Transition Bikes have firmly established their place in the mountain bike world over the last decade, growing from humble beginnings into a respected brand producing some of the most desirable bikes on the market. The irreverent sense of humor that the company is known for hasn't diminished, but like the class clown that somehow still manages to bring home straight A's, there's more going on behind the walls of their world headquarters in Bellingham, Washington, than just beer drinking and thinking up silly acronyms.
Depending on who you ask, Transition Bikes was either established in 2001 or in 2003. It's a long-running debate between Kyle Young and Kevin Menard, the company's founders. Kevin says it was in 2001, when the idea of starting a bike company came to the surface over a game of ping-pong, while Kyle asserts that it was 2003, when the first shipment of 100 bikes arrived in the US.
In the early 2000s Kyle and Kevin were both living the corporate life, working well-paying but unfulfilling jobs at T-Mobile when the idea of starting a bike company first popped up. At the time, they were nearly finished with the creation of comparebikes.com, a side project that was intended to be a one-stop resource for riders who wanted to compare the specs and prices of any mountain bikes on the market. Building that site had involved countless hours of mind-numbing data entry, but it also entailed reviewing the geometry and product spec from every major brand, as well as actually visiting manufacturers to get the information they needed.
Gathering the information for comparebikes.com served as fuel for the idea that they might be able to begin a company of their own, and as soon as the first check came in the mail – a whopping $.02 earned from a site visitor clicking on an ad - they pulled the plug and began focusing their efforts on starting a bike company of their own.
To learn more about what it takes to start a successful company from the ground up I recently sat down with Kyle and Kevin at Transition's newly opened headquarters in Bellingham, Washington.
What were your initial goals when Transition Bikes first got off the ground?Kevin:
At the time, there weren't very many companies that were approachable. Our number one thing was to become a company that was approachable. We didn't go into it thinking, 'Hey, we're going to build a far superior mountain bike compared to what everyone else is doing.' We thought, 'Let's build a rad bike, but let's build an equally rad company that people can relate to.' One that's transparent, that people can come and hang out with and ride with. Something similar to the BMX rider-owned style, because there just wasn't much out there. That was the ethos then, and it's still the same now, although our ability to create bad-ass bikes has gotten better.Kyle:
Really, we were trying to create a culture business rather than just a product business. Ultimately we did it that way because that's what we wanted. I've seen the corporate world and that sucks – everyone hates it, there's all these little cliques in there. If we were going to do something for the rest of our lives we wanted it to be awesome, something that we had fun with. I think that fun is relatable and contagious, and people like to buy things from people that look like they're having a good time.Kevin:
We feel pretty good that the philosophy from the get-go has not changed at all. And that's where that 'rider owned' tag line comes from. It may seem cheesy, but it actually is reality to us. Every company is rider owned, but at what point do you check out a little bit and become inaccessible to the average rider? And that's what I see happening in the bike industry. As companies progress and get bigger they lose touch with that. Was there a turning point where you realized that the company was going to succeed? Kevin:
I would say it was the Bottlerocket. The Bottlerocket made it so we could stop moonlighting and actually hire an employee. That's kind of when we went all in, 100% focused.
Kyle: The product that really put us on the map was the Bottlerocket, but I think that before that we both thought we were young enough and dumb enough to really do this. I don't think failure was ever really an option; it wasn't like 'Oh, if this doesn't work, then whatever.' It was just like one foot in front of the other, kind of blind walking. You know where you're going but you're not worried about all the distractions – it's like, my only option is to keep walking forward. And yes, things are going to happen along that path, but you just keep walking. We realized that in 2005 when we moved up here [Bellingham, WA]. That's when it really became real. We wanted to be on the trails, not an hour away from them.
Honestly, that whole comparebikes.com thing, I kind of think part of it was stupid to one degree, but on the other hand I actually look back at the experience that it got us, and we were fully in tune with what everyone had. When you step out of the bubble and look into this thing it's really easy to see holes and where things aren't being made that you really want. Part of us just knew that that was a segment that was just being ignored, and beyond being ignored, it was a style that we really liked. Making the move to producing carbon bikes can be tricky, especially for smaller companies. What was the biggest challenge that accompanied the introduction of carbon bikes into the lineup?Kevin:
With the Carbon Covert the timing was about as bad as you could get. It took longer than it should have – that one was a painful pill to swallow. We'd been in talks with the bigger component and suspension companies and they were talking about 650B, but at the time we thought that there was a good delineation between 26” and 29”. It didn't go on our radar as soon as it should have.Kyle:
It was a learning experience. We learned how to read the market better, how to read the industry better, and to be a driver rather than a passenger in the product world. It taught us a lot about production planning and thinking about product life cycles. I think that the Carbon Covert wasn't what we wanted it to be, but I look at the positives, and I think it's made our product team sharper and how we analyze those projects and what we want to do. We were transitioning from a get 'er done style, and that just sharpened us, and made us go to the next level of tooling up to do more carbon. Kevin:
For the size of our company I think we're pretty progressive as far as carbon and how much we're coming out with in the future. We have good design and engineering resources now, and the product team is real focused. Before it was one carbon project at a time and it would take two years, and now we can do multiple projects at a time. Having the right manufacturing vendor is huge – it makes the process so much easier.
Kevin: What's Transition's top selling model this year?Kevin:
The Patrol. Kyle:
The market's coalesced to that 160 bike – it's just the bread and butter I feel like. Kevin:
Yeah, it's the bike most consumers feel they need whether they do or not. But it is the most versatile, it's the bike you're seeing at Whistler Bike Park because someone only goes once a year so they bring their 160mm bike. Kyle:
I wish you'd asked me two years ago because I would have said the Klunker
It [the Klunker] was our least profitable model, but we couldn't get containers quick enough. Kevin:
It is cool to see the resurgence of 29ers, because at first everyone was saying it would die when 27.5” bikes came out. We've always been big 2-9 fans ever since the Bandit 29 came out. I'm excited to see that take off. Have you seen DH bike sales drop as enduro bikes have increased in popularity?Kevin:
Yeah, they have. I liken that to when I go to Whistler and see how many enduro bikes there are versus DH bikes right now. I think you can definitely see that trend changing. I don't know if it's going to be 50/50, but I still think we're at the upward trend of more enduro bikes being present in bike parks. We haven't reached that plateau yet. Kyle:
I don't necessarily see it as 'Oh, there's fewer downhill bikes at Whistler.' I see that there are more other bikes. I don't see it as a cannibalization – I think the market's growing. With these mid-travel bikes it becomes a palatable option, where they can do both things, and that's getting more people into bikes. I do think the market is building, and getting more people into thinking about riding and mountain biking the right way.Kevin:
Now we can sell one bike that can do anything, where five or six years ago you would have been compromising hard in one area.
Transition has a very low employee turnover rate - what do you attribute this to?Kyle:
|Our number one thing was to become a company that was approachable. We didn't approach it thinking, 'Hey, we're going to build a far superior mountain bike compared to what everyone else is doing.' We thought, 'Let's build a rad bike, but let's build an equally rad company that people can relate to. One that's transparent, that people can come and hang out with and ride with...|
That was the ethos then, and it's still the same now, although our ability to create bad-ass bikes has gotten better. - Kevin Menard
Moto Mondays. I mean, Kevin and I are human, and we have the same human desires everyone has, which is kind of to screw around and do cool stuff. I don't want to die having said, “I worked really hard and made a lot of money.” We're in this for the experience. I don't view our experience as us just sitting in here and crunching numbers and selling bikes...
It's the human interaction, it's actually having the flexibility to do the things that come up that we want to do when we want to do them, regardless of what day or time it is. If we can't do that, what are we doing? I think that's why people like it here.
We're serious, we're driven – Kevin and I are very driven in terms of our work ethic, and we know what we want out of it. If you embody the same spirit that we have – work hard, play harder – if you can do that, you'll never want to leave because everyone here gets to play harder, and that's their work. Yesterday we cut out at noon to go ride motos. I don't track time against that, I don't go, “Since you did that today you need to do that tomorrow.” They're big boys and big girls around here – they get to decide what they want to do. We treat people like adults that can manage themselves rather than slaves to whatever we want. Kevin:
We have a very high work ethic, but we also have a high fun ethic. We set the bar, and these guys can see that, they know that it's okay to take off every once in a while, as long as everything gets done. Getting back to it, that's the culture. If we aren't doing those things, we aren't doing our job properly. We need to go out on company rides, we need to go out and moto and ski and do these wacky things that we do like Boss Appreciation Day, driving boats, paintball. There are other factors too – who wants to leave Bellingham? Not many people. I'm sure if this company was in Southern California we probably wouldn't retain as many people. We'd still have a rad company, but there's multiple factors involved. Kyle:
We take care of our people... Your people are your number one – I know I’m nothing without my people. Great, we started this thing on our own, but could we do it again? No. Could we keep doing it at this level without all these great people? No – I've got to have my people. They're as important as Kevin or I. Kevin:
We have a rad work environment with a flexible schedule where you can come in late, leave early, etc. Then you can go screw off with the bosses, but there's also a high expectation to be creative and get stuff done. It's kind of like the magic formula. Kyle:
We have a pretty laid back management style. We definitely don't hand hold. It's kind of like, I don't care if you don't know how to use a computer, but you better go figure it out. And you better not ask me how to figure it out. And if you can do that, awesome. We're good. The people that thrive in this environment are the people that can do that. Do you have any specific goals for the future of Transition?Kyle:
It's a weird question because I'm super goal oriented, and Kevin would be the first to tell you that I'm always like, 'We have to have a long-range plan,” and we always yin and yang on that. I'd say I've grown to the point where really my long range plan is to provide a rad work environment where people feel rewarded for the work they do, where they feel valued and like they're part of something that they really care about. It's kind of like we're building a rad clubhouse and I care about the club house. And yeah, there's going to be goals like, 'I want this product because I'm really into this right now,” but those are always driven by that reason – why do I want it?
The world's telling us to do e-bikes, the world's telling us to do fat bikes, the world's telling us to do plus size bikes... I've had industry influencers tell me to my face, “Man, you guys aren't on this fat bike thing? You guys are fools.” And I'm like, you clearly don't understand who we are or what we care about. If we were just here to make the almighty dollar we'd be doing things very differently. But that's not the type of goal we have. Kevin:
I want us to be a relevant brand, to be someone that everyone is looking at, checking out what Transition is doing. I think that's something you need to battle to stay on top of, from your marketing to your product development, just everything about your company. We're not trying to create trends for the sake of selling products. For me, being out of tune is calling something a new standard in order to invent a category to sell more product when it's really just widening something, or something stupid like that. That's the complete opposite of what we want to be. There's a lot of stuff in this industry that deserves to be made fun of. That's kind of our thing...Hold Up...
Based on a lot of feedback from Transition's supporters, they wanted to address your questions that concerned bearings, pivot hardware, and alignment on their newest line-up of Giddy Up bikes...."We wanted to take a moment to respond to comments about bearings, pivot hardware, and alignment. We have not made any changes in suppliers or business partners in the past few years, but our volume has grown tremendously. Trying to stay on top of that demand and get bikes in customer's hands, we have seen some early production QC problems with assembly on the Patrol Carbon in particular. Steps have been taken to improve the process and ensure everything is correctly prepped and torqued from the factory. Of course, if anyone has issues with our products we will stand by them 100% and ensure they are taken care of.
As some people have mentioned, we have seen a small number of frames with alignment problems around rear shock mounts. Any frames out of tolerance are completely backed by our warranty and we are ready to help you ASAP. If you feel you have a problem, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be sure to make it right for you. If we don't hear from you, we can't help. The percentage of frames that have been reported to have alignment problems is extremely low. Welding does introduce uneven stresses in a frame, typically a frame is aligned before heat treat and after heat treat, it is good to go. However, some cases of frames out of alignment after heat treat are always inevitable. We try our best to catch them in QC, but occasionally something will slip through and make it out to a customer. More recently we have been seeing an increase in comments about bearing quality and we are looking at new options for bearing suppliers as a result. Quality is very important to us, and we are always looking for ways to improve our products and make sure our customers are happy." - Transition Bikes