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Sean Flood heads out of the office of Gotcha, a Charleston company that offers bikes, scooters and electric vehicles as an alternate form of transportation. Sylvia Jarrus/Staff

Gotcha is growing so quickly, it is physically bursting out of its Radcliffe Street office. 

Boxes are stacked along the entryway, filled with promotional materials for the new college campuses the tech-transport company is targeting. Electric scooters, added to Gotcha's lineup last year, are propped against the walls. 

The mobility company has been around for about a decade, but 2019 might be its most important year yet. It is adding contracts to its service faster than ever, and is on the hunt for venture funding. But as it ramps up, Gotcha faces stiff competition from Silicon Valley-based startups with hundreds of millions of dollars in capital.

CEO Sean Flood and his wife moved to Charleston in 2014 from Atlanta. Then, Gotcha was already five-years-old, but it looked very different than it does today. The company had a fleet of cars that would pick people up for shared rides. It was live at 10 universities and colleges when Flood left Georgia

Last year ended with 20 partnerships, or agreements to activate the Gotcha platform so users can pick and choose rentals among the four vehicles available on its app: e-bikes, e-scooters, e-trikes and an electric ride share vehicle.

Then, in just the first six months of the year, it surpassed 100 partnerships, most with universities and colleges. Flood says they will add another 70 systems by the end of this year.

"I think we have built a structure that allows us to scale," he said. "But there is no sugar coating that is hard to do, and a lot of work."

It recently hired its 120th employee. Flood is working on closing a major funding round to fuel future growth plans.

Turning 2 at 10

Even if the industry is crowded, Flood said his company has 10 years under its belt of "building a reputation and learning."

"We're a 2-year-old startup in a 10-year-old company's body," he said. "This past two years is what has really allowed us to grow so quickly."

Companies like Gotcha want to see people give up their personal vehicles in favor of renting out their fleets, which range from GPS-tracked bicycles to electric scooters. Flood said his family went from owning two cars to one, and now uses his company's products to commute to work and get around.

The e-mobility rental concept has caught fire in some major cities, mostly in Europe, Australia and Singapore. It is taking hold more slowly in the United States, where Americans are notoriously attached to their personal vehicles. Even millennials own nearly as many cars as Baby Boomers, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found.

Still, as the American population continues to move to cities, they have begun to rely more on other options besides the personal automobile. 

The share of Americans who have used ride-hailing services such as Uber has more than doubled since 2015, according to Pew Research Center

That trend has buoyed a growing army of firms offering one option or another. Bird, a California company that rents electric scooters, has raised more than $400 million. Lime, which offers bikes and electric scooters, has gone live in dozens of cities across the U.S.

The industry is still in its early days.

"People want to make cities more livable, and many believe that means making them less vehicle-centric," Deloitte researchers wrote in 2017.

The analysts hinted the most successful platforms will merge services and give users multiple options to get from place-to-place. 

Consent-driven

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Which is exactly what Gotcha wants to do. The company is launching a subscription service this summer. For about $10 per month, Gotcha users can pick from a handful of vehicles. Riders will get 30 minutes of free riding time, then will be charged a dime per minute. The firm targets partnerships mostly with universities and colleges.

Ironically, the company's motorized mobility service isn't available in the very place where Gothca is headquartered because it has no launch agreement with the city of Charleston. Though adding the local market is not key to his expansion plans, Flood said he thinks having the vehicles available is his company's hometown would be a net positive. The firm does operate Charleston's bike-sharing program, Holy Spokes.

This kind of deference to the wishes of city and university decision-makers is part of Gotcha's branding. It never launches without consent and a contract, while some rival companies have taken a less cautious "ask-for-forgiveness later" approach. That appears to be working in Gotcha's favor.

"Now our message resonates really well," Flood said.

One example played out in Raleigh, where Bird and later Lime came to town. Michael Moore, the city's transportation director, said scooters arrived "without invitation." So, the city asked companies to make proposals to continue working in the North Carolina capital by the spring. Neither Bird nor Lime applied. Five others did, however, including Gotcha. Raleigh decided it would accept up to four companies.

It shortlisted three, and picked only Gotcha.

"A lot of it is because of the strength of the references that we got from some other cities and universities and colleges," Moore said.

He said he got the impression Gotcha would take responsibility of its inventory.

For now, Gotcha will be allowed to operate only 500 scooters in Raleigh, but the number and types of vehicles could go up if the firm keeps its promises, Flood said.

Currently in 6,000 square feet of space, Gotcha needs at least double that amount. The right office has been hard to come by. But Flood says he plans to stay in Charleston.

"Almost every one of our competitors that are funded hundreds of millions of dollars, built their business in Silicon Valley," Flood said. "We're proving that you can build all this stuff here."

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.