Urban biking — commuting, especially, but also just tooling around or whatever else you might want to do in a city on two wheels — is growing greatly, but it can still be intimidating, inconvenient, or unpleasant.
There are plenty of bike evangelists out there (I’m probably one of them) willing to list the reasons you should get out on that bike. But there’s also a community of Makers who are building products to subtly tear down these barriers to entry. And as they do, they’re experimenting with ways to bring crowdfunded products in front of would-be cyclists and refine and distribute products, challenges not unique to bike products, but common among hardware startups, especially post-crowdfunding.
But back to the bikes. There’s a huge number of products available, in crowdfunding, or waiting for fulfillment that are driving a mini hardware revolution of sorts. Clever designs and new materials and technology are making bikes safer, more convenient, and easier to use. Lights, locks, helmets, clothing, and even the bikes themselves are all having success — sometimes huge success — on Kickstarter.
“We all want people to commute,” says Kent Frankovich, CEO and founder of Revolights. “We all want people to ride their bikes.”
Revolights plays a central role in this trend. The company is a Kickstarter-initiated startup that makes LED rings that install on bike rims and project light forward and backward, onto the pavement and up toward cars, behind and on the side. Frankovich says Revolights has become a de facto center of a small community of like-minded bicycle startups that have graduated from Kickstarter and are figuring out what to do next.
“We’re all going toward the same goal, and almost all of us are doing totally different stuff,” says Frankovich. “So I feel like there’s a big enough pool for us to all swim in.”
Revolights’ “Kickstarter alumni crew” includes an integrated light/helmet combo called Torch, a highly designed crafted steel and brass bell from Spurcycle, a wheel-mounted generator called Atom, and more. Some of these products appear on Revolights’ curated product store, others have consulted on electronics solutions, and many came together to go in on an expensive Interbike booth, to show off their products in an optimal location at that trade show. Many are located in the San Francisco area, so they have regular meetups to discuss challenges.
Spurcycle’s brother pair Nick and Clint Slone share vendor contacts with like-minded bike companies. They collaborate on social media and set up joint photoshoots. They share and wear gear with their peer companies. “We’re all trying to make a big impact on a little budget,” Nick says. “The mentorship incubators provide isn’t always offered to those with moderate growth projections.” Thus, they rely on conversations with teams like Torch and Revolights.
“It was nice to talk shop with guys who had been through it already because we could all laugh at the struggle that it is to create something for mass production from an idea,” says Nathan Wills, founder of Torch. “Past the simple idea of sharing events or helping to spread the word about one another’s brands, we’ve also been able to compare marketing strategies, retail contacts, and even interest from possible investors.” Frankovich helped on the design for Torch.
It’s a creative way to address the “life after Kickstarter” conundrum that many hardware startups are faced with. Revolights itself is almost a wholesale example of the different methods available to fledgling companies. They built their product and shipped it to backers — all 900 sets, some $215,000 worth of funding. They built new versions and ran more Kickstarter campaigns, successful and unsuccessful, including a collaboration with Mission Bicycles for full bikes with Revolights installed. Frankovich quit his job designing medical products, and moved into a space in Emeryville, California. They got bank loans and Series A funding. They reached an agreement with REI for full retail distribution. They even went on Shark Tank and walked away with double the investment they asked for.
Prior to that, Frankovich’s story is similar to a lot of Makers who come up with a good idea and realize people want it. Dissatisfied with the light he mounted to his helmet, he brainstormed ways to get the light closer to the ground, where the difference in angle from his eye line would make bumps and other features stand out better. So he conceived of LEDs mounted to his spokes, and laser cut brackets to place them there, as well as a hub-mounted case for the battery and the electronics that would control which lights were on. (A Hall Effect sensor ensures that only the lights facing forward turn on, so as the wheel spins, the light points the right direction.)
Newer versions have the LEDs mounted in a plastic ring that mounts on either side of the rim. An ATmega chip helps control the lights, including a rear version that flashes when it slows down.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure is improving — bike lanes, office showers, trains that accept bikes, etc., are making bike commuting more reasonable, says Frankovich. The industry, both legacy and startup, still has a role to play: “I think it’s up to people to find the pain points and address them,” he says.
“It feels great to be designing a solution rather than re-styling the problem and everyone in the cycling community is simply awesome,” says Wills. “They absolutely appreciate the transparency Torch and most brands started on crowdfunding can have.”