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We also hand build custom alloys. Rims by Pacenti, Stans, HED and Kinlin. Hubs by Miche, WI, Chris King, DT, Tune and PowerTap.

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Thursday
Jun092011

Time and Space

Our significant others are remarkably accommodating women.  Mike’s main restraint is time, while mine is space.  Without support from our partners, we wouldn’t get around these restraints.  Mine has dealt with wheels (and bikes, and boxes, and various other stuff) crowding her out of our living room for so long she’s probably forgotten what it’s like not to have them there, while Mike’s family might be in danger of forgetting what he’s like (just kidding – it’s just a lot of work for him to cover all his bases). 

We’ve often referred to the idea that space is just an expense that would add to our costs and yours, which at this point is completely true.  A dedicated space right now would make our work a lot easier, but we aren’t yet big enough to use one efficiently.  So we make do with Mike’s shed, my living room, and our elegant storage unit in the wilds of Kensington.   

Time has a similar set of circumstances around it; we aren’t yet big enough to dedicate all of our time to November.  Doing so would DEFINITELY make our lives easier, more fun, it would probably improve the local weather, buds on trees would come out sooner and bloom longer, kids would pay more attention in school, commodity prices would stabilize…  Alas, getting to that point isn’t a simple deal, so for the foreseeable future, we’ll continue to work around it.  People are usually shocked when they send us an email at 10pm and get a response at 11:30 that night or 5:30 the next morning – when you have client meetings and concrete to pour during the day, you often have to make do with time out of that time. 

So will we get big enough to have a space, and actually put ourselves to work full time?  Well, it’s time for one of my favorite bits of Maine wisdom – “tough saying, without knowing.”  Obviously we’d love to.  I wouldn’t exactly say that we obsess over it, but we’re very driven towards it.  But our growth has got to be organic.  Neither of us is into growth for growth’s sake.  Right now, ours is a supremely market-driven growth map.  Standing at out tent at CX races last fall, we were able to ply enough of you with good beer to get ourselves out of the gate.  Things went smoothly from there, and word of mouth is doing a ton of leg work for us now.  If we continue to do what we promise to do, how we promise to, that ought to continue, and we ought to experience substantial growth in the coming year.   Whether that growth is enough for us to realize the ambition of doing this full time, who can say? 

For the time being, we are asynchronous to normal business hours, or perhaps a better way of saying it is that we’re just at it when we’re at it (I’m writing this as I take a lunch break, for example).  We know that people sometimes have a hard time understanding our policy of shipping wheels even to customers who are close by.  And when we’ve grown to the point where we are working on this “full time” (quotes since it often feels like we are putting full time time into it) and we have a location where we pretty much need to be for long stretches anyway, you’ll be able to come by and hang out and pick your stuff up.  For the time being, we have to be super efficient and adaptable with our time – a dead 30 minutes becomes a chance to lace up a few wheels, a random hour is a chance to get to the storage unit and restock supplies, a lunch break (that I’m officially stretching right now) becomes a chance to do a blog post. 

Another big question is where exactly will our growth come from?  We’ve gotten a lot of positive response (which we love) for how we’ve done what we’ve done so far.  The next logical steps are simply to grow the things we’ve started – organically build awareness of our frames and wheels so that we sell more of those.  We’ll have the CX bike for next year, and we have the TT bike in process.  Along with that, we continue to travel the path of being a “stuff bike racers want” company, and the market has done a nice job of giving us a good idea of where we can go. 

For the meantime, however, we live with the constraints that we have, and focus primarily on doing what it is we’ve set out to do, at least as well as we set out to do it.  Sometimes this means passing up an enticing opportunity.  For example, we’d have LOVED to have the CX bike ready for this season.  The market was LOUDLY telling us that it wanted this from us.  But our job is to realize that the market wants our CX bike under the same circumstances that it learned of our Wheelhouse – as the result of a relatively unhurried and thorough process which gave us a heck of a lot of confidence in our ability to deliver.  Time didn’t allow us to get the CX bike done with that caveat, so we didn’t do it.  If it takes us an extra year of grinding away the way we have been before we can realize next goal in our plan, so be it. 

Hopefully our women folk continue to understand. 

Saturday
Jun042011

The Bloody Bleeding Edge

Being centered on product that's really really good, but has no aspirations or claims of being the absolute best in any metric, affords November a pretty nice place in the world order.  To be sure, we are always on the lookout for better stuff and ways to improve how we do what we do, but we aren't driven to be world leaders in anything but delivering really good race ready products at exceptional value.  For sure there are speedbumps along the way, and we continue to learn and improve pretty much all the time.  We ain't perfect.  My mom would tell you that all day long. 

But for those companies which are focused on being the absolute technical leaders, and whose identity, market position, pricing and appeal is centered on their products having a demonstrable performance edge, life can get pretty bumpy.  What got me thinking about this is all the hoo-ha over Enve's new wheel program.  I've always thought that the engineering story behind Enve's rims was good, and I like that they went with good, proven hubs and spokes and didn't torture the boundaries of belief in that part of the story - it was a very Novemberesque "hey, these are great spokes and hubs, why wouldn't we use them" type of transparent story.  But something their rims couldn't claim was market-leading aerodynamics.  Despite their re-engineered construction details, their rims had a very familiar mold shape.  So while their, say, 46mm deep rim did well in testing, it wasn't at the top of the pile.  They definitely had fast rims, but mostly from the perspective that deep rims are generally pretty darn fast - theirs were nothing special.  That wasn't their story.

Recently, Enve teamed with this guy Simon Smart, who is an F1 veteran who's worked on several bike projects.  Not surprisingly, they've coordinated to produce a range of rims that they can quantifiably claim is a significant improvement over Zipp's new Firecrest series.  And they've got a bunch of the popular websites and cycling news sources to run stories about how these new designs are the be-all and end-all.  If course all of this comes at a price - the cheapest configuration is $2,900, and they go up to $3,500.

The art of selling something as "the fastest," especially when we're talking about something that you can only really measure in one environment, but which only really matters in another environment, is challenging at best.  Zipp has done a tremendous job of this in the past - their self-proclaimed wind tunnel dominance along with the anecdotal evidence of impeccable race results has served them well.  Bontrager's had some pretty good success in time trials without getting anywhere near the halo that Zipp has gotten from slightly better success.  Hed's sort of in the same boat, and I suspect that the confusion over where Bontrager starts and Hed ends ("Bontrager wheels, aerodynamics by Hed") is somewhat to blame in both instances.  Confusing stories are less compelling.  But Cancellara is now on Bontrager wheels, and he doesn't look to show any signs of slowing down, so we'll see how that affects the story. 

But I can't remember any sort of full-frontal attack on Zipp's quantitative dominance like we are seeing now from Enve, supported by the cycling media.  This has to be a fairly "oh crap" moment at Zipp - even if they're 100% confident in the superiority of their product, and even if they can prove it, the onus is now on them to do so.  Imagine for a second that you recently bought a new set of Zipp Firecrest wheels, safe in the knowledge that they are the fastest things available.  Does Zipp get the irate call with the "you told me these things were the fastest things available and now they aren't I want my money back dammit!" message?  It's sort of a hyperbolic and rhetorical question, but sheesh, I bet they actually do get some kind of feedback like that. 

When you're selling "the best," and it's not "the best" anymore, what is it?

Fortunately for us, we've never thought "the best" was part of our product story.  We know that our product is pretty freaking good - plenty of people have been using and enjoying and getting good results with our stuff.  It hasn't been entirely smooth sailing, but it's pretty easy to cut a line between what's working "quite well and as it should be, thanks" and not.  The "nots" get taken care of with all due urgency.  Racing on RFSWs, I know they're fast - I see evidence of it every time I go down a hill faster than guys around me, or don't need to pedal quite so hard as others out of a turn, or just hold my own in a break where I am totally outclassed by those around me. 

It's sometimes a bit of a challenge to play up the value in "just really quite good, thanks" in a world where anything that isn't described by a string of words ending in "-est" tends to go completely unnoticed, but when the bleeding edge gets as bloody as it sometimes does, it seems like a pretty good alternative. 

Race smart. 

Friday
May272011

Economies of Small

I've worked for and with a lot of different companies. All have either been big, or doing everything they can to get big. It's like an unwritten goal of every business - to be number 1 or 2 in your industry and somehow harvest that leadership position. 

Dave and I talk a lot about growth, but never about getting Big. Part of the reason is that Big is a really far away point on the map, but the other part is that we're not sure we want to go in that direction anyway. We like being small. For one, it makes it a lot easier for us to differentiate against the big brands (which is a lot harder to do if you're a big brand yourself). Counterintuitively though, we choose to differentiate on price. One of those things they teach you over at the B-schools is that to compete on price, you need to be big. Wal-Mart, P&G, Annheuser-Busch InBev, Trek - all of them have the size that allows for some Economies of Scale. Bigger companies enjoy greater buying clout from suppliers, and can defray marketing activities across more units, products and even brands. There's also a credibility component to size. I used to work in marketing for an IT company where I learned that "nobody gets fired for buying IBM." Similarly in cycling, no sponsorship coordinator is going to get razzed for signing on Reynolds or Easton to supply a team's hoops. 

But with scale comes - appetite. Big companies have to continue to feed that beast all the time - marketing, inventory and distribution, overhead, staff, legal fees, R&D - all of these expenses figure into the price of the merchandise you buy from the big brands. So naturally, the margins on the products from these brands are set accordingly - they have to cover all these expenses before they can turn dollar #1 in profit. That's why the big brands with Economies of Scale sell wheelsets and frames at twice the price of smaller outfits like us and Williams and Neuvation and Revolution. Ironic, isn't it - that all these economies result in far more costs for the companies than savings for their customers. Their big beasts are hungrier than our little varmints. We don't have to double our costs to arrive at a price for retail distribution, and then insist that retailers double the price again in order to maintain "pricing integrity." 

We go about setting our margins differently. I'll oversimplify it (only by a little), but the way we set margins is to determine what's the minimum amount of profit we'd need for this transaction to be worthwhile for us. We don't double our costs or follow a strict margin percentage across the board. To do that would assume that selling a frame takes the same amount of energy and time as selling a set of wheels, which isn't the case. And by "selling" I mean not just closing the transaction, but merchandising on the site, answering questions before the sale via email, prepping or building the product once it's sold, packaging and shipping. Each of those steps takes time and costs money. Wheels are a lot easier to sell but complex to build and onerous to pack and ship. Frames are harder to sell but prepping for shipping is much quicker. And bikes? Lucky for you we consider them the cost of doing business at this point. If we charged you minimum wage for all the time that goes into sourcing, selling, spec'ing, fulfilling, shipping and then answering questions about a bike, you'd be better off getting yourself a tight little R5ca and save a few bucks.

Which brings me to rims, which we're now selling independent of wheelsets. They're available in the current pre-order which closes on Monday 5/30. We've never sold them before. Compared to wheelsets, they're naturally easier to prep for sale since they don't have to be built. And they should be easier to sell than framesets since they're the same rims from our carbon wheelsets. But what we don't yet know is how much support they'll require - how many questions we'll get about how to build them into wheelsets, if will build one into a wheelset and send another as an unbuilt rim, if we can refer a custom builder, if we'll do a custom build ourselves with Chris King hubs and spokey-dokes. We just don't know yet. So we decided to launch rims with a 4 rim minimum, for a couple of reasons. The first is that we think they'll appeal more to folks who either build their own wheels already or have a wheelbuilder in mind for their custom hoops. The second is that if a ton of support is necessary, a transaction with 4 wheels generates double the (however meager) profit as one with two, at which price we're happy to answer whatever questions you have. If rims turn out to be easy-peasy lemon squeezy to sell and fulfill (that is, if our soft costs for selling decrease), we'll gladly lower the MOQ on them and let you order them 2 or even 1 at a time. 

Do we care if we sell so many rims that our wheel sales suffer? We do not. We're not a bicycle frame and wheel company. We're a stuff-racers-want company. 

Tuesday
May242011

Pre-Order our CX-ready RFSWs ($685) and reduce your list of excuses by 1

If you've been following along at home, you know by now that we're big on the pre-order. Our goal with wheels is to have enough on-hand to be able to meet your immediate urgent need now today for a hopping fast new set of hoops, but so far the demand has outpaced supply.

Like now, for example, when we realize we don't have enough RFSW tubulars for the upcoming cyclocross season. So we have to order more. And every time we do, you get a chance to hop in early and pre-order a set. Why would you do that? Here's a few reasons: 

  • Save $100: Our 50mm RFSW Carbon Tubulars (regular and cx-ready SOB build) are $685 on pre-order.
  • Guarantee you have a set: We sold out of carbon clinchers early in road season. We may sell out of carbon tubulars early in cx season.
  • Move to the front of the build queue: We build and deliver our pre-orders first, always. They're red hot priority #1 as soon as they arrive.

We do have some RFSW SOBs (24/28) in stock, so if you want them right away go ahead and snap up a pair. But if you're not going to use them until cx season anyway, may we suggest the pre-order route which saves you $100. Either option allows you to cast off the "I don't have decent cyclocross wheels" excuse.

I know we're going to get two questions in the comments straight away, so I'll answer them here:

  1. No, the RFSWs are not yet available with disc hubs. We're trying to find some we are happy with. If we do, we'll give all our customers - including pre-orders - that option. If you've found some disc hubs you like, you might want to look into buying our rims and building your own.
  2. Yes, we will also have an alloy cyclocross tubular. It will be built on Velocity's excellent 23mm wide Major Tom rim and be priced comparably to the FSW alloy wheelset. It will be here before CX season but we're not currently planning on offering a pre-order on that wheelset since the rims are sourced from the U.S. and don't take 6-8 weeks to arrive.

 

Sunday
May222011

We're Hiring Wheelbuilders, Trained and Trainable

**EDIT AT 6/10** We've had a STAGGERING response to this post - like simply mind blowing and we appreciate all of the interest that people have in building wheels for us, learning to build wheels, and generally being a part of what we do.  We're working with two wheelbuilders now, who are able to take care of our current needs.  However, we are planning a venue to help people become expert wheelbuilders.  Stay tuned for more on that.  THANK YOU! 

Every new business has challenges. When I worked for other companies, challenged were a PITA because they made my job harder with no real payoff. But when it's your own business, they're more like interval training - you know that if you get through them, you'll be stronger for it. And if you start a business and don't expect challenges, well then you're unrealistic and will probably get dropped on the first acceleration.

Right now our biggest challenge is in production - specifically wheelbuilding. As challenges go, it's actually a much better one to have than a shortage of demand. We're keeping pace with demand, but we're getting close to the red zone. Since we expect to grow, we've decided to put some additional wheelbuilding throughput in place proactively. 

So we are officially hiring wheelbuilders. Three kinds in fact:

1. Experienced Wheelbuilders: If you work (or have worked) in a shop or otherwise building wheels professionally, and want to do some freelance wheelbuilding with us, let us know. About half of the work will be semi-urgent for pending orders (as in, "please turn these 3 wheelsets around within a week") and the other half will be building for inventory at a more relaxed rate (unless these for-inventory wheelsets get sold, which has so far happened about 100% of the time). All of the work is done at your own home, while you're watching the Giro or Real Housewives or whatever it is you watch. Contact us by email here. Within an hour of DC is a requirement unless you're willing to drive further every couple of weeks to pick up rims and hubs and spokes and such.

2. Contract Wheelbuilders: If you manage a DC / MD / VA / PA shop with some extra wheelbuilding capacity and would like to partner with us, have your people get in touch with our people.

3. Wheelbuilder Wannabes: Wheelbuilding is a talent, to be sure. But it's not an innate gift. You can learn to build wheels, if you want to. And if you do want to, we'd like to train you. And then after we train you, we want to pay you to keep on building wheels for us. Drop us a note if you're interested.