On a recent visit to the new Brilliant Bicycle Co. in Manhattan, I wondered if I might be glimpsing the future of designing and marketing bikes for the growing trend toward casual urban cycling.
Inside a Flatiron District office building, the light-filled room that serves as company headquarters resembles a tech start-up. It is sparsely appointed with modern furniture. Laptops and smartphones are where business gets done.
But the Brilliant Bicycles Hudson, in striking Laguna Blue, suspended on one white wall as if in a gallery, anchors this business venture in a decidedly more analog realm: That most humble (and romantic) of conveyances, the classic steel, diamond-frame bicycle.
Antidote to Overwhelming Options
In the cockpit of this trim enterprise are co-founders Adam Kalamchi (top photo, left) and Kane Hsieh, Harvard graduates who worked together in finance before they quit their day jobs to build a vertically integrated bicycle company. Kalamchi is a runner. Hsieh is the bicycle guy, counting ‘cross, road cycling and daily commuting among his past times.
They conceived Brilliant two years ago, with one aim: Making it simple to select, buy, assemble and maintain a bicycle for growing numbers of urbanites who choose this mode of transportation. They recognized from their own experiences as bike shop customers that a retail environment focused on sport and performance can feel intimidating to people who just want a great-looking and uncomplicated way to pedal around town.
“The bicycle industry is option-driven,” Hsieh says. “Imagine you want to buy a car and you have to pick a piston ring.”
The antidote to too many options? A line of elegant, reliable and affordable bikes that are easy to assemble and maintain and are backed by solid customer care. Brilliant’s e-commerce model calls for keeping prices, which start at $399 for a single-speed, down and parts value up by working directly with factories (vetted by Hsieh and Kalamchi for fair wages, good working conditions and sustainable practices), bypassing middlemen, and marketing and selling direct through the Brilliant website.
“Big companies can’t sell a bike for $400 because there are too many people along the supply chain,” Kalamchi says.
‘Design Objects’ with Ride-Ready Features
It all begins with design and engineering of Brilliant’s flagship bike, the Hudson, which aims to combine beauty with ease. It comes in six eye-catching, matte colors, in three frame sizes and with single-, three- and seven-speeds options.
“We treated these as design objects,” says Hsieh, who also studied design at Harvard and the MIT Media Lab. “We called on a lot of people in the fashion industry for the colors.”
The company partnered with a local hand-builder in the design of the diamond frame. City-ready features include internal hub gearing on the three- and seven-speed models; 32 mm tires for a smooth urban ride; generous frame and fork clearances to accommodate wider tires, racks and fenders; leather-look, vinyl grips and saddle; and thoughtful minutia like white cable housings. Accessories, including helmets, lights, bells, pumps and a basket, from a variety of brands, are sold separately on the site.
Even the mint-colored shipping boxes were subjected to design scrutiny. They are constructed of nine layers of recyclable cardboard for the steamship trip from the factory where the bikes are hand-assembled to the customer’s door. “The box creates a sense of excitement when it arrives,” Kalamchi says, hauling one out for inspection and standing on it to demonstrate its strength.
What Happens After the Box Arrives
In Brilliant’s reasoning, there’s little point in seeking to build a better bike if people remain intimidated by assembling or taking care of it. While the doorstep may prove the limit of the relationship between some online sellers and their customers, Brilliant is committed to helping get new owners out on the road quickly and safely. Instructions on the website, accompanied by photos and video, break down each step of unpacking, assembling and fitting the bike. Tools are included in the box, and there’s live chat via the website in case of a roadblock.
Hsieh and Kalamchi say they find that people not only experience a sense of accomplishment but also a closer connection to their bicycles when they assemble them with their own hands. Still, those who would rather skip the mechanical part or who need assistance with maintenance can pay for in-home, Geek-Squad-like service, which is available in New York City and Los Angeles, for now.
Building a Company and a Community
In advance of the the website’s opening for business on Monday, the company began building a customer base with a refer-a-friend promotion of the kind that’s more commonly seen in the world of tech launches. It enabled participants to earn free bikes for every 100 referrals. The partners say they gave away 200 bikes in 2 weeks.
Community-building continues with a Bike Month sponsorship in May in partnership with the advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives and in events to include bike building parties and group casual rides in New York City.
Could this customer-focused approach that more closely resembles the way people shop for everyday goods and services represent a new model for bicycle retailing? The market will decide. In the mean time, a friendlier and more accessible proposition for acquiring a bicycle for casual urban riding sounds pretty, well, brilliant.
Brilliant Bicycle Co., brilliant.co
Photos: Top two: velojoy. Others: Brilliant Bicycle Co.