Ventum made custom bikes direct-to-consumer (just in time for the pandemic)
2020 was a bad year for a lot of businesses, but for the bicycle industry, it was anything but.
With gyms closed and events canceled, people picked up cycling as a safe and socially distant way to get outside and exercise during the pandemic. But lots of new cyclists didn’t love the clunky performance and wobbly construction on the bikes that had been sitting in their garages for years. By summer of 2020 there was a huge surge in demand for new bikes. And for Utah-based bike brand Ventum, this came at just the right time.
Ventum moved to the state in 2019, looking for a place where they could recruit like-minded outdoor enthusiasts and raise some outside capital. According to Barrett Brandon, the brand’s CFO, they looked around the entire US before settling on the greater Park City area as the perfect home for their growing brand.
By summer 2021, they had 20 employees in the city and more job openings on the way as they rushed to keep bikes in stock and meet the demand of the growing bike market. Right from the outset, Ventum made astute partnership decisions to align themselves with the biggest brands and names in the sport, and offered direct-to-consumer value that has earned them a loyal and growing fan base.
Making direct-to-consumer bikes custom
It all started in 2015 when Jimmy Seear and Diaa Nour sat in a garage in Miami trying to make a better triathlon bike. Triathlon is a big market, but it’s also very brand loyal with a handful of established brands dominating sales of the futuristic aerodynamic machines favored by Ironman athletes. By contrast, Ventum’s tri bike, called the “ONE,” looked nothing like those established favorites.
Where most bikes feature a diamond-shaped frame bisected by a tube that holds the seat post and saddle, Ventum’s design looked more like a “Z,” with libs protruding off its main beam to support the wheels and crank. In a stroke of marketing genius, they partnered with Ironman in 2016 and got the blue-ribbon event of triathlon to recognize their bike as legal.
Road cycling tends to be pretty conservative, but triathlons are willing to embrace change if it can be turned into speed. Ventum just had to answer two key questions when getting involved; “is it fast?” and “Is it safe?” Testing in the wind tunnel with stringent safety and QC checks provided a positive answer to both questions, and by 2018 Ventum was Ironman’s global bike partner and a fixture on the multisport scene. That was the year they decided to make some big changes. Not only did they begin the process of relocating to Utah, they also launched their first non-triathlon bike.
Ventum’s direct-to-consumer model means that they can cut out some of the margin that’s normally made by a local bike shop. But this model makes it harder for them to overcome the lack of name recognition by offering test rides. Instead, they focused on key partnerships and great value. This meant building their bikes to order, exactly as the customer wants.
As Brandon explains, “we do domestic assembly―your bike is not built until after you order it. That allows us to have some flexibility on bar width and crank length. It’s assembled right here in Heber City and then sent direct to you.”
That flexibility proved key. Most large brands manufacture in Asia, just like Ventum, and then assemble bicycles there as well. This means customers don’t get much say in how the bike fits them and might mean they spend hundreds of dollars making it comfortable after purchase. Ventum, however, makes frames abroad then ships them to the US where they are fitted with components like cranks and handlebars that are picked by the customer at the time of order.
There’s no extra charge for this and it’s helped make the brand very popular. Brandon says that it’s this customer interaction that sets Ventum apart, “when you spend $5,000 on a bike, you shouldn’t have to pay to change the stem or the crank, and we wanted to give the customer that experience.”
Creating a model perfect for the pandemic
By 2020, the NS1 (the brand’s first road bike) was their most popular model. Triathlon is an extremely event-focused sport and with no races able to be held, very few triathletes were in the market for new bikes.
Unlike the Ventum ONE tri bike, the NS1 road bike used a traditional double-diamond design, as is mandated by road racing’s governing body the Union Cycliste Internationale. And unlike most brands, they released one frame and several different trim levels. “We didn’t feel the need to try and have 10 different frames in the same product line,” Brandon says. “Some companies love to release their halo bike and make their lower spec bikes look [like a] better value. But on the manufacturing side, the cost is almost immaterial. We wanted someone who ordered our entry-level frame to have that performance factor even if they are spending $3,500.”
Until the pandemic, Brandon found that “the barrier was reaching out and touching people and putting the focus on our product. Once people know about our brand, we have a very high retention rate and we pride ourselves on that customer experience.”
Luckily for Ventum, in 2020 touching people became extremely unpopular. Inadvertently, they had created the perfect formula for a bike company about to enter a pandemic. Riders could order and receive a bike without ever leaving their homes and risking infection, and they could even make the bike just right for them without trips to the mechanic or an online hunt for the right parts in an increasingly sparse market.
And the slimmed down product offerings made it easy to find the right bike for any budget. Add to this the fact that nobody was driving to work anymore and the roads were empty and safe and it’s easy to see why Ventum spent the last 12 months desperately trying to keep up with demand―and has seen more than 100 percent increases in road sales year-over-year.
The success wasn’t always easy to manage, soon enough the bike boom caused a global shortage of products like chains and brake pads. Brandon says that bike parts became increasingly hard to obtain, especially as a small but growing brand. “Some of our vendors went from 48 hours, to 9 months, and then to 12 months. We went from no inventory to having to hold inventory and scramble to get it.”
Luckily, domestic assembly came with some advantages. “We can pivot―if we get SRAM or Shimano we can promote that heavily, we have been to be a little bit more nimble than overseas assembled brands.”
The company also doubled its in-house bike-building team, mostly recruiting skilled mechanics from bike shops in the area.
Catering to a new kind of rider
Ventum moved to Utah in part to enjoy the fitness-focused community, and Brandon says it was important that staff had a chance to ride their bikes and realize just why so many people were begging to hand over their money for a new Ventum bicycle. “We provide employees who have been here more than three months one bike to ride. We realized somebody in the warehouse may not be able to afford a $5,000 dollar bike so we provide them with that. A lot of people [in the industry] get discounted purchases, but even at a discount 2-3 thousand dollars is a lot of money for people.”
Although Ventum could easily have sold every bike they had last year, “we have seen [the free bike scheme] pay itself back in terms of building community around here.”
Another thing that Ventum found in Utah is gravel roads, miles and miles of them. Gravel cycling, essentially riding bikes with road handlebars but wider tires that allow them to go off-road, has boomed in the last five years as more and more cyclists seek adventure rather than performance and want to steer clear of busy and dangerous roads.
In late 2020, Ventum launched its GS1 gravel bike to compete for the growing gravel market. They wanted to keep the focus on fast bikes that had rewarded them with their road and tri models and deliver the same value that had earned them a loyal and growing customer base.
At first, Brandon says that Ventum “was a little nervous as you get further from that core product.” After all, their brand had always been all about performance and the gravel bike scene is as much about drinking IPAs after a hard day on the trail as it is about setting PRs and sweating over hill repeats. But the gravel market really appreciated the value and race-focused geometry of Ventum’s GS1 offering and the company sold out of their value trim gravel bike a few days after launch. “In the gravel market specifically we have seen 60-70 percent new customers,” Brandon says.
Much of that success is thanks to targeted marketing. “We have been pretty aggressive in working with partners and events to ingratiate ourselves in that [gravel] sector,” Brandon says. This has included event sponsorships and advertising on Lance Armstrong’s “The Move” podcast. While Armstrong might be a controversial figure to some, recent cycling converts are less concerned with his emotional and medical baggage and instead remember his glory days as the last time they paid serious attention to the sport.
Ventum now offers a total of three bikes, with more on the way. Road, gravel, and triathlon are all unique markets, but with the cancellation of massive events, Ventum found that almost half of their early road sales were to triathletes looking for a second bike. Gravel bikes brought a new consumer to the brand and with their high retention rate, they’re hoping they can convert this into more sales once components come back into stock in early 2022.
Getting on the bike
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the brand succeeded. Building a brand on frames built in Asia at someone else’s factory is a common model in the cycling industry. All but one or two huge players have their frames manufactured by a third-party.
Where Ventum stood out from the glut of new brands is their savvy partnerships and single-minded focus on a slimmed-down and performance-focused line. Starting in triathlon, and partnering with one of the biggest brands in the sport gave them a springboard from which they’ve launched into massive growth and an established place on the direct-to-consumer bike market.
Like many bike brands, the next few months won’t be easy for Ventum. They’re fortunate enough to not have dealers calling them up and demanding stock, and their partnerships with big-name, third-party frame designers like Kevin Quan mean they don’t have an engineering staff to pay when they can’t build bikes they design.
Given that the product development time, from idea to final model launch for the GS1 gravel bike, was just 14 months, they can also respond quickly to new trends in the industry once bike parts come back into stock again. In the meantime, when they’re not struggling to keep up with demand, Ventum employees will be riding their bikes.
When I last spoke to Brandon, he had just completed a 200-mile gravel race―the brand’s CEO had completed the 100-mile event. After years of struggling to launch their brand and keep up with supply, Ventum’s workers are finally getting the time to enjoy the experience that caused the bike boom last year―enjoying a pedal down a quiet road leaving all thoughts of supply, demand, and stock levels behind.