Our Kickstarter Story
We launched the Switch Aero System on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter on June 3rd, 2013. It's been amazing watching our business evolve since then, so we thought we'd take a minute to look back at how we got here.
The first inklings of what would become the Switch Aero System were born in the summer of 2012. Stephen had been doing triathlons for a few years and decided to set up his road bike with regular clip-on aero bars and a forward seatpost. The setup was fine whenever he was riding in the aero position, but felt awkward and uncomfortable whenever he sat up to ride on the hoods. "I wish I had a seatpost that would let me switch between the two positions ...."
The first versions of the quick-release aerobars and dual-position seatpost weren't pretty - they were crude, ugly, and heavy. Scott actually raced with an early prototype of the seatpost in a sprint tri, and it literally fell apart when he dismounted at the end of the bike leg, forcing him to stop and pick up the various pieces. But as ugly as they were, they served their purpose - proving that the two seatpost positions were viable and that we could securely attach the aerobars using a quick-release.
We continued to refine the prototypes and eventually ended up with the prototypes below, which worked well and looked pretty good. We decided that we were ready to present the system to the world.
Preparing for Kickstarter
We knew from early on that we wanted to launch the products on Kickstarter. As engineers and tinkerers, I can't tell you the number of times we'd browsed through Kickstarter's thousands of projects, amazed by the collective creativity of the Kickstarter community and secretly wishing we'd thought of each one. Doing our own Kickstarter would be a great way to gauge the market - would people understand the concept, would it catch their interest, and most importantly, would they be willing to fork over their hard-earned cash ... to a company they'd never heard of ... for a product they'd never seen?
What we didn't know was just how much effort goes into putting together a good Kickstarter campaign. We knew we needed a video. We knew we needed pictures. In our original timeline, we had budgeted something like two weeks to assemble the content for the campaign. It ended up taking more like two months. We bought a camera, we learned how to use iMovie, we randomly pressed buttons in Photoshop. It was similar to the computer scene in Zoolander, except with mechanical engineers instead of male models.
As bicycle industry outsiders, we also invested a lot of time contacting people in the bicycle media world and encouraging them to write, blog, post, and tweet about our upcoming project. This proved to be a critical ingredient to the later success of the campaign.
The Kickstarter Campaign Trail
The month of the Kickstarter campaign was one of the busiest and most exciting months of our collective careers. It's amazing how much time and attention we devoted to answering emails, responding to forum posts, contacting media outlets, and writing updates. We essentially put the rest of our lives (and work) on hold for that month. The charts below (courtesy of Kicktraq), show the progress of the campaign over the month.
Before the Kickstarter campaign started, we weren't sure what the aerobars vs. seatposts vs. systems breakdown would be. In the end, the vast majority of backers chose the system, which was a great confirmation that the "One Bike, Two Rides" concept resonated with people.
One thing we didn't expect was how much support we'd receive from international backers. Of the 253 backers who ordered the aerobars and seatposts, 71 were from outside the US, including a surprising 10 from Singapore, a country of only 5.3 million people.
Finally, we have to give a shout-out to everyone who participated in the Kickstarter. That includes our 277 brave backers, our friends and family who helped spread the word, and everyone who blogged, posted, tweeted, and yelled about our project. We've said it before, and we'll say it again - we really could not have accomplished any of this without the amazing support that we receive from all of you, and we are truly grateful. Here's a recap of the publicity that we received during the campaign.
BikeRadar, DCRainmaker, BikeRumor, TriRadar, Gizmag, SolidSmack, Bicycle Retailer, Trijuice, Gear Hungry, ModuoBIke, Urban Velo, Cool Hunting, Gadget Review, Transition Four, Desire This, In Stash, Gear Culture, xtri.com, Aero Geeks, The Gear Caster, Damn Geeky, Tek'd
After all was said and done, we ended up raising almost 2.5x our original funding goal. It was a strong affirmation that people really connected with the products, and it let us proceed forward confidently, knowing that the production tooling costs were already funded. However, as many of you know, the conclusion of the Kickstarter fundraising is just the first leg of a much longer journey.
The Kickstarter Video (for those of you who haven't seen it).
Test, Refine, Test, Refine ....
You may have noticed that the design of the aerobars and seatpost shown in the Kickstarter video are different than the production versions that exist today. The design changes were driven by exhaustive testing of the components to ensure that they would be reliable, safe, and easy to use.
Kickstarter Seatpost Version
Current Production Seatpost
We built our own custom test rig so that we could perform fatigue (cyclical loading) and ultimate proof (single loading) tests and see first-hand what was working and what wasn't. I'd love to tell you that the first prototype passed with flying colors, but unfortunately that's not how product development works. During the development, not all of the tests were successful and we refined a number of aspects of the design. One of the major changes to the seatpost design was switching from a two piece post (tube + bonded cap) to a single-piece 3D-forged post. The forging eliminated the joint at the top of the seatpost, allowing us to create a stronger, lighter post.
Test Rig for Fatigue and Ultimate Loading Test
Video of Some of the Fatigue Testing We Performed
All of the testing and refinement meant a better, more reliable product, but they also meant that we wouldn't meet the schedule that we had proposed in the Kickstarter. It's a common issue with Kickstarter projects, and we were hoping to break the mold, but ultimately, perfecting the components trumped rushing the schedule. Here are some of the major design changes and efforts that affected our delivery schedule:
- Change to forging tooling - we had originally planned to extrude and CNC machine the saddle clamps and seatpost, but based on the results of our testing, we decided to forge these parts to improve their strength. The forging tooling was substantially more complicated than the extrusion tooling that we originally planned on using, and also required that we find a new vendor for the forged parts.
- Bushing testing - the four-bar linkage in the seatpost rotates on special bushings that we chose based on millions of cycles of testing. We started out using commonly available off-the-shelf bushings, but found that they were prone to wear or cracking during the fatigue tests. In order to ensure that the bushings would survive a lifetime of use without loosening or seizing up, we ended up designing custom bushings using a specially selected material capable of withstanding the high loads.
- Spring tuning - one of the most important features of the seatpost is its stability in both positions. We spent a lot of time tuning the spring force and detent shape to ensure that the seatpost was secure in the forward position. It was a delicate balance - the seatpost had to be stable, but also easy enough to move while riding.
- Glue - sometimes the simplest tasks are the most complicated. Selecting the proper glue to adhere the small rubber pads between the linkages on the seatpost took way longer than we expected. We ended up trying over 10 different combinations of glues and primers (with hundreds of thousands of corresponding test cycles) before we landed on the right recipe.
In September, we headed to Interbike, the major North American tradeshow for the bicycle industry. It was an amazing experience seeing all of the different companies and meeting a ton of retailers and industry contacts. Since all of us are engineers, it also forced us to get out of our comfort zones and put on our "sales" hats (even though we were not actually taking orders at the show). The response further confirmed the result of the Kickstarter campaign - bike shop buyers (a notoriously skeptical bunch) were very interested in the system and thought it would sell well with their customers. You can see our modest booth below (next to the Ironman booth, which was sporting a pretty amazing ice sculpture).
Redshift Sports Booth at Interbike (Sept 2013)
Ironman Booth Ice Sculpture at Interbike (Sept 2013)
Production - A Waiting Game
The majority of the parts for the aerobars and seatpost were produced at two factories in Taiwan that manufacture a variety of components for major bicycle manufacturers. The remaining parts were manufactured local to us in Philadelphia. We received the first productions samples in early November 2013, and immediately began testing them to make sure they met our specifications. Stephen traveled to Taiwan later that month to meet with the factories, discuss the required changes, and kick off the first full production run. Once the order was placed, all we could do was wait...
Taiwan Production Facility
The parts shipped from Taiwan in late January, just before Chinese New Year (which was our drop-dead date because we wanted to avoid the delay associated with the CNY factory shutdowns). Because of the schedule delays, we decided to air freight the first production order to avoid the months that would have been required for ocean freight. The arrival of the boxes promptly transformed our small office from (relatively) tidy to full-on disaster area.
Production Parts Arrive at the Office
For the first production run, we decided to do all of the assembly here in-house in order to ensure quality and refine the assembly process. It was labor intensive and pretty boring, honestly, but at the same time, strangely satisfying. If only it actually went as fast as the time-lapse below...
Final Assembled Seatposts
Assembling the units ourselves allowed us to catch several errors in the production parts that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. We ended up having to remake a number of small parts locally at the last minute due to irregularities in the production pieces. In the end though, the production process went relatively smoothly - there were definitely a few hiccups along the way, but we were lucky not to encounter any show-stopping issues during assembly.
The Finish Line
On March 13, 2014, we shipped out all orders (well, 99%) to our Kickstarter backers. It was a huge relief to have the products out the door - even though the vast majority of our backers were supportive throughout the process, the production delays had been weighing heavily on all of us, and were were eager to get the products in people's hands before the start of the riding season (for us northern hemisphere folks anyway).
For all of our Kickstarter backers - we have to thank you not only for backing our project financially, but also for the unfailing support, patience, and understanding that you showed throughout the process. We hope you're enjoying the gear as much as we are!
Scott crossing the finish line at the Black Bear Triathlon 2013