Word of mouth is not a marketing strategy. I still get a kick out of looking at some of our early pitch decks. I remember standing in front of a group of angel investors and uttering something like, “mountain bikers ride with other mountain bikers. I’m sure word will spread.” I can’t believe I just typed that out.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Devin Carlson, co-founder of Archer Components. Devin began his career in education but always had an entrepreneurial mindset which led to starting a number of ventures with his long-time friend and business partner Brandon Rodgers. Archer Components is the latest and most successful of those attempts and evidence that early failures can teach the skills for later success.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’ve always been fascinated with building and taking apart devices to learn how they worked and what made them fail. Throughout my life I’ve been an avid cyclist and have spent many hours in the saddle of all sorts of bikes. When the opportunity came along to build something for bicycles I couldn’t wait to jump in.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I had been living and working in Ecuador for 5 years and living a very mechanical life. I didn’t have a smart phone, I spent tons of time working on a small organic kale farm, driving a 1986 Land Cruiser, and riding hard tail bikes with v-brakes that were easy to fix without access to replacement parts. When my family and I returned to California in 2015 we met up with Brandon’s family for Thanksgiving and he showed me the first version of what would become the D1x. I thought to myself, “this is the dumbest idea ever!” I mean, why would anyone want to complicate their simple mechanical bike drive-train with something electronic?
But then I rode it and from then on, I was hooked. The ease and precision of electronic shifting, even on that first version, duct tape and all, was mind blowing. I realized that I had been massaging my bikes into the gear for so long that I had grown accustomed to that as just part of riding a bike. Here was a way to get a high-performance drive-train without dropping $10,000 on a top of the line bike outfitted with Shimano Di2 or SRAM eTap. The idea made sense, the application of the technology seemed clear cut, at that point it was all about the execution of the plan.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I definitely can’t say I’ve completely overcome this challenge. I think one of the keys to our success has been to allow for failure along every step of the way and to not get flustered by it. Sometimes when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them that I make mistakes. I even printed out some business cards as a joke that said, “Devin Carlson, Chief Mistake Maker.” The failures and mistakes allow us to learn quickly and adjust constantly. We’re a small team and the mindset in the company is such that there is no “right way” to do things. We hack stuff together, we build using the tools available, we make things up along the way. And all that allows us to be quick and nimble now that we’re moving through production and fleshing out our product line.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Nothing is immutable and therefore it’s important to realize that we have the ability to adjust our situations to allow for the hobby to grow into something more sustainable. Go to 80% at your “real job” and use that extra day to build out the business case for your hobby.
Also, finding out customer interest is cheap today. It’s so easy to set up a website or Instagram account to see if this hobby has market potential. Take those small steps towards making your hobby a business and see how it feels. For some it may be a perfect fit, but for others making money off a hobby might feel totally wrong. It’s all about personal preference but you’ll never know unless you take those first few steps in that direction.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
We’ve been able to keep this project fun by building a team of folks who are passionate about what we’re trying to build. When things get hard it’s helpful to have your team ready to keep the momentum going even if you’re at wits end.
Another thing we do to keep having fun is to always spend time on our bikes. We have three core values:
- Nothing is ready until it’s been trail-tested.
- Take time to be with your family and friends.
- Treat the customer how you wish to be treated.
The first one is key to keeping things fun. Whenever we have any type of update we absolutely have to put it on our bikes and get out on the trail to test it. I don’t just mean a lap around the parking lot because that’s not where bugs show up. Bugs appear when you’ve been struggling up a long hill or after riding for three hours in the heat or damp.
The second value helps keep things in perspective because it is so easy to get consumed by our work and forget that we have a life outside of the workshop.
The third value helps us stay connected to the customer. Who doesn’t like good service? Who doesn’t like to give good service? When customers are excited about the service and support we provide it gives our team a major boost. We print out emails from happy customers and post them on the walls of our office as a reminder. I think that goes a long way in maintaining a connection with why we’re doing this job.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I think the best part is that I can choose my own pace and decide for myself when I need to slow down, go for a ride, and take a breath.
The downside is that at the end of the day there’s only one person who’s going to take on those hard tasks and cross them off the list. So when you’ve got a small team sometimes the leader has to step up and do the late night assembly sessions in the shop so the 60-unit order can ship out the next morning.
I try to keep my life in perspective and realize that what I get to do is 100% amazing. I am so lucky to be in this situation where I get to work on a project that I am super passionate about and solve challenging problems every single day
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I recently updated my resume for a grant application we’re preparing and had to summarize what I do on a daily basis. I was blown away by the list that I created and I never thought that I would be in charge of so many different tasks in any given day. I’ll edit product photography, pick up the phone to talk with a support request, optimize our advertising keywords, and then drop boxes off at the post office. I guess I thought that there would be more delineation between jobs in the office but we all kinda do a little bit of everything.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Tears and beers. Just a few months ago I received a string of bad news events from many facets of my life and business. Everything from taxes and tariffs to a confusing firmware bug to issues at my kid’s daycare. I remember sitting on the back porch distraught by the seemingly endless blows I was taking and kept wondering how to get through it all. I kept thinking that it would be so much easier if I just had a “real” job.
In the end I took a few breaths and spent time thinking about what my situation would look like with a real job and came to the realization that it wasn’t the job that was causing these problems. The low point was actually better because I had the flexibility to work my way out of the hole. There’s something about trying to solve hard problems that makes you realize that so many problems can be solved if you have the ability to re-frame them. Oh, and a beer that evening really helped too.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The list is long but here’s one that comes to mind. The very first package we sent out, our very first sale, ever, got returned by the postal service for incorrect lithium-ion battery labeling on the package.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We’re pretty excited to be building products that allow folks with physical differences still participate in cycling. Anyone with a range of motion issue in their wrist, or a degenerative disease like MS, or missing limbs and riding in a hand-cycle can benefit from the ease of use of our shifter. We’re building products specifically for folks who need an easier way to shift gears on their bikes. And they’re stoked to have the opportunity to get back out and ride again. How rad is that?!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Water is really hard to deal with. We’ve definitely taken our lumps trying to perfect the waterproofing of the D1x shifter. In the end it’s more about acceptance that water will find its way in and not about 100% prevention in the first place. If I had known that water was going to be an eventuality despite our best efforts I could have saved a ton of time.
- Years 2–5 are lonely as can be. I heard this one a few months ago at a startup seminar. Basically the first 2 years are super fun and exciting but then companies can enter the long lonely stretch where the product is out on the market but maybe the growth isn’t as exponential as the early models predicted. It’s an important time to remember to be true to the company values and keep pushing forward to more widespread acceptance in the market. This is especially true for products that are fundamentally different to how an industry has operated in the past.
- You’ll get tired of wearing your own company’s logo. When my now 2-year old started to talk and he would point to our logo on shirts, hats, stickers, etc. and would say “dad dad!” I knew I was spending a little bit too much time in Archer Gear. It’s cool at first, but sometimes you get a little tired of wearing the same logo shirt every day.
- Word of mouth is not a marketing strategy. I still get a kick out of looking at some of our early pitch decks. I remember standing in front of a group of angel investors and uttering something like, “mountain bikers ride with other mountain bikers. I’m sure word will spread.” I can’t believe I just typed that out.
- Don’t be afraid to start from scratch. Our first attempt at building the D1x incorporated an electronic design that was flawed from the start for a variety of reasons. I kept pushing forward with the design thinking that it was just a matter of voltage, or power supply, or radio interference, or something! Eventually we scrapped the design and started from scratch. It made all the difference in the world. Development was quick and we were running a stable version of the firmware in no time.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I really just want to see more people on bikes. All the neighbor kids on my street ride bikes nearly every afternoon and it is such a wonderful thing. The freedom that kids experience with a bike is unlike any other toy/device/gadget. I love that my kids both ride bikes. I love that my wife rides bikes. We ride to school, we ride to work, we ride everywhere. We have a lot of bikes. But we have so much fun with them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of our advisors took me out to dinner the night we made our very first sale. Half of me was elated about reaching that milestone but the other half was completely freaking out about all of the ups and downs and twists and turns. Heck, I had a 3-month old at home, what was I doing starting this company? He raised his wine glass and with a tap to mine said, “you’ll remember this night in 10 years and you’ll only think about how much fun you had. The stress will seem inconsequential by then”
We can get pretty wrapped up in the moment sometimes so I often try to think back to what I was doing 10 years ago to remember my mindset back then. What were the big issues I was trying to tackle then and how much smaller do they seem now. From there I remind myself that in 10 years, I’m going to think back on today and probably laugh at the inconsequential things I was stressed out about today.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to get a chance to talk with Mike Sinyard, the founder of Specialized Bicycles. I’ve heard so many stories about what a complete character he is and how he has about a million different ideas before breakfast. I’d love to get a chance to talk with him and hear where he thinks the bike industry is heading. But more importantly I want to pitch him on the idea of integrating our electronic shifting into their electric bikes!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.