Unicorn, the electric scooter startup from the co-creator of gadget tracker Tile, is shutting down operations after blowing all its cash on Facebook and Google ads but only receiving 350 orders for its glossy white e-scooters, it claims. In an email to customers, the company says it lacks the resources to deliver any of its $699 two-wheelers, and won’t be issuing refunds “as we are completely out of funding.”
In a remorseful email, Unicorn CEO Nick Evans said the company had “totally failed as a business” and has also “spread the cost of this failure to you, the early customers that believed in us.”
Unicorn emerged six months ago as part of a new crop of scooter startups hoping to capitalize on the popularity of dockless rental services like Bird and Lime, while also pitching itself as an affordable alternative to shared scooters. In addition to having a striking profile — the all-white look was really something — the scooter was loaded with a lot of high-tech bells and whistles, like GPS tracking and smartphone-enabled locking. Naturally it included integration with Tile, Evans’ other company, which uses Bluetooth to track lost items, like a wallet, keys, or phone.
But now Unicorn is no more. The company claims it sunk all its money into advertising and marketing, as well as loan repayments and other expenses, with little leftover for production and deliveries. Evans wrote:
We could have continued moving forward and taking more orders and that would continue to fund the business, and if we did that might have been able to deliver the product, but we also may have not been able to sell enough Unicorns, so by doing that we would be risking more people’s orders. So we made the very, very difficult decision to stop.
A large portion of the revenue went toward paying for Facebook ads to bring traffic to the site. A portion also went to our manufacturer in the form of a down payment to build the scooters, but unfortunately that down payment cannot be redeemed for a portion of the scooters that we were planning to order.
Unfortunately, the cost of the ads were just too expensive to build a sustainable business. And as the weather continued to get colder throughout the US and more scooters from other companies came on to the market, it became harder and harder to sell Unicorns, leading to a higher cost for ads and fewer customers.
The company is working on selling its remaining assets in order to give partial refunds, but Evans warns that even this is “looking unlikely.”
“We are so, so very sorry,” he concludes.
Customers, as you can imagine, are pissed. “I am upset he basically robbed everyone of his customers and is closing without delivering any scooters,” Rebecca Buchholtz wrote in an email to The Verge. “This was my daughters Christmas gift and now I cannot get her any gift.”
“I find it shocking that someone like Nick Evans who has name recognition and clout in the tech community due to Tile, would operate in such a fraudulent way,” wrote Matt Furhman. Another customer, who said he is now out $998 after ordering two Unicorn scooters, called Evans “a thief.”
Customers are advised to contact their credit card companies and dispute the charges from Unicorn.
In an email to The Verge, Evans said the company had received only around 350 orders. “I feel horribly guilty that we left people with no scooters and no refunds,” he said. “We are working on something, but, yes, this seems unlikely.”
Unicorn isn’t the only electric mobility startup to fall on hard times. Inboard Technology, an electric skateboard startup from Santa Cruz, California, is currently liquidating its intellectual property and assets after attempting to pivot to electric scooters. All 24 employees have been laid off.
Other startups appear to have found some success through a more old-fashioned method of marketing: celebrity endorsements. Unagi’s e-scooter apparently is a hit with musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Halsey, Steve Aoki and teen pop megastar Billie Eilish — which has helped it raise $3.5 million in venture capital.
The scooter boom has been uneven for many startups. Big companies like Bird and Lime were able to stay afloat despite an unprofitable business model thanks to large infusions of capital from investors. But terrible unit economics, and the seasonal nature of the business, has made it difficult for smaller startups to gain a foothold. Companies like Unicorn, which sought to partner with China’s Segway/Ninebot on manufacturing (and whose Segway ES2 the scooter closely resembles), find themselves facing enormous upfront costs that are difficult to recoup without a swell of customer preorders.
It’s also an example of how difficult it is for scooter companies who just take Chinese-made vehicles, paint them and give them a new badge, and some fancier add-ons, and then try to sell it in the US at a markup.