An American with a bike company in Holland? Part 2

The following post is the second in a series of answers to questions posed in an earlier article about why I began WorkCycles.
Maybe you want to begin with “An American with a bike company in Holland Part 1“?
2. Why did I leave a comfortable corporate job to start such a risky venture?

This is a very sensible question when you consider the risks involved:

  • I’d never owned a business before WorkCycles.
  • I had minimal cash to invest and wanted as little outside investment and influence as possible.
  • My plan to sell workbikes, cargobikes and classic city bicycles was novel and an unknown quantity. No quantifiable market existed for the special bicycles I planned to build.
  • There are no statistics available about firms building or selling workbikes, cargo trikes or other special bicycles making business planning very sketchy.
  • I was a foreigner in the Netherlands, and didn’t even speak Dutch yet.
  • Nine out of ten new, independent businesses fail within 3 years anyway.
  • But my reasons to continue anyway were more compelling:
    Firstly I was bored and felt little affinity for my work. By most standards it was a great situation: a well-paid job as a design researcher for highly respected Philips Design. I had freedom to choose the direction of my work and I spent my days exploring and running research projects to help various Philips businesses (re)consider their design and business strategies. Sustainability and responsibility were recurring themes, though not with any notable effect.

    Further I didn’t believe in or at least have much interest in many of Philips’ activities: manufacturing electric/electronic stuff, from light bulbs to computer chips, toasters to DVD players etc. Much of this is invaluable or at least unavoidable in the modern world, but that still doesn’t mean that I want to spend my days developing and promoting them.

    Other products, such as electric shavers, are little more than frivolous profit-making tools. Even internally its recognized that the developments in simple razors have made them better shaving, more comfortable, cheaper, portable and more sustainable than electric shavers can ever be. Philips sells electric shavers partially because its an important part of their history; The original Philips rotary-electric shaver was effectively a bicycle lighting dynamo run as a motor and it even looked almost the same. But many other old products have long since been dropped, suggesting that they really make electric shavers simply because they’re profitable. Shareholder profit is indeed the end goal of the corporate structure, and amongst large corporations Philips generally seems to be fairly responsible.

    But my decade in the corporate world also taught me the incredible power of businesses. Even with their excesses and inefficiencies large corporations wield enormous influence over the environment, trends, consumption patterns, people’s daily lives, governments policy making… just about everything. The blatant nepotism and industry favoritism of George W. Bush’s regime only drove the point home that modern western governments are, to a large extent, controlled by business interests.

    Unfortunately much of this corporate influence pushes in directions opposite to what I wish to see. Consumption drives our present economic system but doesn’t make for a better, happier world. Reduced dependence on energy would certainly reduce world strife but doesn’t economically benefit oil companies. If you’ve read this far you can fill in your own examples.

    We can respond to such negative but overwhelming situations in various ways including:

  • Engagement in politics
  • Peaceful protesting
  • Academic research
  • Writing books and articles
  • Avoidance of the topic: “Its just hopeless.”
  • Denial
  • I chose instead to “Fight fire with fire”. If businesses wield the power, why not build a business that asserts its power in the direction you feel is appropriate? It seems an absurdly ambitious goal, but really its not. As trend-setters small businesses, architects, designers, inventors, scientists, artists etc can plant the seeds to effect profound change. Some grow into big businesses while others generate the ideas that eventually become “mainstream” or “common knowledge”.

    The primary goal of WorkCycles was thus to demonstrate that there really was a market for modern workbikes, simple commuting bikes and special bicycles to carry children, and to raise awareness of just how great they are in use. Of course I recognized that the benefits directly derived from the bicycles we built would be modest, but WorkCycles could potentially contribute to changing attitudes about cycling, urban transport and doing business in general. Further it could help launch a nascent industry.

    Even that sounds overly ambitious but its actually working:

  • WorkCycles began in a garage and within months bicycles had been sold in five countries.
  • About half our bicycles are now shipped outside the Netherlands.
  • WorkCycles is constantly in newspapers and magazines so it apparently makes for good press.
  • Countless websites and blogs refer or link to WorkCycles.
  • Each year our sales more than double and we’re still here four years later.
  • Our industry colleagues also seem to grow and new entries to the field appear regularly.
  • The major bicycle manufacturers threaten constantly to jump in too (none have so far – it must still be too small).
  • Of course I don’t take credit for the growth in general, but I do believe WorkCycles has done its share to professionalize and market cargobikes, traditional dutch city bikes and the likes. Its ridiculously hard work and brings endless challenges, but its also immensely satisfying to participate in its development.

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    11 Responses to “An American with a bike company in Holland? Part 2”

    1. Bakfiets en meer » An American with a bike company in Holland? Says:

      [...] Question 2 continued here… [...]

    2. fiets_503 Says:

      Part 2. The story continues. Thank you so much for taking the time to compose this explanation. When I first heard of you a year and a half ago, I wondered what your “story” was. Again now, the picture becomes a little clearer.

      …it is funny, as I ride Todd’s Bakfiets here around Portland, people who have never seen a Bakfiets will often read your large “Henry’s Workcycles” logo and say “Nice Workcycle!” …rather than the Bakfiets name, here in America, it is YOUR company’s name that they understand. Many parents at my kids’ school make comments and wonder where I got such a bicycle. Other parents at my kids’ baseball games also quiz me about the Bakfiets.

      What one man dreamed of and started in a garage now is making a difference on the other side of the world.

      Keep it up Henry!

    3. henry Says:

      Thanks very much for the note and compliments, but I don’t mean to take credit where its not due: The Bakfiets Cargobike is actually my friend Maarten van Andel’s creation. I’ve contributed to its design, development and business execution but its very much Maarten’s brainchild.

      And just a little terminology:
      “bakfiets” is both the generic term for transport bicycle with a big box (usually with three wheels), and also the name of Maarten’s company. Well, technically that’s “bakfiets.nl” but you get the idea. The bicycle model is called “Cargobike”. Considering that it doesn’t say that anywhere on the bike its not surprising it gets missed.

      While I’m at it I’ll point out that bakfiets is singular and bakfietsen is plural.

      Happy cycling!

      Groeten,
      Henry

    4. fiets_503 Says:

      Henry,

      Your modesty is duly noted. I appreciate what you are doing and what I do know is that had you not begun your business, I would not be seeing other bakfietsen around Portland.

      Yes, I understand that the Bakfiets Cargobike is Maarten van Andel’s creation. I’m very thankful for his design and I look forward to the next generation.

      I’m also aware that bakfiets is a generic term for transport bicycle. It is funny; I took the van Andel designed bakfiets.nl bike by a local bike shop where a Dutchman named Hans works as a repairman. When I showed him the bike he said, “Oh, that’s not a bakfiets, bakfietsen have three wheels.” **grin** yes, he has been living in the USA for some time now and he was more familiar with other bakfietsen.

      I have also often wondered why bakfiets.nl is not more prominently displayed on the frame. As you know, the only visible mention of the word Bakfiets is behind the seat on the back of the box.

      Although it is well worth mentioning for the American readers, your comment about bakfiets singular and bakfietsen plural makes me chuckle again. This has been the subject of several different conversations in the last week. See my post here from a few days ago:
      http://bikeportland.org/2007/05/17/bakfiets-go-mainstream/#comment-396420

      Tot ziens!

    5. mark Says:

      Henry,

      I’d really love an answer to question #4. When a Chinese knockoff costs slightly more than just the shipping for a Workcycles cargo bike (there’s no US dealer in my state), it isn’t too hard to rationalize getting the cheaper one.

      Admittedly, this is a bit of a straw man- shipping the knockoff is going to be significantly more since there’s not any US dealer, and there are other disadvantages, but I’d like to hear your reasons.

    6. henry Says:

      Hi Mark,
      I’ll eventually get to questions 3 and 4, but its just been too busy to do much writing lately. Coincidentally I’ve also been gathering photos for an article about the Chinese bakfiets copies.

      If you’ve never seen the bikes yourself I can completely understand that consideration. But the reality is quite different. Comparing these bikes is akin to comparing a mountain bike ridden in professional competition to a “mountain bike” purchased at a Walmart.

      The Bakfiets Cargobike is a serious vehicle designed and built for the rigors of many years of everyday use. It rides easily and solidly, even with considerable cargo in the box. All of the materials, finishes and components have been chosen to ensure that it works safely and conveniently today, tomorrow and ten years from now. The Cargobike is not a cheap purchase, but it is cheap to use and own and they provide many years of pleasure to countless families.

      The Chinese copy Bakfiets are knock-offs of the worst kind. They not, as they claim to be, the same thing with some cost cutting compromises. They’re horrid pot-metal constructions posing as real bikes. If the owner actually manages to get it assembled it will nonetheless never ride stably, the brakes will never do much, the chain will jump off (inside a steel chain case – not so convenient!) constantly, the lights will be ineffective, the tires will flat constantly and the deterioration process will begin fast and hard. Left outdoors these bikes rust fast. Did I mention that the frames break in half? IMHO the purchaser of one of these didn’t save €1000; they wasted €600 and a lot of their time. Hopefully nobody got hurt in the process.

      Groeten,
      Henry

    7. HeleenH Says:

      I am a Dutch owner of a long Cargobike by bakfiets.nl. I first did a couple of testrides on the cheap look-a-likes. The bicycle shop on the corner of our street sells the 010 and the 2006/2007.
      The trike 2006/2007 was uncomfortable because of the three weels and the straight steer. The two wheeled 010 cargobike look-a-like was a scary ride. I actually never got round the block, after trying to drive straight for about one row of houses, which is about 50 meters or 55 yards, I decided this wasn’t safe and I wasn’t going to try any further and returned the bicycle.
      I went to another bycicle shop where they sell the proper Bakfiets.nl bikes and was very apprehensive when I tried to get on the bike, but this was a completely different story. This felt as safe as my own bicycle.

      From the pictures you wouldn’t tell, but the bicycles are really very different.

    8. henry Says:

      Hi Heleen,
      Thanks very much for your feedback here. It means much more when it comes from the mouth (or keyboard) of a customer/rider rather than the dealer who has an interest in promoting what he sells.

      Groeten,
      Henry

    9. HeleenH Says:

      And I’m not even a customer of your shop, I was too lazy to cycle across Amsterdam y to your shop top try all the different models when I can buy it at a dealer only 10 minutes away in our little suburb just south of Amsterdam. But I love your blog, I’ve spent all afternoon reading old entries.

      You can read a longer review in Dutch in the newsgroup nl.fietsen: http://groups.google.nl/group/nl.fiets/msg/793b127f38f04e47

    10. henry Says:

      Heleen,
      As long as you keep the compliments coming I won’t complain that you bought your bike elsewhere ;-)

      Groet,
      Henry

    11. EcoVelo » Blog Archive » Henry WorkCycles Says:

      [...] Henry Workcycles in Amsterdam are builders and retailers of bakfiets, workbikes, and hand-built city bikes. What I find intriguing about WorkCycles (besides their exquisite products) is the fact that owner Henry Cutler is an American expatriate living and working in Amsterdam, building and selling traditional Dutch bicycles. You can read more about his interesting story on his blog, Bakfiets en meer. [Part 1, Part 2] [...]

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