Fortified Bicycle Defender theft proof six gun commuter bike light

Original Theft-Proof Defender Bike Light

I bet you have a really great bike product idea. Cleaner gear shifting, better pedals, lighter shocks, glow-in-the-dark tires, tastier supplements, smart-phone performance tracking. You watched countless Shark Tank episodes and Kickstarter videos and thought, “Hey, I can do this.”

When we launched Fortified Bicycle in 2012 we had lots of ideas, too. Like most ideas, ours were borne out of a problem. In our case the problem was bicycle gear wasn’t designed for urban cyclists. Our first bike light product came after a friend had his light stolen. Riding home that night he was hit by a driver who couldn’t see him. So we made the world’s first anti-theft bike light and it got our company off the ground.

Everyone told us not to do it, and they had genuinely good and persuasive reasons: the bicycle industry is really tough; making products in the U.S. is too expensive but if you make it overseas the Chinese will copy you; and so on. Our favorite came from an industry veteran: “How do you make a million dollars in the bike industry? Start with $10 million.”

Well, we did it anyway. And because we’re teachers at heart, we’ve shared our battle-learned lessons during guest lectures at MIT and Boston University, and in past articles. Now, we’re teaming up with Bikerumor to bring these lessons to future bike entrepreneurs in a new series. Let’s get started…

Lesson #1 – Turn your pain into your idea

Many of the best products are borne out of frustration with the status quo. The advent of mountain biking is the classic example, as described in MIT Professor Eric Von Hippel’s book Democratizing Innovation: “In the early 1970s … some young cyclists started to use their bicycles off-road. Existing commercial bikes were not suited to this type of rough use, so early users put together their own bikes. They used strong bike frames, balloon tires, and powerful drum brakes designed for motorcycles. They called their creations ‘clunkers.’” In fact, von Hippel’s studies show that “82% of novel function innovations are developed by users.”

What does this mean to you? Simple: big companies aren’t usually the ones coming up with the best innovations. Small, independent entrepreneurs like you and I are. In Fortified’s case we found pain around bike light theft. Find your bicycling pain, then figure out how to eliminate that pain, and your idea will be born.

Lesson #2 – Find out if others share your pain

You found your pain, have a solution, and now it’s time to see if others share that pain. Many entrepreneurs skip this step and say, “I bike every day, I am the market and I know what the market needs.” Steve Blank talks about this in his book on customer research, The Four Steps To the Epiphany. Blank writes, “an intelligent opinion is still a guess and the dumbest person with a fact trumps anyone with an opinion. There are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside.”

Another common misstep is thinking “I did my market research online and found a compelling study.” Market research is a full-contact sport. Don’t hide behind a computer screen. Go outside and talk to customers.

bicycle-customer-research

Hit the pavement (or races) and conduct hundreds of customer interviews.

Lesson #3 – Start qualitative, then go quantitative

Mark Ritson, our favorite MIT marketing professor drilled this idea into our heads: “It takes courage to talk to customers but you have to do it.” Ritson reminded us, “First the qualitative, then the quantitative.” Interview customers (qualitative) before you create surveys (quantitative).

Once we spoke with hundreds of customers we honed in on what questions to ask in a survey. We carefully crafted an eight-question survey with the precision of a neural surgeon. The data was worth it’s weight in gold: we learned that one in three city cyclists have had their lights stolen and 84% reported they unclip and forget their bike lights at work.

This data gave us the confidence to start investing real time and small money. We learned about hacking together prototypes on a shoestring – a topic we’ll cover in our next post, followed by more tips and lessons to help you get your own idea off to a great start. In the meantime, please give us feedback. What topics should we cover in this “how to start a bike company series?”

11 comments

  1. MattS on

    I’d like to read you thoughts on distribution models. For example, Flo wheels are distributed directly, and on a pre-order basis. In contrast, most other brands sell directly while maintaining inventory, to distributors, or straight to dealers. What is unique – I think – about Flo is that they pre-sell their wheels (at least the popular ones), thereby maintaining liquid inventory, and they do virtually no marketing. Their prices are also quite low. Is their model one to emulate? Sometimes? How might a new brand work through this decision?

    Reply
  2. Andrew on

    Distribution models are interesting. Direct to consumer companies such as Flo essentially erode at the potential margin (by pricing almost equal to their marginal cost of production) in order to gain volumes. In the long term, this will return almost zero economic profits because of overhead and longer term service commitments (warranty, over the phone support, etc).

    Also, I’ve talked with Tivon before about the lights – he’s incredibly passionate and probably one of the best in-industry sales reps I’ve met. I certainly plan on ordering some lights from him come spring time.

    Reply
  3. Sam Lowe on

    So smart. So no-nonsense. And so encouraging to those of us with a bike startup. Thanks for nudging some better thinking here. There’s no substitute for just getting out there and making things happen. Looking forward to the continuation.

    Reply
  4. Jeff on

    I like the idea of doing more on the challenges of distributing straight to consumers vs supporting local bike shops to sell your products.

    Reply
  5. Slava Menn on

    Thanks for the support, everyone. We’re revealing a lot in this series and the positive comments encourage us to reveal even more. David and Matts – awesome questions about distribution. We have answers but they are too long to put into a comment. We will make the 3rd or 4th article about how we tackled distribution. Hint: we heart indy bike shops.

    Prototyping is the topic for December!

    Reply
  6. Peter Kortvel on

    Thanks Slava for nice words. I am looking forward for the next posts. We are based in Slovakia and it’s really hard to find suppliers which can (and want to) supply a small company… whether its packaging, bike parts etc. But the hardest thing is to find time and motivation to work on a bike project even after work.

    Reply

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