How To Start A Bike Business
Victor Momsen takes on the world.
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?
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.