In the southeast Netherlands is a province called Brabant, where there are more high-tech companies running successful businesses than anyone could possibly imagine would be hidden in such a rural environment. Eindhoven, and the villages that cluster around it, are a hotspot for tech companies. The area isn’t called Brainport Eindhoven for nothing, with renowned companies like Philips, world- leading chip machine supplier ASML and chipmaker NXP, just to name a few. Recently, the world’s biggest bicycle component maker Shimano opened their European headquarters in the area. It’s in this unique, tech-meets-rural environment that entrepreneur Joris Claessens and tech-head Pieter van der Marel founded Pilot Cycles.
Despite the fierce competition in the Benelux market, and the company’s use of the rather niche building material titanium, it saw near-immediate success. How did its team manage to achieve this?
“From day one, our goal was to make bikes that our clients wanted, not to make bikes that we wanted to sell to them,” explains Claessens. “This sounds like an arbitrary difference, but it is this dedication to our clients that made our business successful. For us, the only way to go was custom-build. And I mean really custom-build. Our clients choose their own geometries, tubing and parts. And if they encounter difficulties while deciding, we help them out personally.” “That’s key,” adds Van der Marel. “With some big brands, you’re just a number. At Pilot Cycles, a client is a fellow cyclist. Yes, they have to buy our bikes, we need to make a living after all, but basically we are all on the same level, enjoying cycling. Not just us, but our whole team.”
Just like any other bike company, Pilot Cycles produces its frames in the Far East. There’s nothing new there. But the way it handles its China factory is a prime example of how to build a successful business relationship overseas. “Our factory is the same one that we started out with five years ago,” Van der Marel tells us. “So yes, we like steady relationships. A good price is important, but a consistently high quality is even more so. And that’s exactly what we get from our factory. The fact that we have our own QC at the factory plays a major role. On top of that, we have QC here at the headquarters in Nuenen, as well as the engineering.”
“They’re great guys over there”, adds Claessens. “Due to the long-term cooperation, we have our own molds and our own tubing. And only senior welders work on our frames. That enables us to make titanium bikes that really stand out from the crowd.”
With so many companies going consumer-direct nowadays, we wonder what Pilot Cycles is up to. “Omnichannel is key,” says Van der Marel. “We do not believe in just one way or the other. Consumers should have the choice. Some like to purchase their bike online, others prefer a bricks-and-mortar shop. We offer both. We’d be crazy if we didn’t.”
Figures from Deloitte show that by 2020, almost 25 per cent of the total retail sales take place online and some forecasters predict that by 2030 online sales will account for between 30 and 40 per cent of all retail sales. Pilot Cycles also conducted market research in the UK themselves, surveying 300 respondents on whether they would consider buying a titanium bicycle online. The outcome of this specific question underlines the Deloitte forecasts – 60 per cent of the 300 respondents said that they definitely would consider buying a titanium bike online. That’s the reason why Pilot Cycles targets both markets. The market is not just clicks or bricks. And with smart and effective communication, Pilot Cycles is able to redirect a portion of the online buyers back to the shops.
And why take the bespoke route? “With made-to-measure bikes, a dealer can distinguish himself,” Claessens tells me. “He can show his expertise and craftsmanship, and stand out from the crowd. Of course, we support every Pilot dealer with our expert knowledge and we deliver our bikes ready to ride. And this fall, we’ll launch our new website with a really smart bike configurator that will support the LBS even more.” “We’re not dinosaurs,” adds Van der Marel. “The cycling industry is changing rapidly and we change with it.
So we use all the tools that are available to run a profitable business. That means the internet and social media are really important tools for us. But it also means, that we like to work together with dedicated shops that are just as passionate about cycling as we are. With passion, smart thinking and an open mind, you can still make good money in this business.”