Changing gears: a move into the cycling industry

Adam McDermott, founder of urban cycling brand Linus Bike, explains how he left behind film production to learn the ins and outs of bike manufacturing.
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‘I was working in film production and was responsible for what’s called “pulling focus” – as the character moves across the scene, the focus puller keeps them in focus. That’s what I did for 10 years, mostly for commercials. But commercials are the most transient things you can possibly make. It’s so much energy, but they last for 30 seconds and are gone from the world. I wanted to make something more permanent.

’I always had an interest in bikes – they’re just a better, more enjoyable and human way to navigate cities. Traditionally in the US, bikes were seen as recreational, but I wanted one modelled on the classic European type, designed for short transportation within cities. Simple, elegant and functional. I couldn’t find one, so I asked, “Can I make it?” Film production doesn’t translate to manufacturing, but I felt really certain about the idea. Thankfully, I didn’t know about all the obstacles – the size, shipping, storage. I didn’t know what to fear.

’The commercials were freelance work, so I’d be consumed by a job for a week and then I’d be off and could put all my energy into building Linus. It was a very slow and gradual process of learning to get to the first stage of a product. It took me two years of ideas, drawings, speccing, finding manufacturers and sourcing vendors. It eventually led me to Vietnam, which was the wrong choice, but it got things rolling.

’I was travelling in Indonesia with friends and after the trip ended I decided to go to Vietnam. I found a translator and went to a factory – I couldn’t even get an appointment because I didn’t know who the point of contact was. I just showed up and said, “Hey, this is what I want to do.” They’d never done business outside of Vietnam, so they were curious. It was a state-owned factory that made beautiful bikes – I’d seen some of their catalogues while doing research – but their manufacturing process was outdated. Nothing translated to the modern world, it was really in a time capsule. But it was enough to get started.

’We eventually made 100 bikes and I shipped them over and put them in a storage unit. They were about 60% assembled, and there was a lot of fine-tuning to get them to run smoothly. I was living in an apartment in Venice, Los Angeles, with a small courtyard in the back, so I’d drive over in my truck, grab three bikes and build them back in the courtyard. My friends helped, too. Now that I had them, I just had to show them to the world. That’s when it became real.

’My friend had a space on Abbot Kinney Boulevard and was vacating it. It was going to be empty for two weeks until the new tenant moved in. So I just put the bikes outside and we had a tin box to take cash; we sold through all 100 bikes in two weekends. It felt like proof of concept, but it was totally unscalable because of what it took to assemble the bikes, their mechanical wonkiness and the difficulty of working with the factory. There were no bank transfers, for instance – I had to Western Union the money. And if I wanted to use parts that weren’t manufactured in Vietnam, I had to hand-courier them. So I’d travel to Vietnam with a box of hubs and the customs officers were like, “What is this?” It was wholly impractical. So I kept looking. I knew the idea was sound – it was just about how to deliver it to market.

’After attending a bike show in Taiwan, I found an agent, which led to a factory in China with sophisticated manufacturing processes. They’d been producing bikes for the US for 30 years. That’s when it became more real. A friend of mine, who worked with me in film production, joined the company – but even after the launch of the bikes, it wasn’t enough to sustain us. If we got another commercial gig, we’d put a sign on the door at our little space that said “closed”, we’d do the job, make some money and then come back to selling bikes. That went on for almost two years.

’We started to pick up accounts in key markets – New York, Chicago, Portland – and it spread from there. We knew nothing about wholesale. We had some absurd minimum we expected stores to order to be an account – a lot of people walked away when we told them they had to order 20 bikes in the first order. But slowly we figured it out and it enabled us to scale. We resolved our warehousing problem; they’re such big, clunky, heavy things and you really need professional warehousing. And then we built a sales programme. Within a few years, we had 250 or 300 accounts. We picked up distribution in Canada, Australia, Japan, Brazil. We got a lot of press. And it just started feeding itself.

’I remember our last commercial job. It was a Ziploc bag ad or something, and it featured a woman holding a steak inside a bag and she was shaking it. And that was it! I’ve never looked back.’

This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.

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