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.
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:
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:
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:
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.