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How it started was one of those strange stories, perhaps best left for another post about how the internet works. What happened though was I found myself working in the bike industry (in a way I had not before, just to clarify) and for one of the great names in the annals of Mountain Bike history. The journey that ensued was one of interest, bewilderment and a lesson in how to do, or not, things, with whom and for what reasons.
Over 2008, I found myself starting to do an increasing amount of work for a brand (I shall refer to as ‘The Brand’) that, despite what everyone thought at the time, had not vanished but was closer to sitting in limbo. It was there, had been for several years but nothing was going on with it. Turns out that instead of investing in new design, someone, somewhere, had thought investing in old design was a great idea. This is the MTB world we are talking about here, the sphere where unless the paint is still wet, it’s already old. So the idea of investing in ‘new’ stock based on designs that were at least 3-4 years old was, well, an interesting approach. You can imagine how well that approach was working.
From late 2008 and well into 2009 it was interesting but as it was not my watch, so to speak, there’s not much I can say about it. What was going behind the scenes is something I have no idea about, I just saw one very narrow window. What can be said is that in October of ’09, it all went tits up as an office was closed, stock was ‘palmed off’ and the ‘The Brand’ was left floundering on the brink of absolute disaster. Some very fast decisions had to be made and by the end of 2009 I found myself heading up ‘The Brand’, working with the guys in the US at something near warp speed to get the thing back on the rails and viable; after years in the wilderness, people wanted to see some solid movement which was fair enough.
So come late October 2009 and staring down the barrel, the no uncertain question was asked to the owner of ‘The Brand’ – “do you want this to continue?”; the answer that came back was a resounding “YES”. So with this, a furious few weeks were spent preparing a bare bones but viable plan to move ‘The Brand’ forward with a new product line and a focused brand re-birth. A big call on a tight timeline but at the time it seemed with what was behind ‘The Brand’ pushing it, it had more than a helping hand.
Maybe one day what went down from that point will be a text book lesson in what not to do, or maybe it will be forgotten, whatever the case, it was a very interesting ride…
It would not seem right to get into the specifics and to be honest, what happened over the course of several years from that fateful October in 2009 could fill a book on its own. What can be said is over that period, an office of 2.5 people spread between where I sit and Southern California managed, against all the odds, to resurrect ‘The Brand’ and bring it back from the brink. By all accounts we got ‘95% there but ultimately the two phrases that kept coming up about ‘The Brand’ time and time again were “funded just enough to fail” and “you gave it the college try”; both ultimately ended up being pretty accurate.
When a call is made to ‘go’ on an undertaking such as ‘The Brand’, there are two ways to do it. The first is you elect to go small, be highly focused and potentially high end. You opt to create something that is above the average. Custom builders and boutique brands sit in this realm. It’s a slow road of hard work and dedication, quite often the returns are small (no one’s getting rich) but satisfying as there is a true passion behind the motivation. The second option, the other road if you will, to take is volume, made in Asia. Elect to play this game and you are playing with the big boys in their big pond and as such you need to step up, or step off. There is no room for half way here, you are going to commit to production budgets, production runs, staff, advertising and everything that is needed, and demanded, to play in this realm. It’s a high stakes game and everyone on board the team needs to be ‘rock solid’ – there is no room for indecision, it’s commit or die.
‘The Brand’ was neither of these, it was an owner’s ‘dream’ of high end but on a ‘do it for less’ motto. And less is what we did it for, with 2.5 people to design, production manage, market, sell, distribute and service ‘The Brand’. We battled an ingrained culture of ‘over promise and under deliver’, budgets that were drafted, approved, then 3 months later abandoned, and a constantly moving set of goal posts. But I’m a stubborn bastard and the team and I thought, despite of these conditions, we could eek it through; we almost did.
From the time we got the ‘YES’, furious work begun a line of new platforms. Some of the industry’s best were involved in the design process and we teamed up with a very reluctant factory to get the line out the door. By April 2010 though, it became apparent that the ‘internal’ problems with the owners were proving to be a barrier. commitments were withdrawn and operational parameters changed not once, but twice within a year. What should have been the ultimate working environment fast started to show that it was becoming a massive hinderance.
2010 was going to start with nothing but several racks full of ‘new-old’ stock, already 2+ years old and the new line, was still some time off (on an ever expanding timeline). ‘The Brand’ as a result had nothing immediately new to offer an ever increasingly over saturated market. So, in late 2009 over cries of ‘why are there no sales’ (unsurprisingly no one wanted new-old stock at ‘new’ prices), a ‘fill-in’ platform that we could have in place for early summer 2010 was conceived. The 26″ XC carbon bike was designed to rapidly fill a hole and reach into a lost market segment, one that was vital to ‘The Brand’ if it were to fulfil the ‘desires’ of the owners. But by Interbike 2010 there was still no signs of delivery, and the Interbike expedition ended up being a stroll through the forest, rather than a mop up selling mission. Continued hold up after hold up, followed by excuse after excuse, kept on pushing back the delivery date so that the initial 90 days (from April 2010) soon became almost 8 months! Finally in January 2011, in the midst of a long northern winter, the GFC, a very flat US economy, and the emergence of the 29er as ‘the bike to have in 2011’, the shipment arrived, over priced (creative numbers from the owners) and now well out of sync.
To add to the now seemingly impossible situation, the owner’s new added proviso was to sell the entire load in 150 days, even before the 2011 season had got into swing AND with no dealer network in place…
But things started to look good, finally. After almost a full 6 months of delays, the prototype frames were ready to show at the Taipei Cycle Show in March 2011. That then flowed into Sea Otter and from nothing, ‘The Brand’ began building momentum, gaining attention, and what was zero interest, became a lot of interest. Much of the new-old stock had been sold off, generating more sales in one season than ‘The Brand’ had seen in several years and after years in the wilderness, ‘The Brand’ started to get back on its feet. What I think about many dealers attitudes and demands aside, we were now seeing positive movement and internationally people began knocking, asking to place preliminary orders; keeping in mind that the new product had yet to receive any press ‘ride’ reviews.
And then it went all shit shaped as for the fourth time in two years, the goal posts were moved… again.
Soon after Sea Otter 2011, with the very (unsurprisingly) slow movement of the XC Bike stock, the owners quietly cancelled all production orders behind the team’s back. I got a lot of calls asking WTF and it was not until we confronted the owners that we were informed of another new caveat: “You have to sell 50% of the special editions before we start production”. To put this into perspective, The total Limited Edition run of 150 odd frames was expected to arrive shortly after Sea Otter 2011, it ended up arriving at the start of December and as such, vital review and press windows were all missed or off the mark; advertising spend went to waste as adverts in several key magazines advertised product that refused to show up on time! To make matters even worse, we were told that the owner’s parent company was to handle all the quality control for the run – they did not want us doing it. This had become a game of Russian Roulette, with a single chamber weapon.
We were, for all intents and purposes, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Dealers, local and international, wanted production delivery dates, yet we could not even tell them when we expected the initial limited editions to turn up. The owners wanted to presell, yet we had nothing to pre-sell or even send out for review to generate interest.
Regardless, we pressed on and online direct orders started to come in, even before the bikes were on the water from Taiwan. We worked out a new plan based on the new, current, scenario and while it was tight, the window was still there. As such we hit Interbike 2011 with production samples and the line never looked so good. While the positioning of ‘The Brand”s stand at Interbike was less than ideal, interest was strong and people found us. Dealers were interested and while we still did not have a firm eta. for the Limited Editions, things were looking up.
Then IT happened.
After an uncomfortable dinner with the owner, he informed us he was coming around with ‘a friend’ the following morning. That he did, and alarmingly said friend, and owner of a small, old school brand, knew all our wholesale numbers. Yes, we were alarmed and when I asked the owner who this guy was, he looked me in the eye with a smile and said ‘oh he’s an old customer of mine’. After the meeting, ‘The Brand’s’ COO went and asked the owner what that was all about and it was then he said he was looking at selling ‘The Brand’, but we were not to be told.
The world is a small place and through a very strange set of circumstances, in mid December I found out what was going on. The owner had decided that he was going to hand ‘The Brand’ over to ‘his friend’ to control, apparently this friend could run the show for even less than what we had been. When we confronted the owners the first time, they said nothing. When we confronted them a second time, this time pointing out what we knew as more information came to me, it took them two days to tell us that it was all not true an everything was business as usual. 10 minutes later, they contacted the COO in the US and asked him to fire everyone effective immediately.
Was I shocked or relived? Somewhat a bit of both. The owner’s company had got into a massive fight with the factory, which anyone will tell you is exactly not what to do with factories that 1. you desperately need, 2. you already screwed over once and 3. you depend on for your production. Of the stock that did arrive in the warehouse, it seemed that around 30% had some sort of defects, as our worst case level of what we would deem acceptable was about 200% different than what the owner’s company thought was acceptable. And to top it off, with the fight, delivery dates of the two most important platforms, the DH and 29er bikes were pushed so far back into 2012, that suddenly ‘The Brand”s new line was totally unviable for 2012, becoming 2013… if they were lucky.
There are lessons to be learnt but just what depends on where you sit. For me, more than ever I feel that to do something, anything, you should be passionate about it; something especially true about anything to do with bikes. Sure, you can come at it strictly from a numbers point of view but the danger is, as I constantly saw, was that you’d never understand the nuances of something like the bicycle market, thus make decisions that do not sit harmoniously with the erratic nature of the industry. Bikes and everything to do with them should remain in the realm of people who are passionate about the, and ride them, if you want to make big dollars, investing in a bicycle brand is probably not the best way to do it… probably the worst actually.
The ultimate irony in all of this is that this year Santa Cruz dropped the ‘Bronson’ onto the market with unabashed rave reviews from whoever rides it. Apart from the 27.5 wheels, I realised that the geometry employed is almost identical to what we used on one of our bikes, penned on paper in 2010 and out of the factory at the end of 2011.
Footnote: It came to me that after ‘The Brand’ pretty much folded and all the ‘new’ stock was liquidated in 2012, it has since been sold off again to yet another owner. I wish them the best of luck.