Sunday, August 06, 2006

Frames, Frames, and More Frames

I'm often asked when I'll offer a new Heron model. I'm working on that, but there are a lot of choices on the market already. This is a golden era for niche market bicycle frames. There are always new frames coming from folks like Rivendell, Kogswell, and now Velo-Orange. They are all excellent, but is this market getting too crowded? What differentiates one from the other? Often, we hear that one frame is like another except that it uses 650B tires. This one is like that one except that it uses centerpull brakes.

As fun as it is, this business is pretty darned hard. It's not enough just to build good, versatile frames. You need to keep differentiating yourself from the other guy. What was good enough yesterday isn't good enough today.

Jan Heine, publisher of the excellent Vintage Bicycle Quarterly, is giving us all a fresh view of the classic French cyclotouring bicycles of the past. He revisits concepts like trail and gives us insight into why those bikes rode so well. This presents an opportunity for more new models and more ways to differentiate the brand. Personally, I'm reading Jan's stuff with great interest and will likely refer to his work when designing any new Heron models.

How many folks read VBQ? How many are on the iBob e-mail list? Just how large is the market for these frames? Is it large enough to accommodate all of these companies? If not, trying to sell frames beyond this niche poses additional problems.

I've tried to downplay the "lugged steel" aspect of Heron frames. The first message I try to convey is that these frames are well-designed for the type of riding that most people do. Secondly, I emphasize quality and craftsmanship. Only after those two do I discuss aesthetics. Sure, I love steel and I love lugs, but the market for lugged steel frames is much smaller than it is for well-designed frames. Promoting the aesthetic qualities gives more mainstream consumers the chance to dismiss a frame as a "retro fashion statement."

Selling beyond our comfortable niche also requires facing the marketing machines of the big manufacturers. You need to compete against flashy paint jobs, questionable technical claims, and big advertising budgets. Eddy Merckx actually sold a frame with faux-carbon stickers on the chainstays and marketed it as "carbon-wrapped stays." I'm sure that there were some carbon atoms in those stickers somewhere.

I just read a thread on a road bike forum about frame stiffness. The original poster wanted a recommendation for a "stiff" frame. Lots of suggestions came forth, but none were based upon any empirical data. Instead, comments were based upon "perceptions" of stiffness. Perceptions can be created from a wide variety of things, the least of which is objective observation. People will mostly perceive whatever will confirm their prior expectations. In a taste test, most people will report that unlfavored gelatin that is colored red actually tastes like cherry or strawberry. Riders commonly complained of the harsh ride of carbon aerowheels when objective testing showed them to lack stiffness both radially and laterally.

How does a small company compete against this? You just want to sell good, versatile frames, but how do you do that without some "hook" like "carbon-wrapped stays" or 650B tires and centerpull brakes? Isn't offering a decent frame enough?

So, as you can see, designing a new Heron frame can be a complex thing. Do I concern myself with what others are doing? Do I follow the trends, whether inside or outside our little market niche? If not, how do I differentiate my product from the rest? Sure, it's fun designing frames. There's lots of freedom to build something that excites and interests you, but you still need to sell the darned things. It's too easy for someone to look at something you've created and say something like, "Oh, that's like an Atlantis with caliper brakes" or some other compartmentalization.

I'm not really looking for ideas or suggestions. I'm not into designing frames by committee. I'll have something new to announce soon, but whether it flops or flies, I have no idea.

1 comment:

Piaw said...

Personally, I don't think much of VBQ's opinions on frames. The old French touring frames were nice, but seriously, none of them compare to modern bikes designed by a good designer (like Grant Petersen). I've test ridden the Kogswell P/R (designed after the Porteur bikes) and am thoroughly unimpressed. With 650B wheels, the bike handled sluggishly, didn't like to climb, didn't enjoy descending, either.

I would, however, recommend a Heron touring or Road frame to anybody who's serious about touring.