The 2021 Flow State MTB Festival was a blast. Three days of riding awesome trails and meeting a lot of nice people. It was our first foray into being at an event in a while (even net of the season-plus long COVID pause in events) and we had a bunch of observations and learned a bunch of stuff, about which I will ramble with no particular organizational framework.
This was a mountain bike crowd. We'd expected more of a "general bike" crowd but this was pretty tight around the mountain bike crowd. I'd guess that a lot of the participants have an old road or cross or something bike rotting away in the corner of the garage, but they ride mountain bikes. The old NEMBAFest was a little bit this way, but much less so. This was a really dedicated "ride trails, have fun" crowd.
Our name/brand recognition with this crowd is horrible. Several existing customers came through, and some people had heard of us, but the vast majority of conversations started from a "who are you and what do you do" basis. This led to a bunch of productive (though through the prism of strong Vermont beers, which adds an element) conversations between us about how our brand could do more to help introduce and explain us and what we do. Because of the name, we present either as a shop or as a bike company, which confuses people. Thanks to SEO and our Google assets, it's really a bit late to make a wholesale change on that, but we can tune it to present as more "wheel forward."
Part and parcel of the "present as a shop" thing is the people ask "and where are you out of?" which, as many readers of this would know, a funny thing. Mike's answer - "really, we're on the internet" - is the most accurate answer. There was some bonus from having a Vermont base, but it's not like anyone's going to come to the shed and have an enlightening retail experience. And Newport isn't set up for that either, it's just a functional place that's usually a mess with things coming and going. You'd have to be in a fairly magical place to have enough local mass to make a physical shop make a lot of sense with what we do, and since everything we build is personalized and built to order, it's not like someone's going to come in and walk out with a set of wheels. We could become a retail shop with a heavy focus on wheels, but neither of us particularly wants to do that. And by "particularly" I mean at all whatsoever. We're happy to lean into the internet thing because if we're not in any particular physical place, then YOU don't need to be in any particular physical place to get the most out of us.
That said, we do have some rebranding in front of us. Getting the "wheels" part front and center is the first target, but also doing better than the "custom hand built" story, too. "Custom" doesn't readily explain its value, and "hand built" implies that just being built by hand is better. We 100% believe that a wheel must be hand built to be the best it can be, but covering all hand built wheels with the same blanket is a miss - there are some absolutely horrendous "hand built" wheels out there. So the "custom" part has to speak to the value proposition of a wheel that's built explicitly for you ("personalized" is an early leader) while the "hand built" part has to differentiate with an expertise component ("craft" is the early leader here).
There was a lot of banter around the booths about product availability, and it's bad. Solace Cycles (excellent guys), who we were next to (and who are probably going to sell a bike to Mike), have had bad troubles getting brakes and saddles. Supposedly there's a looming bearing shortage, which isn't going to be good for anyone. This all makes a difficult business proposition difficulter. How we all deal with it is going to be fun to see.
From the "what people were riding" desk, dual suss in the 140mm-ish travel range seemed to dominate. I was probably the only person there without a dropper post. About 70% of people seemed to have Maxxis Minions, and a similar percentage had Industry Nine hubs, many of them with alloy I9 rims. Alloy rims had a HUGE edge over carbons, and a lot of people we talked with are still pretty hesitant around carbon rims, fearing fragility.
Display-wise, we had a ton of rims and hubs there, and a few built wheels. For future similar endeavors, even if it's painfully painful to build a bunch of wheels just to show them and then tear them back down to free the components for other build configurations, showing wheels is the way to go. A big display setup of various wheels tells the story. It seems too big an ask for people to make the mental journey from components to fully built wheels. The impression a lot of people brought up to the booth was "you guys sell hubs and rims?" when really... no, not at all. I mean yes, we do, but what we sell and why we exist is the knowledge of getting you the best component combinations for your purpose, and then executing the build. We're a service company.
People really dig the oil slick finished hubs.
Points of engagement is a huge buzzword (see what I did there?) for hubs. Louder hubs are perceived as better and more expensive. A few people responded well to the Onyx hub silence (and to the absolutely instant engagement) but the general theme is that loud hubs are premium hubs and you want to have loud hubs.
Last, I have to give a shout out to this mint vintage Fat Chance Yo! Eddy that we saw on Friday. What a cool bike. I thought I would have been about 10 miles away from where this thing was made, when it was made (Somerville, MA, early 90s) but it was built a couple of years after I graduated so, not so. Anyway, it was super super cool.
So, a good time was had by all. Riding with Mike for the first time since forever was great, Keith led us on a great group ride and showed us a bunch of stuff that we tried to kill each other on the next day, and we're looking forward to the next something like this that we get to do.