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Inclusiveness in the Custom Bicycle Industry

*REPOST FROM http://www.facebook.com/wolgichcomposites*

 

There’s been a bit of hullabaloo this week over a couple of posts by the venerable Richard Sachs about ‘newbies’. I kinda promised myself I would concentrate on the ‘making’ part of this page rather than the ‘talking’, but I want to make a few quick points about the biz from my perspective as an interloper.

1. The custom bike industry is archaic. It doesn’t have any certificates, standards, official body, advocacy group, peer review system….nothing. As much as it’s a ‘badge of honor’ for every single new builder to ‘find out for themselves’, it really is quite backward, wasteful, and amateurish.

2. The custom bike industry is feudal. If you haven’t cut your teeth making 1,000 production frames in some factory in the 70’s, your not worthy. If you haven’t been around for at least 10 years you’re not worthy. If you spent time recently on anything that isn’t related to the act of sticking 8 tubes together, you’re not worthy. You either kowtow these and other colourful mantras or you’re not one of the cool kids.

3. The custom bike industry is xenophobic and insular. Heaven forbid if you don’t enter the industry through the ‘correct’ channels, or align yourself with the establishment, or if you subcontract, or if you’re anything but a craftsperson. Heaven forbid if you’re not from North America. If I don’t know who you are, you must be shit.

The industry isn’t the way it is through design, or because it’s being steered and represented by governing bodies, or there’s a collectivist push towards educating the consumer as to the benefits of custom bikes vs production, it is the way it is because it’s a feudal backwater of old ways and ideas, staunch individualism, and hierarchical behaviours. But like all industries, it is what you make of it, and it is what it is by the types of people that constitute it’s numbers. The industry is mostly ‘lone-wolf’ types, individualist craftspeople with either enough ego to think they can make a better widget or simply the desire to express themselves individually through their hands. Conducive to collectivism and doing whats in everyones’ best interests? Er, no.

And so what we have now, expressed through Sachs’ recent posts, is a Groundhog Day style bemoaning of the fact that people aren’t learning the ‘craft’, that they think they can become a framebuilder through going to a seminar, starting a blog, and researching online. However, if there are no traditional channels – no production houses, no apprenticeships, no full time colleges – and the establishment is (of course) not doing anything about this, how do you get into the industry?

Well, you do what I did and many others do every week. You cut your own path.

For each individual, that’s going to be different, and I fully embrace that. I want artists, jewelers, designers…anyone with a creative bone in their body to have a go at this bike frame thing. The problem is with the ‘one true path’ theory is that that spits out the same result over and over again. I doubt there’s be such a thing as a mountain bike if we all went to the Sachs School of Bicycle Design.

And I just can’t bemoan the absolute mind-numbing cornucopia of information, connections, media and mediums available these days and call it a bad thing. When I went through Dave Bohms’ carbon course last year, he said to me that the weeks spent there would save years of searching, researching and experimenting by myself, and I wholeheartedly agree. Why spend 5 years going something you can now accomplish in 2?

I don’t think anyone can deny that skills take time to develop, but I think the industry rightly or otherwise promotes itself as “The myth of the framebuilder” when the reality is I think for most framebuilders the struggle is with everything that isn’t the building of the frame. We’ve lost touch with the very concept of how things are made, so it’s in the best interests of the industry somewhat to promote itself as this mythical being, rather than the brutal reality which is that it doesn’t take all that much to stick 8 (or 9 or 10) tubes together.

Now when I say that, I’m not saying that it’s easy, but there are plenty of people doing way more complicated physical tasks than making a bike frame, and we need to keep that in mind and not get hung up on it. After having made just one measly frame myself, I’m pretty confident put in the same workshop with the same tools I could make an identical one without too much trouble. By the 5th frame it would then all be about efficiency, repetition, and improving procedure and tooling. I don’t think it would take me 100 frames or a decade to think I’d ‘got it down’.

And that’s where the ‘individual path’ (and ‘not being delusional’) comes into play. I fully believe that some people with no direct experience could come in and bang out a frame just like that. I’ve met people from engineering and aerospace backgrounds that I believe could do it with their eyes closed. Conversely, there are people that probably do need to make dozens of frames before they’re vaguely competent, and that’s okay, too. That decision is up to the individual, but the industry should be doing everything in it’s power to welcome newcomers and show them the path. The very idea of having a New Builders section at NAHBS that was just there to raise revenues and look like you’re doing something for the industry is just not enough, and neither is self-serving advice that at the end of the day helps you sell merchandise and cement your position as one of the establishment.

I’m highly critical of the industry but it’s only because I want it to be representative, inclusional, and diverse. An inward looking, insular and xenophobic custom bike industry is not a good one, and I think most of us to some degree need to pull our heads in, give the middle finger to the status quo, and make it a bright and interesting sphere in which people from all backgrounds can come have a go.

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The Global Bicycle Trade and Other Problems to Solve in your Lunchtime.

My internet buddy Jono Lovelock posted a LinkedIn article from someone he knows / went to school with / bonked / wants to bonk about the bicycle trade in Australia and how to successfully transition local business online, but the article has rubbed me up the wrong way in the only way a “I’m a new graduate who has perfected the art of sounding like I know what I’m talking about” kind of way. Kudos for Alvin for putting it out there, but there are some points he raised (In this first installment at least) that are, well, wrong, so excuse me while I put my Guest Lecturer hat on and do some ‘schooling’. (I’m shit-stirring here rather than being condescending, trust me 😉 )

The first issue I have is the blanket statement he makes regarding the impact of mail-order on Aussie bike retail.

“large overseas Internet retailers in the UK and US were seeking new markets as theirs fell into recession. Local retailers were unable to compete as their borrowing costs and overheads were high.”

We don’t know how much of the market now or back in 2008 was/is being eroded due to mail-order, but certainly the GFC curbed the spending of many, so retailers without the figures on hand could easily attribute that to declining sales. (Although this is mostly directed at people who buy bikes for fun – I’d suggest that ‘lifers’, the sales of maintenance parts and the uber-wealthy were little effected).

In terms of mail-order, it’s only really the UK-based behemoths that appear to have made a dent in the global mail-order market. Anecdotally at least, my 25 years being directly involved in bicycle retail and wholesale here in Australia as well as selling custom bikes to people when I was doing Thylacine Cycles for 10 years tells me this. The US companies simply have not got any presence here because they haven’t figured out the freight equation. Sure they ‘offer’ freight to Australia, but unless you like FedEx walk-in pricing, you’re not going to be buying from the US – certainly not in 2008. This is slowly changing, but as of now I’d suggest the likes of Wiggle, CRC and PBK with their ‘Spend $90 and get free shipping’ are doing quite well, which segueways me nicely onto the next point –

Two broad factors encapsulate the situation rather well:

1) Geographical Location
Everybody knows Australia is far away from everybody else. But did you know that Australians are also far away from each other? The distance from Perth, the capital of Western Australia to Sydney in New South Wales is a frightening 3,938.1km via the National Highway. This stretches distribution networks and means postage is slow and costly.

Yeah except postage is not slow and costly. Like all businesses, freight is a volume game, so if you’re a decent size wholesaler, it’s not unusual say for an organisation such as Bikecorp for example when I was working with them to freight a bike to Darwin in 3 days at the cost of $25. Try doing that in America.

2) History of Protectionism
This is a tricky one. Whether it’s tariffs on imported goods, subsidies to car manufacturing, weekend penalty rates, building new navy subs, the backlash against 457 visas or Melbourne’s locally-developed A$2b train ticketing system… protectionism has always featured in our economics. While its impact on saving Australian jobs is debatable, we might have been conditioned into thinking it the Fair Go.

Protectionism happens for companies like Wiggle and CRC because they’re ‘located’ in a little tax haven called Ireland, so they’re able to sell at a lower price because they’re paying little or maybe even no tax.  To top it off, they have volume, so they can buy product at lower unit costs, but just as importantly tap into the other mail/freight service that is also amazing, Royal Mail / Parcel Force. Thanks to our forefathers, the volume of mail coming too and from the UK is still massive so the route is very voluminous, efficient, and also very cost effective.

To the question of subsidies to bicycle manufacturing? We don’t manufacture anything here, so there is no protectionism at all as far as I know. Many moons ago there was a small tarriff on frames (5%) but I’m not sure that’s still there.

“Geoffrey Blainey’s 1966 book titled ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ discusses Australia’s geographical remoteness from its traditional allies and is often quoted in any trendy banter about Australia’s economic prospects.”

Yeah except fourty years on it’s now irrelevant because the way freight has evolved but also because we’re actually closer to the modern manufacturing bases in SE Asia than those in the EU. What’s interesting about ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ in a modern context, is how we’ve been conditioned to higher prices because of the historical myth. We still hear people in coffee shops complain about prices ‘because we’re so far away / Australia is soo big / it’s all just too hard / wah wah wah’ when the reality is that companies have been cashing in for decades, taking advantage of the fact that while generally costs have gone down, retail prices here have been particularly high (especially when compared to our US counterparts).

“Beyond the cost of freight, a successful large offshore online retailer would also reap such economies of scale over a small business in areas like CRM. Thus retail customers could get their goods faster with possibly better (online) service than if they did buy locally.

There’s no question that eComms have superior economies of scale which attributes to their lower sell price. However in my experience most Australian wholesalers can get anything to any bike shop in the country in under 3 days, whereas you won’t see anything from the UK in under 10. The problem with AU wholesalers is that many of them have historically run on a business model that means at certain times of year they literally have no stock because they’d rather run out than have to liquidise.  The other issue many are faced with, is ‘what to carry’. Often brands have so many product lines and colourways that invariably they won’t have what a customer wants.  From where I’m sitting, both of these factors are literally ‘open doors’ for mail-order to walk through. Sure, both are good short term business and money making decisions, but paradoxically they’re also downsides for the customer eComms that they can exploit.

“R had run out of ideas fighting the Internet. I suppose like many entrepreneurs from the old world, he hated it. The new world was one which appeared crowded, complex and where borders did not begin nor end. How good are sticks and stones against rockets and radar? He wished for more protectionism, but Australia had moved on.”

I think perhaps more importantly, many small business owners – and I’ve known many bike shop owners – are either too busy with the day-to-day to look strategically, struggle with the whole idea of being ‘attacked’ from a faceless competitor half way around the world, or are disenfranchised how easily customers can go from having a good rapport with a bike shop owner to cashing that in for cheaper goodies – whether it be from the next bigger, shinier shop, or mail-order.

There seems to me to be an assumption that the fundamentals of doing business have changed with the advent of online retail, but it’s only really the mechanisms that have changed.  If you have a business that was initially successful but is taking a hit from eCom, then really, it’s just a matter of looking at your competitive advantages. Competing on price is not one of them.

I’m interested in reading Alvin’s next installments, but for Part 1 I can only muster a C-. I like that he’s been pro active and gone and spoken to retaillers, but I’m not a fan of the non-current historical referencing nor misconceptions about bicycle retail, which only really point to his lack of experience.

My lack of experience on-the-other-hand is as one of these old, poor, tired entrepreneurs confused and frustrated by teh intarweebs so I’m very keen to hear how he implemented eComs for ‘R’ and how it all panned out. I’m pressing the ‘follow’ button…..


Interesting for me as a Design Anthropologist of sorts with a perverse interest in retail, I kind of see retail these days as more of a tool for PR, or even as a form of visceral advertising, part of a businesses marketing-mix. Clearly it can still be profitable – apparently the Apple store in NYC is the most profitable piece of retail real estate in NYC – but I think companies should realise that making a hands-on, human connection to a brand through actual sales people in a customer experience environment is a very strong bond between the brand and the consumer, so it’s really through the experiencing of the brand face-to-face that the consumer can make the most meaningful connections. There are many ways that consumers can interact with the brand with the goal of making a lasting connection that will result in some form of loyalty, and retail will always be an important part of that.

How important is that for start-ups, or companies just on-selling a product someone else makes? Probably not as important. I’d suggest that there are more cost effective ways of getting the message out there.

eCommerce? I have virtually no experience with it, aside from as a guy with a credit card whose bought the odd thing online, which is why I’m interested in Alvin’s next installments. However one of the things I find interesting about it is again, the human element. How do you generate a rewarding experience when it’s all ‘non-corporeal’? How do you get over the limitations of the delivery method, or in other words, capitalise on your advantages and minimise the disadvantages. It’s very interesting for me especially seeing how new clothing start-ups have got around the limitations of what in the past has been very much the bastion of ‘You must try before you buy’.

Forks, Steak, and selling the Sizzle.

I made a comment on the Framebuilder’s facebook page in response to a comment that David Kirk made regarding “Why you should buy custom forks to match your custom frame” that has since magically disappeared.  Regardless, I think I made a valuable point which I’d like to expand upon in the hope that there’ll be less ‘parroting of the old wisdom’ as it were and more of an embracing a new methodology.  Here’s Dave’s initial rant-lite:

A bit long for this setting but here you go nonetheless –

Forks? Why build forks?

I occasionally get asked by riders and other builders why I build my own forks and honestly this strikes me as an odd question. I suppose this a result of the way the fork is looked at in terms of bike design at this point…forks are all too often looked at like any other component on a bike like a headset or a hub and not as what it truly is – an integral part of a frame and fork set that is designed to fit the rider and the end use of the bike and to compliment each other giving proper handling and road feel.

Going back a few decades, before the advent of the one-size-fits-all carbon road fork, most everyone that made a frame also made a fork that specifically matched that frame. At that time the forks were typically steel and they were built to compliment the ride and handling of the steel frame they were matched to. At some point titanium became a popular frame material it was at about this time that the aftermarket carbon fork came into being. The carbon fork was light and matched the space-age look and feel of a Ti frame and it was a perfect marriage…or not. Some still preferred having a steel fork that was matched in stiffness and geometry to their Ti frame but most were counting grams and wanted a super light fork to match their light frame. This was the era where, for the first time, mainstream builders bought a fork from a third party to sell with the frame they designed and built instead of building the fork themselves. From a production standpoint this was more than understandable as it freed up the time and craftsman to build more frames and better add to the bottom line. This of course is not a bad thing and there is nothing evil about profit but like anything it came at a cost.

The cost in this case was the loss of the “frameset” – customers no longer bought a frameset but instead bought an unmatched frame and a fork and used them together. If you are in the middle of the size/weight bell curve this could work out fine – however if you occupied either end of the bell curve, or wanted something other than a straight up road race bike, then you often got the short end of the stick. The problem is that most aftermarket forks come in only one rake and in only one stiffness – and the reason for this is simple – money. Designing and cutting a mold for a mass produced fork is very expensive and most of the forks sold will be in the middle of the bell curve so most makers don’t bother to make molds for the ends of the curve. This means that every bike gets the same fork rake and that every fork is built to be stiff and strong enough for the largest and heaviest rider that might every ride that fork. This is hardly optimum if you are 5’3” and 105 pounds but with rare exceptions this is what riders have to deal with.

Smaller and lighter riders really get the shit end of the stick on this one for a few reasons and tall and light guys also lose out on this one too. It all makes sense when you look at how frames are designed for riders at the ends of the bell curve. Small riders get shallow head angles to keep their toes away from the front tire and to give proper handling they really need a fork with much more than the standard 43 mm of rake to give a trail number that will allow the bike to handle as it should. Generally we are looking for the trail to be in the 56 – 60 mm range to give good handling yet all too many bikes that use a one-size-fits-all fork with its 43ish mm of rake end up with a trail number pushing 70 mm or more. Bikes like this can be awful to ride with low speed wheel flop when climbing and the feeling like the rider needs to move their weight forward during turns to get the bike to go in the direction they want. Combine this with the fact that this fork used by the small and light rider is designed to deal with someone who weighs upward of 275 lbs and you get a pretty lousy combination of handling and ride quality. Yet most riders who suffer through using a bike like this have never ridden a bike that has a “frameset” designed to work as a whole. When they finally get on a bike that uses a fork designed for their weight and to work with the frame’s head angle it’s a revelation.

Aside from rake and stiffness there are other reasons to build the frame and fork together and to buy them as a frameset – proper tire clearance for fatter tires and long reach brakes, proper alignment (when a fork comes out of the mold it is what it is and it’s way too common to have a fork that is off to one side), proper length or span to keep the frame angles what they should be, braze-ons for racks or bags or lights….etc.

The above is a long way of saying why every frame I build has a fork built specifically to match that frame and to the size and weight of the rider, as well as how and where the complete bike will be used. This is the only was to assure that the bike will handle and ride as it should. Unfortunately it is no longer the case that a handbuilt frame will come with a made-to-match fork as even some renown builders have gone to making one-size-fits-all forks en masse to make life easier – it saves time and money and in the end profit is important. But there is always a cost.

I’ll end with this – if you are shopping for a new frame be sure to look not just for a frame and fork but instead look for a “frameset” that was designed to work for you. This no doubt will come with a fork that was designed to work as it should with the frame and for you.

I want to preface my response to this with a quick rundown of the Six Part Function Complex, which is what is generally accepted amongst design anthropologists and futurists and their ilk that constitutes the general areas of a design that must be considered for it to be successful –

1. METHOD – Honesty of materials, methods and manufacturing

2. USE – As a tool, the way it communicates, semantics

3. NEED – Economic, psychological, technological, intellectual, etc..

4. TELESIS – ‘The deliberate utilisation of nature and society’

5. ASSOCIATION – Application of the past and the future to the present

6. AESTHETICS – The search for beauty, elegance and the human condition.

You’ll notice straight away that there is no parochial ‘form vs function’ malarkey here. Form IS a function (One of six, see above). However, my response to Dave’s post that was deleted, argued that a completely legitimate reason to buy a custom fork with a custom frame was because ‘it looks good’.

Controversial enough to delete it like it never happened? Apparently so.

So if you think about the custom steel bicycle fork, you’d say it has most of the Function Complex covered. There’s honesty in materials, the way it’s made….it communicates what it is, it functions well as a tool….pretty much covered. It’s easy to argue these points.  But why shy away from ‘Aesthetics’?

The custom bike industry has an uneasy relationship with aesthetics. I think if you surveyed most custom framebuilders, aside from actually speaking to people, I’d argue it’s the thing they struggle most with. Darren Baum even said to me once “In a perfect world, looks wouldn’t matter – it would just be all about how something is made”.  This would be great if we were all robots, but somehow the argument seems to lack a certain humanity. At the very least, the product you’re talking about fails the Function Complex miserably which means that your chances of creating a successful design or product is essentially zero.

The points Dave Kirk makes about the historical context of fork production are essentially correct.  As is his his description of the way that custom steel forks can be designed for a myriad of different uses. If you want a disc touring fork with 50mm of rake and bottle mounts on the side, you might be waiting a long time for someone to make a carbon one.  Both of these points are completely valid.

However, one aspect of functionality that I debate is that of ‘ride quality’ or ‘matching the ride of the fork with the ride of the frame’.  Whilst it’s true that different materials ‘feel’ different, in my experience with the correct design, you can get two materials to essentially feel the same.  Where they don’t feel in the same is in ‘resonance’, and this resonance is mostly countered or muted through the contact points – the tyres, saddle/post, pedals/shoes. handlebars/grips.  By changing these things, you can change the feel of a bike with far greater magnitude than you can simply changing it’s material. You can’t in one breath say “There are no bad materials, only bad applications’ and then say ‘all carbon forks are crap’, as if the people that have been designing and building carbon forks haven’t been doing their job properly.

The second aspect of functionality up for debate is the lack of options.  Whilst it’s true that a custom fork is infinitely customisable, for the vast majority of road bike users, clearance for a 28c tyre and a good spread of rakes is all these customers need. Even the workhorse Enve fork comes in 40, 43, 45 and 50mm rakes. This covers all the common head tube angles used on the average road bike.  Where the custom fork biz has shot itself in the foot, is through cost and weight. From an OEM perspective, a good carbon fork costs around USD200 and weighs 350g.  The same fork in steel is double both of these figures.

So what is missing from the equation here?  Simple. LOOKS! If you just went out and bought a David Kirk custom bicycle, if you can afford it, you’d be insane not to get a matching fork.  If you have some special ‘Use’ or ‘Need’ that dictates you must use a custom specified steel fork, then go forth, more power to you.  However, if you don’t, as far as I’m concerned, the only argument you need is that if you stick a carbon fork on a Kirk frame, it will look ugly and stupid and your peers will laugh at you.

From very early on in my custom bicycle career, I came to the conclusion that people come to custom bikes for the user experience. They come for the sizzle. I’ve always thought pure functionality and ergonomics as a tool were under-selling the custom bicycle experience and I was really uneasy about the way that myths were constantly repeated and concepts barely passing as science believed in with fervor.  Why as an industry do we continue to shy away from the user experience and instead, attempt to pad the experience with pseudo science and very shaky historical associations – parroting long standing myths instead of creating new ones?

Some of the current generation of framebuilders are breaking ground by embracing the aesthetic and also embracing the experience aspect. I think this is the way forward for the industry. Sooner rather than later, customers will become less and less impressed by the fact that you, as a framebuilder, can melt brass with a flame.  What else have you got?

Now that I have officially built a frame with my own two hands, I’m not so enraptured by the process from a creative standpoint. In fact, I see it more as a series of ‘procedural’ challenges in terms of how you set up shop, your materials and processes, how you build in efficiencies etc.. The act of physically making a custom bicycle frame? Not that difficult.  I was told by a colleague recently that a well known TIG builder builds a frame in 4 hours, and I can see how that would be possible sheerly through process, not ‘ability’.

So the big ‘thing’ for me at this juncture, is all harking back to my stint back at University studying design anthropology. As a tool, your ‘custom bicycle’ is no better than a Giant, so what else have you got?  You melting brass by holding a flame in your hands might work for some customers who find that sort of thing miraculous, but I think the way forward for the custom bicycle industry is rooted in creating an experience for the customer that is involving, rich and rewarding – and yes, that involves not being afraid to say to a customer that the reason they should do something is because ‘it looks awesome’.

That is, afterall, why they came to you in the first place.

Imitation is the best form of theft.

Despite an absence from the bicycle industry of almost 3 years, the one constant seems to be what can only be described as very lax standards when it comes to intellectual property and the rights of creatives not to have their work plagiarised.

Case in point. This week being NAHBS week, there’s no shortage of fantastic photo galleries where pros and budding amateurs alike can get a taste of what constitutes the state of the trade in the hand built bicycle industry. One such website is The Radavist, which recently showcased a bicycle by new company, Machine Cycles.

http://theradavist.com/2015/03/2015-nahbs-machine-cycles-road/#6

To my trained eyes, there’s nothing particularly standout or praiseworthy of this bicycle short of praising the owner for realising that red-brown and blue are complimentary. He certainly can’t be praised for being left handed, but somehow John Watson manages to paint a picture of Kyle Ward as being unique and bringing ‘something different if not beautiful’ to the table-

“The bike is just a vessel in a sea of play” [Or perhaps more appropriately, a vessel in a sea of ideas to steal] is Machine Cycles’ mantra. Builder Kyle Ward is left-handed, an architect and an artist who happens to enjoy building bicycle frame. From the few moments we spent discussing design and custom bicycles, I could tell Kyle has that special spark that motivates people to do great things. Or at least really beautiful things…

This bike wowed me at first and continued to with each new detail that I discovered. That paint? Inspired by a pair of socks Kyle was wearing the day he painted the bike. The navy blue fork and saddle are beautiful touches and the turquoise notes accent the matte brown. For tubing, there’s a lot going on: True Temper OX Platinum with stainless stays and a custom titanium stem.

Days get long photographing bikes at NAHBS, but this one was a pleasure. That bike has a mean stance, yet a soft and playful demeanor. Machine Cycles has a really great website, so head on over and check it out.

Now normally I would just chalk this up to yet another one of John Watson’s penchant for over-dramatisation and shameless sycophant-ism and move on, but then I noticed the bike featured not only 1″ chain stays but also these dropouts-

image

Contrast and and compare to these dropouts-

image

Now anyone with even a vague knowledge of custom bicycles knows that these completely unique items are the dropouts from a Pegoretti Marcelo, and a little digging would tell you that this particular Marcello was exhibited at NAHBS only last year. So what would happen if you were to bring up this glaringly obvious point on said website?

Warwick Gresswell – “I especially like how he ripped off the Pegoretti dropout design. Seriously?”

John Watson – “Uh… No he didn’t.”

Eli – “Bicycle design has been essentially unchanged for about 120 years. If you look far enough back, almost all “new” ideas have been done before. I would say the dropouts are inspired by the Pegoretti design, rather than ripping it off.”

Wittyja – “…..Not going to personally flame “your” bikes, but before you rag on someone else’s design you should focus on your own work or lack there of and applaud your peers for coming up with what they have done.”

[I’ll just ignore the couple of hundred bikes I’ve created over the past 14 years and all the applause I’ve given my peers who can actually create something uniquely their own.]

I’d hazard to suggest that if you’re quoting the dictionary to justify plagiarism and your own lack of creativity, then you’ve hit intellectual rock bottom –

Kyle Ward – “I’ve pulled two definitions from a reputable source (called the dictionary) one of which my dropouts can be categorized. The other which it cannot. I’m just saying I’m the only one that has put them both to the test. Identical
[ahy-den-ti-kuh l, ih-den-] adjective similar or alike in every way. Improvement [im-proov-muh nt] a change or addition by which a thing is improved.

Unfortunately I’ve been locked out of The Radavist so as is always the case of John Watson not wanting to geoparise his chance of getting a good deal on his next custom bike I have no right of reply, so I’ll just put it here instead.

Firstly, I would argue that taking someone else’s design, and making it with a CNC rather than a laser cutter or anything else to that effect is not only semantically still a plagiarism, but it’s also arguable from a materials and processing efficiency standpoint as to whether its ‘better’. It’s like taking someone’s handwritten book and typing it all out in Word and then arguing that you have improved it and putting your name on it.

Secondly, Ward even used Pegorettis very unique 1″ chain stays and painted the whole bike rust red and blue, just like the Pegoretti from NAHBS 2014. Is this also improved somehow as well? Better brand of paint, perhaps?

The custom bike industry is rife with this sort of attitude and behaviour, and I think it’s the responsibility of anyone who makes a living creating anything to protect the IP of others and stand up to blatant theft such as this. I’m all for being inspired by others and collaborating on ideas and giving credit where it’s due, but this is outright plagiarism, right down to the colour of the paint. There’s no other way of looking at it.

——-

John Watson is atypical of the modern breed of self subscribed experts in any given field whose only qualifications appear to be a massive ego and a good amount of disposable income. When I brought this IP issue to light, he attempted to highlight what he felt was my own plagiarism by posting this image from my website-

John Watson – ” I’ve seen “your work” which is just filled with knock-offs of other builders. Like those Speedvagen drop out rip-offs you “made” overseas.”

image

The laser cut stainless steel cut dropouts with the Thylacine logo cut in the middle left of the photo are the ones he claims are a knock-off of the Speedvagen ones. Actually, what he really means is ‘Vanilla’, like the ones below –

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From an ethics point of view, the key difference of the dropouts featured on my website is that whilst ironically for John have never been turned into a bike, were made in collaboration with Dave Bohm who first did this type of thing way back in 1994, and done with his complete cooperation. How do I know this? Because I’m sitting here in his workshop staring at them right this minute.

It just astonishes me that the custom bike industry is beholden to a select group of promoters who are not only unethical but also bigotted and can’t even tell a Speedvagen dropout from a Vanilla, let alone make meaningful commentary on the history of bicycle design elements. This really needs to change.

Let’s make ideas more possible.

An exchange with Don Ferris of Anvil bike fixtures on Facebook today has highlighted for me not only the fundamental flaws in the notions of success and/or failure, but also in the mechanisms at our disposal to turn ideas into reality.

“I have to take a crap and need money to buy toilet paper. Which crowdfunding site should I use to capitalize my shit project?” – Anvil Bikeworks

A quick peruse of the various Crowdfunding websites reveals a litany of ideas that clearly people believe are not worth funding, or the source of ridicule, or both. This also, apparently – according to someone on the same Facebook exchange called ‘Pocket Fiend’ – extends to 13 year old kids who just want to go on a trip to their capital to learn history –

The majority of online funding is this crap… What happened to learning, working, & earning things?? So yes, I think a go fund shit removing products from ones ass fits the description of online fundraising

http://www.gofundme.com/l4b1k4

Must be very convenient to not only attack someone you don’t know, whose circumstances you aren’t familiar with, by slandering them on Facebook and not even having the guts to do it on their own gofundme page.  But that’s a separate discussion.

The one I’m more interest in is the larger discussion regarding how ideas are formed, expressed, and realised. One of the major paradigms of Design Anthropology is very simply that nothing happens in a bubble, and that design and the success of said design isn’t determined by one factor. The concept of ‘build it and they will come’ as some sort of recipe for success has been quashed a million times over, not only by me on this blog but also but the vast majority of companies that never see it past three years. This is statistical fact, not conjecture. The reasons for success or failure are infinite and much better viewed in hindsight – when something works, it’s much easier to attribute it to some catchy phrase “Long nights and hard work were the key to my success!” or some pivotal decision which really could’ve gone either way but you chalk it up to good decision making.

Culture and notions of success

There’s also the cultural aspects of how success and failure are expressed, and how people attribute their political (and spiritual) beliefs as to why some venture was or was not a success. Mark Veno touches on this in well considered responses to the thread:

Mark Veno –Why not? When a corporation does it it’s called getting investors. Why is that any different when an individual does it? If people want to donate to a cause it doesn’t matter if *you* think it’s legit. People spend their money on all kinds of superfluous crap that I have no use for, I don’t hold it against them if it makes them happy.

Anvil Bikeworks –Mark, what are you on about? What do the affluent, poor people, deadbeats, or otherwise have to do with this? It has nothing to do with your politics or mine.

Mark Veno –Just sounds like you’re passing judgment on people using crowdfunding, when that may very well be the only resource available to them, or the one that makes the most sense. Bottom line is that if you don’t want to invest/donate you don’t have to.  I’ll make sure I don’t send you a link to my gofundme or kickstarter when the time comes. Just seems like there are different standards for people of different backgrounds is all. Most of the time it’s people that are successful looking down on those who aren’t, like being poor has something to do with character. Class differences have nothing to do with individual politics.”

I completely agree with this. Mark is not arguing about ‘class politics’, he’s arguing about the notion that there can be more than one route to the success of a venture or design and that limiting those potential avenues just simply because that’s not the way that you did it is not a valid argument. For me this is a bit of a paradox with the American zeitgeist. You have the Individualist notions of free market capitalism and success being the ultimate litmus test, but paradoxically if you get there using new or unconventional methods or technologies, then you are to be ridiculed.

Of course the other paradox about this very idea is that individualism and self determination is great up to a point – then it becomes fine to bring in outside investors, float your company on the stock exchange to generate working capital, etc. It would be curious to know what Don Ferris thinks about credit cards, or overdrafts or bank loans. At least with crowdfunding, pro-active individuals who believe in your idea are the ones backing you, not just the parasitic banking sector who exist only for profit.

Success and Collaboration

However the heart of the issue is the one I have the biggest issue with, and that is the very notion of collaboration. As a recovering Industrial Designer, going through design school 20+ years ago was a very individualistic experience. Part of being a designer we were told implicitly, was the nurturing of the ego, that somehow your ideas and your level of creativity was greater than everyone elses, and it was up to you to convince the world that your vision for it was better than everyone elses. As impressionable teenagers who looked up to those more senior than us and saw the success of the individualists in the industry (The owner of Decor famously rocking up in his Rolls-Royce before his guest-lecturer gig), we saw this as the way to make our mark on the world.

And then promptly spent the latter part of our careers realising how devoid of any real meaning the whole “Yuppies with Pens” industry was.

I believe modern design is not locked into the status quo or some conservative and naive reductionist idea that there is a set number of ways to do things, and that if you follow them success is sure to come. There are plenty of incredibly average ideas that are a roaring success just as there are a plethora of genius ideas that will never see the light of day. In the modern context we should not be limiting the potential avenues for ideas to come out of the shadows and into reality. I actually think this is a dangerous idea, because as a career design professional that has worked on inumerous projects, ideas, and start-ups, I know exactly how many factors need to come together for something to have even a vague possibility of success. Even then, the spectre of chance and timing come into play, so it’s not even the idea that’s the critical factor – it’s everything else in support of the idea and even those things not under your control that can make or break a project or idea. So many of the ideas my group of friends at University dreamed up back in 1993 are only just being accepted in the market. Things are complex, but limiting the possibilities is not one way to make things less complex – you limit the inputs, you limit the outputs, it’s as simple as that.

One of the big things that I love about Crowdfunding, is that it is very much rooted in the ideas of Lean Entrepreneurship. By that I mean the notion that ideas are there to be tested and that there are inbuilt efficiencies in the whole idea of having an idea, and then testing it’s viability with the minimum of resources, rinse and repeat. For testing viability, Crowdfunding seems to be very much in line with the principles of Lean Entrepreneurship, which I think is a great step forward.

Crowdfunding Reality

There’s no doubt that just like society as a whole, the mechanism is not perfect. You’re going to have Crowdfunding projects posted that are ridiculous, little more than begging, and ill-conceived, but those projects will still succeed or fail based on their own merits, just as they would ‘in real life’. Crowdfunding is not an ‘easy way out’. I only quickly peruse Crowdfunding websites, but when I’m linked to a project, there’s almost always a heck of a lot of work done to get it to that point. You don’t just make something in your garage, stick it on Kickstarter and instantly you’re swamped with backers.

Many of the projects I’ve witnessed are production ready, so at that stage you have to find some capital. So what’s the difference if it’s money from your day job, the bank, or a group of backers ‘pre-ordering’ a pre-production project? If it’s your money, how do you know your idea is a good one, that it’s a viable business? If it’s not, you’ve just flushed your money down the proverbial. What if it’s a loan and your idea is not viable? Congratulations, you now have a sizable debt. Crowdfunding? You’ve not only connected with your market, but you’ve engaged with people who believe in your idea and are willing to buy it, and this has validated your idea. You’ve also spread the risk and haven’t wasted valuable resources persuing a non-viable idea.

Does this sound like something that’s value added to the world of ideas to you? Worth having to wade through the odd Kickstarter project that’s a bit ridiculous to get to those? I certainly think so. At the end of the day, all Crowdfunders are, are vested customers who believe in your idea or product. Best to know who they are and engage with them sooner rather than later, as far as I’m concerned.

Richard Sachs : Imitation Art

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For me and my slimy ex-cycling industry background, nothing infuriates me more than the genius of Richard Sachs. Not so much his bicycles – although in the flesh they are very ‘tight’ (I finally got to see them in the flesh at Rapha NYC this September – it was more ‘shrine’ than ‘bike shop’) – but the way through his writing he both seems to simultaneously reinforce the fanboi-driven status-quo of the framebuilding establishment, but also elevate his own status in the process. All while on the surface appearing very learned and considered.

In a recent Facebook post entitled “I got dragged kicking and screaming into the Investment Cast era.”, Sachs recounts the ‘pre-Investment Cast’ bicycle framebuilding world, and his part in it –

“There was a time when the folks who worked at the benches where all these beautiful items were made had to be designers, joiners, machinists, engineers, and businessmen, as well as metalsmiths and artists…The reason for this was because the raw materials used in the fabrication process were so low-tech and crude”

Read: “Framebuilder’s back in the day were more multi-faceted”

I would argue that none of this has changed. What he is talking about here is the ability to ‘move metal’, so while there may not be much need to functionally reshape pressed lugs in the modern context, the skills of the framebuilder are much more diverse, and of course now also electronic. There’s more of everything for the modern framebuilder to process so I would argue that the ‘moving metal’ part is the least of their problems.  They still have to be designers and business people, but now they have social media and electronic marketing to deal with, as well as globalisation, recycling and a raft of other factors the framebuilders in the 1970’s wouldn’t dreamed of. The modern framebuilder has to be much more broadly skilled than in the past.

“I feared the day I would be taking a piece of metal from a carton, sent to me from the very foundry that cast it, and use it without any personal attention needed. The parts that we all labored over to make technically correct for the framebuilding process as well as beautiful for anyone who might see it – there now would be far less to differentiate my work from anyone else choosing the same parts from the same source.”

Read: “Technology makes your product less personal(ised)”

The art of embellishment, or stamping your own mark on a handmade item really doesn’t have anything to do with the materials or tools. The medium is not the message, how you communicate who you are, what you do and what you stand for is the message. The medium is irrelevant. This is I believe one of the advantages of Designers. Designers aren’t entrenched in the medium, they’re entrenched in the message, so as a breed we’re not hung up on the semantics of the medium. The common vernacular is ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’ or, ‘hiding in plain sight’, perhaps. When you’re too close to the ‘processes of the medium’,or if processes consume you, you’re then not mentally in the space to be able to be subjective about the message.

Sure, you can base a business on a technology, but you better have some exclusivity to it or you’re in serious trouble.

“‘Imitation art’ is a phrase I use to describe a finished piece whose aesthetics and parameters mimic an original, though it’s manufactured by someone other than the artist and often using different and more efficient methods.”

This is doublespeak as far as I’m concerned. An ‘Imitation’ has nothing but negative connotations, and ‘art’, positive. A piece of art is unique and communicates the human condition; an ‘Imitation’ is a ‘simulation’, a ‘copy’.

Sachs is using this doublespeak as a kind of back-handed compliment, albeit a compliment to those that buy and use his frambuilding lugs and braze-ons. You’re still an artist – don’t worry – but you’re imitating me and all whom preceded me. You’re mimicking me – just with different and more efficient methods.

“I never sensed it in real time, but folks who designed parts that I used up until the very day I had my own iterations enabled my career to be realized.”

This is a trite comment. Of course before you design something yourself, through the act of using pre-existing designed objects, those folks are realising future careers. Can Sachs honestly say he picked up an existing set of lugs, designed by someone else, and not realise it was enabling his career? I find this ludicrous to say the least.

“Making an original is like having a dream; taking an original and finding ways for others have it and its possibilities – this is like sharing that dream.”

I’m not sure what Sachs is trying to say with this statement. It all seems very ‘dreamy’. Perhaps he is enthused about the prospect of seeing what others can do with his framebuilding parts, as perhaps he was in the past? The issue that I have, is that the concept is kind of an infinite loop of imitation. Why exactly are his lugs for example ‘originals’ when they are very conservative shapes based on designs of the past? Why – if a framebuilder takes his lugs and re-interprets them – is that not also an ‘original’? Where is the room in this occasion for those truly doing things outside the traditional lugged framebuilding square, such as David Bohm of Bohemian Bicycles or Tom Warmerdam of Demon Frameworks?

I’d perhaps argue that everything is original (unless, perhaps, it’s ‘Imitation Art’), and that for a framebuilder to succeed, it’s not about sharing Richard Sachs’ dream – it’s about having your own, being realistic about it, and more importantly than anything else, communicating who you are, what you do, and what you stand for. I don’t think a tube butting profile, a set of generic looking lugs or dropouts is necessarily ‘art’ nor a particularly interesting dream. My designer-brain only sees these things as the medium (Not the message, remember?); raw, basic materials upon which to communicate something exciting and meaningful.

All this talk of Sachs being an ‘original’ and ‘sharing the dream’ is really a bit of an illusion. What this post of his communicates is a kind of simplified ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario – taking what any experienced designer would classify as raw materials, and imbuing them with ‘dream’ like qualities, which the bug-eyed young framebuilder would then take to create his ‘imitation art’ in the hope of one day being in the position as Sachs is now to create their own ‘originals’, and then repeat, ad infinitum.

What better way to reinforce the custom framebuilding status-quo, by realising the dream of being an imitation of an imitation?

Giving Up Privilege

“So I will ask you what I asked my partner as an ally, when have you given up your privileges to another person who lacks that particular privilege to the potential detriment of yourself and the benefit of the other person/group?”

 

My ex-Professor Dori Tunstall put this question to me last week as part of her ‘white privilege love letter’ and I feel compelled to give an answer – despite the lack of design content which this blog was supposed to be about – however design is largely about ‘crafting the future’ and the socio-political situation is the forum in which we express it so the starting conditions are none-the-less an important consideration.

It’s undeniable that those who fit the dominant social and cultural paradigm the best have the most to benefit from engaging in it.  Any sort of deviation from ‘middle Australia’ will put you at odds with this dominance.  Some of these deviations will be nature, some will be nurture based; it’s the ‘nature’ based ones over which you have the least control.  However, how and where you are born is random, and any concept of hierarchy and privilege that you are born into, you have absolutely no control over.  It just so happens that I was born in sunny Footscray, to fairly middle class English parents.  I’m a 191cm red-haired, ungainly and fairly talentless trouble-marker.  There’s not much I can do about that.  I can’t ‘give up’ any of that as Dori asks me to do.

 

So what notions of heirarchy and privilege can I actually give up?  Well, I can refuse to recognise most traditional hierarchical systems, and not actively engage with my privilege, real or perceived, as a result of circumstance.  I could refuse to recognise any importance of ‘race’ –  the idea of race to me is arbitrary and superficial.  I could recognise the negative aspects of the dominant cultural and social paradigms and refuse where I can to ‘aide and abet’.

 

Often when I’m thinking about the big picture and the world of design and our future, I probably have a harder time than almost anyone I know of dealing with the cognitive dissonance I see between what we should be doing – what makes basic sense as human beings for our collective betterment – and what we are actually doing. Every time I put a bag of rubbish in landfill I feel angry at myself and us. Every time I see yet another unnecessary consumer good providing a solution looking for a problem I think we have no hope. It may not look it on the outside but I feel the human condition quite deeply.  I want us to be more than an infestation on this planet and I’m constantly at odds with the chasm between my will and what needs to be done. I often think that if I’m engaged and aware and fail miserably, what chance does ‘Joe Average’ have?

 

Closer to home, I also realise how my situation fits into the global scheme of things.  The ridiculous part of the Occupy movement for example, is that in the West you may be part of the 1% or the 99%, but we’re all still part of the richest 30% of people in the world.  70% of the population of the Earth couldn’t afford to live in this country. I recognise how privilege works not only on a street level but also globally, and how ideas of sustainability and our very future involves not just the rich 30% and how they enact ‘austerity’, but how this has an effect on the other 70%.

 

A friend of mine Helen about 10 years ago packed up and shipped off to Lilongwe, Malawi to work for the UN.  Her background is in social work so it was something very close to her and was a good fit for her professional skills.  Me? Well, that’s just not my thing, and even if I agreed with the notion of ‘white privilege’ (which I don’t) I don’t think going somewhere ‘less white’ to help is the only way to ‘give up’ your hierarchy and privileges. If you’re anti-establishment (and nobody has ever called me ‘pro’) and you have and open and active intellect then I believe the best way to dismantle or debunk the negative aspects of hierarchy and privilege is a) be understand and be aware of them, and b) don’t recognise or engage in them.

 

So, am I doing all that I can?  Well, no. Who is? I’m not living in a classless and bigotry-less utopia.

 

Do I want to? Bring it on, I say.