Delfast founder and CEO Daniel Tonkopi talks about e-bikes in Ukraine and remote management during a military invasion.
When Daniel Tonkopi founded Delfast in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2014, he had no intention of building and selling e-bikes. Nor did he anticipate that his company would become entangled in a war with Russia or that his bicycles would become military vehicles. But at 43, Tonkopi, a native of Almaty, Kazakhstan, now lives in Los Angeles, runs an e-bike company and remotely manages dozens of employees living in a war zone. In May, Tonkopi caused a stir when he shared on Facebook an image of Ukrainian fighters using Delfast bicycles to carry anti-tank weapons to the front, demonstrating another use case for electric two-wheelers.
“Our bikes work despite the damage,” he told me on a video call earlier this month.
Tonkopi moved to Ukraine from Kazakhstan in 2009. He was working for KazMunayGas, the state-owned oil company, as a project manager to build gas stations when he decided to go to Kyiv to try his hand at gas stations. as an entrepreneur. The vogue at the time was to build clones of successful American tech companies, so Tonkopi created a version of Yelp for Eastern Europe. It was, by his own admission, a failure, as well as several subsequent attempts. “I became an expert on all the mistakes that can be made and how not to start a business,” he says.
Delfast started out as a one-hour delivery company. (Acronym for “we deliver fast.”) Tonkopi wanted to use e-bikes for this service because they were cheap, fast, zero-emissions, and didn’t require commuters to pedal for hours on end. customary. When he couldn’t find bikes with long enough battery life to last all day, he decided to try building his own. His Frankenstein works turned heads. “We heard a lot of questions from random people. “Hey, do you sell these bikes?” he said. So in 2017, Delfast launched a crowdfunding campaign, raising $165,000 and selling 44 e-bikes.
For the next three years, Delfast operated as a courier company and an online e-bike store. In 2020, a few days after the start of the Covid shutdown, Tonkopi sold its delivery business to a meat supplier that sold directly to consumers in Ukraine. Delfast currently sells a single e-bike model, the Top 3.0, through its website and a small network of independent bike shops. It has a top speed of 50 mph, a range of up to 200 miles, and a sticker price of $6,999. Last year, Delfast sold about 200 units, mainly to customers in the US. So far this year, sales are growing at three times that rate, Tonkopi said.
Last fall, after realizing that 80% of the company’s customers were in the US, Delfast opened an office in Whittier, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where Tonkopi and several others worked. The remaining 30 employees remain in Ukraine. Tonkopi spoke to Bloomberg about e-bikes as weapons, managing a startup through war, and the Delfast product pipeline. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You have about 30 people in Ukraine. How have you managed that workforce since the war started? Starting February 24th, those were tough weeks, especially the first week, when we didn’t know what was going on and what to do. We had some financial back-up, enough for three months’ wages for all of our staff, so we told people, ‘You don’t have to worry, you’ll be fine no matter what. paid, at least for three months.’
And we have assisted some of them to relocate. We have found some houses and apartments in safer places. For example, one woman used to live in Kherson, a city completely occupied by Russia. At one point, Russian police or military forces arrived at her home. They asked her to show them her smartphone, laptop, etc. They found anti-Russian messages and memes in her phone. So they deleted all the information in her phone and said, ‘Okay, now your smartphone will have a new life. And you’ll be at our police station at 11 a.m. tomorrow. And you’ll have a new life, too. ‘ That was really scary. She did not want to have a new life with Russia. So one of our sales managers helped find her a car in Kherson and escape. She left for Odessa that night. Odessa is also under attack. There is no safe place in Ukraine, but it is relatively safer. Can people do their jobs now? Right. Those are the first weeks. Everyone is still sitting in the bomb shelter. They live in their apartments or houses, but when they hear air raid sirens, they have to go to a bomb shelter. It was continuous bombing. Every Monday starts with a Zoom call with everyone, we ask them how they’re doing, are they safe, what’s going on, and then we move on to our usual business issues. me.
The crazy thing is that during the war, our engineers developed a completely new product. They get tired of sitting in the basement and tired of fear, and they want to channel their energy and inspiration into something new. And they have created a new model for the US market, which we will launch in early August. Do you have a name for it? We have, but it’s still under review. It has a smaller battery and lower speeds than our flagship bike. We will try our best to make it affordable so that more people can use it. How did some of your e-bikes succeed in war? When the war started, we decided that we would help the Ukrainian people and we would contribute 5% of our total sales as a company. And we gave away three e-bikes – two of our flagship 3.0 bikes to the Ukrainian army and a prototype to the volunteer department. They are using this prototype for their medical staff. Three bikes were what we had in our facility at the beginning of the war. We supply parts and semi-assembled bikes from China to California. And we have stock in Los Angeles. We have only one R&D center in Ukraine. We don’t have many spare parts in Kyiv.
The military adjusted them. They added a rear trunk to house the rocket launchers. They say it works fine. According to their feedback, our bike was maneuverable, quiet, and couldn’t detect it with the thermal sensor. So they can go to a location, do whatever they need to do, and then immediately leave without being detected. They have a difficult situation. The Russian army is attacking our army. Hot weather. It’s really hot. Our Ukrainian soldiers, sometimes they come back wounded and with some damage on their cars and vehicles. Our bikes still work despite the damage. It works well in the hottest conditions. And are you also fundraising now? Well, about a year ago, in early 2021, we did a crowdfunding round at fundable.com. People from Ukraine have trusted our company. Three hundred of them invested. The average check is about $10,000. So we raised $3.4 million. That helped us establish our R&D center in Ukraine, move our headquarters to California, and create a bicycle warehouse. We’ve invested a lot in our supply chain, in our logistics, and we’ve reduced our lead time from four months, a year ago, to two weeks today.
We then kicked off a Series A venture round earlier this year. We took a break at the end of February, but now I’m back. The goal for the round is $20 million. We got $2 million and right now I’m negotiating for another $5 million. We have a product, we have a product plan, we have a platform, we have proprietary technologies, we have sales, and we are growing, even without with outside investment. We need investment to grow faster. We are developing at 3x. We want to increase it 20 times. I’m building a billion dollar company here.