The feel and performance of a bike depends heavily on its wheels, which probably explains why the bicycle industry is heavily populated by wheel brands. There’s no doubt that brands such as Zipp, HED, Shimano, Campagnolo, Mavic and others put a lot of R&D and testing into their product and have seen their innovations trickle down over the years to allow smaller players to have access in their technology.
The shift to factory-built wheelsets over the last decade has helped small wheel brands as much as the rise of Asian manufacturing. At the same time, the growth of online trading has eroded geographical barriers, providing new businesses with an immense marketplace. So with ready access to manufacturers and the promise of ongoing demand, all that a new wheel brand needs is a catchy name and a great logo, right?
To get some insight on the effort required to start up and run a small wheel brand, I interviewed Sean Wai from Soul in Signapore, Adam Lana from Curve Cycling in Australia, and Tristan Thomas from Wheelworks in New Zealand. Each of these businesses has adopted a different approach in developing their products but the experience of each demonstrates that there many challenges that a small wheel brand must contend with.
What prompted you to create your own brand of wheels?
Sean Wai (Soul): When I first started 10 years ago, starting your own brand in the bicycle industry was unheard of at the scale and investment that we put in, which is to say very little. You had to have really deep pockets to start your own brand. At that point, the bicycle industry in Taiwan was just starting out, there were almost no bicycle factories in China and the factories in Taiwan were huge. Everyone wanted really large minimum orders in the excess of 100 pairs of anything. Heck we couldn’t even order spokes as they wanted 5000 pieces as a minimum per size.
I was really bored at that time and was at crossroads of my life. I had started my architecture business and was busy but very unhappy. I was riding a lot then and was wondering why things were so expensive and why there were such limited brands in the bicycle industry. At that time, there was only Mavic, Campagnolo…. Shimano didn’t have wheels then and Zipp were even unheard of. Then at that time, Alex wheels were starting to come out of Taiwan and I was very interested as to how they could make wheels about half the price of Mavics. So I explored all the vendors in Taiwan and I eventually found a couple that were willing to work with me with some small sample orders. These were companies that were off-shoots of bigger guys and were hungry for business and gave the small guy a chance hoping that everyone would grow up together.
Tristan Thomas (Wheelworks): When I started Wheelworks in 2006 the options for good wheels were limited, especially in the smaller New Zealand and Australian markets. I’d always been fascinated with wheels and their ability to transform a bike. A mediocre bike can be turned into a great bike with the right wheels, and visa-versa where a great bike can be turned mediocre with the wrong wheels. I liked the technical challenge of building good wheels which would perform well but also last, and the time seemed right to start a business doing what I loved.
Adam Lana (Curve): About 6-7 years ago, Curve was born after founder and product developer Steve Varga had a burning desire to cut through the BS presented via marketing departments and punters on internet forums… he wanted to see for himself what the noise about “going direct” versus big brand was all about. What started as a hobby, turned into an obsession and then into a brand.
What sort of obstacles did you encounter?
Tristan Thomas: Over the 8 years I think we’ve encountered most of the challenges that face all businesses. We’ve had issues with suppliers, with products, with currency fluctuations, competitors, customers… you name it. The last couple of years my main challenge has been growing the business and the number of customers we interact with while keeping the level of focus, service and personalisation they receive really high.
Sean Wai: Frankly the list is endless. Running a small business mostly alone has its share of challenges. When we first started naturally capital was an issue. Then trying to work out how we would sell wheels, branding, marketing etc…. You also have to remember that selling wheels on the internet then was not a very acceptable thing. We started with a couple of wheels locally to some friends, out the back of a storeroom in a friend’s house. Quality then was no issue, but we were hand-assembling things and the wheels then were very very simple and generic.
Once we got serious and started to design our own components and getting molds made and getting really technical that was when the issues started coming out.
Adam Lana: During the early stages of sourcing Steve was bombarded by the sheer volume and variation of product available through online sourcing websites such as Alibaba.com, Aliexpress, Made-in-china.com, Taiwantrade.com.tw etc. So at first it was simple contacting, buying and then doing some initial trailing and inspection of wheels. This is where saw some horrible stuff come through: de-laminated wheels straight out of the box, wheel builds that would essentially be upside down… basically stuff coming from factories that actually had no idea about cycling.
Once we had settled on the better and more co-operative manufacturers, we tested rims them up against some big brands in the same category. Our results were very comparable and we learnt a lot about carbon, its beauty and its faults and weaknesses. We also learnt a lot about what some brands were not saying about their product.
Do you work with OEM (original equipment manufacturer) or ODM (original design manufacturer)?
Tristan Thomas: OEMs and ODMs approach us for feedback on their designs and help with various problems, but generally we leave the component manufacturers to do what they do best, and we focus on improving the wheelbuilding process and the customer service experience, which are the two areas that we can do best.
Sean Wai: This is a very misconceived notion. We work with factories. We started buying what they call Open Models which are basically moulds owned by the factories and sold freely to anyone. But we now own our own moulds and designs that can only be produced for us. We can also move moulds to other factories to make our designs.
Adam Lana: Initially, when we asked the question regarding exclusive products, all manufacturers wanted to do was to sell us exclusive moulds. But for a small start up, investing in exclusive tooling is not cheap and then we risk our exclusive mold not actually being better than what was already available.
What sort of warranty do you offer? How much responsibility do you assume for a faulty wheel versus that offered by the supplier/manufacturer?
Sean Wai: 1-year unlimited and 2-year limited. Once wheels are sold, they are our responsibility. Any issue arising from manufacturing will be dealt with between us and our vendors, it has nothing to do with the end consumer. Another reason to have a good working relationship with them as stock sometimes sits in warehouse for longer than that period.
Adam Lana: We offer a 2-year warranty. Our factory partners and Curve Cycling have been extremely responsive to any issue that we or our customers have found with wheels. Thankfully the issues have been minimal, but as with the nature of our business, yes there have been some and our response has been quick to refund or replace in favour of the customer.
Tristan Thomas: If a customer has an issue, we’ll take care of it. Any recourse that we get from our suppliers is secondary – the customer didn’t buy from our suppliers they purchased from us and it’s important that they’re treated fairly.
Your products readily compete with the big brands on the basis of price and weight, so all that is lacking is reputation. How can you convince a customer to trust your brand and its products?
Adam Lana: Try them, take them for a demo, read the reviews, ask people who’ve used them.
Sean Wai: If you need to convince a customer then half the battle is already lost. The brand has it’s own core values and if they don’t sing to the customer it’s best not to try to push the sale through because there is already prejudice on their minds. Our brand stands for value performance. We are the small guys trying to offer big performance at a relatively more affordable price, so if that does not convince the customer then frankly they aren’t looking for those qualities.
Tristan Thomas: The advantage of being small is…. that we’re small. You’re able to pick up the phone or email and talk to the person who will be building your wheels. It’s a very personal relationship and even though we’ve never met most of the customers we sell to we feel an extremely high level of commitment to the customer. In all our internal processes we use the customer name (rather than invoice number) to keep us aware that these wheels are destined for a person once they leave us.
I think much like builders or tradespeople the phrase “you’re only as good as your last job” holds true. We spend time and money on making people happy rather than adverts.
Do you have liability protection to run your business?
Tristan Thomas: Absolutely. From day we’ve had more than enough insurance that should anything happen both the customer and ourselves are well covered should something happen.
Adam Lana: Yes, of course. It always was a big concern of ours knowing that a product failure can result in serious injury. So beyond testing the product on ourselves, this is the next best thing. At the moment, our liability does not cover the USA, but that’ll happen.
Sean Wai: We just don’t sell enough wheels to justify it.
Is it necessary to conduct your own quality control?
Sean Wai: Naturally. Bicycles although simple are relatively technical, there are many things that can go wrong.
Adam Lana: Absolutely. As Adrian Jackson (Elite MTB, CX and Road rider) put it, “Curve have put their teeth on line, so you don’t have to worry about yours”. We don’t take kindly to shit products. One of our co-founders is Jesse Carlson, an ultra marathon rider, age group BMX world champ, has a physics PhD, and is director of an investment firm. Jesse doesn’t put up with failure, and ultimate real world testing is an example of standards that we expect.
Then we have an amazing group of experienced test riders around us: guys and gals that have been racing, riding, fixing and breaking stuff since the 80’s. People like Allan Iacuone who has been riding and racing on our CX and road wheels. Pat’s Veg
NRS team, Adrian Jackson, and plenty more. And we were lucky enough to have some sound advice from Mr Carbon himself, Raoul Lescher, who is a customer, mentor and tester of some products alongside bike mechanic and engineering student Liam Carmody. So a combination of real world testing from riders and experts is needed.
Tristan Thomas: Absolutely. It’s our name on the wheels so if we’re not 100% happy with something then it doesn’t get built into a wheel. The cost of us getting a sub-standard wheelset back, both in terms of customer confidence and in monetary terms, is just too high so we put a lot of focus on integrating and recording quality check points into the various steps of the wheelbuilding process. For example we return any rim that is more than 0.5mm out of round before it’s built – that means measuring each and every rim in three places.
Can you provide some details on your quality control? Do you know how well your program compares with that of the big brands?
Sean Wai: For our brand, and it’s not going to be the same for other smaller brands, we split our operation into two. The big orders are assembled by a third party wheel assembly company. They assemble for the likes of Reynolds among others and in that regard, those are no different from a big brand. The second part are the smaller orders and those are assembled one at a time by us here in Singapore.
Wheel assembly is a QC exercise on itself as each spoke is inserted individually and after assembly all spokes are checked for equal spoke tension. I guess what sets us apart is that we have a few small teams locally riding our wheels and each new wheel is road tested for 6-12 months before production and we continue to monitor them while wheels are being sent out. We are small enough to do running changes and part replacements if we find anything wrong.
Tristan Thomas: When a customer has a problem with one of our wheels it sucks. It sucks for them and it sucks for us. We’d made a promise that a perfect wheelset was going to arrive and we feel personally responsible for that. It also sucks on a business level—the time and cost put into correcting mistakes is massive and is time which we then don’t have to build wheels so it makes a lot of sense on both a personal and business level to make sure things are done right the first time. As a result we put a lot of time into the build and quality control to make sure that when the wheels leave here they’re as close to perfect as possible and that’ll perform that way for many years to come. This was my philosophy when I started the company and as it’s grown we haven’t wavered on our promise of a top performance wheelsets which will be extremely durable.
I won’t go into technical detail because a lot of what we’ve learned over the years is held very close to our chest, but there are intentional QC checks put into our process. By removing these checks we’d build about 3 times as many wheels per day but would have to deal with the occasional problem.
Adam Lana: We have a test routine built in with our factory partners. There is preproduction carbon testing and weighing to ensure the carbon sheets and resin are up to scratch. Through the production process, every step and layer is weighed and checked to ensure consistency. And after production, every rim is measured and goes through a pressure test and is measured again before it gets sent to us. In addition, every 3 days, random samples of the wheels are subject to braking surface testing, spoke tension testing, and an upforward anti-pressure and side-torque test.
We also do some testing with Leuscher Teknik and as our numbers grow we would like to include more regular testing with them.
Product warranties provide new customers with some reassurance, but how can you guarantee that you’ll be able to honour your warranty when so many small brands disappear overnight?
Sean Wai: Next year is coming up to our 10th year anniversary. Our track record and the fact that we are still around probably helps that assurance. We have been around longer than a lot of people have been cycling actually, and we do see people come and go, and funny enough we see a lot of our older wheels come back for servicing and we do that work. It also helps that we try our best to make things backward compatible and we still have parts from when we first started the business.
No brand is guaranteed to be around forever, and that’s what we can’t guarantee. Being such a small outfit we are more prone to sudden closure say for example if I went out riding and got killed by a car tomorrow. But you know, that’s just the nature of the beast.
Tristan Thomas: We’re coming up on 8 years of business and we’re growing year on year. As a business owner and as a company we’re here for the long haul—there is no IPO or quick buck to be made.
Adam Lana: We are in it for the long haul, Curve is already almost 2 years old and over 5 years in the making. We deliberately started small so we can control our product and its range. With our connections, we could have been in some major stores over 12 months ago, but we did not want force our growth and be a flash-in-the-pan business. We have a great returns process with factory partners and it would be very easy to continue and pass onto relevant parties if something were to happen to Curve.
How much risk does a customer face buying from a small brand?
Sean Wai: I’m not going to lie, the risks are high. There is no local support, most bicycle shops will not support a brand they do not sell and will take the first opportunity to tell customers how their products are far superior. A lot of bicycle brands also run very tight margins and hence don’t last very long or don’t offer any form of support if anything goes wrong. I guess the fact that we have been around for so long shows we try to support our customers the best we can and our products are sound.
Adam Lana: Providing that a small brand has done the testing and due diligence to mitigate as much risk as possible, then the next major risk is about understanding carbon and their purchase, and this applies to every brand. A customer needs to understand that carbon is a high performance product that has its limitations… so see through the hype and understand what those limits are.
Tristan Thomas: I think that it depends on the brand. The barriers to entry for a wheelbuilder are being lowered every year and there are plenty of brands that pop up, sell a few wheels, and then fold. With some research it’s easy to find out who can be trusted and who can’t. And if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.