Ten years ago, Isla Rowntree was appalled at the quality of children’s bikes. She decided to initiate the change herself and launched Islabikes. In the process she changed the market beyond recognition.
“I think, when I set out, I had a strong conviction that it would work,” Isla Rowntree tells BikeBiz from the Islabike HQ in rural Ludlow, Shropshire. Your trusty bike trade mag has been invited into the nerve centre of Islabikes on the occasion of the quality children’s brand’s ten year anniversary. A decade after creating the company and changing the market almost single-handedly, Rowntree is casting her mind back to those early days for the benefit of BikeBiz.
“There was a perception change. We were asking people to spend double the amount on a children’s bike and I was sure it could be done.”
Rowntree was entrenched in the world of bikes before she started Islabikes, having worked in bike shops and – of course – being a multiple British National Cyclocross champion. Having a small frame, Rowntree was no stranger to the idea that a bike suited to your size makes all the difference to your cycling. So how did she end up launching a children’s bike brand?
“I had no particular interest in designing kids bikes. I got to an age where relations and friends were having kids and as happens when you are into cycling, they ask you – the perceived expert – buying advice on what bike to get for their kids.
“It made me research the sector and I was just appalled. Kids bikes were incredibly heavy, they had far more gears than were necessary and multiple chain rings. They just bore no relation to the riding kids did. Cranks were long, brakes were hard to reach…”
In short, there were no bikes on the market that Rowntree felt happy to recommend to friends. “These bikes were not something I had wanted my friend’s children to experience.”
While seemingly small details, getting components like brakes right for children is absolutely key, Rowntree explains: “Braking affects the confidence of the rider. It makes a huge difference and affects the way that you ride. It makes the most difference to a less confident child.”
At this pivotal moment for Rowntree and the kid’s cycle market, the CX champ was working for Halfords. Surely that retail powerhouse would have been the perfect vehicle for her new quality-focused kids bike brand?
“No one thought that customers would spend that much on a kids bike. I wanted to get on with the bikes and not have to win that argument all the time. A big commercial company is always going to look for a compromise on price. I didn’t want that design compromise.” And so Islabikes was born. The firm has grown from six people in 2009.
It’s not all been plain sailing. In the early days, before the firm had more financial muscle, Rowntree had to spec components available in the market, but over time refinements were made, processes were streamlined and the company has had a virtually uninterrupted period of year-on-year growth. Frustratingly, at one point the company struggled to keep up with demand from overseas.
“The UK is our biggest market but Europe is significant,” Rowntree explains. “We had a period about three years ago where we hadn’t even thought about selling outside the UK, but people just started ordering from Europe – it grew organically with no marketing. In fact the growth was romping ahead and we couldn’t keep up with demand.
“Everyone here has had a lot of training and to scale up quickly would mean compromising the bikes and compromising our service, so we made a tough decision to stop retailing in Europe. We has a lot of reaction and there was some bad feeling, but we didn’t want to compromise on the bikes or servicing.”
Now the firm has more trained staff and thanks to a shifty look at one of the order books and we can confirm a substantial number of orders are heading out to Europe. And as Rowntree points out, the EU is the perfect place for Islabikes –a mature market where customers routinely expect to pay for a quality bicycle.
It won’t have escaped your attention that Islabikes retails direct to customers, cutting out retailers and distributors (and therefore most of our readers), but if you’re holding a grudge it is worth remembering that the brand has been a game/market changer and now, ten years after it first started blazing a trail, the rest of the market is catching up with the concept of quality kids bikes.
Rowntree has a perhaps unexpected reaction when BikeBiz raised the point that is now has many more competitors than a decade ago. “I’m really excited about it. There wasn’t a sector for quality kids bikes when we launched so we’ve expanded this area.” The brand boss believes that the limit has not yet been hit for quality kids bikes and the price threshold can expand still further. “The competition keeps us on our toes.”
Perhaps the impending anniversary prompted some commercial soul searching, but either way the firm has seen some organisational changes of late, including the installation of financial director Ed Moseley last year. 2015 also saw the firm introduce an impressive 90-day returns policy.
It’s not just intensely trained mechanics putting the bikes together in Ludlow, the sales staff are well trained too. “We can fit a bike perfectly over the phone,” Rowntree says. Despite that, the temptation to drop in on the Ludlow showroom has proven too much for some customers, even based as far away as Germany. Though the humble firm is quick to add that they were combining the trip with a holiday, that’s still an impressive reach for a brand that’s a mere ten years old.
Islabikes is keen to do the right thing for staff. It’s a Living Wage employer and one of the staff perks is a custom made bike, designed by Rowntree herself and then forged by the in-house frame builder, Robert Burns. Having that facility in-house means the firm can tinker with concepts that can then filter into the range.
After pestering Rowntree, BikeBiz is shown how one of the experienced mechanics checks and gets a bike ready for dispatch direct to a consumer. The bike is left with the bare minimum for the consumer to do and the method at Ludlow has been fine tuned so each bike goes through a specific, lean and consistent procedure. The workstations are on wheels, so the warehouse and workshop floor plan can be modified depending on what is required and how much stock is in. Even packaging, all too often an after thought, has been refined to the nth degree. The factory packaged bikes up with a specific number of staples for the minimum of fuss when it has been delivered. That level of consistency would be, the firm says, difficult to control if it used distributors or retailers – every bike leaves Ludlow in the same, ready-to-go state.
The list of companies – new and old – that have grown into the space Islabikes created in the children’s bike market is extensive and likely to keep growing. Isla Rowntree herself is pleased this is the case and that the bike market is now treating the children’s bicycle sector with the respect it deserves.