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Spurcycle launched its bicycle bell in August 2013 as so many companies do these days: via the crowdfunding web site, Kickstarter. When the campaign ended, the company had 8000 orders on hand — 16 times what was originally forecast — all thanks to the bell’s distinctive design, small-batch artisan construction, and one hell of a loud ding. Unfortunately, someone in China decided they wanted a piece of the action, too, and there’s nothing Spurcycle can do about it.
Counterfeit product is nothing new to the bike industry. Sites such as Alibaba are flooded with deals that are too good to be true, Specialized employs an entire department tasked with ferreting out imposters, and copycat Pinarellos are so widely found that “Chinarello” is practically its own brand name.
That an unscrupulous business would aim to capitalize on someone else’s earnest work is hardly newsworthy – sadly, this sort of thing happens with shocking regularly. But what Rock Brothers has done to Spurcycle far exceeds any semblance of flattery; it’s more like full-blown identity theft.
How Spurcycle kickstarted a bicycle bell revolution
It’d be quite the understatement to say that Nick and Clint Slone were surprised by the public’s response to their humble Kickstarter campaign. Here they were, hawking a simple bicycle bell proudly made exclusively from US-sourced parts and assembled by hand in the San Francisco Bay Area. After all, how many people would be willing to pay $50 for a bell – or $35 at the discounted Kickstarter rate – regardless of country of origin?
What the Slones didn’t anticipate was how smitten people would be with the beauty of their design. The Spurcycle wasn’t just some noisemaker that politely alerted bystanders of your presence, and Kickstarter backers weren’t just buying a bell. They were buying into the idea that not everything had to be sourced cheaply, that quality still mattered, that even utilitarian items could be beautiful, and that not all products should be disposable.
Indeed, in today’s global economy where manufacturing is often sourced to the most cost-effective bidder, Spurcycle’s story sounded like a romantic throwback to a bygone era. Despite the substantial cost premiums inherent to its business plan, Spurcycle promised wholly US-made components, along with final assembly in the high-tech hotbed of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Our sheet metal parts are formed in New Mexico, the wire form is made in Ohio, we have a turned part that comes from Reno [Nevada], there’s another turned part from Alabama, a plating vendor that’s all the way on the east coast in Pennsylvania, and then we have some parts that are made in Pleasanton, California,” said Spurcycle co-founder Clint Slone. “We do some assembly of the bells here in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, and we also have a subcontractor that does assembly in Pleasanton.”
All of those bits are built to impressively stringent tolerances, and Spurcycle even backs its bells with a lifetime guarantee. Since all assembly is done in-house, the company can even repair bells that have been damaged in crashes or other incidents.
When all is said and done, it isn’t hard to see how Spurcycle justifies selling its bell for $50. In exchange, what you get is a bell that not only looks substantial but feels that way, too — and one that actually garners comments from onlookers.
“There are four categories of cost drivers,” said co-founder Clint Slone. “The obvious one is location-based: made in USA, vs not. There’s the R&D aspect of things, which you’re obviously going to try and amortize over the course of the company’s product offerings, the material differences, and then all of our manufacturing tolerances are just much, much tighter. Manufacturing to tight tolerances in general is dramatically different in cost.”
Nevertheless, $50 is still a princely sum to pay for a bicycle bell but plenty of people have clearly found value in what they were buying.
“We made 10,000 bells to ship Kickstarter rewards and have been through several production rounds since,” said co-founder Nick Slone.
But then the vultures came.
Enter Rock Brothers
According to Spurcycle, copycat bells started appearing “less than a year” after the company delivered its first batch of product to Kickstarter backers.
Some, like the one from Japanese company Crane Bells, copied the overall style of the Spurcycle as well as some specific elements of the mechanical design. But while it seemingly capitalized on the look of the Spurcycle, it wasn’t an outright copy.
The Rock Brothers situation was different. Or rather, it was the same.
What Rock Brothers apparently did was take a Spurcycle apart, and then reproduce every single component. Even the Rock Brothers packaging is a direct copy of the original, using an identically sized box, identical imagery, and even almost all the text repeated verbatim.
To make matters worse, when Amazon shoppers searched for “Spurcycle”, the online retailer’s search engine returned the Rock Brothers knock-off first. The real thing comes up second, through third-party retailer Backcountry; Spurcycle doesn’t actually sell direct through Amazon at all. With a retail price of just $16 — less than a third that of Spurcycle’s bell — shoppers were understandably tempted.
I had heard about the Rock Brothers copy and decided I needed to check it out for myself – so I ordered one. When it arrived, I was shocked at the thoroughness of the facsimile. At least to the casual observer, it was the same exact bell.
Dig a little deeper, however, and a number of differences appear.
The sound from the thicker dome is duller, the uncharacteristically flimsy lever is less springy, tools fit poorly in the sloppily broached hole on the mounting bolt, and the bolt material itself is noticeably softer. Overall, the Rock Brothers version just feels (and sounds) like a lesser-quality item.
“The dome of the Rock Brothers is brass; ours is nickel brass,” said Clint Slone. “Our material is about 50% more expensive. But the material difference is part of the reason why our bell rings longer than theirs. The sustain is due, in part, to the nickel brass material that we’re using. The other big difference is that they actually paint their domes, which deadens the sound a fair amount. How even the dome material is also makes a difference for how long it rings, and how pure the note is. Theirs isn’t as accurately formed as ours, so that’s why you’ll hear on theirs a lot of overtones, lots of different frequencies. They’re using a little lower grade of stainless steel on everything, their wire lever is a smaller-diameter wire. It’s also not as accurately bent. It’s a whole list of differences.”
Even so, rarely does the average buyer enjoy that luxury of a physical side-by-side comparison. In fact, had I not had an authentic Spurcycle already to compare against, I perhaps would have accepted it as the real thing myself.
The problem for Spurcycle is that many Rock Brothers buyers do.
If you (incorrectly) take that assumption to be true, it then logically follows that both bells not only come out of the same factory, but are sold by the same company, which is surreptitiously run by the same people. In the eyes of those consumers, the only difference is that one bell costs several times as much as the other one for no legitimate reason, which invariably leads some to accuse Spurcycle of false advertising and blatant price gouging.
“People will look at the Amazon reviews of the replicas, and there are those people out there that start making accusations about Spurcycle, that we’re ripping people off with our pricing,” said Clint Slone. “We had someone comment on Facebook saying, ‘If you think these two bells don’t come from the same place, you’re crazy. They’re both made in China!’ So then people call into question whether they’re really made in the USA. We thankfully have mostly seen people coming to our defense.
“A lot of people that have seen both product firsthand immediately recognize there are pretty big differences between the two products, but that doesn’t always play out online.”
“The notion to me that you can build a business by ripping people off seems very short-sighted,” added Nick Slone. “That famous line of there being no such thing as a free lunch is very true. If it were so easy making a fast buck making a bell and ripping people off, there’d be a lot more people making bells like we are.”
Law and disorder
For a company as small as Spurcycle – and especially one that is so heavily reliant on the visual identity of its product – such marketplace confusion can be crippling.
To make matters worse, Spurcycle is powerless to do anything about it. The Slones never filed patent paperwork to protect their intellectual property.
“We launched the bell on Kickstarter, and we thought we weren’t done with the design,” said Clint Slone. “Our thought was, see how it does on Kickstarter, and then if it does pretty well, in the meantime we’ll work on some design modifications for mass manufacturing, and then apply for the patent. My understanding was that we had a year from the first date of sale to file. It turns out that just six months prior to our Kickstarter project, patent laws changed to be more inline with international laws, which is, once you sell the product, you can no longer file. We thought we had time to file. As of right now, we have no legal course of action.
“I think it was obvious to both Crane and whoever is making Rock Brothers that we didn’t have any protection so they just jumped on it. Whereas even if you have just US protection, there’s a least a little bit of hesitation. Who knows how it would have gone.”
“I know it always sounds kind of heady when companies try to compare themselves to Apple but that’s the kind of thing you see: you know, the white cables, all these aspects of the design,” added Nick Slone (and yes, to further confuse the issue, the Slones are brothers). “For us, we had created something that became a little bit iconic in its resonance with the customer base, and for that reason, there was an opportunity for a replica company to create confusion in the marketplace by copying as much as possible with regards to the design of the product and even our packaging.”
Spurcycle isn’t sure exactly how much replica bells like the Rock Brothers is affecting business but with no available course of action to stop the bleeding, all the Slones can do is carry on and explain their side of story to consumers whenever possible.
“It’s hard to gauge the monetary significance of it — I don’t know,” said Clint Slone. “It’s not like sales were going really strong, the replicas came out, and then sales started tanking. Anecdotally, we definitely have a good amount of evidence of people being confused.”
Spurcycle’s strategy from here is to basically “out-design” the competition with new bells, which will include at least one lower-cost option as well as a more refined version of the current model.
“We’re planning to launch a new design at the beginning of 2017,” said Clint Slone. “We’ll definitely be trying to get a design patent, plus a utility patent for some aspects of it. The current bell we’re making isn’t perfect. It’s also fairly expensive for us to make. Even though we’re charging $50 for it, we still don’t have great margin from a business perspective. Our hope with the new bell design is to solve some issues with the current design, cut some of the cost, and get some patent protection.
“We’re currently trying to offer a version that is a little less expensive, too. We really want to have the full spectrum in terms of price range. Ideally, we want to have a bell that’s $35 all the way up to $60. The bottom line is the try to out-design and go through the patent process correctly this time.”
Ultimately, Spurcycle has one major factor on its side: Rock Brothers may have cribbed the bell’s design, but without the investment in similarly high-quality materials, the copycat can’t match the durability of the real thing.
Case in point: the Rock Brothers bell I bought stopped working after just five rides (and judging by the Amazon reviews, other buyers have had a similar experience). When I pull the hammer back, it now just loiters there, impotent and sad. When you factor in Spurcycle’s lifetime guarantee, the value equation between a $50 bell that theoretically lasts forever, and one that costs a quarter of that but doesn’t offer one-fourth the lifespan, is easier to solve.
In the end, one bell is a product that could outlast its owner, while the other is a cheap lookalike whose true purpose is only to fool its buyer. In some ways, it’s like spending a week wandering the artificially lit “canals” of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, versus actually spending a week in Venice, Italy. One experience leads to a lifetime of cherished memories; the other one just feels cheap.
Ultimately, the old adage still holds true: you get what you pay for.