Design and testing are the easy steps

What happens if your product becomes successful? Can you ramp up production to meet orders while still making a quality product?

Brian Riley and his team spent months designing a new braking system for bikes. This presented unique challenges, innovative thinking and a focus on safety. While his team understands that frequent iterations and feedback are necessary…making certain their product is safe to use is more important.

But those challenges were easy compared to manufacturing. Find out why.


Steve: Hey everyone, welcome to another episode where I interview a startup, hardware startup entrepreneurs and just kind of get to know their business and how they got started. So today we have Brian Riley of Slidepad, and he’s going to talk about his new hardware brake business. Thanks for joining us.

Brian: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Steve: My pleasure. So tell us, what is Slidepad. Give us the 30 second pitch.

Brian: Yes. So, Slidepad is a new braking system for bikes, and it’s for the casual or recreational rider. Basically, what it does is it prevents head over handle bar accidents from happening. So when people panic and they kind of grab onto both of their brakes, they have a tendency to lock up the front wheel and flip over the front of the bike, which is one of the most dangerous accidents that can happen on a bike. So we created a very simple solution to that problem, and Slidepad is a product that gets installed into the rear brake of a bicycle, and it uses the force of the rear wheel to actuate the front brake. So the rider only uses a single lever. So it’s like a car. You only have one braking input, and you can slam on it as hard as you can and the amount of front brake is actually done by the force of the rear wheel. So what happens is as your weight starts to pitch forward, the amount of front brake is limited so that you can’t get tossed off the bike.

Steve: Oh, very cool. So what inspired you to design and build this thing?

Brian: The way we started is my co-founder, Andrew, designed the original version of this for his own bike, and he kind of thought of the idea while mountain biking and made one for his bike and was riding around Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where we went to school. I saw this thing and I got really interested in it, particularly because my grandpa had been in a really serious head over handlebar accident. So while Andrew had had this thing on his own bike and didn’t really necessarily know where he was going to go with it, I thought it had a lot of commercial potential, and I was personally invested in it because of what happened to my grandpa.

So, we kind of teamed up. Andrew was a mechanical engineering student and I was a business student at Cal Poly, and we started working on this when we were at school and went through kind of a whole bunch of different prototypes and tested it a whole bunch. The product has evolved enormously since the early prototypes. So that’s kind of how it all started, and here we are today. We finally got to a product that actually really makes sense for the bike market, and now we’re starting to get it out into the market.

Steve: That’s very cool. So how many prototypes did you go through from, you know, the first one to what’s being manufactured now?

Brian: I don’t know if we have the official number, but I would say at least 10, probably 10 to 15 different prototypes, and there was probably, within those 10 to 15 different revisions, there were like 3 or 4 major kind of steps or breakthroughs that we took. So let me see if I can actually probably pull a . . .

Steve: I mean, so it’s easily dozens, right. It’s not like one or two. You constantly refine this.

Brian: Yeah, this is what the product is now. It’s literally this small. This is a brake pad and this gets inserted through the rear wheel. This brake pad can move. So as it comes in contact with the wheel, it makes contact with the wheel and it’s instead of like a normal brake pad just staying there, the brake pad slides forward and that sliding motion pulls on the front cable at the same time.

Steve: And you can pretty much install that on any bike.

Brian: Yeah. Yeah. So when we first started, it was kind of a big clunky thing with like a lever that pulled the cable and had a whole bunch of parts. Then it morphed into a brake arm that would get installed. It was a brake arm that would get installed, and then it had a sliding pad component to it. That was another breakthrough kind of, getting into a brake arm. And then the biggest breakthrough for us was getting it down to this small, where it’s just contained in the brake rod, because now it can get installed on pretty much any existing bike or any new bike that a bike manufacturer is specifying a new product on.

Steve: Nice. So where did you go to build these prototypes? Did your school have a machine shop? Did you . . .

Brian: Yeah. So that’s another thing that’s kind of pretty unique about us. Andrew is actually a very good machinist. When he was a sophomore at Cal Poly, he was basically learning how to use the machines, got really good at it, and he started machining parts for different companies and just kind of on the side and made a bunch of money doing that, and eventually, basically, bought his own machine. He had been borrowing machines before and making parts, and then he bought his own CNC machine, kept it in his garage at college. Then when we graduated, he moved the machine up to Palo Alto, where we’re based now. So we’ve got a pretty cool CNC machine in our office in Palo Alto, and pretty much all of our prototypes to date have been built on that. Every time we come up with a new idea or a different design, we’re making it within a couple of days on that machine and testing it so we can move really fast and have a lot of internal capability because of that.

Steve: That’s really cool. So I mean, that machine was actually affordable enough that one person could buy it and just stick it in their garage. It wasn’t like a $30,000 CNC machine.

Brian: Yeah. He got it secondhand. I think it was probably around twenty or twenty-five so it was, it’s still an expensive machine. But he was lucky enough because he, I mean I say lucky, but it’s lucky and also a lot of hard work. He got to be a really good machinist because he really loved working on the machines. So he was making parts all through college and just saved every penny and eventually bought his own.

Steve: That’s awesome.

Brian: Yeah.

Steve: That’s really cool. So how did you guys fund Slidepad? Just your own funds? Was this investors?

Brian: When we very first started, neither of us had very much money because we were in college. But when we were very first starting, it was some of our own funds, and then it moved to some friends and family started investing a little bit of money. Then we were really kind of running on a little bit of friends and family money through all this prototyping and stuff and didn’t really . . . we had a lot of interest from bike companies and stuff, but we didn’t really have a market ready product until we got down to this Slidepad form. And once we got down into the Slidepad form, we took a little bit of money from some angel investors and got some outside funding. So that’s kind of how the process has gone.

Steve: Okay. So what are some of the lessons learned that you’ve gained from all the prototyping experience? Obviously, your co-founder had a lot of machining experience. What are some of the things that you’ve learned going from neat idea prototype to manufacturable item?

Brian: Well, actually the prototyping thing is a huge thing. We’ve learned just how important it is to actually take something off a screen and make it and test it and use it and show it to people and get feedback and then adjust, adjust, adjust. Because, of course, like every time you make something, you kind of think oh yeah, this is it. But then you start showing it to people, and you learn like another thing to change, another thing to change and then you get to a point. For us it was a very clear breaking point of when we finally crossed the barrier to where then we started re-approaching bike companies that we already talked to. All of a sudden it was like, oh, this makes sense now. Let’s do it. Let’s tool up, let’s start moving.

So, I think one thing we’ve learned is like continue to build, continue to change, continue to improve, improve, improve, and we’re still doing that. I mean, now that we’re in mass production now with our first product and we’re already working on second and third versions with just small improvements that we found after this one, it’s like a process of continual improvement and a willingness to constantly adjust and change is a huge thing.

Steve: Really. So you’re just constantly, you build a version, you design a version then you build it then you test it, you get feedback, you take it and instead of trying to design it perfectly, you’re just let’s get it out there, let’s get feedback, just keep going really, really quickly.

Brian: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting with ours, a lot of the designing prototyping and testing, we didn’t have so much, we did a lot of internally and then would show bike companies and kind of see what they thought and then adjust, adjust. We couldn’t so much as get the brake out there into the market so early, because it’s a brake. So we have to basically, the difference between us and like a typical startup, for example an internet startup, is you can push software and see how people use and it can crash and it’s not going to kill anybody or anything. But for us, we had to spend quite a bit of time iterating and testing and refining and also making sure the thing is 100% safe before we ever got it to the market.

Steve: Makes sense.

Brian: Yeah. So a lot of the changing and stuff actually happened with the feedback loop that was coming from bike companies that we were talking to, rather than pushing the early prototypes onto a bunch of people’s bikes. So now we’re finally at the point where we can get it onto a lot of people’s bikes, and we’re on some rental fleets and a lot of bike shops are starting to put it on bikes and upselling bikes in the bike shop and stuff like that, because it’s finally at a point where it’s ready to be on bikes. But that’s one kind of interesting thing about our product is a lot of the adjusting had to happen not so much on actual people’s bikes.

Steve: The safety factor. You have to make sure that you get feedback but at the same time nobody gets hurt using it.

Brian: Exactly, yeah.

Steve: So, you mentioned something really interesting. So you actually approached the bike companies with this idea. Were you worried that they were going to steal it or take it? I mean, was that a concern at all?

Brian: There’s always that risk, but that was kind of a calculated risk that we were willing to take. We did file some patents on it, so we’ve got a little bit of intellectual property behind it. But we kind of made a decision early on that either we kind of approach this as being very open and kind of share what we’re doing very early and on our side move as fast as we can to reach a product market fit. Or we don’t and we kind of huddle up and don’t show anybody until we think we have a perfect product. But I don’t think we would have ever gotten there without the amount of feedback that we got. So, literally early on, when I was still in college, I was going to all the bike trade shows, Inner Bike and Euro Bike and showing like early prototypes, and what we learned early on was everybody thought this was a great concept and something really meaningful for the industry and we just had to figure out how to get it into a product form that was easily installable on bikes and was affordable and all that stuff.

Steve: Yeah. So was this one of those products that you just kind of explained it and people get it and they really like it, or they had to be educated and convinced that this really solved a need that they had?

Brian: The biggest thing, it’s actually hard to, like for example what I explained on this video, you can get it, but it’s actually hard to get sold on the product until you ride it on a bike. So almost every time we do any sales or go to a trade show or visit a bike company, we’re always bringing a bike. The time that people really buy into it and are sold on it is the first time they actually get on a bike and they start riding around and they can feel that the system feels very natural. It feels like it should. You can really control the amount of braking and then you can slam on it as hard as you can and you can lean all the way over the front of the bars and it’s very safe. You’re not going to have any kind of dangerous wheel lock up accidents. Once you can actually experience how that works on a bike, that’s the big selling point.

Steve: Yeah. So it’s like you can talk and talk and talk about it, but until they get on the bike and actually experience it, that’s when it actually clicks for them. They’re like, “Oh wow, I really need this. This is cool.”

Brian: Exactly. It’s kind of like you can talk about it and display on iPad 3, but until you actually see it, it’s like even though it’s a simple product, trying to explain how it works to people is kind of a little bit complicated. But then once you feel it on a bike, then it all kind of connects in your head.

Steve: So what are some of the other unique challenges that you faced as a hardware startup, as opposed to software startups don’t really have to worry about inventory and building things. You’ve been dealing with safety and products. What are some of those other hard parts, obstacles that you faced?

Brian: Yeah, well I touched on a big one, which was the fact that our particular product, the iterating and the feedback loop, we didn’t have the luxury to just push really early products out there because of the safety issue. The other big thing I would say is once you actually get customer interest, you’ve got to find out how to mass produce the thing and you’ve got to find sourcing. Unless you have some existing connections, you’ve got to just go find it, which is kind of what we did. We just literally flew to Taiwan and started like asking around. Yeah, that’s another thing like with software or something like that, you can just pretty easily push things out to people and nowadays scale pretty easily. But with a hardware startup, once you cross the barrier of like, when you start selling thousands of something, you’ve got to find a good manufacturer and somebody whose dependable. And we’ve gone through actually our share of little issues here in Taiwan. But now everything’s kind of running smoothly, but it took a lot of work to get to this point and it was a lot of, you know, you’re investing in tooling and you’re investing in trips overseas if you are manufacturing overseas. So that’s a huge barrier right now to hardware startups.

Steve: So really like design is one thing, testing another thing, and then manufacturing is a whole other ballgame. That’s a huge, huge separate issue.

Brian: Definitely. Definitely.

Steve: Do you think a lot of people just kind of forget that aspect of it? They focus on design and testing and getting feedback, but then once it actually comes to scaling it, they suddenly realize they have a big problem.

Brian: Yeah, I think that’s a big reason why you see a lot of big companies producing physical products and getting them on the shelf, and very rarely do you see small companies actually getting something on a shelf somewhere and getting it sold. It’s not that individuals or small companies have a problem designing something innovative or making something that’s really cool. I think the biggest barrier is the manufacturing and the distribution. These big companies are kind of entrenched and they already have the channels and they already have the suppliers and they’re kind of all connected. As a new company, you kind of have to break through all that barrier and somehow find a way to mass produce your product and make it well with probably people that you’ve never worked with before, which is a whole other challenge, and then finding distribution for it. The biggest challenge I think with hardware startup, at least from our experience, is not making a good product. Making a good product is hard, but it can be done. But the biggest barrier after you make a good product is getting it in people’s hands in a big way, and that’s a huge challenge, especially as a small company.

Steve: Point taken. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate your time, and have a great day.

Brian: Yeah, thanks, Steve. Take care.

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