Bike power without the pedals
By Gerrit Wiesmann
Published: July 9 2008 03:00 | Last updated: July 9 2008 03:00
The first time two-year-old Niklas Mertens climbed on his father's handmade plywood version of a children's bicycle and took a ride he attracted a good deal of attention.
"People just gaped," says Rolf Mertens, then a designer for a computer magazine, remembering the sight of the toddler wheeling about in a pedestrian zone in Aachen, Germany. "They had never seen a two-year-old zip around like that." Niklas's mother, Beate, says: "He got on and took off. He only stopped for meals and sleep."
The husband-and-wife entrepreneurs knew they had found a winning idea that spring day in 1997. By summer they had named their fledgling company Kokua (a nonsense term from Mr Mertens' youth that he later learnt means "help" in Hawaii) and by October they were making the Like a Bike - a pedal-less wooden two-wheeler that sparked a revolution in the market for children's bicycles.
Their manifesto was straightforward. Instead of putting toddlers on chain-driven bikes with stabilisers, parents should introduce them to the tricky art of balancing using a bicycle that asks riders to push along with their feet and free-wheel when they can.
Demand for this type of children's walking bike has become so big that bike-makers such as Germany's Puky and Kettler as well as some big retailers have buried their initial scepticism to make models of their own - causing more than a few problems for the Mertens family.
German inventor Karl Drais had first thought up an adult version, known as the "draisine" or "dandy-horse", in 1817. Its rebirth as a children's craze began in the 1990s, when the German Bicycle Club began advising members such as Mr and Mrs Mertens to take the pedals and crank off a kid's bicycle rather than fit stabilisers in order to teach children how to balance.
Instead of messing about with mucky, stubborn bicycle parts, Mr Mertens reckoned he could just do what Drais had done - build a bike himself. An industrial designer, he was also a member of a local woodworking club.
"Woodworking had always been more than a hobby," he says. "I had always been looking to make something we could market properly." After past experiments with everyday objects such as salt and pepper pots, he had come up with something novel.
Mr Mertens is proud of his ingenuity, but says he made one mistake. "I was in a hurry and I didn't think of filing a patent on certain technical solutions. Once we were on the market it was too late." The oversight would return to haunt him seven years later.
For a while all went well. Mr Mertens quit his job and his brother, Alfred, was so taken with an early prototype presented to his son that he joined the husband-and-wife team. He later gave up his job as a teacher to work for Kokua full-time.
In September 1997, the trio used their savings to provide the then-statutory minimum capital of DM50,000 to register Kokua as a limited company. They have since borrowed only once, to secure bridge financing.
Their next problem was to find a supplier capable of making the Like A Bike's wooden parts, bevelled edges and all. Only one, a woodworking company in east Germany, dared take on the challenge - but even it had doubts about its ability to meet Mr Mertens' tough criteria.
"We had booked adverts in a German trade magazine for October, November and December," Mrs Mertens recalls. "The first ad had run, the first dealers were faxing us orders, but we still didn't know whether we would get the parts we needed."
As orders piled up, the east German supplier came through. It and the suppliers of the wheels and the tyres began to courier parts for 20 to 30 bicycles to the Mertens' Aachen flat every week. That Christmas they sold 200.
"By 1998 we were making about 100 bikes a week," Mrs Mertens recalls. "It was not very cosy living among all those parts and boxes. Everything that got delivered had to be hauled up to the third floor, and every completed Like A Bike had to be taken back down again."
A year later the company moved to the first of two sites in Roetgen, Mrs Mertens' home town. "In 2003, demand exploded," she says. "Word of mouth about our product had hit a critical mass."
That year Kokua produced up to 700 bikes a week, mainly for Germany. The Mertens will not disclose revenues but at such an output, with an estimated wholesale price of about €100 ($160) per bike, annual revenues would be heading towards €2m.
Soon after the launch, US retailer Toys R Us tried to woo Kokua with an order but was refused. Mr and Mrs Mertens felt distribution via specialised bike retailers was the only way to ensure service quality and premium pricing.
Competitors presented another problem. In 2004 discount supermarkets began copying their ideas, even using wood. "In 2005, our sales dropped," Mr Mertens says. "We were making no more than 200-500 bikes a week. The whole experience was very hard for us, not just financially. Should we retaliate?"
They sued and settled one case out of court and won another "three or four", as German competition law to some degree protects innovative ideas even when they are not patented. "Patenting certain elements of the construction would have been a real help," Mr Mertens says. But, as the legal bills neared €100,000, the Mertens saw they could not defend Kokua forever by going to court, especially in foreign jurisdictions.
In 2005 they set about diversifying their range, which now includes six models, and started an export drive using foreign partners - Switzerland, the UK and the US are their biggest markets. Today two-thirds of the 450 bikes made each week are sold abroad.
Mr Mertens says he still gets e-mails from China in which local manufacturers show off their walking bikes and ask whether Kokua would like to co-operate. Amazon.com sells a look-a-like for €40 - which is €110 less than Kokua's original.
But he has become more sanguine about the issue. "We haven't returned to 2003 sales levels," he says. "But we're doing well." He has even started to take on bigger rivals with a metal Like A Bike - and his first pedal-bike may follow.
Freewheeling woodworking enthusiast goes with the grain
Rolf Mertens used his experience as a designer and woodworking enthusiast to create a distinctive, sleekly stylish children's bicycle.
Two pieces of rounded plywood make up the main frame of the Like A Bike. Seen from above, they form an A-shape that wedges a wheel at the back, a saddle in the middle, and slots into the forks at the front. Mr Mertens, a cycling fan in his 40s, admits to being a fan of the simple, angularfurniture of Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen and Finnish contemporary Alvar Aalto, both adept with wood.
Using wood instead of metal was an "obvious choice", Mr Mertens says. He could easily buy and work the material himself - although he soon outsourced the cutting of the wood as his artisanal production line was too slow.
Today, the wooden bike is assembled by employees of Kokua, the company set up by Mr Mertens, in a plant in Roetgen, near Aachen.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008