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Making Bicycle Commuting Reliable

NEMO’s Worth Smith delivers mobile, on-demand bicycle repairs to busy people, making bike commuting a reliable and sustainable activity for cyclists of all stripes.

Three bicycle commuters riding on urban street
Places for Bikes, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

When Worth Smith got a corporate development job in 2019 with Cambridge, Mass.-based Superpedestrian, a micromobility startup, the company provided a bicycle he could ride to and from work. The only catch was he had to maintain it himself. Smith, a patent consultant by training, was technically inclined but had little experience repairing bikes.


“I remember one day I got a flat tire riding home from work,” he says. “I didn't ride my bike for the rest of the week but relied instead on Uber and the bus. It completely hurt my momentum as a bike commuter.”


Determined to get back in the saddle, however, Smith sat down in his living room the next weekend, pulled up a YouTube video on how to change a flat tire—and then struggled for an hour and 15 minutes to complete the repair.


“This is just way too difficult,” he remembers thinking, “even for a 26-year-old, able-bodied man who works for a bike company. If this is what people have to go through to commute by bicycle, we’re never going to get more than five percent of the city commuting this way.”

Meeting Cyclists Where They Are
Worth Smith sitting, laptop on his lap, in front of a cage of bicycle parts.
Worth Smith, founder and CEO of NEMO. NEMO photo

Today, as the founder and CEO of NEMO, a subscriber-based, Boston-area startup, Smith is providing on-demand bicycle repairs to cyclists of all types, from those riding state-of-the-art e-bikes to starving students riding $50 Craigslist cruisers.

In doing so, he's addressing a fundamental pain point of bike commuters: the fear of having a bike breakdown on the way to or from work, and not being able to repair the bike or reach their final destination.


“The bike industry in the U.S. is intertwined with this great spirit of self-reliance, which works great for avid commuting cyclists,” Smith observes. “But if I’m willing to bike to work, that should be enough. I shouldn’t have to know everything about repairing my bike.”


To wit, he continues, 91 percent of adults in the U.S. are licensed drivers, but no one expects them to be able to service or repair their own car.


Discovering Technology

Smith was born and raised in a car-centric, culturally diverse neighborhood in Washington, D.C. near American University. The son of a mortgage banker and a stay-at-home mom (who spent her days shuttling Smith and his four sisters to and from their separate schools), he went to school and played on athletic teams with the sons and daughters of foreign diplomats.

wide angle view of tree lined streets in Washington DC
Smith grew up on tree-lined streets where cars were king. Photo by Eric T Gunther via Creative Commons.

Smith’s parents would not allow him to ride his bike in the street or to any of his classmates' homes. They feared he might get hit by one of the daily commuters using their street as a shortcut.


Instead, Smith turned to safer indoor sports such as reading consumer technology magazines, a choice made easy by annual gift subscriptions to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines from his maternal grandfather.


“My grandfather was a lawyer and a voracious reader,” Smith recalls. “As a kid, he loved reading about future technologies in Popular Mechanics. He wanted me to have that same experience. And it worked. I devoured those magazines.”


At the time, Smith admits, he was not a great math student, subscribing to his parents’ maxim that it was more important to be a good person and to treat people with respect than to get straight A’s in school. Technology would have to wait. 

Doing Things His Way

When Smith matriculated at Washington and Lee University (W&L) in 2012 he was conflicted about choosing a major. Technology had always appealed to him, but he thought he lacked the math and engineering skills to be successful. Instead, he chose English, excelling as a writer and earning a merit scholarship after his sophomore year.

Front view of main quad at Washington & Lee
Smith studied English and business administration at Washington and Lee University. Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri via Creative Commons

Determined to work in business, however, Smith switched majors as a junior from English to business and began studying accounting and finance. But something about a traditional business career didn’t seem right either.


“I’ve always been somewhat of an iconoclast,” he declares. “I like doing things my way. I knew I probably wasn’t going to fit into a full financial services career wearing a suit (like many of my W&L classmates).”


Facing Reality

As part of doing things “his way,” Smith spent the spring semester of his junior year at Hong Kong University, eager to experience the West vs China relationship through the lens of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong University building in the trees
Hong Kong University; photo by Emcc83 via Creative Commons

He lived alone in Hong Kong for six months––he had applied late to the program, missing out on a chance to live in the dorms––forcing him to acknowledge that he’d been living in his comfort zone for too long.


“I realized that I was too proud at times to admit that I needed help or to ask for help from people I didn’t know or couldn’t communicate with effectively,” Smith recalls. “Going to Hong Kong alone was one of the first times I truly had to live with my decisions.”


Bridging the Gap

Smith graduated from W&L in 2016 with a degree in business administration. The technology bug was still stirring in him, but he could not persuade any aerospace or engineering companies to hire him without a technical degree.


He eventually secured a position as a patent consultant with Sherpa Technology Group, where he spent nearly 3 years analyzing patents on high-volume commercial electronics.


“I worked my way into the technology industry not by being a really good engineer but by being motivated to learn about new technologies,” Smith says. “I think persistence and intellectual drive are far more important in the long run than someone’s ability to excel in an engineering program.”

Close-up of Worth Smith next to a NEMO e-cargo bike
Smith is removing the stress of unexpected breakdowns from bicycle commuting, giving consumers a reliable, sustainable way to travel in urban environments. NEMO photo.
Making Things Easy

Smith launched NEMO in May 2023 with a simple goal: make it easy for busy people to try bike commuting without having to deal with the inconvenience of making bike repairs. He also wanted to provide a new option for cyclists frustrated by the experience and economics of relying on bike shops for common repairs.


“If you walk into a bike shop today needing an urgent repair, they might be able to fix your bike on the spot, but more likely, they’ll ask you to leave it for several days,” Smith observes. “If you rely on your bike for daily transportation, that doesn’t work.”


Interior shot of bicycle shop including bikes, clothing and accessories
Conventional bike shops can leave bike commuters feeling "less than." Photo by Adrien Olichon/ Pexels

Rising retail rents in metropolitan areas are also forcing bike shop owners to cater increasingly to people with high-end recreational bikes who can afford to pay for expensive repairs, he adds.

This trend leaves everyday bike commuters such as students or low-income service workers feeling “less than” and forced to find a more reliable—and more expensive—means of transportation, often at the last minute.

Just Call Us ...

NEMO has a different approach. Smith and his partners are on-call 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mon thru Friday. When you call them (yes, they rely exclusively on an internet-based phone and chat system), they will schedule your repair (if not urgent) or come to your location immediately, whether that’s your home, office, or the side of the road somewhere in between.

NEMO mechanic riding on walkway of treelined street enroute to make bicycle repairs
NEMO delivers bike repairs on demand to bike commuters wherever they are. NEMO photo

They service all makes and models, from conventional single-speed bikes to high-end e-bikes. Their current service area includes the Boston-adjacent communities of Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, Mass. and parts of metropolitan Boston.


“NEMO was inspired, in part, by the 15-minute grocery delivery business,” Smith notes. “While most of those businesses have either gone bankrupt or been dramatically scaled back, they did prove one thing: that you can travel across most major cities by e-bike in about 7 minutes. That allows you to get to customers super quick.”


NEMO mechanics travel to customers by e-cargo bike, bringing spare parts, supplies and major bike-repair tools with them. Many of the calls simply require repairing a flat tire or replacing worn brake pads. The mechanics are also prepared, howver, to make more extensive repairs to brake systems, chains or other components.


“Our customers know that their bike is going to be down while we’re repairing it, but they also know they’ll be able to ride it later that day,” explains Smith. “Our goal is to build customer confidence in the reliability of bike commuting.”

Going Beyond the App

Smith also wants his customers to ride away from their NEMO interaction with more than just a well-repaired bike.


“We use a phone system instead of an app to talk to our customers because people experiencing the stress of a bike breakdown need more handholding than an app can provide,” he explains. “When you call AAA (which now has an app, of course), you talk to a human and you believe that someone’s going to help you. It’s a very human experience. That’s how I want people to think about NEMO.”


NEMO bike mechanic making on-demand repairs on sidewalk
NEMO mechanics can repair your bike wherever you need assistance. NEMO photo

NEMO offers its services on a subscription basis both to large employers such as Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital, and individual consumers.

A subscription costs $120 per year, paid annually, and includes all mechanical labor for one bike for a year. Parts and specialty services such as bleeding hydraulic brakes are extra. Subscribers simply call NEMO when they need help.


Cycling for Success

Workdays for Smith begin early in the garden-level apartment he rents in South Boston. After a seven a.m. “Good Morning” text to his NEMO chief mechanic, he showers, grabs a cup of coffee, then hops on one of several NEMO-owned bikes—Smith has never owned a car—for the 20-minute ride to NEMO offices near Boston University.


Smith spends his typical days meeting potential new NEMO clients. In the wake of Covid-induced remote meeting norms, however, he insists on meeting people face to face.


“If I’m pitching a prospective client in person about becoming a NEMO customer, the likelihood of her getting back to me is so much higher if we meet in person than if we’d done the meeting on Zoom,” Smith suggests. “I want that company or individual to know me as a person, not as a figment of their imagination on a computer screen.”


“Our goal is to build customer confidence in the reliability of bike commuting.”

-- Worth Smith, NEMO

When Smith’s not meeting with current or future clients, he’s usually in the office backing up his mechanics with on-demand repairs. He has fortified his mechanic skills significantly since his early days at Superpedestrian—“think of me as a mechanic with one year of experience”—but he prides himself on never losing touch with the mindset of his customers, who struggle to know enough about bicycle repairs to commute regularly by bike.


Building the Foundation

For now, Smith is focused on building out NEMO’s staffing and capabilities to where it can provide mobile, on-demand bicycle repairs throughout the greater Boston area. He refers to his approach as the “1000 advantages method,” aka developing a competitive advantage one mistake at a time.


“What’s going to make NEMO better than someone who tries this later are the 1000 small lessons we learned along the way,” he explains. “Those 1000 small things will become the competitive advantage that allows us to give people a better experience, and become a more sustainable company.”


If his vision works out, Smith continues, he hopes to duplicate the NEMO model in 10 or so large cities nationwide. But he’s not concerned about someone copying his business model. In fact, he welcomes it.

Front view of Worth Smith crouching on sidewalk along busy bike commuting route.
Smith is changing the paradigm of bicycle commuting, one satisfied customer at a time. NEMO photo
Creating a New Paradigm

“The first time that someone copies exactly what we’re doing, I’m going to throw a party,” he claims. “It’s not about being first to do mobile, on-demand bike repair, it’s about creating a new paradigm for bike ownership. We’re making bicycles a reliable form of daily transportation by eliminating the need to go into bicycle shops for many common repairs.


“Once we make a big enough dent, the bicycle industry will start adopting some of our more nimble and mobile strategies. That’s not something to be mad about, it’s something to be proud of.”


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