Professional agitators? Revolutionaries? The meteoric growth of Sick Cycles has been interesting to watch from the sidelines. Like many British brands, it was started in a shed, but it was clear from the onset that founders Jordan Childs and Tim Allen (no, not that one) had bigger plans. Innumerable prototypes, radical designs and a notorious social media presence got them noticed quickly and before long they were shifting large numbers of frames. Too many.
Slowly but surely, the forums lit up. Late deliveries, frames being damaged in transit, and radio silence from a normally vocal company. Panic spread among people who had bought a frame. Sick was hit with waves of refund requests and some customers even threatening legal action. Was this to be the end of a company that stuck its head too far above the parapet?
We sat down with Tim and Jordan of Sick to understand what went wrong, how bad the situation got and how they will move forward in the future:
So, your bikes have been on Pinkbike, but you guys as two people have never been featured. Do you want to give a quick potted history of Sick, why you started Sick and to introduce yourselves quickly?Tim:
We decided that we were going to start cross country running because we were too fat and it hurt our shins on hard ground.Jordan:
Maybe a week into doing these cross country runs, we decided it would be easier if we just had bikes. I bought a bunch of bikes off Pinkbike and I said, "You know the problem is that I like different bits of all of these bikes.” I just said, “what we should do...Tim:
...is find out how hard it would be to make a frame.”Jordan:
My stage of mountain biking was the time it was on the X-Games. There was New World Disorder, Cranked, Earthed. We went into it culturally thinking that everything was still like it was when I stopped riding bikes. Then we discovered that it had changed a lot. It was very technical and it was very performance oriented and it was like the new golf.Tim:
Which I found incredibly off-putting, which is where we thought, "Hang on maybe there's a bit of a niche for that." It wasn't really to be cool. It was purely, "This fits us." It seemed obvious because we were coming from it fresh. We didn't know it was the right thing but it seemed obvious.Jordan:
For everyone that was put off by the imagery and vibe, there were enough people that were like, "f*cking hell, this is cool". It gets to the point when we've made our first few bikes and people were like “Well, when are you going to make more of them?” We're like, "I hadn't really thought that far ahead."
I think two things stand out with Sick. The big one is the attitude you mentioned. How did that develop?Jordan:
It really didn't develop, but when we started, we were basically a team of one and a bit. We never sat down to go, "This is going to be the tone of the brand.” It would either be Tim tone or Jordan tone. Tim:
I've never really been comfortable with the word attitude actually as well because I didn't understand at the time. That was a version of me.Jordan:
I think it was as close to the true version as you could be while dealing with a lot of people, dealing with problems, dealing with people coming online calling you a c*nt and disappearing. Tim:
The reason I didn't like it being called an attitude because it wasn't an act. However, I think looking at it now, we're a lot less "f*ck you," than we used to be. That's a learned response. That's something that's come over time. I've had to learn to refine myself. People saw us as disruptors or agitators. Also as uncaring and villainous and ...Jordan:
...That we were rude to people deliberately. When we tried to make it clear we were only rude to someone if they'd been rude to us or someone else first. Tim:
At that point, we used to fight every battle. Jordan:
We didn't revel in being a dick. It was more that we didn't like people getting away who'd been dickheads to other people or were being dickheads to us. We held them accountable. We weren't thinking about the brand. Sick was just the crew we had around us, and it was supposed to be a fun, honest and real atmosphere. For a start, no one would sit down and take on that much work deliberately. Curating an attitude like that would be so tiring, it would be almost pointless to do it.
I think in tandem with that, was the growth as well. You say you never meant to start a business, but obviously, it's morphed into a business. When did that happen? Jordan:
It's more successful than anything we've done before in terms of with hands off it, it would just keep going. It had its own momentum. I think it became a business when we would do nothing and go to bed and wake up with lots of orders.
How many frames have you sold?Jordan:
In total? Well over 300. In 2017 we sold seven. Then in 2018 it was a lot.
So your business model is to take pre-orders...Jordan:
Not anymore. Was. [As of May 9, 2019, the website still is accepting pre-orders]
… Was to take pre-orders. What made you settle on that?Tim:
Small business is really difficult. There is no government help or funding. It was a case of pre-order to pay for a thing to sell, to put the money back into pre-order, to eventually double our money and accrue stock. Again, that's naivety. I didn't foresee any problems. It was purely, we are not wealthy, therefore the only way we could do it was taking pre-orders and then use that to fund the operation and double down on bikes.Jordan:
I was also worried that if we did sit down and decide to make a pleasing business case, and take a huge loan, that it would cost us a lot more in the long term anyway - while doubling down on risk, doubling down on the pressure to succeed. It seemed like the lightest way of doing that. It also relied heavily that everything was delivered on time, and that people would be prepared to wait.
And if it wasn’t, it would be okay because we had a close relationship with the customer, that there would never be that point where they were really concerned that it was like some kind of pyramid scheme or something like that.
What went wrong and broke that chain?Jordan:
The first break from the chain really was that we took so many orders that we had to have more than one manufacturer. One of them started to fall behind with getting deliveries of parts to complete things. It was as simple as axles, dropouts, bottom brackets and seat collars.
The way that they were held up was frustrating. It was the supplier to the supplier that was feeding the manufacturers was like, "They're literally a week away, don't worry" so we'd be like cool. It's like, "Oh, it's going to be a week more," it's like OK.Tim:
It might be the case that they were promising to us, as we have done, because they thought it would be, and it got held up in its own chain of events. It ran away from there, didn't it? Jordan:
It became that we started saying, "Okay, I don't care what is ready, as long as it's correct, send it." We'd get part delivery, but then the next delivery is still hit by the same set of delays and they were getting worse. They were falling behind, so they would have to catch up with the deliveries they were doing. Then we were adding on more stuff on top of it.
On top of that, the biggest mistake I made was my own passion projects. The titanium frames, the reason that they're on the market for half the price of every other one, was not because there was a shady deal where they were made out of garbage. It was because: One, we brought up someone else's production time that fallen through. And two, that they were loss leaders. Tim:
We wanted to sell them because we wanted to do it and it really did help in our mind with positive marketing.Jordan:
We wanted to make sure we could bring in more frames, and that they would be things that we'd look forward to buying. Challenging things to show people that we had the technical ability to pull it off, that we were making exciting things. Tim:
It's cool to make cool things. We built small amounts of profit into the titanium frames, which was then swallowed up, again, out of naivety. VAT, import fees, postage, handling, packaging, the courier's handling and packaging, all of this stuff. That's not part of the problem. We were learning to build the business and it was something we hadn't considered.Jordan:
Something that I've learned in this industry is that manufacturers with new business always deliver on time or early. Then afterwards, once you get the agreement that you're working together, you will get pushed around when bigger business comes in.
Once again, it's naivety. I'd be spending so much time hassling people to deliver stuff to me, and I'm being hassled at the other end. I ended up with this never-ending daisy chain of paperwork. At that point, something that was only costing you a little amount of money starts to cost you the one thing you don't have, and that's time. You're chasing for maybe 10 frames when there's 50 over here that need your attention. Tim:
All the time while you're doing that, we're not communicating effectively.Jordan:
Then you're getting people asking you the question, and saying they're getting a different answer. You don't want to just turn to the customer and go, "Yeah me too. I didn't know it was going to be like this, it's never been like this before." Tim:
Do you know the money's almost not important but their trust in you is terrifying.Jordan:
It's f*cking depressing.Tim:
We weren't burying our heads in the sand deliberately, we're sitting there going, "what do we say? How do we communicate?” Rather than just going, "Let's just communicate, let's just speak." Everyone just wants to know is my money safe? Is my product safe?Jordan:
You can't see the wood for the trees a lot of the time. I kept saying to myself," but it's my first day, everything is new all of the time". We're doing it now, but this is not what we signed up for. We wanted to make cool bikes and go out riding, see people riding. I love doing live streams, I love doing test rides, I actually like doing events now. It's like Christmas when you get the deliveries and they're actually right, and everything's good and you open up those boxes.Tim:
The biggest thing is that customer photo with some stupid components that look incredible that you would have never thought about. That's f*cking cool.
When did you decide to not do any more preorders?Jordan:
Quite quickly. We've had to choke it like a number of times. The other thing is we're quite careful to realize that our manufacturers are real people too. They're small.
We're taking the burden off them now with bigger manufacturers. We'll probably still put the same amount of business in for different stuff. They have families to support, they’re friends of ours, we're close with them.
We're careful, but we have a responsibility to provide them with work. That's the other thing. People are like, “why don't you get more staff?” Well apart from not haemorrhaging money, we can't just offer someone a job, train them up, and then in six months time say, “We don't need you now”.Tim:
I think it's important to mention as well, the frames that we were having manufacturers build [Tim and Jordan have ordered 150 frames as stock for the future] were ordered and set up and in place way before anything else. As soon as we had enough money to do that, we decided we'd do that because no one likes a pre-order. It's relying on too many things. It was too stressful.Tim:
I don't think we had any other way to do it. There were no capital loans available to us, but right or wrong it was the only way at the time.Jordan:
Would we have taken pre-orders if we knew it would take so long? No. It's hard explaining to people that this makes a lot of work that doesn't need to be done. It makes people unhappy.Tim:
You know what? I think that's the biggest one of it all. Work is one thing if you're working hard and you're getting something out of it and people are happy and coming to you saying "This is great, that's cool," it's rewarding. But when you're turning around and you're apologizing to people, when you're making people feel bad. It's just the worst feeling. It wouldn't be dramatic to say there have been nights when I just couldn't sleep. How am I going to get a handle on this?Jordan:
How are we going to fix it? We're not the sort of people who would walk away from anything.
The backlash to the issues you've had have been particularly vitriolicJordan:
That's not unusual for us though. Whatever we do, we would always have quite a loud reaction to it.
Do you think people wanted this to happen?Jordan:
Yeah. There are so many people that couldn't wait to see us fail. To see that smug look wiped off my face, it must be a great day for those guys.Tim:
I think there's a clean divide. There are enough people that wanted it to happen, and then there are enough people that are very sad about what happened. It has compounded and become what it is.Jordan:
People that are happy about it are a lot louder than the people that are sad about it. People are on the whole, honestly really supportive. Tim:
London Bike Show was a massive point of anxiety. It was going in and having to put our face up like we have to do this interview.Jordan:
The other thing that's really important is, we wouldn't be in a situation to do well if it wasn't for other, much bigger competitor bike companies literally being like, "This is normal. Just sort it out."
I'm not going to name drop, but some guy from a f*cking huge company drove, we met in Chichester. I sat down and I pulled out my folder of problems. They went, "Is this it? This is the problem that you have? This is business."Tim:
The reason being is because they're all problems with defined solutions. Jordan:
It's not like our problems are continual QA and QC dustbin. You know when you see things come up repeatedly on forums? Oh, they have problems with quality and stuff. I think the only standalone problem we've ever had on a long term basis with quality is frames getting paint damaged in transport. Tim:
Oh, along with the ovalised head tubes because of the packaging.Jordan:
But that was damaged in transit.Tim:
Our packaging wasn't robust enough and they were getting knocked around, ovalised some head tubes, which was then sorted out. That was only literally four or five bikesJordan:
And the only other problem that we've had is that for some reason, some carbon cranks are so thick that they don't clear the chainstay. When you go look online, we're not the only frame manufacturer that has trouble with extra thick cranks not clearing. You can't really have it all. You can't have a tucked rear wheel and a 73 mil threaded bottom bracket and a three-inch tire.
It's really an overhaul of systems, rather than plugging the leaks and actually being able to stop for a minute to individually reply.Tim:
There was a lot of firefighting rather than working out what was setting it alight. I think that is a lot of effort, a lot of time we've spent on put it out, put it out, rather than looking at the root cause.Jordan:
In terms of the internet, well people do like to watch something burning. Tim:
Look, I'm guilty of that. I'm no different from anyone else. If I am pissed off with something and I'm not getting treated the way I feel I should be treated, I will be there making some noise about it. I don't think I'm unfair when I do it, but I will definitely do that because it does raise awareness and it does push people into doing something.
Do you think your backlash has been unfair?Tim:
No, no. No, no I don't. I would love to say it's been unfair. I don't think it's been unfair. There may have been individual statements and comments, but those are outliers. I think there's a differentiation between those and those that aren't even a customer and just shouting. Jordan:
We've had customers ask for impossible things. One person, I ended up shutting down and blocking them, which is the wrong thing to do. I was having a continual conversation with them every single day where they said they no longer wanted their frame. I refunded it. He said, "Well I had a bike holiday planned. I've already bought the components, I've already paid for the holiday and I haven't got a frame now. To call it even, send me a frame for free and 800 pounds.” I just said at this point, when you're asking for these things, we're no longer having a conversation.Tim:
The ones that are fair, to list them: Anyone who has complained or who has been put off by lateness; Anyone who's been put off by what they think is going to be a non-delivery; Anyone who's been put off by poor communication. Those three I will validate and justify until the end of time. Every single one of those complaints has been fair.
There are voices out there saying it's a scam and saying we're con artists. No, I will never justify those. I think that's pitchforks and witch hunts and stuff.Jordan:
I had to call someone out on a forum. The guy had claimed that he had bought a titanium frame from us, and that the dimensions were wrong, and that he had broken it. At that point, we hadn't delivered any, so it couldn't possibly have happened. Some people just make up stuff. People have had to wait a long time but you have people like, "Oh, I've waited three years for a frame." Then it's just not true.
People are saying that we don't refund anyone, that's absolutely bollocks. We actually did £16,000 ($21,000 USD) worth of refunds in the last six months.
So, has everyone that has requested a refund got a refund?Jordan:
There are refunds outstanding but when you put something through the resolution centre on Paypal or open a chargeback then we don't have the final say but it actually becomes a longer process because we have to go through the diligence of them. It's sort of out of our hands. If they ask for one they'll get it because they always side with them and we can't manually override that, it just has to go through the process.
So you're not refusing refunds?Jordan:
This is the thing that I want to make clear. There is no way of refusing a refund to a customer. If you paid for it on a credit card, debit card or Paypal, through our site, we're too small a business to refuse a refund. The only time someone would ever get refused a refund is because Paypal or their bank says that they weren't eligible for it, and that would be with proof of delivery from us.
There is no way of with-holding refunds. I ended up going in circles with people because they would be going, "Oh, you're stealing our money". No, you opened a case with Paypal, we respond to that with pretty much a copy and paste thing to say, "Yes, this is delayed, it's a handmade item," and once it's in Paypal's hands it takes as long as it takes. When someone opens a query it takes the money from us straight away and they hold it. We're subject to the financial authority, you can't do that.
How are you working through fixing it and that backlog?Jordan:
The biggest problem is probably that it takes so long once you fix things for them to catch up. We started heavily investing time in January, knowing that we would have to scale up the amount that we're working. The amount of hours that we're doing, how many people, and what tasks people do, which meant that previously where one of us would only have a couple of tasks, they'd have to start early. Zam [Creative Director] was doing stock-taking, fulfillment, logistics, having to learn to do audits and bits to free us up.Tim:
That's been reactive, not proactive. That's come out of the back of it. A lot of the time we were dealing with individual cases as and when they arose because we weren't able to be proactive. You don't know what you don't have.
We didn't have this robust system, all in one place - here are the bikes, here's the QA, here's the dispatch notes, here is the dispatch process, and it's gone. It was in different places, in different people, in different things. Again, because there was no other way of doing at the time. Right or wrong.Jordan:
One of the reasons I had to learn to drive was literally because it takes 10 hours [on the train] to get to Canterbury [where the warehouse is]and back from here. If I leave there at 8am, it's midnight by the time we get back.Tim:
My work has not been kind to me at all. They've taken exceptions to running this business, I haven't been allowed time off. I would like to do things like running down and doing inventory and stuff.Jordan:
I know people have families, I know people have lives too when they work around them, but I already sacrificed two years of my family life to get this to where it is now. I can't continue doing it indefinitely. Otherwise, I'm not going to want to do the job.
Is anyone full time on Sick?Jordan:
I do 30 official hours now but I do a lot more than that. Zam probably works six or seven days a week, handling literally anything that slips through any gap. He will go ahead and just do it. He gave up everything for his job, he moved here.Tim:
He doesn't officially have a full-time job so he probably does now do the longest hours.
How many serious issues do you still have outstanding?Tim:
How many undelivered? It's one batch. How many people have complained out of those? Or how many is ...
This is the titanium hardtails?Tim:
No, there are two or three of those. How many outstanding? In a batch? There are 30 of them I thinkJordan:
As far as people waiting, there's about 14 tickets on my desk in escalation, so it's serious. It's actually quite funny to say 14. It doesn't sound like many at all but it really is. That's double the bikes we sold in the first drop.Tim:
The thing is, even if I know one person's upset and pissed off, I feel shit about that. I'm quite a sensitive soul really when it comes to people's feelings. I really hate upsetting people. This isn't for bumping my ego, it's just I don't want to upset people. I don't want people to be upset because of me. Jordan:
It's also the reverse, it's also the exact opposite of the best part of the job.
When did you see it coming?Jordan:
Last year. We knew that these two to three months would be really hard regardless. Because it'll be the transition from being a small company pretending to be a big company to actually a fairly successful medium company.
We knew that while we were getting ready for that, we would not be as visible, we'd not be as open, we'd not be as communicative, and we would not be able to be as affable and friendly as we would. We knew the business was in the gear changes. It's the bit before you go.
It's incredibly scary going over to Asia and committing to this number of frames. We've sold this number before but those frames could have got us both to put down deposits on houses.Tim:
I think the most important thing is, we will do right by everyone. We've discussed this. That's the most important thing, is to do right by absolutely everyone.Jordan:
Even people we have already pissed off.Tim:
We won't go into detail on what we're going to do but anyone who has had a problem with us in the past, if they wish to move forward with us in the future, there is something we're going to do later. If you're a previous customer, and as an apology, everyone will be set right. That’s my number one priority.Jordan:
The way that people have been putting it on forums is that our plan was kind of just fizzle out, go bankrupt, take everyone's money and then go scott free.
One, that shows a surprisingly naïve look at how finances work for businesses. You couldn't just do that. Also, I ride bikes. Imagine going to Peaslake on a f*cking Sunday -
"Oh yeah, you're the guy that ripped off all those people." You'd have to give up the thing you love, and I've already given up a lot.
Where are we going? Working with a major bicycle manufacturer to make our stuff and having a lot more stock on shore and ready to sell. I'm hoping that once we do right by everyone and clear everything down, that this very short, but shit period of our business would be something that fades into the background like it has had to for a lot of other bicycle companies.
There has been a laundry list of people that failed in similar ways, and then recovered, and it's just a footnote in the history of the brand, and that's where I'd like it to be. Our only goal now is to continue doing what we're doing in a better version.Tim:
Yeah, cleanly, concisely... I want to hear people happy. I live vicariously through customers, you see. If they're not happy, I'm not happy. I know it's such a bloody cliché as well.
I honestly think if you had said to do this interview towards a month ago, I would have told you to f*ck off. Because I couldn't even concentrate on what was going on in my own life, and that's largely guilt. Guilt isn't exactly a useful emotion with problem-solving. It's, in fact, the complete opposite. It was easy to sit there and wallow and feel bad. Solutions are the most conducive thing here, they will fix things rather than sit there feeling bad.Jordan:
Then following on from that. [The order] is two variants of frames. It's two hardtails, and that's what we're having made in Taiwan. For full suspension bikes, we will continue to use Frank the Welder for a small number of frames and move some production back to the UK.Tim:
And for us it's structure now and lots more staff. People that are better at customer service…Jordan:
…Than we are. There is no way on earth that I should be doing any form of customer service. I just communicate poorly what I mean.Tim
We're personally and emotionally involved in the problems, therefore we react less than constructively at times. There are always people that fall through the net and there are always people that are not happy about what they get. There are always people that are really unhappy and never complaining visibly, but tell their friends, "Do not shop there."
You can't deal with them all. That's okay as long as we are not adding to that. As long as we're not causing it through our own sloppiness or disorganisednessJordan:
Our attitude to the business is not that we don't care about people and that we don't want to be better and provide good service to people. I don't know where that came from.Tim:
Two years on, we're still not businessmen. 20 years on, we'll still not be businessmen.Jordan:
If we were businessmen, Sick wouldn't be the thing that people like about it. You can't have hot ice. The things that people want from the brand, the things they like about that are caused by who we are.
It’ll be better when we’re able to get on with the things we're good at and have other people that we can employ to do the things that we are diabolically bad at.
Is there anything you want to say to wrap up?Tim:
For what it counts, I'm genuinely sorry if I've upset anyone. Be that if I called someone a dickhead, or I've not been able to meet their expectations. I will do better but that's also not me conceding to the fact that I haven't been trying.Jordan:
My goal is to make it right, no matter how long it takes, even if it's past the point that we could continue doing this. I think that we will stand by our mantra. Tim:
Fixing and doing it right. It is the number one business goal.Jordan:
It doesn't fit into this, but it's something I really want to bring into sharp relief is the things that we haven't sped up was because it was unsafe to do so. Making mountain bikes is an inherently risky thing where you have people's lives at stake. And our laissez-faire attitude to talking to people talking to people and responding to emails does not reflect and has never reflected how seriously we take what we make.
That's why we always set out to make bikes that are really strong, and really trustworthy with a high level of longevity. That's what we set out to do. A lot of the time people are like, "I don't care, I just want my stuff." We could have just gone, “do you know what guys, I told you I need this done by this day. We're a week over now, I don't care how you do it, get it f*cking done. Rush it. I don't care, get it done." We have never done that and we will never do that. Jordan:
We have delivered it late, but we have never not delivered if allowed. Ever.Tim:
A bike delivered late, will eventually be good. But a bad bike will always be a bad bike.Jordan:
When you have your f*cking really whizzy bike there and you go for your first ride, you're like, “this is so f*cking good," everything melts away, but if it's a piece of shit, people will remember that forever.Well, there you have it. That’s the account the owners of Sick Cycles gave us, in their own words, as to what they claim is and isn't going on. We hope it sheds some light on things for those who have been wondering.