Going niche is a great strategy for small businesses that are starting up and looking to gain a competitive advantage. It has its advantages and drawbacks, but if a company manages to get the most out of the benefits, the negatives can be ignored.
We had the privilege of interviewing Reid Hemsing, CEO of Two Wheel Gear, a Vancouver, CA-based company that has designed a unique line of bags for carrying suits while biking to work. Two Wheel Gears has managed to market the niche product in a very successfully way receiving the “Best Marketer” award at the Small Business BC Awards.
How did it all start? How did the idea of designing bags for carrying suits while riding a bike come up?
It’s kind of a long story. It started, actually, a lot longer ago than you would think. It originally started in 1999 with two guys who kind of invented the idea of these bike suit bags. I met them in 2009. Then, I was going to university and I was the vice president of kind of a business club and it started as kind of a marketing project with them on this really cool homemade product. It was just a suit bag at that time.
After a certain point, as we were building it, I needed to have something invested in it. We basically worked out the idea and decided we could actually build a really nice product and sell it to more people, but we were very grassroots at the start. Basically, in 2010 I kind of took it over and took on the whole company and started building and designing the bags in my basement. We just started this little ecommerce store online and were shipping bags to people. Customers that were in my city, I would deliver the bags at lunch hour and meet them in front of their offices, so it was really grassroots that way.
But it wasn’t until 2014 when the company really started. I gathered all this feedback over the last few years and what was on everybody’s wishlist was the new product so I decided to quit my job, moved to Vancouver and started Two Wheel Gear as my full-time company. That’s how the company really started. From there, it took on a little bit of its own life and we got into some bigger retailers and kept building our reputation and our actual brand.
You said you gathered feedback from your first customers. How did you get that feedback?
Yeah, any customer that we would ship a bag to, we would always try an engagement email dialog about what they liked about the bag.
A lot of this feedback actually came from that early adopter group that was very passionate about giving their feedback about our super-niche product, on how much they loved it, wanted to change this or wish it had this. I’ve always done this. Now, I keep a running design document in Evernote on each one of our products. Every time I get an email, I read one of the reviews or I get any suggestion for something, I always take it and I just add it into this ongoing Evernote document. Then, when it comes to the time I need to redesign, I go through all of the feedback and figure out what is good to put into the new model for the next year. I’m always kind of collecting that feedback and putting it into the products.
You’ve recently received the Small Business BC Awards’ Best Marketer award. What makes your marketing strategy outstanding?
I think we’ve done some kind of marketing no other real cycling company—or not a lot of cycling companies—really use. I would say the main thing that got us a lot of attention is that we did two really cool marketing campaigns. The first one was that we sponsored a local Vancouver athlete. She was a skier that competed in the Olympics for skiing before and she was just trying to make a transition to cycling. Before she made the Olympic team or anything like that, we sponsored her and helped her get to the next level. Then, we made a really awesome video with her that kind of suddenly launched one of our products. We did a big campaign around her switch from skiing to cycling called “Go Georgia Go” (the athlete’s name is Georgia Simmerling).
Her team went on to win the bronze medal in Rio and that was kind of a good kickstart to our campaign. This is how we started a Facebook campaign and an engagement campaign that got people picking up our stuff. Doing that with Georgia Simmerling in a low-branded way, we got a lot of news outlets that picked up our video and shared her story, so we got a lot of free, earned media. We learned that you have to be different and create these kinds of really good high-quality videos. This is how you can get noticed online. From there, we took a bigger step and what really got us more attention, especially for the award, was a viral video campaign we launched on social media.
When I was starting the company and I was in the changing rooms, I’d always have middle-aged guys who were at the shower and—when I pulled my suit out of my bike bag—I just had these guys in a towel asking me about my bag. So, I wrote this two-part script about these middle-aged guys in the changing rooms at the office that were talking about the one guy’s “bike bag.” It was a comedy kind of piece. Good comedy is really hard to find on marketing and advertising and it’s really risky to do, but if you can do it well it’s the most viral type of marketing.
So, we hired those actors and acted out a scene based on my experience in the backroom and when we launched the videos and were launching our products, we did a huge push. We gave away some big prizes, had some really good partnerships. We really had a good strategy for using our landing page on outbounds and driving people to any one of our social channels. You can see that a lot more now, but I think there weren’t too many companies doing it the way we were doing it at that time, where every way to enter to win this new bike, and this new bag and this new set up had to relate to sharing our content out there. It was really good content, so we had a really nice snowball effect. We really got out there really well and that was what really made, I guess, our award. They talked a lot of us taking risks.
What makes your company/product different from your competitors?
I think we don’t really do what traditional cycling companies do. Technically, our stuff is all for bikes, so in some way we are a cycling company, but I don’t really think of ourselves as a cycling brand.
“Biking to work” is the activity that we are serving and we are serving this niche group of people that are biking to work, so we don’t try to be everything for cycling. We just focus on one aspect so we are all about this person that is biking to and from their office, what they need to bring with them and what is the perfect bag for just that activity. So our bags don’t really look like other bags for cycling nor function like them.
Also, all the way through to our SEO and keyword strategy, it’s all about biking to work. If we were just trying to compete on cycling bags… it’s really tough for a small company to do that. With that kind of niche product you know you’re going to be right near the top or the top search result for that. So, our SEO strategy is all related to biking to work, it’s not just generalized cycling type of keywords. So we don’t think of ourselves as a full cycling company but as a life start company that’s for people biking to work, essentially. We can just be in a niche or we can kind of dominate that niche and then we can start to broaden from there.
As you’ve told me, you focus on a very specific target (people who commute to work by bicycle and need to carry their suits). What are the advantages and drawbacks of going niche?
The advantage of it is that you can become kind of the best in that one specialty category. The main drawback is that it’s a way smaller pool. If you’re looking at the full, broad cycling market, compared to what we do—which is very specialized items for biking to work—it’s a lot smaller pool so you have to really know who your customer is in that pool.
It wasn’t by mistake that we made that video with 40-something-year-old guys in a corporate changing room setting. That’s because we know this is a big target for us and for our products. I think being known for one thing is really good. For us, even though we have different products now—we have convertible backpacks, convertible briefcases and different items for biking to work—we will always be known as the “bike suit bag guys.” Maybe that’s not our biggest product in the future, but having that one kind of legacy or that one thing that’s attached to your name is really good and it kind of builds your online reputation. So, I think you have to start from something that you can be the best at.
Other than your online store, we see you’re selling your products through some specialized bike stores in your province and you’re also partnering with the giant mountain equipment company, MEC. How has it helped your company increase sales?
Yeah, it has definitely helped us to increase sales. That distribution network called MEC, they can put us in stores around the country very quickly but I think the biggest thing is the trust and the credibility. When you’re talking to people or you are doing your other marketing, knowing that you’re in a big store that is well-trusted automatically puts a level of trust in the consumer’s mind, way about that they had never heard of you before but they know this company is selling your product and they will automatically trust you a lot more and know that it’s quality stuff.
I think that reputation and credibility piece was probably the biggest thing, other than just getting some more sales. It would kind of put us in a new league of company or products and that was very important.
Where do you get more sales from? Do your customers prefer to buy online or in physical stores?
We still get more sales online. About 65 percent to 70 percent of our orders all come online and about 30 percent is throughout wholesale channels or smaller events.
Which of the marketing channels you use is the one that drives most customers/leads?
I think, honestly, the best channel is SEO and coming up organically in search results. If we come up and somebody is searching for something we have, that is the best way that we’re going to make a sale. I would say that our best referral is Google so we can do very well with our SEO. We come up in forums a lot, like Reddit and different bike commuting forums. Those kind of referrals, I think, push us the most qualified leads.
Then, other than that, Facebook has to be a part of any marketing strategy because it’s so targeted and now it’s getting even better as you can start setting up different panels for cold leads, warm leads, and your remarketing that goes on your website to Facebook and you can get them back to your website reminding them why they were interested. So, Facebook has got to be the other main source for our customer leads. We’ve been really working and tuning in that strategy continually, but I still think the most important is to position organically in Google.
How do you get customers back again?
This is one of the most difficult challenges for businesses like ours. Just because you make really high-quality bags people don’t need to buy a new bag every year, so we’ve created a family of products, so they are all kind of complementary to each other.
If you think about the lifetime value of a customer in my business, it’s not like, “I’m going to reorder your specialty coffee every month because I’m always using it.” For us it’s like, “Ok, how do we get somebody to buy not just one of our bags but the whole line of our bags?” Knowing that our bags will typically last somebody a lifetime—but, if they’re really using it, maybe five years is the lifecycle for a bicycle bag like ours—you need to basically have a family of products so people don’t just own one bag, they own three or more bags, and every five years they’re going to need to update their bag and come back to buy a newer better model of it.
So, all of our bags are pretty complementary, we have the big suit bag, but you don’t need to take that on casual Fridays, you’re taking your smaller bag or, if you travel, maybe your briefcase that goes on your rolling luggage as well, so they complement all different styles.
That’s how we really found a way to create a family of products that keep people coming back. Then, yet to keep reminding them of the new stuff, we’ve also implemented a good email marketing strategy.
In your website, you claim to build not only bags, but community. How important is it for you to build a community around a brand and which marketing actions are you implementing to build yours?
For us, biking to work is the main thing of our company, so we will seek out [organizations] and a lot of organizations will seek us out for any of their bike initiatives. For example, certain companies having a little bike fair at their organization or bike to work week challenges in different cities all around. We kind of work with the organization groups and do a lot of prize sponsorships, so we will send free bags or free products to different organizations that are all about biking to work. That’s how we get our grassroots offline marketing going.
We do that with a lot of charities too. Like any really good charity that we feel that we’re connected to, especially the ones that have to do with bicycles, like there’s this “Ride to Conquer Cancer” in Canada, which is very popular. We sponsor them with free bags and free t-shirts to give out and hand out to people during the race. So, lots of those events have a lot to do with what we do and have the same people that are our customers participating in them. We try to have some sort of a presence at these local events; that’s how we give back to the community and support different initiatives for cycling.
We keep going out on the streets, too. We still have a tent that we set up and show people our products. As we are an online digital company, I sometimes struggle with it because it’s not scalable and it doesn’t build us a bigger business, but as far as the local community goes, you have to have a good footprint where you are from. So, I think building that community that is local only helps your online reputation because those people still come and they will review you on Google. They are the kind of people that are like, “Oh, I met Reid and it was so great to learn about his company” and they will send nice messages and write on your Facebook wall. That stuff is a little more grassroots, but it’s still important because it still translates online. I mean, it helps and fits into your online channels as well. For example, into your content funnel for what you can post.
What advice could you give to a startup that is in the beginning stages?
Video, right now, I think is the most important thing. People want to watch a short video that explains what you do and why it’s so important for them to pay attention to you. So, I think at the very start, as soon as you can, invest in a good, quality video that shows exactly what you do. Also, try to put aside some budget that helps you promote that video with Facebook Ads or whatever channel that you want. Maybe it’s investing in a PR person that can help push that out to all the media sources that you need.
Honestly, I think companies, when they are starting up, they always try to make a really cheap video and sometimes that can work, but in my opinion, especially what’s worked for Two Wheel Gear, is that we’ve created really high-end professional videos and people thought we were a lot bigger company than we are and that helps in a lot of ways. If it’s good, quality content, people will watch it and comment on it .It’s hard to afford sometimes at the beginning, but that video asset lasts a long time so it’s a really well spent money.
Finally, give me a prediction of what you think will be the best way to win customers in your industry in the next few years.
We’re doing some crazy 3D, 4D modelling of all of our bags that we’re hoping to get on our website fairly soon. So you can actually zoom in, like a VR experience, but you can rotate the bags, go inside the pockets and see exactly how it attaches, like you are interacting with the products right on the website. I think things like that and distinguishing yourself, I mean being different and trying new things, is always going to be the best way to win customers.
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