After I graduated from Cambridge in 1999, I went to work for Cambustion, a spin off company from the University Engineering Department that I had worked for in various vacations. It was a great place to work, with really lovely people, but unfortunately I had very little interest in the product - specialist emissions analysers for the automotive industry. So in one of my slacker moments, I was browsing the internet and happened to stumble across a job advert in the States. It was actually looking for mechanics to work with high end european bicycles, but it sounded interesting enough that I sent off an email. And then I discovered that it was to be a recumbent company - I say to be because it was a start-up, just being put together - yet they didn't have anyone who really knew bikes, let alone recumbents. Which is where I came in.... After a few email discussions, we decided I needed to go over to meet them to see if we would take it further. The company was based in the small town of North Adams, in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. So of course I decided that I would ride there from Boston, travelling over the Easter weekend so I wouldn't have to take much time off work. The previous weeks were spent printing off maps to find myself a back-roads route across the state. Then it wasn't long before I found myself saddled up on my trusty old Stumpjumper, with a single pannier on the rack, riding to Heathrow. British Airways provided a giant plastic bag to wheel it into... and a few hours later I was picking my way out of the airport, and, after a bit of direction uncertainty, out of Boston. I did discover it is very difficult to stop for a piss when riding through the urban sprawl! My flight had arrived in the early afternoon, with surprisingly good weather for the time of year, and I managed about 50 miles before jetlag and impending darkness saw me checking into a motel. Dinner was Chinese takeaway, eaten with a headset spanner owing to a lack of cutlery! My body clock kicked in the following morning about 4am, and so I found myself on the road at 5, complete with lights. A bit chilly, but that wasn't a big deal - unlike the rain which started about an hour in, and got progressively heavier. My feet went numb after a couple of hours, and remained that way. Fortunately, decent clothing kept the rest of me warm, at least until the final descent into North Adams after 108 miles and 7 hours of riding. This was a long, fast downhill, and when I pulled up at the Holiday Inn, I could barely use my hands or control the shivering. Amazingly the hotel invited me to bring my filthy bike up to my room, and after a hot shower I started to feel a bit more normal. I only had my cycling shoes with me though, so when I went out with my hosts later, it was with plastic bags stuffed inside them!
The next day we all sat down for an informal interview, and although I was a little nervous - I haven't done many interviews so far, I found I was completely in my element, as the only 'bike guy' present - I easily fielded their questions and was actually asking them ones they had trouble answering. The area seemed nice too, though I couldn't take in too much in such a short time. I had planned on riding back to Boston too - in one day this time, and got up very early intending to head off - only to find it pouring with rain once again... and I had really had enough of that on the way out. Plus I had been offered a lift back to the airport, so accepted. Probably a good thing too, since my toenail went black and eventually fell off a few weeks later owing to the time being frozen on the way out!
The upshot was that I was offered the job, to head up the R&D section, I named my salary, gave my notice at Cambustion, and left for pastures new in August 2000.
This time I flew to New York, with a bike box and a bag, not too sure what to expect, but ready for an adventure. One of the partners picked me up, and I spent my first night in the States at his apartment on Brooklyn Heights, looking across at Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty - a view I only knew from the movies. The next day we drove up to the Berkshires, and I was introduced to Brett, who was setting the IT up for the company, and also, with his wife Sandra, my landlord, at least to start with. As it turned out, I got on really well with them, and ended up staying with them for the whole year I was out there. At this time the company consisted only of some rented space in an old mill building, some start up capital and three employees. And one container load of bikes from Dutch company Optima. First off I put a bike together for my own use, a Lynx, which is Optima's 20"/26" rear suspension general purpose road model. Barrett (primarily bike assembler) and I would spend a lot of time on these bikes that fall, riding many of the randonees and events in New England, to promote the company. In the meantime we set up the bike workshop, and I put together a budget development shop, including the biggest lathe we could afford! The idea of yellowbike.com was to take the two-step marketing used successfully by many mail order companies, but augment it with a funky website and promotional events. Two-step marketing means firstly 'going for inquiry', where advertising invites potential customers to call toll-free for a free catalogue (and later a video). The second step of sending the information out hopefully then leads to a sale - the important number in this business is the conversion rate - how many of the inquiries lead to sales. It is also important to keep an eye on the cost-per-inquiry to ensure that the most economical advertising is done. To this end we experimented with advertising in many different magazines, and attending many events with out stickered up 'punch buggy'. The idea was to have a fleet of these vehicles giving us exposure and providing test rides all over the country; in the end we only had the one, but it did spend some time in California.
Meanwhile, we were very gungho with our flegling new company, and in October Barrett and I took the long drive to Ohio for our first crack at HPRA (Human Power Race America) racing as the offical Team Yellowbike. We had the Optima Baron lowracers for this, and we proved our point when I cleaned up in all the events, almost embarrasingly when I lapped second place ten times in the distance race.... It took a little while, but we soon had a name for ourselves, at least within the recumbent community; the goal though, was to reach a wider audience. To this end we wanted to do our own bike - the dutch ones were fine to get us started, but too extreme for the average non-athletic rider - which is where I came in. However, it wasn't until mid-winter that I actually managed to start any prototyping, as I was too busy dealing with customers on the phone and email, assembling and shipping bikes, dealing with suppliers and the dutch, and generally doing everything on the bike side of things.
But I was learning a lot about starting a business, and marketing, and about living in America - they really don't speak English for one thing, Sandra and I had many amusing moments when she would just look at me and say 'What did you just say?' in shear amazement! It was also my first experience of a 'proper' winter too - ie freezing cold and lots of snow, as opposed to the damp cold greyness we generally get in England. I didn't actually mind it - there may have been four feet of snow on the ground, but the skies were mosly bright blue with lots of sunshine. My mistake was to try and ride all winter, when I really should have taken up cross-country skiing..... I really only managed one long ride a week, I think the coldest was minus twelve centigrade; it just wasn't possible to keep the toes warm! It got really silly when the strong cross-wind had blown ice all over the road - I can ride in the wind, you just have to lean the bike, and I can ride on ice, you just have to keep the bike very upright, but the two together are impossible - I found myself in the roadside ditch wondering how I was going to get home when I couldn't even walk in Look cleats!
IT'S A SAD FACT THAT MANY SMALL BUSINESSES FOLD......
Into the new year, and we were getting impressive numbers - a 10% conversion rate, which is pretty much unheard of, and we had also built a reputation as a serious, reputable company. The best thing to do would have been to allow the yellowbike brand to establish itself, whilst working on our own designs, which could then be gradually introduced. However, my boss wanted to shoot higher, and so spent money on a big marketing plan for the new bikes, to try and get more investment capital to get big quick. During this period I saw more of the country - we went to visit bike factories in Portland, Oregon, and Waterford, Illinois, which was fasinating and very instructive. I was excited about designing some great bikes that these guys would build for us. Not that I had a lot of time for designing, since I was working long days and 7 day weeks just to ensure that all the orders were fulfilled on time, and to keep on top of inventory and specifications. Unfortunately the gamble didn't pay off, and we were unable to land the investment capital to follow the plan through. This was becoming more and more apparent as we were struggling to pay the bills, until the crunch came in August, and most of the team, myself included, were laid off. The company continued for another few months, scrapping by, until the inevitably it went under.
Well it was a great adventure, I'll give it that. I learnt a lot about America, starting a business, and myself. I also met some fantastic people, and made some really good friends, including Kimberly, who I ended up going to live in Japan with later that year. I've been back to the area a few times to visit, as it is a beautiful part of the country. It is slightly galling that several companies have now brought out bikes very similar to those we were planning, but also nice to know that we were thinking along the right lines - and ahead of the game!