Founder behind mega China bicycle bust starts over in NYC

Dai is making a comeback in the US with About Time Coffee 


IN FEBRUARY last year, a tiny coffee store with red neon signs opened at Gramercy Park, one of the most idyllic neighbourhoods in New York City (NYC). The shop, labelled About Time Coffee, soon spawned four other prime locations in downtown Manhattan, peddling iced boba coffee that’s suddenly a trend on TikTok and Instagram. 

This is not your typical neighbourhood coffeehouse, but a tech-savvy start-up backed by some of China’s biggest venture firms. 

Investors including ZhenFund and IDG Capital’s Chinese arm have made bets on the nascent New York coffee chain hatched by Dai Wei, the controversial founder of Chinese bike-sharing start-up Ofo Inc. Dai, in his early thirties, is the face of China’s biggest tech bubble of recent times, when investors poured billions of dollars into companies renting dockless bikes with no clear business model. In 2018, Ofo ceased operations after funding dried up, leaving its iconic yellow bikes piling up on Chinese streets. Dai has largely stepped away from the public eye since. 

His comeback in the US, which hasn’t been previously reported, is another example of China’s embattled tech industry turning outward for growth, hoping to ride the coattails of video sensation TikTok and retailer Shein. For Chinese start-ups and their venture backers who endured two years of regulatory crackdowns and Covid restrictions, the “Copy-from-China” tactic has grown increasingly alluring, as they seek to replicate tried-and-true business models far from home, in markets like South-East Asia and the US. 

“We have a proven model from China,” About Time CEO Marian Chen said in an interview. “We sell coffee that tastes better but is cheaper than Starbucks.” 

Dai has split his time between China and the US since Covid, first starting a power-bank rental start-up in Seattle and then the coffee chain in New York, according to people close to him. Despite Ofo’s demise, the entrepreneur has again scored funding from investors who put faith in him, including IDG, ZhenFund and Beijing-based Will Hunting Capital, an early backer of the bike-sharing start-up. About Time has so far raised more than US$10 million (RM43.8 million) at a valuation of US$40 million, Chen said. 

In the early stages of a company, expanding is more important than defending, says Dai

While Dai isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations of About Time, he helped build out the team for the retailer and set up meetings with investors, Chen said. “He’s the one who glued us together.” 

Dai, whom Chen said is a minority shareholder, declined a request for an interview. 

About Time hopes to woo New Yorkers with some Chinese recipes. The firm follows the technology-driven business model of Luckin Coffee Inc, which overtook Starbucks in China in the span of a few years before it was plagued by an accounting fraud. Like Luckin, About Time handles orders and payments via its mobile app, and collects customer data to tailor discounts and coupons. The lower pricing is also a big draw: Its signature iced boba coffee — freshly made and sealed into cans — costs US$4, when Starbucks serves average cups at around US$5 in the US. 

“Order online,” a board outside its Gramercy Park shop advertises, “First five drinks on us.” 

The aggressive pricing appears to be winning over younger customers. On a recent Thursday afternoon, at least seven students from the nearby Baruch College hit the Gramercy store in 15 minutes. 

Among them was Mansoor Wardak, a 22-year-old finance major and About Time regular since he got a text promo to sign up on its app for a free coffee. “I don’t want to pay US$7 for Starbucks,” he said. 

In March, About Time closed a US$20 million round with money from investors including existing backers, a company representative said. 

For now, About Time has no plan to open more shops or raise money, while it focuses on trying out new drinks and turning profitable, said CEO Chen, who previously worked for non-profit organisations like Save the Children. “We are not finance elites who don’t actually love coffee,” she said. “That’s not the impression we want to give.” 

Aside from branding, About Time faces some more imminent challenges. For one, mobile payments account for just 15% of the chain’s total sales, as Americans still prefer to pay by cash or credit cards. That’s not a good first step for a company seeking to retain loyal customers by making them stay on its app. — Bloomberg 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition