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Bird hopes a payment pivot could fix what ails high-growth startups

Investors want to see profits. Is adding payments to products the solution?

Bird hopes a payment pivot could fix what ails high-growth startups

A scooter company pivoting to mobile payments is an incredibly 2020 tech industry move.

Photo: Getty Images.

Bird, the scooter company, is pivoting into payments — kind of.

On Tuesday, Bird is announcing a test of Bird Pay, a new feature that lets people buy smoothies and açaí bowls from local businesses by scanning a QR code with the Bird app. The company says it's already testing it in Los Angeles and Santa Monica (the latter city being notorious as a testing ground in the scooter wars).

If the idea sounds familiar, it's because so many companies — from Google to Walmart to PayPal — have tried to get people to pay with QR codes. Even more companies have struggled to get people to use QR codes in the first place. And none of them has found a strong foothold in the U.S.

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So, why would a micro-mobility company that has nothing to do with fintech or payments now be giving it the old college try? A desire to diversify its revenue streams and the chance to get into a hot and profitable market, most likely — especially given investors' growing emphasis on profits and a recent string of billion-dollar fintech acquisitions. Despite an infusion of VC money in 2019, Bird struggled to stem massive losses, and its CEO admitted that profitability was the new north star: "Gone are the days when top line growth was the leading KPI for emerging companies. Positive unit economics is the new goal line," said founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden in October.

Expanding into payments is also increasingly part of a mobility company's playbook, despite how seemingly unrelated they may sound. Southeast Asia's Grab has made a push into fintech, as have other mostly Asian transportation companies. Grab's financial services arm does everything from payments and rewards to money-lending and insurance.

Even Uber has a credit card and an Uber Cash wallet where people can add money to their account to pay for Uber rides or Uber Eats delivery (but nothing outside of Uber).

Getting Americans to use QR codes is going to be a tougher sell than preloading some cash.

Every few years, U.S. companies try to re-create the success WeChat's had in China with QR codes, but none has yet succeeded. Snapchat and Spotify both leaned into QR-style codes as easy ways to add friends or share music. Facebook launched its own type of scannable profile codes in Messenger, then killed it three years later in 2019 (Messenger now supports normal QR codes). In retail, stores like Walmart have launched their own mobile wallet apps that let people scan QR codes to pay. Others, like Target and Starbucks, instead use bar codes inside the app that the cashier scan in order to check them out.

Bird may have one advantage when it comes to getting people to make QR code payments: Its riders are already trained to pull their smartphones out to scan the QR code when they unlock a scooter. Bird says that 58% of its riders head to or end at a local business, though whether a rider actually goes into that business to buy something, rather than just leaving their Bird scooter nearby and going elsewhere, the company can't know.

Even if riders do hop off their scooter and bound into a shop, it's a leap for riders to then keep the scooter app open, or open it again, so they can pay for their oat milk once they walk into a store.

The question is whether there's something about using a scooter to arrive at a shop means that Bird Pay will have a better chance of success than all of the other companies who have tried before it. Soon the verdict from Santa Monica will probably be clear. Just monitor the Instagram posts tagged at the shopping mecca of the Third Street Promenade to see whether Bird riders are buying into it.

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