The 2015 edition of the pan-European startup contest Idea Challenge sees an increase in variety and internationality. The series of events re…
It's difficult for Christian Bezdeka to remember what came first—his love for bicycling or his passion to draw and invent things. A self-described “bike nerd” who's been racing since he was 13 years old, Bezdeka made the mistake of following in his father's footsteps, studying to be a bio-medical technician in high school. Only upon graduating did he realise that industrial design offered him the perfect way to merge his talents and passions.
“Though it was only my hobby, I had a lot of finished design projects to show for my first application to the University of Applied Arts in Vienna,” recalls Bezdeka, “and I was lucky to get accepted on my first try.”
Now the father of two sons, aged five (“always in action”) and one (“sits around a lot”), he hopes they too will choose a path that leaves all possibilities open and won't lead to a dead end. He owes it to them, as they were the inspiration and motivation behind his recently launched WOOM Bikes line. “I knew that they would need bicycles themselves, and I wanted to give them the best available. Because I couldn't find one on the market, I had to design them myself.”
The concept eventually grew into a complete line of five bike models for kids from toddlers to teens. Each model is perfectly designed for the needs and anatomies of each age group. Being a parent himself, he also knew that it would be awfully expensive to keep buying premium bicycles that last for a year or two, at most, so he came up with an “upcycling” idea: within two years of purchase, a buyer can return the bike and get 40% of the original price applied against the purchase of the next biggest model. This allows parents to give their kids the best quality, the best fit, and the most safety at an affordable price point.
To the greatest extent, the bike parts are produced locally in Europe. The frames are made in the Czech Republic. Credit: WoomAs if these design criteria weren't already enough, Bezdeka decided that it was also important that WOOM Bikes be as ecological as possible. To the greatest possible extent, the parts are produced locally to minimise their carbon footprint from long-distance shipping. The materials are strictly non-toxic, from the saddles to the grips to the rubber wheels to the paint.
After almost four years of research, designing prototypes, testing, production sourcing and manufacturing, WOOM Bikes started selling online earlier this year. In order to keep the quality high and the prices low, WOOM Bikes are not sold through retail shops but only directly from the manufacturer.
Initial response has been favourable. In addition to winning a 2013 jury-prize for the Velo-city Cycling Visionaries competition last week, feedback from customers has been quite positive and already more than 300 units have been sold. “We first presented the bikes at a bicycle festival at Vienna's City Hall this year. The first day we told people that we were only there to showcase our product and, like idiots, we didn't sell any. But the next day we sold nearly 4000 euros worth of bikes. That really motivated us and confirmed that our prices were reasonable.”
The line of Woom bikes. Credit: WoomA long ride to market
Such certainty wasn't always the case. R&D started long before he knew what the ultimate market or price point would be. “We had no answer to this question. We knew the only way to get the answer was to ask our friends and fellow bikers. Even though they thought it was a great idea at a good price, they are still just friends and sometimes they're not the best to ask. So I approached the owner of one of Vienna's biggest bike shops, who is an expert in what the price threshold is, and he helped me out. I then had a price range that I could use as a basis for the design. But I knew the only way to get a definitive answer is to bring it to market.”
Bezdeka started the project and ran it for two years with his own capital investment. Eventually, he applied for and received an AWS Impulse XL grant that matched the amount of capital he had already invested and made it possible to bring the product to market. Bezdeka partnered with fellow designer Sebastian Rahs and Marcus Ihlenfeld, who as Marketing Director for Opel Austria contributed his talents on the business end. Together they founded POLYPHEM GmbH to produce the WOOM Bikes.
Bezdeka says, “it was important for me that all of us are avid cycling enthusiasts. Now Marcus handles the business and marketing side so I can have my head free for designing. It's no good if you want to design something to always have the numbers in your head. If I want to design something, I can't be thinking about what it might cost. That comes later. But first, just draw and make things happen. Doing both at the same time creates a conflict that blocks my creativity.”
Managing risk: don’t produce shit
Industrial designers must be, by nature, entrepreneurial risk-takers. Their best considered plans, no matter how much research and testing are involved, can lead to massive failure once a product is brought to market. Bezdeka recalls an example from the world of biking—the Kryptonite bike lock. Once considered the ultimate theft-protection product for urban cyclers, it turned out that the lock cylinders on several models could be easily picked open with a plastic Bic pen. The brand is still recovering from the damage to its reputation.
How can designers minimise risk? First and foremost, they rely on their experience. After graduating from design school, Bezdeka started freelancing, “mainly because there were no jobs available that didn't either demand all my energies or pay me enough.” Still living on a student's budget, he got by with only a few clients, including the Austrian bicycle manufacturer Simplon. “For five years, I designed bicycle frames, did a lot of graphic design and a lot of industrial design. I designed the lightest mountain bike on the market, lots of high-end carbon-fibre cycles.” At Simplon, he learned that “if you're producing shit, you'll pay for it. So the best thing to avoid risk is not to produce shit.”
Another client was the Swiss metal-bottle manufacturer, SIGG. Bezdeka designed the graphics on kids' bottles. “They briefed me in detail on what goes on in the mind of children – and this was a big help in getting my design ideas for WOOM started. But in the end, the proof of concept is when children use it and it works.”
To this end, Bezdeka partnered with an Austrian social insurance agency for occupational risk concerns, AUVA, who organise children's bicycle workshops across the country. WOOM Bike prototypes were tested at these workshops and Bezdeka could closely observe what their needs were. “For example, our number-two bike was given a much lower bottom bracket, shorter cranks, which helps give stability through a lower centre of gravity. This helps kids to start cycling easily, with more security at slower speeds. The steering angle is slacker, which prevents accidental turning and the seat tub is slacker which helps kids get their feet on the ground more easily.”
Woom bike testimonials: Bezdeka's son Luka and his business partner's daughter Nelly. Credit: WoomFor Bezdeka, feedback is better obtained from close observation than from testimony, especially from the mouths of babes. “You have to be careful to distinguish between what you observe and what the kids will tell you. Often, your kids would want to ride the biggest bike they can, but that doesn't mean it would be the easiest to ride. It's an issue of safety, too. With AUVA, we want to make a bicycle that is two sizes too big for an adult, so that parents can see for themselves how difficult and dangerous it is to ride a bike that's too big!”
WOOM Bikes were also “daddy-proofed” in another way. “We could have easily saved 200 or 300 grammes from the total weight of the bike, but because we're sure that every daddy, or some other grown-up, sits on his child's bike at one point, the frame might crack. So we decided to beef up the frames at the expense of saving a bit of weight.”
Surprisingly, the financial risks are of least concern to Bezdeka. Though he and Rahs spent the better part of last year sourcing parts for their bikes, many of which had to be custom-made, he knows that “in the worst case scenario, we could sell off our parts inventory on eBay and recoup what we paid for it.”
A WOOM with a View
Bezdeka plans to develop more bike-related products under the POLYPHEM umbrella. He is currently working on a children's school bag solution that can be attached safely and easily to a bike. For the recent Departure Cycling Affairs competition, he submitted three project concepts (though none of them won a prize).
He is excited that the city of Vienna is investing a lot in future cycling infrastructure, but he thinks “bike theft is a big issue, I think the biggest issue for the city to solve—I've heard that every second bicycle gets stolen. Bike paths aren't the biggest necessity, especially for those who already ride—maybe they are needed to attract motorists to take up biking. But it's hard to convince people to give up their car and invest in a high-quality bike if there such a high risk of theft. I'm working on a solution to this, by starting a new design for a city bike.”
Last Friday, 7 July, the social-enterprise networks HUB Vienna and Toniic presented the second annual CEE Impact Day—the closing event of the 2013 Investment Ready Program (IRP). Last year's happening was held in the modest facilities of HUB Vienna. This year, the noble and elite setting of the Österreichische Kontrollbank (OeKB) headquarters was indeed a symbol of this event's growing importance in the increasingly modish field of Impact Investment.
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