Each first of January I wish everybody a happy, healthy and productive New Year though I have to come clean that this is my least favorite holidays. To begin with it’s on the wrong day of the year. The Gregorian calendar, and the Julian calendar that preceded it, are based on the relationship of earth and sun, the year changing with the winter solstice. Being here in dark Northern Europe I’m all for celebrating the days getting longer. The solstice, however, is on December 21 ten days before New Years Eve. The day we call December 31 is nothing special. Talk about getting off to a bad start! I also have other, more practical reasons, to dislike New Years but I’ll quit whining for a moment and talk about good stuff.
WorkCycles had a great 2013 and 2014 promises be even better. For the past few years we’ve been busy restructuring to run more efficiently, help our customers better, and just have more fun doing what we do. It was a lot of work but there comes a point in the growth of many firms when the management recognizes that disruptive changes are necessary to iron out quirks that hinder the business. These quirks get built in by the founder (yes that’s me), often an expert in his field but not in running a business (that’s me too). More strangeness gets added organically through the years by the staff the founder assembles. The trick to such a process is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many a firm becomes generic and ultimately irrelevant at this stage, after they strip out exactly what made them unique. We’ve been extra vigilant to avoid this because, frankly, I would have stuck with my corporate career had I wanted an easy, boring way to earn a living.
Meanwhile we’re launching not one but THREE really cool new bikes in 2014.The long awaited Workcycles Kr8 cargobike and trike represent big evolutionary leaps for the family utility vehicle (FUV?) world. Hey, FUV, I just made that up and I like it! Anyhow these bikes build on the success of the popular Fr8 and Gr8. The big Vrachtfiets cargo quad marks the start of a new partnership. More about these below but first more boring business lessons since you might not read it if the fun stuff came first.
It isn’t sexy marketing to tell the world how you’ve thoroughly analyzed your business and then custom built a Enterprise Resource Planning system to help manage practically every aspect of it. Handy it is though for working faster and more accurately, for streamlining the order process, communication, work flow and bookkeeping, to help employees know what we have, what it costs and where it comes from. We looked at dozens of packages but none fit Workcycles strange needs. We’re a small firm yet we do many different things: R&D, import, export, consumer, B2B and dealer sales, assembly, repair, rentals, even occasionally consulting. Several ERP suppliers politely said “No, we can’t do that.” Mega huge SAP told us “Yes, we can do that!”… but at a price more appropriate for a firm twenty times as big as Workcycles. Once satisfied that we’d figured out what we did and didn’t need we set out to build our own system, based on a time-tested database platform. We were willing to make compromises and reconsider how we do some things but changing the nature of WorkCycles was out of the question; We enjoy doing what we do. Though it’s far from easy, it is unique and has earned us a loyal customer base.
This transformation process has been several years in the making and our home-brewed ERP system is only a part of it. Some changes were less fun. Take, for example, dumping the accountant who’d made a mess of our administration, tediously working with our new accounting firm to reorganize and re-file several years of corporate bookkeeping. As if that wasn’t enough of a time waster the Dutch tax service hassled us every step of the way because they now owed us a huge tax refund. They repeatedly demanded the most bizarre evidence to back up the reinstated administration… nonsensical wild goose chases such as all of the purchase invoices above €500 from this and this and this quarter, but only for these and these types of goods. Each time we dutifully supplied the requested hundreds of pages of info they came back with new demands, making it obvious the tax inspector knew and cared nothing about actually running a business. After half a year of this our case got passed to another inspector who looked it over, approved it and got us paid in short order. What a pain in the ass that was. But we got our money back and together with our new accountants and ERP we’ve completely streamlined our administration process. Word of advice for those starting a business: Learn enough about corporate finance and bookkeeping to structure your company appropriately from the beginning. Choose your accounting firm carefully. Yeah, I see your eyes glazing over, that you just want to make bikes or software or do whatever it is you dig doing. Really though, it’ll eventually mean the difference between running a successful business, plodding along between crises and frustration, and going bankrupt.
Meanwhile I think we did a pretty good job of keeping these distractions from disturbing our daily business. There wasn’t much time or energy for developing new products in 2011 and 2012 but our sales remained steady and we kept building our bikes as carefully as ever. Our ever improving organization is not only better internally; it’s reflected in how we treat our customers and ultimately that’s the point. There’s much more to come. Amongst many other functions we’re working on keeping the service histories of customers’ bikes in order to signal certain types of maintenance, to keep track of issues, to see problem patterns and so on.
I dug this old, badly scanned photo of New Year’s residue in the Amsterdam Jordaan streets to show what goes on here. Imagine an entire city setting off so much fireworks that it looks like this everywhere.
That’s enough boring business stuff. Here’s another reason I dislike New Year’s: Spending an entire day hopelessly attempting to calm a crying three year old freaked out by the fireworks. You haven’t experienced New Years in Amsterdam or another European city? The cracking, booming, flashing fireworks begins a day or two early and builds to a deafening war zone in the evening. This is not the organized, pretty fireworks of the American 4th of July. No, this is populist anarchy in explosions being set off everywhere simultaneously. At midnight all hell breaks loose for an hour or so and then it finally begins to subside.
Now that you’ve successfully waded though my holiday rant and exciting tale of business management I can give you the juicy news… New WorkCycles bikes are coming!
First up is the Vrachtfiets, a really big, heavy-duty cargo hauler on four wheels that can do things pretty much no other bike can. It’s tough like a traditional Dutch bakfiets yet thoroughly modern with an ingenious suspension system and industrial strength electric assist. It’s a robust, highly engineered workhorse that can carry a two cubic meter load. That’s a bigger load than many small delivery vans. Thus the name “Vrachtfiets, Dutch for “Freight Bike”.
At WorkCycles we’d long been considering the possibilities for a big transport bike for businesses and municipalities. The Vrachtfiets guys needed a partner with bike expertise and a way to promote and sell their bike. Add a super efficient, Dutch metalworking firm to build them and the partnership is complete. The first series of production Vrachtfietsen will be available in early 2014 and will be sold in the Amsterdam region in order to follow them closely. Ideally the first bikes will land in the hands of customers who can provide handy feedback and we’ll offer perks in exchange. Later they’ll be sold worldwide.
The Vrachtfiets’ electric assist enormously extends the range and capabilities of a bakfiets. It can climb hills and has hydraulic disk brakes on all four wheels to safely descend them too. Four wheels with suspension make Vrachtfiets super stable and easy to ride.
The Vrachtfiets carries its load behind the rider so it’s much less limited in volume than a classic bakfiets. The standard load platform is a full 200cm long and 100cm wide and low to the ground. Tall loads won’t impair the rider’s vision and the platform remains fixed when turning. We’ll begin with two basic load platforms: the Pick Up (open) and the Cargo (box). Accessories such as a windscreen and a range of modular box options will be added as needed. Like other Workcycles bikes customization is always an option. How can you put Vrachtfietsen to work?
Stay tuned. We’ll be putting up more Vrachtfiets info here and on the WorkCycles site in the coming weeks.
But wait, there’s more! After three years in the works the WorkCycles Kr8 bakfietsen are finally coming! There are actually two Kr8’s:
1. A highly evolved two wheeled version of the Cargobike/Long John type with a box the same length as our current Cargobike Long.
2. A linkage steered three-wheeler (wheels turn, box doesn’t) with really easy, stable handling. It’s a trike that’s actually pleasant to ride.
Typical WorkCycles, the frames and parts are modular. Both models use the same rear end. It’s borrowed from the Fr8 & Gr8, complete with Adaptive Seat Tube (great ergonomics for everybody) and Escape Hatch (easy tire change). Two-part frames mean that Kr8’s can be packed and shipped more cheaply and with less chance of damage.
The front frames, boxes and parking stands are all new. The boxes are unique, combining a tubular aluminium frame with lightweight wooden panels. They look great, are tough and repairable, and even flat-pack for shipping.
The Kr8 two-wheeler is all done and the first examples will be delivered in February. The three-wheeler will follow a few months later. They retain all the goodness of our current Cargobike yet with improvements throughout:
– The Kr8’s are remarkably light. The two-wheeler is almost 20% lighter than our current Cargobike. The trike is only a little heavier – very light for a three-wheeler.
– The sitting ergonomics, steering geometry and very low center of gravity make them easy and sporty to ride.
– Kr8 two-wheeler can be boxed for transport throughout the world. Soon the trike will be as well.
– They look great and can be readily customized with special colors and features.
Needless to say we’re really proud of our new babies. They’re each a couple solid evolutionary steps beyond anything else on the market and suitable for a broader range of situations than our current bikes.
Oh wait, I almost forgot that stupid thing about New Year’s “resolutions”. Which genius came up with the idea that suddenly, ten days after the winter solstice, you’re supposed to start doing something you didn’t previously do? My humble opinion: If it’s worth doing wouldn’t you already be doing it already?