft.
Co-branded apps – now also for manufacturers
Since the first stolen e-bike was seized in Vienna on that evening in August 2018, BikeTrax has been a tried-and-tested theft protection for e-bike dealers, rental companies and private users. In the meantime, PowUnity sells thousands of GPS trackers per month and cooperates with over 500 dealers throughout Europe.
Since March 2020, PowUnity has also been offering the “co-branded” app for manufacturers, and requests are increasing. “Within two months, we had around ten customers integrating our app into their systems,” Stefan says. The requirements for the app vary from customer to customer, but the features of the app are the same for every manufacturer, and it always fits. “You buy it once and you receive every update that we also give to our PowUnity app. The process is automated for everyone: easy, secure and fast.”
That is our sign of shared growth in a market that still has its future ahead.
BikeTrax: a product for a common end customer
Stefan predicts that “the complexity of e-bike systems is going to increase, so it’s better to position yourself today, rather than tomorrow. But we don’t just want to do business to business.” After all PowUnity developed a product for the end customer, the same end customer that manufacturers of e-bike systems have. The Innsbruck-based company is primarily concerned with satisfying this very customer with partners. “This is not a project that can be shelved after a year, but a continuous process that needs to be taken step by step further,” Stefan explains. In doing so, direct feedback from the end customer in customer support is particularly helpful.
PowUnity sells the co-branded app to manufacturers for under EUR 2,000. “That is our sign of shared growth in a market that still has its future ahead. This way, our partners don’t miss out on anything today, so that they can play a competent role in the e-bike industry tomorrow. This is precisely the goal of PowUnity – Stefan and Christian are convinced, “Together with e-bike and e-motor manufacturers, we are creating the safest and smartest bike of the future.”
On that evening in Vienna in 2018, the first e-bike equipped with BikeTrax was seized. Together with five police officers and a criminalist, Stefan found the flat where the stolen e-bike had been located via GPS tracker shortly before. “They virtually stormed the flat. It was like a film – and I was right in the middle of it,” Stefan recounts. This film has a real-life sequel: Today, one to two e-bikes are returned to their owners every week, with the help of BikeTrax.
Federal Ministry of the Interior/Federal Criminal Department: Police Crime Statistics, Austria 2015–2018, Vienna 2019