Stories Finding Superhuman Powers on the Streets of Paris
As the co-founder of Hardware Club, a community-based venture firm, Alexis Houssou took a leap of faith when he invested in Cowboy. No prototype then, just a team with a vision to rethink the e-bike market and to design a bike unlike any other on the streets today. Six months later, the moment he first tried the bike he knew it was a wise investment. Alexis is one of the only people sporting a Cowboy bike on the streets of Paris, but that’s about to change very soon. We caught up with Alexis on a beautiful day in Paris to hear his take on Cowboy and what his very first ride meant for his work with the team.
What attracted you to Cowboy, and why did you invest in the company? I met them through a friend from school. He said ‘You should talk to those guys, they're doing something exciting.' Honestly at first, I had low expectations. I met them, they told me they wanted to build an e-bike, but they had very little assets to show me. Much less than the companies we usually meet with a prototype to show so we're able to evaluate something.
So what was it then? More than Cowboy, it was the team. We all saw something in the team. They had this drive, you could feel they had studied the market and thought about how people could move fast through the city. They realized e-bikes were the fastest vehicle in the city, but were not so popular yet. They wanted to reinvent the category. I would be lying if I were to say we were desperate to fund an e-bike company. It was just really a crush on the team. And it's what led us to invest.
When you refer to the team's drive, how would you describe it? If you asked everyone what they thought an e-bike is, they would describe this old bike that looks like what your grandparents would buy, with a large battery and all that. I think it's actually quite unique to look at this and say, ‘Okay, we can reinvent this.' It takes a lot of imagination and ability to remove all the assumptions of what an e-bike should be and build a product that doesn't look like any others. Even if that means having this naive look at the product, but you build it with more personality. I think that's what you see when you see Cowboy on the street today. It doesn't look like any other bike which I think is really attractive to a lot of people. The identity of Cowboy, they feel very close to it.
Was there a particular moment in your journey with Cowboy that stands out? We invested very early on what was very much an idea. It was incredible trying the product for the first time when I could finally put words to the riding experience. When they finally hit the market, it was impressive to see how people got it. I was surprised how fast it went and I had not imagined that. The product is very complicated, it has a battery, an engine, you have to deal with all the complexities people don't see and you have to make all of this work seamlessly for your customers. I've been amazed by how it resonated with what people were looking for as a missing point in the market.
So the risk paid off? Betting in companies that are very much ideas, you have to be ready to take a lot of risks. ready to be wrong and okay to take bes. The riskier bets you're going to make are maybe the best companies you're going to back. I feel through every investment you're going to have that moment where you're super excited but also super frightened about what's going to happen. Things are going to happen that you won't be able to control.
Tell me about the first time you finally got to try the bike. The first time I jumped onto the bike, I had this wow effect. You start pedaling and you have this superhuman feeling. Like wow, this is incredible. I'd never had this experience riding a bike. It was so easy. You have this amazing feeling, almost like flying on the streets. I told Cowboy just put people on the bike and the right investors will get it right away.
"It was the first time I felt like I had superpowers."
Is there a particular ride you remember? Funnily, one of my friends lives in Montmartre, which in Paris it's this hill with that beautiful cathedral. [Basilica of Sacre-Coeur] If you have a regular bike, it's pretty challenging. The first time I used the bike I went there. I went all the way and had this amazing experience. I had this feeling that I was exercising but it was the first time I felt I had superpowers. I still felt it was me pedaling, but with this smooth system that feels so incredible. It's usually a 25-30 minute Uber ride, but I remember it took me less than 15 minutes with Cowboy. It just felt so good when I got there, I wanted to do it all over again. If there was one ride I remember, it was this one.
So you most remember the power aspect? Or saving time? There was one part of the ride with a steep road and there was this guy on a race bike going very fast and I remember going past him. [laughing] He looked at me and he was so surprised but I just looked at him and smiled. You can't see it's an e-bike, right? You have this feeling you're the coolest guy on the road.
"The first time I jumped onto the bike, I had this wow effect. Like wow, this is incredible. I'd never had this experience riding a bike."
How long have you lived in Paris? I've been in Paris for almost 20 years now. I've left for short periods of time and I've always traveled a lot. I generally spend one or two days traveling across Europe, but Paris is home.
Cowboy will soon be in Paris. What's the bike culture like? Paris is a city where most people don't own cars. If you have a car it's going to take twice as much time. There's a good metro system, but at peak times it's super crowded and you're going to feel trapped. So there are a lot of people using scooters and I used to have one as well. There are a lot of bikes in Paris, but not so many e-bikes yet. There are a lot of bike lanes, a lot of people concerned about pollution. The city of Paris is trying to reduce the number of cars in the city. Over the past few years, pollution has been the number one cause of death in the Paris region. The new generation of Parisians love iconic products, new ways to move around the city in style, and they don't just want a commodity product going from point A to B.
When in your life did you most feel like a Cowboy? I started my career in investment banking. But it was not fulfilling enough for me. After a few years, everything was going really well for me there but I decided to quit. Everyone was super surprised, ‘Why would you quit now? You're on a great trajectory. You're going to get so much more money over the next few years…' But I said no because money was not the first thing I was after. I really wanted to do something I was passionate about. When you get to an age where you start losing your grandparents, people you cared for, you realize life has a time limit. You have a chance to start doing what you love. This for me was helping entrepreneurs and starting my own company; working in this environment where you go from chaos and ideas to building actual products and businesses.
“It just felt so good when I got there, I wanted to do it all over again.”
That was my Cowboy moment because I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, that instead I wanted to do what I love. I left, I was young, I had a bit of money but not so much as well. The safe thing to do would have been to wait for a few years, build more savings… I'm also a bit impatient by nature and I felt, I know how I want to do this and I want to do it my way. So I'm going to start it.