Photo by Marc of Amsterdamize
Some industry insiders, myself included, were at least suspecting things weren’t going smoothly at Amsterdam’s populair transport bike producer De Fietsfabriek. Yesterday their filing for bankruptcy got leaked and now the press is all over it like flies on poop. That’s not really surprising considering the uncanny knack those guys had for keeping the media’s attention. It is (or was) indeed a very charismatic story about a temperamental and driven Kurdish immigrant’s success with that most Dutch of products; the bicycle. I have to admit that it sounds far more exciting than “Highly educated industrial designer and ex bike industry guy from New York makes conservative, high quality bikes in Holland”. But I suppose the downside of celebrity status is that you’re even more newsworthy when things go wrong.
A lot of people apparently think it’s really important news for WorkCycles since friends, colleagues and acquaintances have been sending me links and commentary all day long. Just for the record: We’re not exactly cheering here. Regardless of the situations that led to their financial difficulties I sympathize with their situation as a fellow business owner. According to the news reports the two partners are looking at personal responsibility (Fietsfabriek was an unincorporated partnership) of about 1.2 million euro. How on earth does one dig themselves out of such a hole?
Most who’ve forwarded the news do so both because WorkCycles and De Fietsfabriek are often compared as Amsterdam colleagues/competitors. Magazine and newspaper articles have often featured both of our bikes and interviewed both myself and either Dave or Yalcin from Fietsfabriek. However the suggestion is really that WorkCycles would benefit hugely from the disappearance of Fietsfabriek. I’m no so convinced of this. It is true that both firms produce their own unique lines of heavy-duty city bikes, transport bikes and trikes (bakfietsen) and both are based in and have multiple shops in Amsterdam. We’ve even sold our bikes through a handful of the same dealers, though for what it’s worth the WorkCycles line has generally (or always?) replaced the Fietsfabriek line.
But as Dave Deutsch, one of the Fietsfabriek partners, and I have discussed several times we’re very different companies that make very different bikes that appeal to different audiences. WorkCycles are mostly black or grey or other boring colors. We’re willing to paint them anything you wish but that’s just what our customers want. Our bike designs, and perhaps our entire company “look and feel” is straightforward, the focus being an admittedly nerdy, no-BS, technical perfection. Fietsfabriek, on the other hand, has been much bolder: bikes with frame designs that are fun bordering on silly, in colors spanning the rainbow. I’ve seen them quoted as saying they’ll build whatever the customer wishes. Sorry to disappoint you but WorkCycles won’t make such claims; We’re flexible but we build bikes with a collection of parts and principles we’ve thoroughly tested and trust. Of course I have to think that WorkCycles bikes are better, but I suppose they think the same of their own product.
Photo by Marc of Amsterdamize
The differences between our products and approaches have fortunately led to each company appealing to different audiences. Fietsfabriek is much bigger and better known in Amsterdam while WorkCycles is stronger elsewhere, particularly in other countries. Regardless Fietsfabriek’s extroverted charm and constant media attention has brought them a much younger, hipper customer base than ours. When customers go “shopping around” for a bakfiets or sturdy city bike in Amsterdam they’ll likely visit both but the experiences are so different that customers seem to choose where they belong.
But still, isn’t the Fietsfabriek one of WorkCycles main competitors? Only from a tunnel vision perspective. Our competitors are everything else people might spend their money on instead of transport bikes: kitchen remodeling, cars, travel, a flat screen TV. In particular the rampant bike theft is worse for our turnover than another bike company that brings considerable media attention to small bicycle manufacturers. If Amsterdammers could perceive it as safe to park their bikes we would sell far more, better equipped, more expensive bikes.
Will WorkCycles benefit anyway? Of course, probably to some extent. All things considered Amsterdammers will continue buying bikes at about the same rate so some of the would-be Fietsfabriek customers will inevitably come to us in their absence… and just order their bikes with different specs and in brighter colors than have been typical Workcycles. But while these types of bikes were totally novel in 2003, now in 2010 they’re fairly mainstream and can be found in many hundreds of shops all over the country. Thus whatever vacuum that opens will be filled not just by WorkCycles but also by many dealers offering bikes from a variety of large and small manufacturers. And therein lies one of the fundamental challenges for both of our companies: There’s far more competition now than just a few years ago. Compete or die.
Photo by Marc of Amsterdamize
The newspapers first all published approximately the same piece which simply reported that Fietsfabriek has filed for bankruptcy as a result of huge debts and that the curator is working on a continuation. According to those in the know there’s a debt of 1.2 million on a yearly turnover of about 3 million. There are 60 employees for which permission for layoffs has been requested. (To me these are strange numbers: a debt of almost half the yearly turnover and 60 employees for just 3 million turnover.)
If you can read Dutch or wish to read an online translation you can check the article out in Het Parool.
Fascinating are the reader’s comments that follow: Some blame the bankers. Some blame the saturated market. A few bakfiets haters take the opportunity to demonstrate their moral superiority and insult some parents. And a surprising number imply fraud, one claiming rather specific knowledge of an enormous tax fine for avoiding customs charges. That’s some pretty hefty stuff to be accusing in the comments section. Truth or just an axe to grind? Who knows.
Later in the day Het Parool published an UPDATE. Herman Stil apparently researched further, calling around to Fietsfabriek dealers, their bike designer and partner Yalcin Cihangir. Ouch, this piece paints a much uglier picture. One former dealer announces that they opened a bottle of bubbly upon hearing the news and goes on to run off a list of problems. (In the comments below the same dealer denies the bubbly part but supports the rest of the statement.) Other dealers offer similar descriptions including poor quality, many broken frames, chaotic delivery and administration and add that their critique only led to intimidation. Several dealers listed on their site replied that they haven’t done business with the Fietsfabriek in years. Michael Kemper, the German designer of the Fietsfabriek bikes claims he hasn’t been paid the agreed royalties in two years. Yalcin denies all of the accusations and fires back that his critics aren’t bike makers, just people who want to share in his success. Concerning Kemper’s accusations he turns them around claiming that Kemper began producing the bikes himself and selling them to the dealers behind his back. Cihangir is quoted as saying “I’ll come with new models, a new Fietsfabriek. Just wait.”
What to believe? It’s really hard to say. I assume some of the worst accusations are hyperbole or half-truths on both sides. But my impression has always been of a company with a genius for seat of the pants marketing and promotion but not for organization, infrastructure and long-term relationship building.
The irony of all this is that perhaps the biggest publicity they ever got was from a hugely successful two-part documentary in 2004 by Frans Bromet called “Failliet of niet? – de fietsfabriek” (“Bankrupt or not? – the Fietsfabriek”) in which Yalcin struggles getting his new Fietsfabriek business on its feet out of an imploding bike builder called ‘t Mannetje, a criminal Jan Willem Deijmann and seemingly everybody doing their best to cheat everyone else.
Business-wise I’m not particularly fussed about where it goes but I certainly wish the best for Dave, Yalcin and their employees.