November 6, 2014

Telling the Truth

by Nick Frey

Boo Bicycles’ first prototype was built almost seven years ago.  With humble beginnings, from cutting down the first bamboo on the side of the Delaware River in winter to using Gorilla Glue to keep a failing dropout in place just an hour before a race, we’ve come a long way.

We’ve never really had a company “mission statement”, as is so popular in the startup / entrepreneurial world.  We’ve stayed far away from the “green” sustainability pitch, not wanting to dilute the performance of our chosen frame material.  However, we’ve developed strong company beliefs and practices since we’ve been in business.  I feel that our true mission is finally clear: to tell the truth.

What does this mean?  We’ve slowly built a company around the belief that customers need to know the truth behind the products being sold in the bike industry.

We have many decades of experience, as well as opinions that are based on that experience, and we consider it our duty to share that experience with our customers and dealers so they end up choosing a bike that will perform beautifully in the ways they wish and for the uses they plan.

But that’s more a view just within Boo.  I couldn’t be more proud: everyone is passionate, honest, and helpful, in addition to many other traits.  This is much more than I can say for some of the larger players in the bike industry…

I’ve been racing since 2001.  Lance was winning his third Tour when I was pinning my first race number up in Ames, Iowa at the VEISHA criterium.  I raced the Junior 13-14 race, and I saw stars from pretty much start to finish.  It was the hardest thing I had done to that point, and I was hooked.

Since then I have raced in France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Germany, Japan, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Canada.  I’ve likely done over 1000 race days.  I have won two National Championships, spent three seasons as a UCI Professional, and taken the modicum of success right along all the painful failures.  It was my profession, my livelihood, my career, my love, my single-minded sickness, my religion.

I didn’t start racing to make it a career.  I didn’t get into the bike industry because I had planned on it.  None of this was really planned—it was simply a path that I pursued at the highest level I could, and at all times simply followed my passion.

While this is my story and mine alone, everyone involved at Boo has similar stories—and they are all connected by a common theme: passion.  We are all passionate people…all decisions, actions, and directions follow from that.  We also could all be making money more easily, and making more of it, doing something else.

So we have all agreed, at various times and about various things, that we simply don’t give a shit what others are doing.  We are always curious, and we are inspired by many other companies…but in the end, we are going to do things our own way.  One of these is telling the truth.

We find ourselves competing in an industry that’s reeling from scandal and the loss of a hero, as well as built around “light-and-stiff” as the predominant traits of ‘elite’ bikes.

I’ve been on all sides of this thing, from racing with former and current dopers, on bikes that are lighter-and-stiffer than ever before, to seeing things behind the curtains that 99% of the consuming public does not.

But what’s worse is this: the code of omerta.  For those cycling fans amongst you, this will mean the unwritten code within the sport of professional road cycling that you do not, under ANY circumstances, give up your teammates, directors, doctors, soigneurs, or anyone but yourself in the case you are caught cheating.

But I’m not talking about such a narrow definition for this important word, omerta.  I’m talking about a pervasive Kool-Aid that everyone in the entire industry must drink—from companies, to shops, to media, to teams, to the entire sport and everyone connected to it.

What’s this specific Kool-Aid I’m talking about?  It comes in numerous colors, but they all taste the same: this Kool-Aid is focused on selling what professionals are racing.  The entire bike industry is built around racing sponsorship, which is contorted to impress consumers and translate into a “better product” which in fact has little correlation to anything but the amount of money spent on said marketing.

We’re a very small company, but we’ve raced our Boos since the first official year of the company, in 2009.  My good friend and former Jamis Sutter Home road teammate Tyler Wren impressed many racing his Boos on the UCI cyclocross circuit that fall/winter, and even took top-25 at the USA Cyclocross Pro National Championship and won the infamous Crusher in the Tushar!

I’m a gearhead.  I come from a racing background, so I’ve always believed in its importance in sales, product development, and the bike industry in general.  So it was this difficult coming-to-terms that’s taken this long: racing bikes does not sell bikes, and the bikes most people need are not pure “race bikes” in the first place!

Now we know: competing with the ‘Big Boys’ of the bike industry on their turf is simply not possible, and really does nothing to actually make our product better compared to just beating the hell out of it in our backyard in Colorado.

So how does the small innovator compete?  We build a great product and tell the truth.

The bike industry currently sells Formula One cars to folks hoping to enjoy a nice drive through the mountains.  They convince the man to fit the suit, rather than tailoring the suit to fit the man.  The bike industry is also convinced women simply buy things that are pink, so now they’ve also figured out how to get women to fit their “specific” bikes.

It’s horribly frustrating, telling the truth.  Because what is that?  Whose truth am I telling?  In the end, it’s just our truth, which is clouded by our experiences and worldview, as is everyone’s.

But the big difference is we’re actively trying to get folks onto a bike that will improve their experience, that will help them better enjoy the act of riding.  That is whether you’re tackling 10,000’ feet of climbing on a pure road bike in the mountains, a romp through the woods on singletrack with a drop-bar 29er for a unique challenge, an epic bike-packing adventure in January, or a nighttime gravel ride through the countryside with a small group of friends ending with sushi downtown, still in riding clothes covered in dust.

We don’t tell folks their goals are wrong, or squeeze their goals into a compartment that a certain SKU of bike is supposed to address.  We’ve built Boo around creating bikes specifically made for riders.  This is CUSTOM.  It doesn’t mean we only make custom bikes, or that custom is the only way to get a proper bike.  Far from it!  What it does mean is that the traditional inventory model of most bike shops is totally fucked.  Yes, that’s right—you know when you were a little kid and went to Foot Locker for that hot new pair of Jordans, and they only had a size 11 when you were definitely a 9.5?  And then the guy pulled out the THICK test sock and convinced you that you’d grow into them, even though you both knew you would destroy these shoes within a year and never realize the investment?  Then your parents just gave up and bought them, and you ran around the playground stumbling and scabbing up your knees because those massive kicks were sticking out an inch further than your biggest toe.

That’s pretty similar to what we have in the bike industry right now.  And believe me, I’m NOT ragging on bike shops!  Quite far from it.  That is one of the most difficult businesses to run that I’ve ever learned about or experienced.  The inventory model is one which has become the norm for bike companies to force their dealers into, and this is because of the nature of carbon frame manufacturing as well as the power of inventory over the shop’s business.

Take that first point: carbon frame manufacturing.  A relatively new form of production, it requires massive up-front tooling costs and engineering efforts to create a truly “new” bicycle design (i.e. new carbon molds for all sizes).  The people and machine costs are immense, meaning that first frame popped off the manufacturing assembly line might cost seven figures.  But guess what the second frame costs: oftentimes it’s less than $200.

No, I’m not talking about the “budget” carbon bikes.  I’m talking the best-of-the-best bikes in the world.  They do NOT cost very much to make, after that first one.  The idea that the carbon itself costs a lot, that different grades of carbon influence cost….it’s just blatant lies.  Carbon costs very little, at least how much is being used in a bike frame.  And they are using less and less and charging more and more!

The Cost of Goods Sold, an accounting measurement, is incredibly small.  Most of the cost comes initially with that first frame, so manufacturers must sell many thousands after that first one to recoup their investment.  So guess what happens when you have an industry built around race marketing at the Tour de France, major cyclocross and mountain bike races, and other large bike racing events?  You have to create the all-out lightest and stiffest machine for professionals, but you can’t stop there…you have to convince the entire consumer market that they should be buying that very same bike so you can pay for those molds and engineering hours!

Never mind that consumers have literally nothing in common with Tour racers or other similar professionals: they do not depend on race results to support their families, they do not have a nearly infinite supply of new bikes that they do not personally pay for, and they do not weigh under 150 pounds and put out 400 watts after 14 consecutive days of racing for over five hours a day.  Non-Tour riders also might want a bike that is a little more forgiving, something less like a scalpel and more like a good steak knife—real-world performance, not “ideal conditions race-use only”.

So why should you be riding the bike that Contador is riding?  The answer, sadly: you shouldn’t.  Because guess what, you want a top-level bike?  Well, they are disposable.  And while Contador can snap his frame in many pieces and just pull one of his ten spare bikes from the service course, you can’t—you have to buy a new one.  Because guess what else?  Apparently a “crash” is not something you should ever have as a consumer, and your bike’s manufacturer will not warranty.  But aren’t they supposed to be “Tour-level” bikes?  And don’t the best riders in the world crash in the Tour?  You, as not-the-best-rider-in-the-world, definitely won’t crash, right?  But if you do, you replace it, on your own dime.

If you don’t believe me, Google “carbon frame repair” and you’ll see how rapidly that business has exploded.  As frames get lighter-and-stiffer, using “hi-mod” carbon that is much more brittle and prone to failure under impact, the entire bike industry has pushed this code of omerta: NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, DISCUSS FRAME FAILURE.

I’ve raced on and broken some of the best frames in the world.  And I broke them with more ease and frequency as the years went on.  Worse crashes?  Well, although impossible to say worse or not, I do know that as frame weights came down, frame failures went up.  It’s quite simple from an engineering perspective: when you have removed all extra material while designing for certain load paths, then have a point load that was not anticipated (i.e. any crash), the failure rate will be significantly higher.

So guess what, dealer/racer?  You can NEVER SPEAK OF THIS TRUTH.  I’m not telling some truth that’s just my opinion.  I’m talking about facts—increased rate of frame failures—and these are facts that I could never discuss while I raced professionally.  You know what’s really sad?  I’ve broken a number of carbon bikes from a number of different manufacturers, and I know all my fellow racers broke even more bikes from even different manufacturers.  It was such a joke that no one could talk about this, since they’d immediately be fired and blacklisted by every team in the sport, but it was pointless anyway because everyone’s bikes broke—this was just part of racing and part of the industry.  Every professional team was on carbon frames, and they all failed, all the time.  So there was no incentive to speak out, because you had no other option.  And you weren’t paying for that shit so what’s the difference?

Well, now we craft Boos and Aluboos for people who pay their hard-earned money for the best bikes we can build.  And I cannot imagine sleeping at night knowing we sold bikes that would fail in crashes.

We have had our share of failures from dropouts and front-derailleur braze-on mounts in the early days, and we spent the tiny amount of additional profit we had making it right by those customers.  We have had a ton of splits in our bamboo, and freaked out because we thought they were failures…until we beat the piss out of those bikes and realized it’s a non-structural material property of bamboo as it adjusts to its environment.  We don’t have trouble discussing these matters, because our frames weigh more than others and they don’t break.  We believe that frames shouldn’t fail, and we also know that moment of inertia (i.e. rotating mass) is by far the most important factor in a bike’s “speed” after considering how the frame handles and feels to its rider.

So now you have a code of omerta that is enforced by the teams and manufacturers, and then you have a business model where the larger manufacturers essentially “showroom” their dealers.  If you’re a (insert name of large bike company) dealer, and you have a single hard year where you can’t pay your massive bill in the middle of the summer, you have the option of getting better terms and better margins!  But guess what…you have to drop most other brands, dedicated a certain percentage (we have heard 90%) of your space to (large bike company), and become a de-facto employee-without-benefits of (large bike company).  So you shove product down customers’ throats, whether they fit or not, whether it’s right for what they want or not, because you have to maintain your business.  Do you enjoy this existence?  Are you happy?  The answer’s no, but the question is never asked because its very contemplation is not an option when the wolves are at the door.

I feel for shops, I really do.  I can’t imagine dealing with manufacturers trying to eat you.  It’s horrible and depressing, and results in nothing good for anyone but the manufacturers.  And it even hurts smaller companies like us, because shops that truly “believe” in Boo cannot sign up in the proper way because their balls are in a vise.  It’s the truth (and most shop owners are men, sorry) and a very sad one.

So we compete by playing a totally different game.  We get a new dealer on board because they believe in us, and we believe in them.  They won’t have a full product line of ours for a long time, if ever.  Because we don’t believe it’s efficient, especially when our bikes come in so many shapes and forms and we can build and ship to-order straight from Colorado.  We believe our dealers are our representatives, there to educate and answer questions about our products.  Not to shove our products down unsuspecting throats!  We don’t force dealers to buy a massive amount of inventory to become “authorized”.  We don’t even have an agreement in place.

Shit, we step off a 1998 Bluebird school bus, pull bikes out, pour some New Belgium, and talk to the mechanics and sales guys about Boo.  We smell like hell, probably look worse, and just speak candidly and tell the truth.  If the shop loves the product, but it doesn’t work with their business (i.e. they probably sell a major Big Brand that takes up most of their space) then we still ride bikes with them on their local trails and drink some beers and connect as lovers of bikes.  And we usually commiserate about everything I’ve just written.  Then we load up and drive through the night to the next shop that we’ve heard wonderful things about.

It’s truly a miracle there are so many amazing shops in the US with these Big Brands putting so many out of business or killing their original goals and ideals.  It’s a testament to the passion of these shop owners, honestly—I’m blown away by the intensity of their devotion to their customers and getting them to more deeply love riding bikes.  We all speak the common language of love for two wheels.

The goal of Boo Bicycles, our “mission statement” of sorts: we tell the truth.  We believe that making a great product, having amazing service, a fantastic network of dealers and representatives…that all stems from the fact that we love bikes and tell the truth.  We don’t bullshit anyone, under any circumstances, EVER.  If I wanted to bullshit, I would work on Wall Street and make more money than our total annual Boo payroll in a few months.

Boo is made of people who all have “better” opportunities, at least monetarily, but come to work every day (usually weekends, too) with a fiery, intense need to make things better in the industry, to help convert hearts and minds and show folks the light of a bike that is better for them and what they do on it.  It might not be a Boo, it might be something else.  We don’t make an all-mountain full-suspension bike, for instance.  We don’t make a 13-pound road bike, either.  But if you tell us that is what you want, we will give our opinion on a better option than a Boo.  That’s the truth, and as customers and riders ourselves, that is what we would hope to get from someone else.  Do unto others, right?

To close this rant, I would like to say that I’m hopeful for the bike industry.  Even with its ugly omerta and the inventory-cannibalism business model, at least folks still go to their local bike shop for their experience and opinions.  Visiting incredible dealers who are still so passionate fuels our thousands of bus miles and gives us energy every day.

Bike dealers have not been eaten by the Internet because there’s a level of expertise and judgement that goes into getting the perfect bike, and shops with passionate owners, partners, and employees will always steer folks in a better direction than the Internet.  For this I’m thankful, and for the ability we have to reach out to, support, and connect with these excellent shops, I’m extremely thankful.