So you want to start your own bike brand?

So you want to start your own bike brand?

When Dutch prodigy Mathieu van der Poel slipped down the start ramp of the Stage 1 time-trial at this year’s Tour de France, it was aboard a state-of-the-art Canyon Speedmax TT bike. This futuristic aero superbike is the result of years of research and development, meticulous design and rigorous testing.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also the work of a brand that, by founder Roman Arnold’s own admission, had humble beginnings, selling simple bikes built around rebadged Taiwanese frames.

This route isn’t an uncommon one for new bike brands to follow. Step one: find a reputable vendor and choose a frame design. Step two: select your components and build the bikes. Step three: slap your logo on. Step four: profit.

Anyone with the money can buy a plane ticket to the Far East and recruit a third-party manufacturer to supply them with bicycle frames, which begs the question: couldn’t anyone create their own bike brand?

One handy tool that Canyon’s Arnold had on his side when he first set out was experience. He had enjoyed a short road racing career, owned a successful bike shop and even worked in Asia, allowing him to see how the industry operates from the inside. But is a background like this a prerequisite for starting a bike brand, or is it enough to simply love bikes and have a vision?

‘Unlikely,’ says Will Pearson, director of British bike brand Pearson. ‘Not unless you’re very lucky or have another source of knowledge to help guide the brand. It’s probably best to spend time working in another bike business to learn the ropes. The love of bikes counts for a lot but won’t make you successful in the industry on its own.’

Photo: Mike Massaro

That may be true, but it shouldn’t necessarily put the newcomer off following their dream of starting a bike brand. As Pearson suggests, for those who don’t have experience already, the next best thing is to go out and find it. That’s exactly what Spoon Customs founder Andy Carr did when he quit his city job to move to the mountains and learn how to make bikes.

‘In my opinion, whether you want to make bikes in carbon or steel, or 3D-print them, whether you’re going to file and join the tubes yourself or pay someone to do it for you, you need to understand how it’s made and what the limitations of the technology you’re using are,’ says Carr. ‘You need to know what “good” looks like. That’s the difference between winging it and doing it properly, especially if you’re asking other people to handle aspects of the process for you.’

In the frame

The foundation of any bike is its frame, and unless you happen to be a master framebuilder yourself, you’re going to have to enlist the services of a third-party supplier to get your new bike brand off the ground.

Only a small handful of established names, such as Giant and Factor, have the facilities to design and produce their own carbon fibre frames in-house. The next best option, and the one which most big-name brands go for, is to design a frame and have a third-party manufacturer, usually in Asia, create a custom mould.

Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily feasible for a fresh-faced independent brand. First and foremost, it’s costly. A complete size run of custom moulds can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, and that’s before factoring in the cost of the frame design itself.

Photo: Mike Massaro

Thankfully, there are other ways to create frames for a new bike brand. Carr, for example, went down the custom-build route, electing to build bikes tube-to-tube in order to make his frames to the customer’s exact specifications. To do this, he works with a number of Italian factories to produce his components and tubing and to fabricate his frames. This results in some truly beautiful, one-of-a-kind bikes, but they have to be priced accordingly. Spoon bikes are expensive.

So, how can a fledgling brand create its own carbon fibre bikes at a much cheaper price? The most obvious answer is to use what’s referred to in the industry as an ‘open mould’.

Ian Crocker is one bike brand owner who has opted to go down this route with his brand Forwards. Working in this way allows Crocker to build high-quality carbon fibre bikes to a high spec while keeping prices competitive.

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‘The term “open mould” refers to a selection of frame designs that anyone can use to build their own bike or to start a bike brand,’ says Crocker. ‘The suppliers that offer open mould as an option will generally have a selection of frames available from which you can choose to suit the purpose of the bike. If I want to make a gravel bike, I can go to their gravel selection of frames and I’ll be able to choose from that.’

Finding a supplier used to be a case of hopping on a plane to the Far East and visiting factories, but in the age of remote working and online meetings, that process can be expedited without the need to leave the house, let alone the country.

When Crocker was first setting the wheels in motion for his own brand, the supplier he ended up going with offered him a video tour of its facilities and even shipped out sample frames for him to build up as prototypes. In fact most suppliers will go even further.

Photo: Fred MacGregor

‘We can provide services such as manufacturing, branding, paintwork, testing, quality control and shipping,’ explains Coby Hu, a sales representative from Chinese manufacturer Hongfu Bikes. ‘For an order of 500 to 800 road frames, the lead time is around two to three months. Obviously this depends on the complexity of the chosen frame design, and the exact lead time will be confirmed after reaching a deal. Repeat orders are slightly faster.’

It seems like a no-brainer, but because an open mould bike is not unique to any one brand, there’s still a certain stigma attached that puts some people off. It shouldn’t. Many of these frames are made in the same factories that produce carbon fibre frames for big-name brands, by skilled workers who really understand their medium.

‘For someone like myself, it means I can go to a manufacturer that’s established in the art of carbon fibre, that knows it inside out, and I don’t have the upfront cost of paying designers and setting up my own moulds,’ explains Crocker.

Breaking the mould

Open-mould or not, the bike industry is a saturated market. This means it’s absolutely vital for a new brand to establish a point of difference in order to break through, particularly for those opting to use cookie-cutter frames.

Spoon Customs’ unique selling point is that it offers high-end bikes with custom geometry. Because the bikes are built tube-to-tube, every millimetre can be tailored to fit the individual.

‘We make a bike for you, designed around your needs,’ says Carr. ‘It’s illogical to think the other way results in a better bike, regardless of all the marketing that wants us to think it does.’

Photo: Mike Massaro

For Forwards’ Crocker, it’s more about offering the best possible spec at a reasonable price and making each individual customer the centre of his universe for the duration of their build.

‘That’s my point of difference,’ he says. ‘I want to completely blow that customer away with the sheer level of service and customisation. From having that first coffee and talking through the build to collecting their dream bike, it’s one-to-one the whole way. Just myself and the customer. That’s something bigger brands simply can’t offer.’

Money talks

Unfortunately, even the best and most unique idea is useless if there’s no capital to back it up. Starting a bike brand is an expensive affair, and that’s before all of the hidden costs, unexpected pitfalls and general financial instability that goes hand in hand with any new business.

‘There’s an old saying in this business,’ says Pearson. ‘How do you make one million in the bike industry? Start with two. We’ve seen plenty of enthusiastic cyclists enter the market to do something they love and have a hard time. Research the market thoroughly first and formulate a plan that can keep your credit going. Cash is king and it’s essential to carve your niche.’

Sourcing product alone is a significant expense. Hu of Hongfu Bikes tells Cyclist that the approximate cost of a raw carbon road frame is between $500 and $700 (£400-£600). Admittedly, this comes down slightly for bulk orders.

‘One of the large brands we work with might confirm an annual order of 800 units for a new bike,’ says Hu. ‘They will need to test samples at first, then go to mass production once they have confirmed the samples are OK. These big brands always choose to have their own private moulds. For a new bike brand, they will likely choose an open mould frame at first. The minimum order quantity is roughly 200 to 400 units.’

Photo: George Marshall

‘Then there’s running R&D, paying for stock, replenishing stock, insurances and guarantees,’ adds Pearson. ‘You’ll also need to market and put a distribution model in place – it all goes into the overheads and requires good cashflow.’

There are plenty of costs that are more difficult to predict too, as many bike brands found out during the Covid pandemic. Crocker wound up having to sink tens of thousands into stock when supply chain issues hit, just to ensure he had parts he may or may not need on his shelves.

‘I really didn’t want to put that much money into it because, well, it’s scary,’ says Crocker. ‘I had all the groupsets on my shelves, in every conceivable combination, along with different size stems, bars and saddles. So that was something I didn’t expect and it really caught me out.

‘Escalating costs is another one. Since starting, my frames have gone up in price, my shipping for the frames has gone up in price and my paint has gone up three times now. As a brand you hold on to your pricing for as long as you can, but there’s a limit and at some point you’re forced to increase it to soak up some of those costs.’

It’s not an easy road, but with experience, planning, commitment and persistence, it can be a rewarding one. Owning a successful bike brand is a dream for many cyclists. It’s a way to turn a passion into a profession and, for a lucky few, a lucrative business that will set them up for life.

From small beginnings

Forwards and Canyon are two brands at two different stages of their lives, but they both started in much the same way.

‘One hundred per cent, Canyon started exactly the same as I’ve started,’ says Crocker. ‘Roman Arnold went to a factory, got open mould frames and that’s how it all began. They weren’t carbon fibre frames at the very beginning, but the process is the same.’

Photo: Mike Massaro

Canyon started just under 20 years ago out of a bike shop in Germany. Today the brand supplies bikes for the WorldTour, sells to customers all over the world and reported annual sales figures of €400 million (£350 million) in 2020.

‘It’s an extreme example but it illustrates what’s possible when the stars align for a new brand.

So, how do you know if you’ve got what it takes to forge a name for yourself in the bike industry? According to Carr, there’s only one way to know for certain: ‘Start. Whatever you’re dreaming of doing, you have to start.

‘You’ll never find the right moment, have enough money, know enough or finish the business plan. Bikes are no different to anything else in that sense. Just start.’

Nuggets of wisdom

Hard-earned tips and tricks for any aspiring bike brand

Photo: Mike Massaro

Andy Carr, CEO, Spoon Customs

‘If you’re thinking of going bespoke, know that it is hard. If you want to do something well you need good people who are well paid, with the space and autonomy to take time on the details. Fitting, design and fabrication all take a lot of time to get right.

‘For example, there’s at least 11 hours in our simplest paint schemes. I’d echo Will and say customer experience is important too. It’s not easy to keep in touch with 57 people all at the same time, but you have to do it.

‘Then again, if you want to start a volume brand, it’s a whole different set of challenges. I’d suggest putting some money into working out how you’re going to market your brand, and why. Make sure you stand out and stand for something.

‘After that your cash is going to go into samples, then eventually you’re going to need to back yourself with some inventory from a vendor you can work with long term, who can grow with you.’

Will Pearson, director, Pearson

‘Gaining the trust of a customer is key. There are many bike brands out there that come and go seemingly overnight – it’s relatively easy to pull an open mould carbon frame in from the Far East – but provenance is everything.

‘Customers not only care about support, but also why you bring a particular model to market. Credibility and accountability count for a lot and it’s very difficult to succeed without them.’

Ian Crocker, owner, Forwards

‘Go the extra mile. I want to make sure my bikes have the right spec for each customer. I want every contact point to feel incredible, and I choose top-of-the-line components from brands I know have good supply chain depth. If a customer has a problem, I can source a part and get them back on the road quickly.

‘The value of customisation cannot be understated. Give customers a place to visit, an experience. When a customer comes into the shop I don’t just choose them a frame size, I give them a full bike fit and a consultation.

Make buying a bike like buying a tailor-made suit. My customers can even pick a custom finish, and so far almost no two Forwards bikes have ended up the same, which I think is a real advantage to set a brand apart.’

Main image: Fred MacGregor

So you want to start your own bike brand?

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