It all started with a problem. And then more problems.
Flatbike, Inc. distributes full-size folding bikes across North America and beyond, while also selling components that allow other customers’ typical bikes to fold flat. How does a unique company like that get started? Certainly not the way you’d expect…
Bob Forgrave was like any other aging runner—doing it for cardio and weight management more than speed nowadays, but still appreciating that “runner’s high” that comes from a really intense workout.
Then his knees wore out.
The constant, 5-day-a-week running habit, all on pavement, had caught up with him. Even walking was difficult after sitting. Now what?
Well… biking is an obvious transition. You still get all the wellness benefits of cardio and strength training, but without the knee pounding. But after the workout, there’s a difference between throwing your running shoes in a corner and putting your bike . . . someplace.
“I didn’t have room on my side of the garage,” Bob said. “Too many boxes of stuff. So I left my bike beside my wife’s car, with the expected results…”
“She told me she needed more access to her car, and my bike needed to move. Naturally, I tried to engineer my way out of that dilemma. ‘Location isn’t the issue. The bike is just the wrong shape. If it were flat, we wouldn’t have this problem’”.
“Who ever heard of a flat bike???”
“Well…nobody yet. But watch…”
Caption: Anywhere can be a great place for a bike.
Over the next year, Bob experimented relentlessly with folding pedals and tried to invent a rugged bike stem that could held the handlebars securely, but fold quickly to turn the handlebars 90 degrees and make the bike flat.
“It’s harder than it looks,” Bob said. “It turns out people have tried to achieve and patent this since at least 1922. I finally got my own patented design into destruction testing, with a 60-pound weight alternately dropped on each handlebar, and the folding stem completed an amazing 52,000 cycles of this—against a high standard of 100,000 repetitions. Fail!
When the going gets tough, think bigger.
“At this point I thought, crud, I could design a whole folding bike in the time it was taking me just to get the stem right! And then that’s exactly what I was doing. I’m 6’5”, so a tiny folding “clown bike” wouldn’t work; I needed a rugged, full-size bike that folded in half.”
“Eventually, I had most of a folding bike design worked out in SolidWorks, and was starting to look at prototypers, occasionally checking the web for competitors, when suddenly there it was—someone else was selling a really nice-looking full-size folding bike!”
“The next moment was one of those inflection points in a person’s life, when you make a big decision that’s either rally smart or really dumb. I ordered two full-size folding CHANGE bikes from Taiwan.”
“My wife thought hers was the best bike she’d ever owned, even before she folded it in half and carried it in the trunk without a car rack. ‘Remind me why you’re creating your own bike?’ she asked. And I had to admit, my CHANGE bike was versatile and rugged too, having already carried it up and down steps and hit speed bumps at full speed for the entertainment value and hang time.”
“Did I really want to get a new bike design to the manufacturing finish line, only to have that same goal then become the sales start line? Maybe Changebike in Taiwan wasn’t my competitor after all. Maybe they were really my supplier, but just didn’t know it yet!”
“After a short discussion, that’s exactly what happened. After a short time working out of our sunroom—my wife eventually said all the bikes needed to move out of there too–I opened a retail office for Flatbike to distribute full-size folding CHANGE bikes across North America.”
At a bike show in Toronto, things got even more interesting. I was showing CHANGE bikes, pop-off pedals that are way better than folding pedals, and a folding stem I had gotten out of Australia that was . . . better than nothing. And another exhibitor walks up to me holding something and says, ‘My folding stem is better than yours. And it’s destruction-tested.’”
“This was an easy decision. Flatbike is about selling the best products to solve common problems with biking, so we adopted the THINstem from Canada on the spot. We even built a combo package of the THINstem and pop-off pedals for any bike, calling it the Flatten Your Bike Kit.
By this point, we were selling three different pop-off pedals, all in a compatible, interchangeable family, and we were selling CHANGE bikes online across the US and Canada. We represented Changebike’s whole line of full-size folding bikes, had well-stablished quality checks and shipping agreements to help us grow at our own speed…”
“…and then COVID hit.”
A long look in the COVID mirror.
Global pandemics are a bit like an earthquake. They shake everything to its more, knock everything off balance, and break a lot of things you believed were unbreakable. In this case, supply and demand.
During the peak of COVID, interest in bikes tripled. Many of the components for those bikes come from Shimano, which had shut down factories in at least four countries. Delivery times for some components stretched to as much as 14 months—no way to run a viable business, even in a market experiencing massive demand. The fact that shipping costs were also tripling was almost an afterthought.
As soon as long-awaited shipments orders of bikes would come in, they would immediately be sold, and more. At the low point, total inventory at Flatbike was 1.5 bikes, so it was impossible to sell bikes at all, even in hot market. There were really only two options: fold up and quit…or grow some more.
With little inventory to move, Flatbike moved three doors down into a space twice the size and started scheduling bike shipments many times larger for a long time in the future. “And we started really listening to the calls we were getting right now,” said Bob. “Like, people would ask, ‘Flatbike? Do you help with bike flats?’”
“Maybe. Are you having trouble with bike flats? On what kind of bike?”
“A fat bike.” That’s a bike with tires at least 4 inches wide, which describes exactly none of the CHANGE bikes that Flatbike sells (when it has inventory).
“So people were coming to Flatbike to ask about fat bike flats. It could be a hilarious joke from the Google Gods, or it could be just the problem we needed to keep the business afloat in the heat of COVID. How committed were we to solving common biking problems?”
“Eventually we entered into an agreement with Tannus Tires to sell Armour inserts that go between your tire and tube, easily stopping even the nastiest goat head thorns without any of the maintenance complications of the self-sealing “slime” or “goo” that’s popular now. That solution kept us going when we couldn’t get components.”
“Then finally we could get components, but no completed bikes. So we created our own road bike model, built on the folding CHANGE frame, and sold that. And we always had pop-off pedals, THINstems, and Flatten Your Bike Kits . . .until the pedal factories closed and the world’s supply of pop-off mountain bike pedals dried up immediately.”
“That prompted the obvious question. Pop-off mountain bike pedals are also used heavily by e-bike users. Having false-started in engineering twice before, were we willing to risk designing and manufacturing our own pop-off pedals to reach both of these audiences?”
“Yes. We’re smarter now.” Years in the market will do that.
Flatbike today: portable adventure.
“One thing that COVID did was clarify who Flatbike is. It made us look in the mirror and ask the core questions that every successful business needs to ask repeatedly over time. Who are our customers? What problems are they trying to solve? What skills and creativity combination can we bring to the solutions? And how do we constantly tweak our internal processes for more effectiveness as a company?”
“Ultimately, it’s not about selling bikes or bike parts. It’s about meeting people where they are in their biking journey, from novice to expert. Today, we can make any bike fold flat in seconds for easy storage, and also offer a range of full-size bikes that fold in half to fit in a car trunk, truck cab, boat, elevator, apartment, etc. “
“As a result, we make it easy for long-haul truckers to enjoy exercise while on the road, for private pilots and RVers to get around in remote places, for suburbanites in car-focused areas to bike safely without a car rack, and for urban apartment dwellers to get around without a car. Portable adventure–Get out and live life more!”
Words to live by
“Fear of failure makes no sense. When you first start a business, you have no products, nobody knows or cares about you, and there’s no money coming in. You start out as a failure! Get over it, and simply start focusing on being better and smarter than yesterday. Focus on successful habits.”
“Achieving success may make you better, but also more resistant to improvement. If everything’s already going great, why change a thing? In fact, as a successful company grows larger, the constant focus on not ‘rocking the boat’ can be such an inertial dampener that it virtually ensures that another company will speed by with a better ability to adapt to changing markets.”
“So at Flatbike, one of our often-used questions is, ‘What would we do if we were smart?’ This cuts through all the ego and pride in what we’ve already accomplished, recognizing that what was uniquely great originally might be commonplace and adequate now. New opportunities appear constantly as technologies advance, markets change, and new skills come online within the company. You either convert those opportunities into real advantages, or they slide by.”
“This company started with a simple, small problem—to make my bike fit flat against the wall on my wife’s side of the garage. That never did happen; once it was possible, she wanted her own bike stored flat beside her car. (Mine, of course, still needed to move.) But the constant focus on making the bike more convenient and solving customer problems has now led Flatbike to sell custom-designed, full-size folding bikes from Belgium to the Marshall Islands.”
“The bicycle today is over 200 years old, successfully adapting in marvelous ways since 1817. And yet, it has massive potential to be even more convenient if we just continue to ask questions. ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘What would we do if we were smart?’ And at the forefront of this will be Flatbike.”