Bicycle Dinosaur, and the Secrets of the Ebike Industry

Stefan Ceman
14 min readNov 25, 2019

Ebikes will eat bikes, and new disruptive businesses will eat classic bike businesses. Why, how, and how fast? Let me reveal some secrets about it.

The bicycle did not radically change for tenths of years. I think it is at the end of its evolution. Now and then comes some new feature or benefit, but nothing huge. Ebike has transformed the bike to a whole new level, but it is also only at the beginning of its journey.

Ebike business is now booming, and it’s taking share from classic bicycles radically. Its current value is tenths of billions USD per year and is supposed to multiply fast. Sounds good, right?! But in my opinion, the ebike business as we know it can not handle this growth. It is based on the old standards of the existing bike industry, and it changes very slowly. Problems with increasing volume, quality, and pricing are not the only ones.

How do I know? I am an ebike business insider. I have lived in this reality for years. So let me guide you through some problems in the whole process, that nobody wants you to know.

DESIGN

The birth of a bike should start with the specific customer in mind, his goals for riding, his needs, and his dreams. But most of the time, it doesn’t. The industry creates its categories and tries to fit in the rider. Only some designers care about the feedback from the market and real customers or dealers. In reality, the industry is spitting out a vast amount of models. Every year they change stickers or color, every two or three years frame and maybe the motor.

Despite a large number of models and options, the customer has a problem to choose. The majority of them get a catalog product. This kind of product doesn’t usually match the rider’s needs completely. Some customers don’t care, but a lot of them do, especially with more expensive machines. Today’s customization is a joke — maybe you get your different color, perhaps custom stem or saddle. It is not enough. Enthusiasts make their bikes and change everything. So most of the time, the customer has to make compromises.

PRODUCTION

When it comes to an ebike and the production, the essential part is the frame. The first years of ebike production everybody was learning — the frames were not strong enough in some areas. For instance, motor fixation was mostly weak, so it was cracking or making noises all the time. Serial mistakes as motor clicking, freewheel jamming, battery problems, software problems also did not do good. These problems sometimes took weeks, but sometimes months to solve.

Everybody was learning, and it’s getting better. But I still find some same mistakes on new bikes — sometimes it’s a big producer with a new model or frame or new ebike producer.

I know that everybody thinks they are every day in the bike business, so they know it all. They don’t meet, don’t talk, don’t communicate and don’t share the knowledge. Everybody thinks that they work on some secret projects. Ok, but then it also looks like that — we make these “secret” mistakes all over again.

The production capacity is also very variable — one month you don’t have bikes, the other month you have too many. Production first cannot catch up, later they increase the production capacity and then produce so much, that it congests the market.

In the superior marketing materials, the producers speak about their most modern and hi-tech production lines. I have been to many bike productions, but I have not seen any real hi-tech. Today we can say that automotive is hi-tech, but the bike industry has a lot to learn here.

What’s worse, due to this high demand for ebikes, the biggest companies continue to build new facilities on the old standards. Do we want to produce the new large volumes of ebikes this way? Please don’t stop till it’s time.

Everybody makes mistakes. That’s ok. But too many of them and all over again is not good. Who pays for that? We destroy the value, the margin, and the trust between the customer and the seller and the brand.

ASSEMBLY

For me, the most interesting part of the production is the assembly line. The frames come still mostly from Asia (now it is already changing), then they are painted at a local paint shop. And they come to the assembly line to have all the other components installed. And here it comes.

On these lines work people mostly from cheaper countries with none or only small skills. So they come for the production season and have to produce immediately and fast. A lot of times it is new people every year. So the quality is awful. After a few weeks, it starts to get better, but sometimes this doesn’t even till the end of the season. Then we can hope that for the next season, there will be better people or training process or quality control. (I am hoping every year, but nothing is changing).

You would typically assemble a bike and get it ready to sell in 30 minutes, but you do this 2 hours instead. Sometimes you even have to disassemble everything and do it new. Brakes badly bled, wheels in the wrong position, forgotten small parts, faulty components installed, over or under torque on essential screw connections. The “details” as cable routing on the handlebars or in the frame is crazy. Drive software not updated or with not set wheel circumference (or wrong). Sometimes you even cannot turn the bike on, and you have to change components immediately. Is there any quality control at the end production station? (I know there is).

It’s time to put some components on the bike. Let’s start with an entry model with really crazy specs because the price point has to match the competition. So then you can find “30” Euro brakes on a heavy bike for 4000 Eur, or even a 160mm rear discs. The rear derailleur is mostly ok because everybody looks at it, but other components are deficient. It does seem that the value is excellent for the money, but is it?

I know that all this can happen even in the automotive industry that is on a much higher level (I have worked there, it can happen with top systems, robots, and other hi-tech stuff). But in the bike business, it happens every year all over again on a large scale! And nothing is changing!

The particular topic is new motors. When some new “revolutionary” motor or upgrade comes, I am afraid from the beginning. I don’t want to sell these ebikes in large numbers. We always take only a few for the first years, to test on the market. Because here can come the nightmare — serial errors and recalls (or even worse — complaints from the customers).

QUALITY CONTROL

There is some quality control on the lines and also end control. Some producers have their lines at least under better control by having them at “home.” So the production and development and other teams can gather and communicate. Also, the key people in the company stay long enough to transfer the knowledge to others and new colleagues. But a lot of big companies have their productions far and without control. They have the systems maybe, but in reality, you see immediately on the product of how it was made.

I know that the production line cannot stop and it has to produce. I still remember when our line stopped, there was panic immediately and people shouting everywhere “WHY LINE STOPPED?!”, which station? We had to RUN. Every 54 seconds, a new car had to go out, and it didn’t. The company loses big money every second. I know. But anyway, there must be a limit to what is normal and what is not.

Last year was very strong on new models with battery integration. You couldn’t put the battery into the frame without having problems with the cables. Then the bike did not shift correctly. You had to disassemble the whole thing to make it work. What is worse, for instance, producers who already produce their new frames for at least a year, have the same mistake with the battery cover — it makes noises after a while because the solution is not optimal. Maybe they just forgot, and the line was so fast, so that first 10 000 frames had to go out as it is. Probably somebody at the assembly line or the dealer will handle it. They will because they have no other option. Maybe the engineers forgot about it? Tell me how is this possible in the days of computers, great 3D, and simulation software.

DISTRIBUTION

The distribution network is another strange thing. It is getting better with disintermediation (that we cut the unnecessary element in the chain that does not provide enough or any value). So many of the bike producers finally don’t have the local distributors and sell directly to the final seller. Some companies also cut the last element (that is the bike shop) and sell directly to the customer.

I think that it is crazy to have a distributor these days. The work is much easier for everybody if the seller can check the status of stock and delivery directly at the producer. But despite this fact, even today, I get inquiries about distributing or selling some brand in our country. I got two in the last month. Man, forget about distribution. It is one of the most useless things. Why would a good dealer want some intermediate? Why would I want to order through somebody when I can order directly?

What I wanted to say is that: with distribution, there is a problem with information flow — it is slower, less effective. The reclamation process is more complicated. There are also problems with the physical part. The bike is transported more times — from the producer to the distributor, from the distributor to the shop. So many times happen that bike comes with some damage — chipped frame or fork, bent derailleur hanger, bend disc rotors, destroyed display (when the box comes upside down), and any other “creations.”

THE SHOP

The shop (also called the “IBD — Individual Bike Dealer” or Retailer) is strong at this: it has the customers, all the real data from the market, and a particular geographical location. But the most important it has relationships with the customers and the trust. Many times our customers are our friends. It is natural because most of bike business owners like bikes and riding, so with a customer that wants to ride also it’s a great combination. What the shop is not good enough is the overview of the whole market and some more data. And a lot of times, the owners are too much in the daily business, so they don’t have time to study and learn new things.

SALE

The ebike finally arrived at the shop from the producer or distributor. And it stays on stock or at the showroom and waits for its customer. How long? Sometimes it already has its customer, but most of the time, it remains — for days, weeks, months. Sometimes also years.

If a seller wants to have enough bikes to sell in the season, he has to order approximately six to 12 months in advance. Then he finally gets it — sometimes on time, sometimes not on time, sometimes never.

So the bike shops most of the time look like a warehouse— bikes everywhere, one by another, so that you even cannot see them from a side. It is also a lot of money on the stock. That means a lot of stress when the season is ending, and you have a lot of inventory. Especially with expensive ebikes — when the technology is changing for the next season, nobody wants the old standard anymore — it loses value fast.

These are the first images of searching for “bike shops”

In our part of the world (Europe), we have a top season from March to May/June. In June it starts to slow down and from July starts the pressure for the SALE! Who will be the first this year to panic? Who will flood the market with cheap bikes? We can be sure that somebody will lose the nerves and start to panic. And then everybody else continues. 10–20–30% OFF in the summer. Crazy.

In July, the pressure gets even higher because in a few weeks will be one global show, and everybody will present the next season’s models. Everybody and also the bike media will start to show the following year’s models. So the customers naturally see them and want them. And they know that they can come to the shop and ask for even a more significant discount for an “old” model.

At this time, the bike producers are so busy that they don’t even react to the standard business. They are working on making everything ready for the show — the new models, the booths, the catalogs, etc.

I know that the bike business can say that the year starts in August or September. But the customers start their year still in January. When somebody wants a bike in September, we say — we don’t have the old model anymore, and the new did not come yet. The customer reacts: “I don’t care about the model year. I want to buy my bike now — to make nice autumn rides.”

With cheap sales, we destroy the whole value of the bike and the hard work behind the ebike and the transaction. Who pays the price? Most of the time, the dealer. But in the end, everybody in this network loses. The customer maybe has a short time win, but in the long term, he loses also — the poor bicycle dealers will not provide exceptional services. And the dealers are hardly surviving. The majority of the businesses are a one-man show — singlepreneurs. The owner is a seller, mechanic, and an office chick in one person.

When the seller is under pressure, he wants to sell what is on the stock. So naturally — if there would be a better bike for the customer somewhere else, he tries to sell what he has on stock. “This is the right bike for you.” And the customer then gets an ebike, which might not be the number one choice. The service is, in the end, bad.

When the seller is weak and has no money to develop, the network is also weak. Then the producers cannot find good shops to work with their brands.

So, this industry is making pain itself. It steals itself margin, increases the pressure, and destroys value.

CUSTOMER

Let’s see it from the customer view. When he wants to buy an ebike, there are two basic types of customers. One is which studies a lot, understands the bike, and chooses very carefully. This process can take days, weeks, or years. The other type comes to the shop and buys something out of the gate.

Anyway, all of them are overwhelmed by the offer — there are thousands of ebikes on the market. When they finally choose, it doesn’t mean that they will get their selected bikes. They might not get the right size or at the right time.

I have a big problem with choosing my ebike. And the customers also. For instance, you want a bike for 4999 Eur. It has good specs for the price, but you don’t like the color. You better like the color of the bike for 3890 Eur, but it has terrible specs. Another brand has better geometry, but it is not available. So what do you do? Buy the cheaper and change components later, or buy better with lousy color? Or buy nothing or wait for the next year with the hope that there will be something better.

The main is geometry, but until now, it was not possible to make your custom geometry. Why would you want to choose your own geometry? If you are the rider, you know. You know that head angle 64 degrees rides differently than 67 degrees. You feel the five millimeter difference in the chainstay and the top tube length. Changing stems and seat post offset is also not an ideal option most of the time.

When you choose the right size, the majority of the producers still divide the bikes by the size (length) of a seat tube. It is crazy. Nearly none of the customers understands the centimeter versus inch number. And by the way, why would I get an “M” size bike with 48cm (19 inches) seat tube when I have 1.5cm shorter legs, 2cm longer arms, and 1cm shorter neck? An average ebike is not an option for anybody who doesn’t have an average body. For a few years, we measure Stack and Reach. That’s much better for the fitting of the optimal position, but it is still only about the position, not overall riding feeling.

AFTER THE SALE

The customer finally buys the ebike. He gets an expensive machine, but only a few of them get appropriate maintenance. He is afraid to put the bike to the repair shop that he doesn’t know. Is the mechanic ok, does he make his job within the safety standards (if they exist and if somebody cares)? We have to learn a lot from McDonald’s (nobody gets injured, when he eats a 90% good burger. But when you have 90% good bike, you can get hurt bad).

The journey of our bikes and ebikes ends. Where? In the garage or junkyard. Only the lucky ones get to real recycling. If the bikes would have better servicing, they could last longer. Classic bicycle is not such a heavy load for the environment, but ebikes are more. So we need to better the process much more for ebikes.

TIME

The time from design to sale is now extremely long — months or even years. How can we make it shorter and better? Without wasting time and resources? With even better quality and much higher value for the provider and the rider? How to combine the right things and leave only parts which add value?

Today’s ebike business is strange and in many cases, amateur. With this approach and quality, that will be a tragedy. We need to change this. How can we make better ebikes, design, production, sales, and services?

IMAGINE

Imagine, that it could work like this: we will scan (measure) the rider, he will choose the parameters of his ebike (all — geometry, motor, color, design, components). Then we will produce his ebike in the local factory or bike shop. The mechanics will then assemble it perfectly, deliver full value, explain everything. We won’t need classic producers, distribution, and other not value-adding parts. This whole process will take a few days. The customer will pay an appropriate value for the bike and the service.

Sounds impossible? When we started developing these systems years ago, it was. But now it is not. What’s the difference now? Ebikes are already here, and they will survive. 3D printing is here, and it’s cheaper and faster as you read these lines. New technologies and platforms are here, and customers changed their behavior long ago. It is a matter of time when the new exponential businesses disrupt the old world. These changes have a different curve — long happens nothing, but suddenly “BOOM,” and it is here. Everywhere. We either understand this, adapt, and take action, or we end up as dinosaurs.

This old school business needs a crash with an asteroid, like when the dinosaurs ended. That asteroid is the Ebike Future Conference — first online ebike business conference in the World.

Watch ONLINE from home or office at: www.ebikefuturecon.com

These world-class speakers, representing different industries, and experiences, will share their passion, reveal their top knowledge and insights to push the boundaries of what you thought was possible for your business. Learn from the masters, and have your thinking challenged.

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Stefan Ceman

Reinventing the ebike business | E-bike Business Expert | Business, Consulting, Training, Innovation | I help entrepreneurs start and grow e-bike businesses