Evolve the bike. In New York City it means the Citibike program, which is slow to get out of the gate and taking some serious heat from bloggers to The New York Times. In Detroit, evolving the bike is a simpler concept. Like other more famous and established companies out of the Midwest evolving the bike is more technology-driven and populist. It is being led by a start-up called AutoBike, which launched just before Memorial Day and celebrated its first Fourth of July. It’s tagline: Evolve The Bike.
“Riding a bike should be a ticket to freedom,” says Sean Simpson, co-founder of AutoBike. “We don’t own any spandex riding outfits. We’re riders but we want people to embrace the simpler more comfortable part of bike riding. We have new technology, yes. But the technology enables the experience. That approach has been missing from cycling.”
AutoBike was officially formed in January 2011, but the idea came about around two years before then. Simpson and lifelong friend and rider Kevin Smith came up with the idea of designing, manufacturing and marketing a bike that shifts gears automatically, based on road conditions. On a techy level, here’s how it works: A “continuously-variable” rear hub contains an unlimited number of gear ratios. That hub has a small computer and a sensor that decides when to shift powered by the bike’s movement. The gear shifter receives the signal from the sensor and, through the use of a small motor attached to the rear hub, moves the gears.
The AutoBike marketing strategy is based on four basic elements:
- Find and address the audience: Right now, Simpson and his team know that they need to get outside the standard bike shop and enthusiast segments. They are appealing to older demographic groups. They have been successful so far in Florida, and have also hit their early targets at bike rental shops where causal cyclists or vacationers are more likely to look for bikes.
- Get people on the bikes: That rental strategy also plays to the experiential marketing Autobike is embracing. Very simply they want to get people on the bikes, and they’re confident word of mouth is going to sell more. The founders and the rest of the team have entered races with the bikes and have used the experienced for social content. Example: The Mackinaw, MI Zoo-De-Mack ride (50mi) was completed by Simpson and Smith on AutoBikes.
- Return cycling to the people: “It’s not just another bike,” Simpson says. “We need people to get on it. That’s what our race appearances do and we’re looking for some retail partners to help expand that.”
- Social: The company has done some local Detroit advertising. Its Twitter and Facebook presence is aimed at awareness and updates. “I think the dichotomy is that most of our customers (to date) aren’t on Twitter at all but they are on Facebook,” says Simpson.
Part of the marketing and culture is all about Detroit. Simpson Sean one of the other co-founders worked at BAE Systems together. Most worked somewhere in the automotive industry at some point. The AutoBike team all went to local colleges, and in fact when Michigan plays Michigan St. in football it’s a “no win” day, according to Simpson. The bikes are built in Troy. “Working here is very inspirational,” he says. “Here you’re not crazy if you have an idea like this, you’re passionate.”