The term “old habits die hard” could never ring truer than with the bike business, be it the manufacturers, independent bike dealers (IBDs) or the cycling purists who ride them—especially in the United States. This clear and present reality first smacked me in the face several years ago when I gave a big presentation at the infamous Interbike Convention in Las Vegas, North America’s largest annual bicycle gathering.
Prior to the convention I’d been contracted by the president of the International Light Electric Vehicle Association as a marketing strategist, to refresh the value proposition and key messages for the LEVA website and other member materials. Once completed, I was given a plum opportunity to create the first-ever global marketing campaign to drag die-hard IBDs onto the shifting landscape of electric bike technology and embrace this new phenomenon on behalf of their customers—from Seattle to Singapore.
I was hardly a newcomer to the industry. My foray into what was considered a fringe bike segment began in 2008 when a former fitness equipment client of mine, Bill Hebb of Hebb Electric Bikes fame, commissioned me to a study of the emerging trend he’d witnessed first-hand in Asia. The question he wanted answered—with data to back it up— was simple: “Is it the right time to start an ebike company in the US?”
After my thorough conclusions led to a green light on Bill’s idea to start a US-based ebike company, we quickly set out in earnest to become—and succeeded in becoming—the #1 rated independent electric bike brand in the mid-priced category in 18 short months.
It was not easy work. I won’t get side-tracked and bore you with all the challenges we faced with Chinese manufacturing, shipping, customs, and quality control. Those were mere speed bumps in the road. The real Mount Everest challenge was selling the ebike category–and an untested brand–to the 4,000 IBDs in America, 90% of which had zero interest in carrying an electric bike on their showroom floor.
It took me the better part of a year– after many hundreds of phone calls, demo videos, and emails– to discover a deeply etched pattern of resistance carved into the psyche of the dealers we were targeting to join our distribution network. I heard the same belly-aching over and over. “Electric bikes are a fad, they’ll never catch on…ebikes are crappy and unreliable…they’re dangerous when it rains…they’re illegal in most cities…they’re too heavy.” But the one that proved the most daunting—the one that persists today, albeit in diminishing intensity, is this one: “Ebikes are for cheaters. Our customers like to get a workout and wouldn’t dare sit on an ebike for recreation OR commuting.”
I won’t dignify that last comment with a response because anyone who owns an ebike will tell you they get just as much exercise as they want, but with two exceptions—they either go way faster or way farther than their conventional bike-riding counterparts. Plus, they have twice the fun.
Even in Portland, bike capital of America, there was staunch resistance to ebikes. In fact, in the early 2010’s I found skepticism rampant, especially among the Chrome-branded, messenger bag-toting bike commuters who rode, rain or shine, to and from work and the corner coffee café. Like a modern-day John the Baptist crying in the wilds of the Northwest with a solemn declaration ”Get ye on an ebike,” I feared a day would come when I’d get stoned in one of Portland’s many elitist bike shops, or at the annual bike show where I was slated to speak: http://smoothstonepartners.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Pedal-Nation-Portland-Bike-Show-2010.pdf.
Continued…please check back in the next few days for Part 2 with take-aways on being an early adopter and the sweet spot I discovered that now drives the clear ebike tipping point in North America.
SmoothStone Partners is a business development firm that carefully crafts brands in the sports, entertainment and lifestyle space. SmoothStone Entertainment’s Talent Division is led by Phil Herzog who provides marketing and social media support to recording artists, entertainers, fine art and photography talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.