Not many business owners will admit to not having had a business plan. Then again, Rotwild isn't like many other companies, so to expect their owner, Peter Schlitt, to be like other CEOs seems foolish. Rotwild are, in many ways, the archetypal niche bike brand - they have a small, loyal following and cater shamelessly, and almost exclusively, to those people. In a world where most brands are looking to counter the rise of direct sales and the ever-increasing battle for pricepoints, Rotwild have simply walked away from that fight. To make the bikes they are passionate about making, they cannot and will not play that game. We sat down with Peter to find out more about the history of this unique, quirky company, what gets him excited and how bike technology is changing today.
Where did Rotwild begin?
It is pronounced "Rotvild" in German. A lot of Americans say, "Rotwild," but in German is "Rotvild." It's a kind of deer. The big question at the beginning was to find a brand name for a company, especially for a German company, that was not too nationalistic, not too technical. You have to find something with emotion. The idea was, with Rotwild, you can say something like red, like the color. Some wild. Rotwild is deer, so you also can say something about nature, so everything comes a little bit together.
We originally started with ADP Engineering, so we can say the ADP Engineering does the technical side behind it all, it is through ADP we engineer everything. Rotwild is important to bring some emotion to the brand. We began Rotwild in 1996 and started two years before with the ADP company.
To clarify, what is the relationship between ADP and Rotwild?
ADP is the parent company, and Rotwild is only the brand name for the bikes. We started with ADP while I was at university.
What did you study?
Mechanical engineering. We were looking for products to earn some extra money and we started with carbon brake boosters, but with some real development behind them — with the measurement to understand the alignment and the stiffness. Two years later we got a little bit of an idea of what we could do besides our everyday ADP company stuff. ADP was doing engineering for small parts and other engineering jobs for other bicycle brands at this time.
For example, Steppenwolf, the German brand. They came to us and asked if we would build ADP bikes — they wanted to have ADP frames. We said, "ADP's our company name. It's impossible. It's not emotional, it's very straight. We have to find something different."
So, we started together with the Steppenwolf people to start with Rotwild. We had the presentation with the Rotwild brand name, and the Steppenwolf people said, "Oh, jeez, you're much too crazy and too far away from everything." So we did the engineering for them and after that, they have their own brand and then they started with the Steppenwolf name.
We had a name now, maybe, but no product. In '96 we partied with a guy from the bike magazine in Germany, and we had some ideas about what we can do, what is possible — we had a new vision for a downhill bike, and you see the bike downstairs with the timing belt, carbon fork, electronic shifting.
He said to us, "If you build the bike like this, you will get in the magazine, a double page." This was at the beginning of February 1996. By the end of February we had built it, and brough it to Munich to the bike Magazine. On the first of April we had three pages in the magazine, and this was the start of Rotwild.
People asked, "Oh, is this a joke? First of April?" They thought it was a joke because everything was different. Names, the brand name on the top tube, the carbon fork, the timing belt, all these things. People were saying, "Hey, what's going on?"
After this, we decided to build a bike with standard shifting and standard chain for the Bike Festival in Riva in May. At Eurobike in the same year we showed the first product. This was the start of Rotwild, and by the end of the year we had the first downhill world champion ... Okay, it was in the masters class, but it was on a prototype of the bike from the catalogue.
What was the idea in your head when you were putting these bikes together in the beginning?
My drive was to have a little bit of fun, to do something I like. If you have an idea about a product, you can build the product, you can maybe even make some money with the product. It's a fantastic thing. Because you can decide at the breakfast table if I want to make a red bike or a blue bike or a green bike, or if I have three wheels on my bike. It's up to me to make the decision.
In the end, yes, the first product was only for ourselves, just to say, "This is something that we like. This is what we would like to have," and maybe we'd find some people who wanted to buy it. We had no business plan behind us to say, "Okay, in the next three years we want to reach these goals or quantities or something else." We are always really motivated by new technical ideas. To have a vision for new things is the drive for our business.
Your first bike was a downhill bike?
This was the first bike... At that time when we started in 1996, there were a lot of full-suspension bikes on the market, but not a lot that worked well. This was the first period with full suspension, the bikes were heavy and not durable... Really, it wasn't fun to go with a full suspension at this time, and we had the luck that our first bikes really worked really well. This is what people saw from Rotwild in the beginning — high-end full suspension bikes.
Okay, so it's only relatively recently that you add the hardtails, then?
The hardtail ... It's easy to have a hardtail, but our main focus is the technical side and full suspension, it is much more interesting than only hardtails. With a hardtail you have the geometry, you have the material, you have stiffness. That's all. It's a lot, yes, but it's still, at the end of the day, just assembling good components.
What we want to do is not to just assemble Shimano products or Fox or something else. We want to build our own brand, our own bike. The focus must be the brand, the total bike, and not if it's XT or XTR or something else.
That's interesting because most of the German bike brands started with basic bikes... You talk to the owners and they started with Taiwanese catalogue frames. They got the latest parts and they sold them at a certain pricepoint. We never did this. We are really focused on a product we want to have, then we try to find a producer to build this idea. Then at the end, we say, "Oh, it's very expensive," so then we look for how is it possible to build a realistic commercial product. Maybe some other companies have more success from the business side, I have no idea. For us, the main focus is to build a product we really love and where we can say the function is great. It must be our own baby a little bit.
To what extent did your mechanical engineering background influence the bikes you built?
We push a lot of ideas, but at the end, we need another supplier who can develop them. Because we never want to be a suspension company, but we can go to them and say, "Hi, Mr. Fox or Mr. RockShox or someone else, we have this idea. What do you think? Is it something that you can use for your product?" This was very interesting, and it is the same now with e-bikes, that we have some ideas, then we try to find some partners and bring them together.
This was also a little bit influenced from my studies because at the end of my degree we built an electronic car, like a race car with a complete carbon chassis. I was responsible for the suspension and for the drivetrain. From this group at university, a lot of these people are in high positions now. For example, the leader is now the ergonomic chief of Mercedes-Benz. Another one is now at Porsche, he is the head of the whole company for software technology... This was where we also learned to have an idea, then to find bigger companies to join this idea, to be a part of this, and bring them together and make a great product at the end.
A lot of companies find a way to make something and they build a company from making something, whereas you came up with the idea, then found a way to make it afterward?
Yeah, there is absolute no business plan behind. It's totally different.
That's quite un-German, isn't it?
In around 2000 we had some financial problems. This comes maybe a little bit of this working style. Because we are only running in the front, "Oh, this is interesting. We want to do that," but we have no real plan behind how we bring back all the ideas to make money. We had a really difficult time, then we made an analysis of where we were, what our problem was... It was then we started with our first business plan, to get our turnover back to positive numbers. This was at the beginning a very negative experience but at the end a great experience — when you survive you learn a lot from these things.
On one side, I think you need people, free-thinking, freestyle, go-ahead people, to give you new ideas. On the other side, you need serious people to handle all the business behind it, to make a really good product and a good quality and the right timing with good service. This must be steady.
After 2000 you brought in people do the serious side so you're free to just be an engineer?
Yeah. For example, myself, I still... I'm the owner and the company boss, but I don't like to handle numbers, all these things. So I have really good financial guy, and so on, who is responsible for all the day-to-day things.
What I love most is really still the product, and if I have a new idea and go to the engineers I know sometimes the reaction will be, "Oh God, what's going on? Which idea is now in his head?" I think this is really important to have the mix of everything, to have some people with ideas and the vision, and on the other side you need the realistic guys behind to make this idea to a good product, and then you need a serious company behind to produce it and to bring it to the market and handle the service.
One thing that always interested me with the German businesses is that they tend to be privately-owned, it seems to be a very different way of doing business. You're freer to do things you want to do without having to say, "Okay, well, one and one equals two." You can say, "We'll do this because it's the direction we want to get the business to go in." Is that the case for Rotwild?
It's always a positive and a negative thing. On one side is it's very nice to have a big investor, to have not a lot of headaches with the bank or something else, and the pre-financing is always a big headache, even for us. When we start a new season it's really a big, big, headache for us to invest all these millions before the season starts. On the other side, yes, you are not a profit-orientated company. Yes, I also love money and of course, it's nice to earn a lot, but it's not my focus. My focus is that the company must be in a healthy enough condition so we can do to do what we want to do.
If at the end you have too many political things you have to discuss with too many people you'll have a product that may be far away from your first idea. Maybe it's commercially perfect, but it's nothing to do with the idea about the brand, then if that happens I think I have to sell my complete company to say, "You can have it, and give me some money for it, and I'm out."
I have now, for example, a partner in the company, but it's not an official partner. It's only an investor, but absolutely without profit or intention. This is a guy who loves bicycles, he wants to see what's going on. Yes, he's looking that we don't lose money, but it's not that we need profit at this percentage at the end of the year. We never take money out of the company. Sure, your salary, but... He never spoke one word about our product. I inform him maybe two times a year what we are doing, but it's a partnership with friendship, so it's really cool.
You don't sell in the American market, so for American people who aren't familiar with Rotwild, if you had to tell them why should they consider having a Rotwild? Why do you think someone would want to buy one of your bikes? What do you see as the thing that you do that is really unique?
I think the brand itself is unique. First, off the name and the design, a little bit. We don't try to be fancy or anything else. If you have ten bikes in a shop and you should be able to see this is Rotwild. It should be different. The biggest problem for most brands is if you put away the color from a bike, you don't see a difference. With cars, you can see, maybe a 911 Porsche, you see the silhouette of the car, this must be a 911. Most other cars look very similar.
Normally the bending of our tubes is not big curves, more straight bends. This is a little bit about the design language. From the technical side, we try to find our own ways, for example, with the XTS linkage system where the pivot point of the seattube is a little bit far away. This is something where you can see a little bit, this is our system.
Why buy the Rotwild? What is the main difference? You should have first a technically-sound bike where every point is refined like any top brand. Maybe one bike is 200 grams lighter or the other one may be 5% stiffer or something else, but in the end, you must be always at the benchmark line with the performance, this is the first thing. Then we want to give the people an individual bike where they can say, "Okay, a Rotwild it is something special." Maybe it's like with a sports car. Maybe an Audi R8 is a great sports car, but a Porsche is still a Porsche... Maybe the technical side both are similar or something else, but Audi is a bigger company than a Porsche, so this also helps a little bit to be something special.
At the end, you promise the people a high-performance bike and what you promise you also have to give to them. This is something that is a little bit of our philosophy. I'm not, for example, a sales guy. I'll explain a bike to you, and if you love and you buy it I'm happy, and if you say, "It's cool, but I'll buy another one," I'm also fine.
For me, it's really important to give a fair package to the people, where I can say, "Yes, the price point is not because I want to have a new, big car. The price point is because we have this quality, we have these buying prices, we have these exclusive things inside. We give you well-balanced performance and everything." This is for us important, that if you have the bike, that you really are satisfied and can say, "I'm proud to be an owner of a Rotwild." This must be a little bit exciting. When I see, for example, our Facebook people, we have so many fans who have a minimum of two or three Rotwild bikes. This is where you see there is really a group who love the brand. At the end, yes, I'm also happy if we can sell more, but I don't want to make more bikes to lose or to give up my philosophy.
How involved are you day to day with the design? Are you there designing the derailleur hangers still?
No, until the time when we had these financial problems, I was doing every drawing by myself. Now, today, I'm not able to design a hanger or something else. All those new 3-D computer programs, I'm not able to use them...
What I'm doing is setting what kind of bike we want to have, what are the technical features, what are the ideas behind it. This is still on my table. In this way I still make the whole lineup. Then I go to engineering and they do this job much better than I can. I work very closely with the industrial designer. Yeah, maybe still have the lead on this, but from the engineering side, I'm far away from that being able to design a bike.
How would you like to see bikes change in the coming years? Have you got some kind of idea in your head that you would like to be able to make, and you'd like to see the technology evolve so you can make that idea?
For the classic mountain bike, it's a really hard time because there are too many products in the market and too few people who will buy the standard bike, so there's power in the standard mountain bike at the moment. It's a little bit frustrating, I think, with our X2, we have a really cool mountain bike where we have really other cool ideas about the different wheel sizes. This is something where you fit more and more different bike categories together. For example, with the X2, you can make a setup that you have a cross-country race bike, and on the other side, a lightweight enduro race bike. In the past this was impossible, but now you find more and more possibilities you can do with one frame.
Technology side, I think there are not a lot of big steps forwards for the standard mountain bike at the moment. E-bikes are extremely interesting because a lot of things changed. For the big companies, it looks very boring because now ... We start, for example, with our power unit, where we integrate it. Now everybody has this. People will buy, at the end, an e-bike engine like they used to buy a Shimano crank, so there is not a big difference. I think in one or two years everybody will have the same possibilities, but with electronics, there are so many ways besides, and we have really some great ideas, but now we have also to find partners, engine partner or what else, to bring these ideas on top. This is something I can't talk about. These are only some ideas at the moment in my head.
How quickly have your e-bike sales changed for you?
Within two years. From the pre-orders I can say, it is minimum two times more e-bikes than standard bikes. It was unbelievable. When we started really with e-mountain bikes, it was all the risk because, at the high-end, mountain bike companies and people say, "Oh, it's only something for old, fat people. Nothing to do with sportive riders." "Okay," I say, and I think we brought a product where people who rode this bike said, "Well, this have something fantastic." It's not that the other thing is uninteresting or dead, but it's always something where you have fun. But I'm not someone who says e-bikes are the future and the standard mountain bike is dead. But especially in Europe, I think e-bikes sales are really growing and growing, I think there still will be a lot of people with standard mountain bike, but in the future our standard mountain bike... I think we'll only release a high-performance mountain bike, where we really can say, here we still have a market. In the mass market, for us, at 3,000 euros, even though it is still a lot of money, if we are not competitive to the others because here the are big fights for this price point. If you're in a category to buy maybe at 5,000 Euros, we are totally competitive. Here, there are still people who love the brand, who love the technology, who love all these things. There's still a small market.
Are you quite happy to have this niche?