I first met Szymon 'Cowboylinski'
Kobylinksi at a bike show a few years ago. We were chatting over a few beers in the evening as his story started to unfold. Starting with his youth in London, to his days as a chart-topping rock star in Poland, traveling the world on tour and racing against the tour bus on his bike instead of sleeping inside and letting the roadman do the work. After this, he became more involved with mountain biking as downhill started to boom in Poland. He started distributing parts he imported from America, which quickly grew into making his own parts, and then led to starting NS, which has become a successful bike company.
Szymon strikes me as a humble and intelligent guy, who never wants to rest on his laurels, become stale, or stuck. The growth of his business proves this, as it has evolved into a completely different animal from the one it was born. The same is true of his riding and racing: winning many downhill races in Poland, he moved on to dirt and pumptrack stuff. This turned into trail and enduro riding, then a stint racing triathlon.
I ran into him at Eurobike Media Days earlier this summer, where he said, "It feels like everything I have done in my riding career has been working towards this point, and now I have finally found it, the perfect mix of skill, fitness, and knowledge," about his new love for XC racing. Just after we met, he headed to Andorra to race the Masters World Championships where he finished 32nd in his category and accepts being well and truly beaten. There's no way he's going to stop moving forwards now, and I'm sure we will see a better result from him next year.
First things first, what's your name and where do you come from?
My name is Szymon Kobylinski, I come from Gdansk, Poland. I'm 47 years old, and a proud father of Max - 8, NS Bikes - 15, Creme - 9, and Rondo - 2.
Tell us about the rock star days, how big were you - did people recognize you walking down the streets?
We were huge in the late 90's and early 2000. We played around 700 shows over a period of over 10 years, which meant spending the greater part of our time on tour. We were a proper rock band, with an attitude, but just enough melody in the songs to actually get us into the charts. So we had fans that listened to punk rock, and fans that liked Michael Jackson. Our audience was wide. Many of our songs received cult followings, we hear them being sung by drunk soldiers on their leave and they are played at college parties to this day.
Live concerts were the main source of our income but album sales were great too - we got a gold album and achieved platinum sales figures. At the moment of peak popularity, people would indeed walk up to me on the streets and ask for autographs and stuff like that. Usually, I was cool with that (especially when trying to pick up a girl at a bar) but sometimes it was actually a bit uncomfortable.
Szymon was the front man for the 'Blenders' punk rock group.
You said you used to cycle behind the tour bus to get between gigs?
Yes, I was just as much into MTB as I was into music, and one way to stay in touch with two wheels was to have my bike with me. So when my bandmates were dying from hangovers in the bus, I was pedaling away across the country to the next gig, that doesn't mean that I didn't party at all though! (laughs)
What were you doing before NS?
I spent my whole childhood in London, then moved to Poland when I was 13, and when I was 20 I went straight into showbiz. In the meantime, I somehow managed to graduate from the Technical University of Gdansk. I never actually had any 'real' jobs in my life! 7ANNA (the mother company of NS) was my first business...
How did you first become involved with the MTB industry?
In the late 90's I really got involved in the growing DH scene in Poland. It was hard to get hold of any dedicated downhill parts, so I started importing stuff from the US. At first just for myself, then for a few friends, and then at one point it turned into a small business. We worked with exotic companies like Hanebrink, Risse, Stratos, and Karpiel.
When and why did you start NS Bikes?
Apart from the American brands that we imported, we also started pulling in no-name bars, stems, and pedals from Taiwan. At one point my friend told me that we should put a logo on it and sell it under our own brand. My first reaction was that he's crazy - I mean you have to be called Gary and live in California if you want to start a mountain bike brand, right? But when he showed me some ideas and sketches, I realized that we may be onto something. We teamed up with a few cool riders, made some photo shoots, videos and it just took off.
Have you found that there were any particularly difficult markets to get into?
Not really. I see NS as a bit like a hardcore band that has passionate fans everywhere in the world. The popularity of these niche projects are not as country-specific as more mainstream brands or bands.
Was there a point where you felt the NS starting to take off? Did it snowball, or was it slow and steady?
As soon as we put “Northshore Extreme” onto the Taiwanese handlebars, the sales started to skyrocket. We could not keep up with the demand. The market was hungry for reasonable priced, 'extreme' products with a cool image. There were almost no alternatives at that time. That was the first supercharger in our career. After that, sales leveled out, and we realized we had to start making our own stuff to stay ahead.
At that point, we really focused on dirt jumping and launched some very refined steel frames. Again - it was exactly what the market needed and sales went through the roof. The Suburban, Capital and other models sold in thousands. Getting Martin Soderstrom on board was definitely another booster, and later offering complete bikes became the next milestone for us. The next big step forwards is not related directly to NS, but did affect us. It happened when my third company, Rondo (gravel bikes), got the Gold Award at Eurobike last year. This caused a huge increase in interest in all our products - not just Rondo but NS as well. I think people in the industry simply started treating our whole group more seriously.
What's your most popular product to date, and are there any products you regret making?
Most of our products were pretty successful and luckily we never had any major problems. If I had to name a single product, it would be the Suburban frame. The only thing that I regret making is an over-complicated stem... Not that there is anything wrong with it, but it's just not in line with our philosophy.
So what goes into designing NS products?
Whenever we are confronted with making a choice between 'exciting' or user-friendly, 'innovative' or reliable, lightweight or strong, we always choose the latter. Our product manager (aka Erenes) has a street BMX background and keeps me from drifting off into making these sales and marketing driven decisions. He is the one making sure we use big bolts that don't strip, parts that are easy to service or replace in a local bike shop and stuff you can repair at home or buy in a hardware store. Our main objective is to make the products work in the real world. And the real world ain't a lab! As riders, we just had too many situations where a great weekend of riding was ruined by a broken spoke that you could only buy in one place in the world. At the same time, I want to stress that we don't want to make primitive low-performance bikes; we are all into performance, we are racers, we wanna go fast.
Apart from that, we try to be honest about our products. I am an engineer, I understand how bikes and suspension work, and I don't want to make idiots out of our customers. So we are not throwing out acronyms or claims that our suspension is “the best in the world”. Come on - no mathematical models or scientific tests exist proving that less anti-squat is better than more, or that there is a perfect suspension curve. We actually have been trying to get a large government fund to scientifically prove how full of shit many of the claims and 'truths' out there are... kind of a 'suspension myth-busters' thing. No luck so far but maybe one day... For now, we are just testing the bikes against the clock and choosing the fastest solutions.
The NS office and factory keep expanding, all the design, painting, assembly, packaging, and shipping is done in-house.
Have you got any favorite business books or courses that helped you along the way? Anything that you'd recommend?
I love reading business books! Some of my favorites would be Small Giants
by Bo Burlingham, The E-Myth
by Michael Gerber, and Leaders Eat Last and Start With Why
by Simon Sinek.
Looking back, is there anything you'd have done differently?
I often have a sense of 'wasted time' when I think about the decade spent playing music, which I could have spent on growing our company. But then again who knows, maybe I would never have started the business if it wasn't for the band. I should have drunk less booze and rode more when I was 20 - it would be easier to win races today! Apart from that, no regrets really... I can't imagine having a better job or a better life.
What trends do you see coming in the future?
I never considered myself a visionary, but... back in the 90's I started a little local 'movement' with my friends that we called “the new school of freeride”. The concept was to prove that you could have one bike and skill to really do it all. We believed that MTB is not just about going up in lycra or going down on an 8” bike with a beer in your hand. I was in love with the concept of quiver-killer bikes, but at that time there were not enough parts on the market to really build one up. I remember trying to prove our philosophy at a bike festival by riding a marathon on Saturday and getting a good position in the DH race on the same bike on the next day (the only thing I changed on the bike were the tires). Obviously, we were on to something, I mean this is where MTB has really been heading over the last few years.
Apart from that, I feel that XC will become much bigger. Maybe I'm biased, because it's what I love most personally, but it's really great as a spectator sport and it's much more relevant to most people than the more 'extreme' side of our sport. At the same time, XC continues becoming more 'extreme' itself, so it kind of merges into the 'new school of freeride' thing that we crusaded for 20 years ago. Of course, E-bikes are the future too, but I still don't know how to approach this mentally...
Celebrating the opening of their new office with a party.
You raced at the XC World Championships this year, how was that?
It was brutal. I came 32nd in my category (so about halfway in the field). I expected a better result, but I think that the thin air in Andorra did me in (I spent very little time at altitude before the race). The top guys were on another planet, in fact when we checked their times we think they could easily compete in the pro category. The course was really amazing, with jumps, rocks, and stuff so with my DH background I really loved it, but I was simply suffocating all along. I'm looking forward to getting a better result next year, this time hopefully on my own bike (we don't currently make XC bikes, so I use a competitor's model at the moment).
Szymon racing the 2018 Masters World Championships in Vallnord.
Anything else you would like to talk about?
First of all, I would like to thank all our customers (business partners and especially riders) for supporting us through the years. For me, and for the whole team, NS has really become a part of our lives. It's not just a job. We are throwing our whole hearts into this and it makes us so proud to see that people all around the globe dig our products. This is especially significant for us because we come from a small East European country and always felt a bit self-conscious about this.
Things move on, and now Szymon mostly rides gravel and XC bikes.