By Martin Krautter.
The city bikes from Dutch brand VanMoof are easy to recognise by the thick top tube that transitions into the front and back lights. But there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. At VanMoof, design also encompasses the integration of the electronics and connectivity, the design of business processes – and ultimately the aspiration to change society as well.
Amsterdam’s red light district at night. Bicycles are parked on a busy street. Two young men approach; one takes out a cordless angle grinder and starts cutting open the lock on one of the bikes. The tool squeals, sparks fly – it’s the kind of scene that doesn’t go unnoticed, even in Amsterdam. But even when the police arrive, the men remain totally unfazed. They patiently explain to the officers that they’re Bike Hunters from VanMoof, out on a mission to retrieve a customer’s stolen bicycle.
It’s an astonishing scene that can be watched on You- Tube by searching for “VanMoof Bike Hunters”. And besides revealing a great deal about Dutch bicycle culture in general, it tells you a lot about young Amsterdam bicycle brand VanMoof in particular – especially its interpretation of design. When the first bikes were launched under this name nine years ago, bicycle buffs could still smile at the top tube with the diameter of an arm and dismiss it as one of the countless design variants that have cropped up in the course of the bicycle’s history, only to disappear again as quickly as they arrive.
But not only is VanMoof still here, it’s expanding too – with new products and its own distribution system consisting of an online shop and stores in major cities. It currently employs around 120 people all over the world, 50 to 60 of them at its Amsterdam headquarters alone. It would seem, then, that this is a different story altogether – and a thoroughly successful one at that. In an attempt to uncover its secret, we paid the company a visit at its headquarters in Mauritskade, a street in the eastern part of Amsterdam. It’s a tidy area with dignified school buildings, old trees and parks. The no-nonsense industrial building occupied by VanMoof, a former printing works from the 1960s, stands out – and not only because the brand’s name is emblazoned across the full width of the building. An atrium establishes a direct link between the bright and unpretentious flagship store and workshop on the ground floor and the offices in the upper storey. A close relationship with customers is evidently something that’s taken very seriously here. The display includes the current basic models of the VanMoof bicycle as a standard version, a Smart Bike or an Electrified S, i. e. a smart e-bike. Like the original VanMoof, they make a thoroughly minimalistic impression and feature the element the brand is best known for: a thick top tube with the front and back lights integrated into its ends.
Recognizability as a benchmark
Recognisable? Absolutely! Attractive? That’s a question of taste. But that doesn’t matter to Taco Carlier. “We’re really not interested in making the most attractive bike,” says the firm’s co-founder. That comes as something of a surprise, but it all becomes clear once he explains: “First and foremost, we want to design a business model that works. And that means eliminating the obstacles that currently discourage people from riding a bike in the city.” Even the company’s name hints at the goal Taco Carlier and his brother Ties have been pursuing since they founded the company together in 2009: Moof comes from movement – and they aim to establish a global one, no less. The typical Dutch particle “van” hints at how they picture it: an urban bicycle culture modelled on Amsterdam.
The problems that Taco Carlier wants to solve along the way include things like bicycle theft, which is as rampant in Amsterdam as anywhere else. “Fear of theft is one of the main reasons why a lot of people buy a cheap, poorly functioning bike, or at worst even a stolen one, instead of investing in a decent one,” says Carlier. The company’s approach to finding a solution goes far beyond pure product design. As well as the integration of wireless digital technologies that turn the bicycle into a smart bike, it also includes some innovative service offerings. Mobile communications play a key role: “The integrated lock on the Smart Bike and Electrified models opens automatically as soon as owners and their smartphones come within range,” explains the designer. The bike’s electronics contain a GSM module, i.e. practically a miniature mobile phone, as well as a Bluetooth module.
Finding bicycle thieves with smart technology
The owner can report the theft of his bicycle via an app. Only then is the bike tracking system activated – and the Bike Hunters mentioned at the beginning set to work. They start by locating the cell site the bike is within range of and then look for its Bluetooth signals, which can even penetrate the walls of a basement or apartment. This service is something VanMoof takes very seriously: the firm posts YouTube videos that document its Bike Hunters’ adventurous missions not just in Amsterdam but in Morocco and Rumania as well. The “Peace of Mind” guarantee makes a reassuring promise to buyers: if we can’t recover your bicycle for you within two weeks, you’ll get a new one.
VanMoof’s integrated design strategy, which covers everything from the product to related services, also includes operating its own distribution system. The company is verticalised, meaning it has its own sales channels in the form of online shops and a network of its own brand stores in major cities like San Francisco, New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Taipei and Berlin. It wasn’t always like that: “To start with, we wanted to sell our bikes via specialist retailers,” says Taco Carlier. “But it didn’t work out, the dealers couldn’t cope with the integrated components. They would have preferred to sell standard equipment that they could keep in stock, and they didn’t want to share the customer data with us, although that’s important when it comes to integrating smart functions.”
Now VanMoof sells directly to its customers, which allows the company to keep everything under its own control. Design, development and expanding to the world’s major cities costs a lot of money. So when it comes to financing, the company takes a two-pronged approach: in autumn 2017, Slingshot invested €4m of venture capital, and VanMoof raised another €2.5m through crowdfunding. As a result, its fans and customers have the chance to be part of a success story that also demonstrates how much design is capable of.
“Our goal is a bike with an integrated design”
An interview with Taco Carlier, co-founder of VanMoof, about smart bikes in major cities and designing an entire company around the product. Interview: Martin Krautter.
Taco, why are there all those boxes full of huge TVs out in the corridor?
Taco Carlier: Very funny! They’re full of bikes, not TVs. We had a problem with shipping, especially to the US. In a bad week, up to 25% of the bikes were damaged by the time they reached the customer. My brother Ties hit on the idea of printing television sets on the packaging: that’s something everybody handles with care. Now shipping damage is down to 1%. Design works!
You trained as a designer yourself, right?
I studied industrial design engineering at Delft University of Technology. The course gives just as much weight to aspects like the materials, engineering and production processes of consumer goods as it does to their actual design. So I actually come from a very technical background, although today I mainly attend to sales, marketing and design here in Amsterdam, whereas my brother takes care of the engineering, technology and assembly side of things in Taiwan, where the suppliers are. He’s a proper engineer; he specialised in vehicle technology.
You founded VanMoof together. How did you hit on the idea?
Ties and I were in New York. We rented bikes and realised that New York City could actually be a perfect city for cyclists. It’s relatively flat, it has fantastic scenery, Brooklyn Bridge … but we hardly saw anyone on bikes! That was nine years ago; happily, things have changed a bit since then. Even so: we got to wondering why people ride bikes in Amsterdam but not there. What would a bike destined for New York need to be like? That’s how the first VanMoof came about. We started integrating more and more functional elements into the frame, and the design just kept evolving with things like anti-theft features, an electric drive and so on, until we ended up with the smart connected bike we sell today.
I’m sure you’ve been asked to describe your design’s development hundreds of times. So let me put it another way: why do other bicycles all look the same?
It’s because of the traditional structures. Most bike manufacturers take a frame – in the past, one they’d welded together themselves, these days mostly one they’ve bought in – and attach components from their suppliers to it. Hardly any manufacturers develop parts themselves. If you want specially designed lighting, for instance, you have to be prepared for long negotiations with the lamp producer. Our goal is a bike with an integrated design – all the components are designed by us, so the product looks like a seamless whole and not just a pile of parts.
These days your design language is so distinctive that you largely dispense with conspicuous branding on the bike itself.
Precisely. It’s not an easy path to take because obviously every component you design yourself has its initial problems and teething troubles. There are plenty of bike parts that nobody’s put any thought into for the last 50 years. Tackling all that takes a lot of work and money. But it’s definitely the right way to go if you really want to set yourself apart from the rest of the market and finally get to grips with the problems that have discouraged a lot of people from riding a bike up until now. And it’s that broader perspective that appeals to us: we don’t just design the individual product, we design the entire company around the product in the same way that brands like Apple, Tesla or Sonos do. I see three big waves we can ride to get there. Firstly, people in the world’s major cities are discovering the benefits of cycling because of the catastrophic traffic problems they face as car drivers. Secondly, e-bikes are a genuine revolution and make it easier to commute by bike, even over greater distances, in hilly terrain or in hot regions. I tried it for a month in New York, and it’s amazing how fast you can get around with an e-bike. And finally, people are increasingly willing to buy things online – even bikes.
So how quickly will I get my VanMoof if I order it online?
Our goal is to be able to deliver within a day. Here too, we design the processes accordingly, and that has an impact right down to the technical design of the product. Let me give you an example: nowadays, if you buy a bike from a store, the price generally includes a check-up after three months. The chain is tensioned and oiled a bit, and a few screws are tightened. Very often the dealer will take the opportunity to sell you a couple of accessories while you’re there. That doesn’t make any sense in the online scenario. So we decided to make the check-up superfluous: we build automatic chain tensioners into our bikes, and all the screws are correctly tightened from the start because of our computer-aided production processes. We make our customers a promise: you can ride your VanMoof maintenance-free for the first two years – just get on it and off you go.
First published in the designreport edition 03/2018. Article picture: VanMoof Electrified X, © VanMoof.