14 December, 2010

About VO, Part 2

You may remember that, a few weeks ago, I started a series a posts about VO's history. This is the second post; part one can be found here.

Before long we'd outgrown our first garage-sized space and found a storefront on West Street in Annapolis, which is essentially main street. The space was cheap because the building's owner planned to tear it down and redevelop (three years later, it's still for lease and still not razed). We signed renewable 90-day lease and I spent a week repainting and buying furniture. (A few more photos of the new space can be found here.) Since this was in the midst of a major commercial real estate slump, I guessed that it would be many years before the building was replaced and I was overjoyed at the dirt-cheap rent. What I didn't plan on was VO's outgrowing the space in 10 months and having to take more space next door. Then, 8 months later, we outgrew the combined space.

Now that we had a retail showroom, we opened accounts with several domestic distributors. This allowed us to offer many products that we could not import directly.

We soon had two more employees - Heidi, who ran the shipping and packing end of it, and Tom who sourced products and also started to develop a wholesale company. Tom had loads of experience in the bike industry and in sourcing parts overseas. He knew which factories had the best quality, knew many of the owners, and had a relationship with a superb trading company in Taiwan. Now I could concentrate on envisioning and designing things, and Tom would take care of having them made.

We also decided to offer semi-custom frames and found two excellent builders to make them. The rando frame was a huge success and we soon had a two-to-three year waiting list. Unfortunately, our rando frame builder promptly declared bankruptcy and left us to refund many thousands of dollars of frame deposits he'd held. The city bike frames did not sell as well.  I eventually decided that custom, even semi-custom, frames were simply not worth the trouble. The frames were perpetually late, customers wanted to change specs at the last minute, and I was spending far too much time on each order. Despite all this, the frames were generally brilliant; they were beautiful, rode like a dream, and those who got them loved them.

I realized that in the amount of time it took to have a few custom frames made, we could design and produce hundreds of production frames that were based on our successful custom designs. The production frame project had a steep learning curve, but eventually we managed to have three frames produced: the Rando, the Polyvalent, and the Mixte.

Anther successful project was having fenders made. At the time the only high quality metal fenders available in the US were the Japanese Honjo fenders. These were almost exact copies of French fenders and very nicely made, but expensive. The heavier stainless steel French Canyon fenders, marketed under the Berthoud brand, had temporarily gone out of production. So it seemed an opportune time to introduce VO fenders. Their success emboldened us to move forward on other projects - more racks, brakes, stems, handlebars, bottle cages...

One of my basic business rules was to try to offer things that were unavailable, or at least difficult to find, elsewhere. We were still selling a lot of new-old-stock items, but our suppliers were running out of the good stuff. And our growth meant that we had to look for stashes of hundreds, not dozens, of NOS parts. When we started going to Asia to visit factories I was surprised to learned that we were getting big enough to have many more of our own components manufactured. The focus of the company changed almost overnight; we went from looking for NOS stuff and being reluctant manufacturers to focusing on designing VO products.

I remember a few factory owners' skeptical looks when asked to make some of our early products. Who would buy roller hangers, or decaleurs, or 650b fenders? What sort of company was this VO? I'm sure our agent had to convince a few factory owners that we knew what we were doing, or could at least pay for our follies.

As the new products arrived we heard from more and more shop owners who wanted to stock them. VO Imports, our new sister company, was growing even faster than Velo Orange. Before long we had hundreds of dealers all over the world. Interestingly, we often sell VO racks and bars made in Japan to Japanese shops and VO components made in Taiwan to customers in Taipei.

In July 2008 we moved again, to two warehouses in the industrial section of Annapolis. Our new space was a few doors down from my former company, Chesapeake Light Craft. We also hired several more employees and suddenly had a staff of 11.

I'll write about the last couple of years in the next installment.


Anonymous said...

During the Great Recession, sells of quality bike frames, parts and accessories continue to climb. A long ignored market is recognized. Good job Chris and Merry Christmas!


Brian said...

I hope this story doe not end with the sale to QBP......

Sammy said...

QBP would not be interested in this stuff.

Anonymous said...

QBP recently started stocking a lot of VO products. They might be interested?

Midwest Bicycle Company said...

That would suck, since I don't have a QBP account. I'd hate for VO to be "Salsa"ed.