How To Start A Bike Busi­ness

Vic­tor Mom­sen takes on the world.

Bicycling (South Africa) - - Contents - By Mike Finch

WHEN I MES­SAGED VIC­TOR MOM­SEN to dou­ble-check the year in which he started the Mom­sen bike brand, his re­ply was a quick-fire ‘1975’.

For a mo­ment, I started do­ing the maths; be­fore I re­alised that the talk­a­tive owner of the quin­tes­sen­tial South African bike brand was re­fer­ring sim­ply to the year in which he was born. Fair enough. With­out Mom­sen him­self, the brand would not be as re­spected and loved as it is by so many lo­cal rid­ers.

He soon clar­i­fied: Mom­sen Bikes was founded in 2009, and in the al­most 10 years since, the Port El­iz­a­beth com­pany has es­tab­lished Vic­tor Mom­sen as one of the big play­ers in the lo­cal mar­ket.

Not bad when you con­sider that he’s up against some of the big­gest bike brands in the world here, and yet has man­aged to carve out a niche that started with af­ford­able hard­tail moun­tain bikes, and has now mor­phed into build­ing top-of-the-range marathon MTBs – the new Vipa Ul­tra ar­rives in 2019 – and play­ing strongly in the rapidly ex­pand­ing gravel bike mar­ket.

Mom­sen’s roots are thor­oughly an­chored in South African trails and sin­gle­track. The Baak­ens Val­ley – where Mom­sen head­quar­ters is based – is the cen­tre of all things moun­tain bike in the Eastern Cape.

And he’s stayed true to his South African roots, us­ing his own ex­pe­ri­ence of lo­cal con­di­tions to build bikes that have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing well-specced, hardy and de­pend­able.

“Peo­ple al­ways say things like ‘overnight suc­cess’,” says Mom­sen, a qual­i­fied me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer from PE Tech. “But that ‘overnight’ has been 20-plus years and longer in the mak­ing.”

So what does it take to start a bike brand, and turn your pas­sion into a suc­cess­ful busi­ness?

THE PROCESS

All of the pro­duc­tion and man­u­fac­ture is off­shore. A lot of it hap­pens in the Far East, and there’s al­ways a lot of dis­cus­sion as whether to go China or Tai­wan.

A bi­cy­cle is the sum of its parts: the BB may be from Tai­wan, the rim from China, the spokes from Europe. It can be very con­fus­ing to say that a bike is made in a par­tic­u­lar coun­try, be­cause parts and com­po­nents are sourced from all over. It’s im­por­tant to get the right com­pany for the job. I go to the fac­to­ries on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, and in the case of the new Vipa Ul­tra [Mom­sen’s lat­est marathon MTB, due for launch in 2019], I lit­er­ally ate, drank and worked with the peo­ple mak­ing the frame to build the re­la­tion­ship and fin­ish the first pro­to­types… and that’s on the back of seven years of work­ing with them al­ready.

The man­u­fac­tur­ers rely on me to make sure the de­sign is right and to en­sure a good con­cept. When I told them about de­sign­ing a hole in the mid­dle of the frame for the new stor­age box on the Ul­tra, it was a chal­lenge. They’d never done that be­fore. Even with his many years of car­bon man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the fac­tory’s in-house com­pos­ite ex­pert ac­knowl­edged it has been his tough­est project to date.

It’s tough for us on pric­ing, be­cause we’re com­pet­ing with global brands who buy 100 000 units ver­sus our 100. But peo­ple think that buy­ing lo­cal should be cheaper. It doesn’t work that way.

I LIT­ER­ALLY ATE, DRANK AND WORKED WITH THE PEO­PLE MAK­ING THE FRAME...

You’re only as good as your last bike range. But to start, you need to climb a wall to get a foot in the door.

At the en­try level, price and spec are the only dif­fer­ences. At the high end, you need to be unique – and the sky’s the limit.

Hav­ing built up con­tacts in Asia over the years, I know who does what. That’s half the bat­tle, for the new guys. A lot of peo­ple who try to start their own bike brand don’t have the con­tacts or knowl­edge of the in­dus­try. Yes, you can get on a plane to the East and buy some prod­uct; but un­less you re­ally know your stuff, it’s like gam­bling. Many guys do that: they go and source blank frames and a driv­e­train, and then ask, ‘What’s the prob­lem?” They do this with­out any real qual­ity as­sur­ance, and of­ten get burned. As with any im­port busi­ness, cash flow is the big­gest chal­lenge, un­less you know what you’re do­ing. Those days of just rent­ing some space and start­ing a brand are gone.

Some­times you have to make dif­fi­cult life­style choices, and de­cide be­tween in­vest­ing in a new mould, or a new car or even a new house. We’re a small brand, and our size and free­dom can ac­tu­ally be a

strength. We are able to make de­ci­sions as own­ers and move rel­a­tively fast, com­pared to our big­ger com­peti­tors.

Prior to start­ing my own brand, I was the Prod­uct Di­rec­tor at the com­pany that held the Raleigh li­cence for South­ern Africa. For seven years I was re­spon­si­ble for all the de­sign, devel­op­ment and spec­c­ing of their com­plete bike line. This in­volved seven to nine over­seas trips a year to Asia and bi­cy­cling shows. I’ve prob­a­bly been to the East al­most 100 times, build­ing on con­tacts and re­la­tion­ships with key sup­pli­ers.

Five or six years ago it was tough start­ing a brand with­out a dealer net­work, no mat­ter how nice or well-priced your prod­uct was. You have dif­fer­ent lev­els of deal­ers, with es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ships with big brands; so you have to make it hard for them to turn you down.

When you con­sider that some big brands have 150-plus bike mod­els at ev­ery price point, you get to un­der­stand the enor­mity of the busi­ness. In 2019, we’ll have just 16 mod­els in to­tal.

There’s a lot of choice at bike shops, and the big bike play­ers have big size curves and colours, and a full price range.

The big­gest chal­lenge is be­ing true to both ends of the spec­trum – the en­try-level mar­ket, and the top, bou­tique end. You need that R10K hard­tail that you could do a stage race on, and then the R100K marathon bike… it’s a South African thing.

The Rand is the vari­able. You can plan to build a bike for R10K re­tail; but it takes around eight to 10 months from con­cept to ar­rival, and the Rand can change as much as 20% in that time. Your bike ar­rives and it be­comes a R12K bike in­stead of a R10K win­ner.

All brands have to be fu­tur­ists. We’re al­ready look­ing at Au­gust next year, and try­ing to pre­dict trends and the econ­omy.

You need to spread the risk, and have mod­els at the en­try level and at the high end. We built the busi­ness on the back of bud­get MTB hard­tails, while we got busy with de­vel­op­ing high-end du­al­sus­pen­sion race bikes.

THE BIG­GEST CHAL­LENGE IS BE­ING TRUE TO BOTH ENDS OF THE SPEC­TRUM – THE EN­TRY-LEVEL MAR­KET, AND THE TOP, BOU­TIQUE END.

We’ve built the brand on lo­cal sup­port. But in South Africa that’s a chal­lenge, be­cause lo­cal doesn’t al­ways want to sup­port lo­cal. They be­lieve that lo­cal is in­fe­rior; and that’s a very deep-rooted be­lief. Be­ing an SA brand, we’re start­ing to hit a ceil­ing in terms of vol­ume, so we have a vested in­ter­est in go­ing global – we’re hop­ing the new Vipa Ul­tra will do that for us.

With so­cial me­dia, it’s eas­ier now to get global ex­po­sure. We can get a men­tion on an In­sta­gram feed in Por­tu­gal, and gain trac­tion there.

THE BACK STORY

When I was 19, I got on a plane and worked in an assem­bly fac­tory in Tai­wan, as an in­tern; it was with one of the ma­jor play­ers in the Tai­wan bike in­dus­try at the time, so I could see how it all worked. But they didn’t un­der­stand what made a bike look good. They had for­eign­ers as their prod­uct man­agers, and they were the ones who de­cided what spec went on the bikes, and how they looked. The French prod­uct man­ager at the time re­ally taught me a lot about the bike game.

Af­ter a while I made the de­ci­sion to start my own whole­sale com­pany. I was do­ing a lot and work­ing hard, so I thought, why not do it for my­self?

I started Two Wheels Trad­ing in July 2007, and was able to se­cure a few good brands to dis­trib­ute in the SA mar­ket. It was only two years later that I started Mom­sen Bikes.

At the time, the 29er thing was com­ing, but I didn’t have the fi­nances to bring in a big range.

It was the Gary Fisher brand that re­ally of­fered a com­pet­i­tive and rea­son­ablypriced 29er. Our first bike was ac­tu­ally just a frame kit, and we were able to of­fer a rolling chas­sis via sourc­ing Rock­Shox forks and Stan’s ZTR 29er wheels.

I have to at­tribute a lot of the 29er suc­cess to An­drew McLean. He was a dif­fer­en­tia­tor; de­spite be­ing a short guy, he was beat­ing the 29er drum. He pro­moted the fact that a big wheel was bet­ter. It be­came a wave.

NO­BODY CAN TAKE AWAY YOUR NAME, AND ‘MOM­SEN’ JUST HAP­PENED TO WORK WELL ON A DOWNTUBE.

Com­ing up with a name that isn’t trade­marked and doesn’t in­fringe on some­thing sim­i­lar­sound­ing is tricky. But no­body can take away your name, and ‘Mom­sen’ just hap­pened to work well on a downtube.

I con­stantly ref­er­enced cars when it came to model names. The higher the num­ber, the more ex­pen­sive. Like BMW with their 1, 3 and 5 se­ries. No one can re­ally own num­bers.

I like the idea of giv­ing back to devel­op­ment and schools. There’s some mar­ket­ing lever­age and a feel-good fac­tor to it. Over the years we have been very in­volved in the high-school se­ries, as well as sup­port­ing many younger rid­ers.

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