What is going on with Sick Bikes? Hannah has been trying to get to the bottom of it.
‘Sick Bicycle Co‘ first came to my attention in May 2017, when I ran a story on its rather entertainingly named company and bikes. I liked the slightly self mocking approach – some good levels of British irony and humour in a world more familiar with marketing hyperbole. Our in-house Chinese speaker, Andi, even spotted that the character the owners used on their head tube meant ‘illness’, rather than ‘sick!’ in the gang-signs and totally-rad-dude sense of the word. Unfortunately it would turn out that all would not be well in the word of Sick .
Before I go on, you should know that I really wanted Sick Bikes to work out well. I like titanium bikes, I like the different and the niche in the bike world. I waved the pre-order webpage for the ‘Death From Above’ full suspension titanium bike under the nose of a friend of mine, who went on to order one. In time, that led to me being in touch with co-owner Jordan, and still rooting for things to work out.
You should also know that, partly as a result of the Death From Above connection, I had a long chat with Jordan in January this year. We talked about the problems the company was experiencing, and made plans to sit down for a proper chat and interview. I’m a project manager by training, and to me the whole situation seemed like a matrix management nightmare. It seemed to me like a story I could tell: startup has big dreams, startup struggles, what next for the startup? Time commitments meant that didn’t happen, and instead I emailed Jordan a bunch of questions to try and discover things from their side. Despite repeated assurances that answers were being prepared and would be forthcoming, none were received. I have given deadlines, second chances, was given convincing verbal assurances that answers would come within the next 12 hours… They haven’t, so I’ve given up waiting. The questions I sent are at the end of this article.
Upstart Startup. Sick Bikes Begins.
Let’s go back to the beginning, when Sick Bicycle Co launched in a blaze of self generated publicity. You’ve got to give them credit for being good at generating hype. Social media and interviews with the owners (and as far as we know, the only actual employees…) Jordan and Tim, suggested that they wanted to do their thing, make bikes their way, and disregard the usual bike industry norms. The were designing bikes that they wanted, not bikes they thought would sell by the thousand. They would have geometry that would raise eyebrows, and there would be a lot of ironic use of skulls. They would be over the top, loud, and in your face. Anarchic, punk, anti-corporate and ‘why the f*** not?’. They liked bikes, and they wanted to have fun.
The company started out doing a small run of steel hardtail frames with Bryan of Downland Cycles. Super long, super slack, with convertible drop outs. Launched through Kickstarter, their ideas seemed well received but apparently not enough orders were placed to meet the funding target. Instead, some customers chose to buy direct through the Sick website, and these first bikes went on to be built. Downland says “Bryan was commissioned to design and build the hardtail original that launched the company. He parted company at the end of the contract to concentrate on his next project”.
Even at this stage it seems that communications were perhaps not the company’s strong point. A customer who bought one of these first bikes reported getting a frame which didn’t quite match the tyre clearance they’d been told they were getting. It was eventually reworked via Bryan, though not to the extent the customer hoped: “The round profile seat stay tubes were squashed to make room for the tyre! I contacted Sick Bikes saying I’m not happy about it. They said they don’t know why it was “fixed” this way and not new seat stays brazed onto the frame. They promised to get it collected again and fixed but many months passed and nothing happens. All I heard were the same excuses that Jordan is away and will get back to me ASAP and so on. Eventually they stopped replying to me and started ignoring me”. Subsequently, this customer reports another problem with the bike, on the headtube, that they say renders the bike unrideable.
It was a surprise to me to hear that there was a problem with a bike from the Downland batch, as Bryan has a solid reputation as a frame builder. The customer says, “I don’t know who to blame for mistakes on the frame as Sick blames Bryan and Bryan blames Sick… In any way whoever is at fault I suffer the most in the end as I spent over 1k for the frame which I can’t ride.”
Further bike designs were revealed, though these would not be built by Bryan at Downland, and instead in far flung factories. Moving into international waters no doubt added further complexity to the management of production. Steel hardtail frames were built by Marino Bikes in Peru, while titanium bikes were made in the Far East, in ‘down time’ between orders from bigger fish. Funding was through Kickstarter, Indiegogo or small run pre-orders through the company website.
Hints that things weren’t quite going to plan came less than a year later. Customers started reporting that bikes had not been received, even well after delivery due dates. It’s pretty easy to see how delivery dates could be missed – if you’re waiting on a factory in Peru to build something, there’s not an awful lot you can do if they get behind schedule. Stick a container of bikes on a boat from Peru and again, you’re stuck waiting for a boat to make its way over the high seas and through customs, along with coffee, clothing, Paddington Bear, or whatever else the ship happens to be carrying. Similarly, on the other side of the world, if your titanium fabricator has the choice between delivering a big bulk order to a high paying customer, or squeezing in a little side project, you can see how the side project is going to keep getting shunted along. But whatever the cause, people had paid money and not got what they wanted when they expected it. Time for a little Customer Service then?
‘Welcome to Sick Bikes. And How May We Direct Your Call?’
I tracked down a number of customers (let’s call them that whether they’ve actually received their bikes or not). Many reported a similar pattern of being told their bikes were on the way. They’re on their way. They’re coming any day. Just a bit longer… Having had the same experience trying to get my questions answered, I can sympathise.
In some instances, those updates seemed plausible. In others, they got a bit mixed up. Was the bike on a boat, or was there a delay at the factory? Was the bike stuck in customs, or still being built? The picture that emerges here perhaps suggests that behind the scenes the admin of the company couldn’t keep up with the complexity of managing small batch orders across multiple factories. There were mentions in Sick’s social media and email updates of looking to implement better order tracking systems, which would seem to support the idea that orders and customers weren’t perfectly aligned. Indeed, there were reports of customers receiving bikes which weren’t what they’d ordered, and I tracked one down: “Originally I ordered a Wülf XL in raw, the frame which turned up was a Wülf XL in the most hideous yellowish grey colour. Some of the paint can off it whilst taking it out of the box, I don’t think the paint will survive too many rides. The stickers looked like they had been stuck on by a drunk and you could peel them off if you wanted. There was no protective clear coat over the paint or stickers. “
On the other hand, some people were getting bikes, and they seemed happy with the results, even if they weren’t exactly the spec they were supposed to be. Perhaps for the price people were prepared to accept tolerances outside that which you’d get if you were buying mainstream.
I tracked down one happy Sick Bicycles customer: “I ordered a Deathwish around May last year . When I ordered the frame, it said 30 days for delivery. This wasnt the case, the frame arriving I think August or September. The delay was annoying at first but when the crew at Sick reached out explaining why, I decided fair enough. They went from being relatively small to suddenly fielding orders for hundreds of bikes… The bike arrived with the wrong dropout so I had to get some delivered from Peru and there was a small spacing issue with the cranks hitting the frame. But one that was easily sorted out by the bike shop boys. Ride wise, I love it. The slackness of the geometry and the 29er wheels make features on the trails I used to struggle with much easier. I’m totally sold on the company, and when I can afford it, my next frame will be one of their hardtails. I can see why people have had problems with their bikes or service, but I see a small British company, starting from nothing and having to deal with success and the logistical problems it brings.”
The unhappy customers I spoke to almost universally reported an element of non-responsiveness. After a few ‘It’s coming soon’ and ‘I’ll look into that and get back to you’ responses, emails would dry up. Anyone who works a desk job knows how long it takes to answer emails, so it’s easy to imagine how quickly admin could pile up if you’re trying to respond to customers, design bikes, coordinate orders and manufacturers across time zones, and sell t-shirts. Oh yes, there were lots of T-shirts. With some background in tattoo art, the company’s T-shirt designs were fun and popular – and delivered, leading to digs and comments that Sick was a T-shirt company, not a bike brand.
Speaking to Jordan, it seems that some of the customers got pretty unpleasant and aggressive, sending hundreds of emails, posting unpleasant comments on social media, and even directing comments at and sending messages to family members. When I spoke to him on 8th May, Jordan said the police had been involved and had spoken to a couple of people who were taking things too far. This version of events would seem to be somewhat supported by some posts seen on Instagram – there were a couple of accounts which seemed to pop up, disappear, reappear, and switch between private and public settings. Some of the things they posted I can’t publish here. I can understand how people would get frustrated by a lack of response from someone who has your money, but equally I can see how opening your inbox to a pile of hate mail or targeting family members is hardly likely to be conducive to positive action. Indeed, a couple of individuals bombarding their inbox with unpleasantness may well have helped bury Jordan and Tim further under admin and email – perhaps even standing in the way of them dealing with more reasonable customers.
Maybe it was part of the brand hype, maybe it was born of the frustration of dealing with the haters, but on social media Sick seemed to respond to customer queries with the same ‘we’re anarchists, F*** off’ attitude that had them putting two fingers up to the established bike industry. Email enquiries were directed to a ‘customerservices@’ email address, which I’ve discovered is an outsourced triage system, designed to answer simple queries quickly and leave Jordan and Tim with a prioritised list of actions required. This was not immediately apparent to me, and I can see how as a customer it would be frustrating to be dealing with a faceless account that doesn’t have any decision making power. If you didn’t know it was outsourced, you could surely be forgiven for thinking it was just a front for faceless or nameless interaction, or another delaying tactic. Whatever, my experience is that even dealing with Jordan directly hasn’t resulted in promises being delivered. As well as the questions that remain unanswered, a spare mech hanger purportedly put in the post to me never arrived.
Running Before Walking?
Jordan said to me that they got bigger than they anticipated, quicker than they were prepared for. But if you’re an outsider looking in, it’s a fair question to ask why keep taking in more orders for new batches if you’re struggling to handle what you’ve already got? One customer still waiting for a frame told me “The thing that gets me is the constant drops of new products when they still can’t fulfill their existing products.”
In late September 2018, Sick Bikes announced it was stopping making titanium frames, citing the hassle of admin involved as making it more trouble than was commercially viable. Jordan told me that the titanium models were flagship items, designed to attract attention and garner brand interest rather than generate profit. That certainly worked on me – and my friend with the Death From Above order.
When I spoke to Jordan in January this year I gathered that he was having a hard time getting the bikes delivered, but he told me that by May 2019 things would be sorted. I spoke to him again on 8th May when chasing answers to my questions, and he still didn’t elaborate on how he planned to rectify the situation. Certainly he was waiting for a boat to come in, which would have them with stock in the country and ready for shipping. But he had other plans too – something alluded to in their Instagram post of that morning. He said he thought they had about 30 people who had been really let down, harder done by than others, and for whom they were going to be able to do or offer something. I don’t know what that was – the promised detail in a follow up email never came.
Talking to Jordan, I get the impression of a guy under a lot of pressure. Someone whose dream isn’t working out, and who is tired of dealing with endless unhappy customers and social media comments. It seems like he felt put upon – a victim of circumstance and inter-related risks. Their ‘F*** you’ attitude, when thrown back at them, seemed to hurt. Between my conversation in January and May, a little more contrition seemed to have crept in. He seemed a little more prepared to admit that they’d made mistakes, rather than just being a victim of circumstance, even going so far as to say “We asked for it”, when it comes to being criticised for failure to deliver. But then that conversation was swiftly followed by another failure to deliver, so it feels a little hollow.
Part of the reason I was talking to Jordan in January was that I went to collect my friend’s Death From Above. Paid for up front, it was supposed to be delivered by Christmas. By January he’d got tired of being without a bike, and suggested that instead of waiting any longer for his own frame, perhaps Jordan could pass on his own DFA, which we’d seen on Instagram. Jordan agreed to the deal, and I drove to Wales to collect it and strip it down to just the frame.
Another customer reports a similar experience, eventually picking up a titanium hardtail from a bike show, rather than waiting for it to be delivered. Two customers with bikes in hand, not quite delivered, but not completely out of pocket.
Bike Shaped Holes
Not everyone was in the lucky position of being able to take ownership of a frame like this, and with a bike shaped hole in your wallet – and your garage – the delays in delivery understandably start to sting. Add to that the bike industry being the moving feast that it is, new products come to market that catch the eye. Maybe it would be easier just to get a refund and buy some of that new eye candy? Some customers who had paid through PayPal or credit card were tempted to do just that. This is taken from one of their mail shots:
‘We can now accept Paypal on www.sickbicycle.co again, but it will be for a limited time as we are getting a bit tired with them messing us around.
From time to time, Paypal get sh**ty with us. Despite having all of our legal documents (passport, marriage certificate, er, to my wife, not each other, we are just good friends) Well they decided that they would ‘freeze our account’ to ‘better understand it’ in the meantime this meant we couldn’t progress some refunds, so that ‘concerned them that they were getting a spike in resolution centre requests’ well, you don’t say!?! Why ever could that be!’
It’s pretty easy to see why they might have experienced a bunch of ‘resolution centre requests’. You’ve been waiting for a frame, and waiting, and you ask where it is, and you wait some more… Customers who are promised a response and don’t get one get frustrated, and lose patience. They don’t wait for Sick to send a frame, or a refund, or a warranty replacement – they use their credit card companies or PayPal to get their money back for them.
That was the case with my friend. After all the excitement of getting his hands on the Death From Above – and it did have some really lovely finishing details to get excited about – the frame failed. Since it hasn’t been back for testing or inspection, I don’t know if it was a design flaw or a construction one, but a dent or fold appeared above the shock mount, suggesting that the downtube couldn’t cope with the forces the suspension kinematics were placing on it. Jordan assured my friend it was all covered under warranty and was only the second frame failure they’d had (in conversation on 8th May Jordan told me it was the only one), but subsequent radio silence and failure to respond to emails led my friend to the pursuit of a successful refund claim via his credit card company. The portion he’d paid for via PayPal was forfeited, as PayPal said the time passed was out of their timescale for refund claims.
Now, we don’t know for sure if this is the case, but we can certainly envisage a scenario where Sick Bikes orders a batch of frames from a factory, the factory takes a while to make them, and in that time a few customers give up waiting and claim a refund. Depending on the terms of the deal with the factory, Sick may have paid up front for some frames that now don’t have buyers, and for which they’ve had to return the money. Now they’ve got a bike shaped hole in their pocket, and a decent cash flow problem could soon emerge.
In another twist of fate, Sick Bikes issued an email stating that it hadn’t trademarked its name, and was being forced by another company to change its name from Sick. Sick (the one this article is about) say they deliberately didn’t register the name because:
‘It’s our feeling that common use terms should not be trademarked, SICK is a term that many people use, in fact, we overused it so much that’s why we called Sick, Sick.
‘It’s a term that belongs in action sports, not to be hoarded and trademarked. Which is laughable.
‘The language of extreme/action sports is part of its culture. It’s ingrained. People shouldn’t ‘own’ that. We don’t have the right to commodify the culture.
‘Not only laughable, it’s wrong and, from a business perspective, it’s bad PR and costly to fight.’
Or, maybe, it’s actually because it’s more admin they didn’t get round to?
Talking to Jordan, he seems like a nice guy. One under pressure, but one that you want to believe. I really believed those answers to my questions were going to come, which leaves me writing this and feeling like a bit of a mug. I’m not alone in finding the Sick Bikes chat convincing- meeting them is what made one (happy) customer want to buy their Hacksaw Surgeon:
“I saw the Sick Bikes guys at the London bike show in 2018 before I had even looked at their bikes and they were very welcoming and had a lot of time to talk to me about their plans of future frames and their history of love for bikes and I must admit they were the highlight of the show for me. Their enthusiasm and passion is what made me want to look more into their products and end up buying their frame.”
But then you look at the emails, and the forum posts, and the endless lists of things that have gone wrong but aren’t really the fault of Sick Bikes and… what is the truth? It probably needs a bunch of MI6 agents to figure it out. I can’t help but feel that there’s a missed opportunity to hold their hands up to mistakes, to respond to customer emails, stop taking new orders and deal with the ones they’ve got. Do that, restore the faith of those who really really want things to work out well with cool bikes sitting in their sheds at the end of the day. Take stock, learn lessons, move on from a stronger position.
Indeed, this seemed to be be what Jordan was saying they’re doing, when I spoke to him on 8th May. He thought they’d hit the bottom of the worst, and could see light ahead. They were putting the past, where they’d spread themselves too thin across too many projects, behind them. Jordan called it a ‘turning point’. He was going to give me details in that email that never came.
Honestly, I’d still like to see that turning point reached. I’d really like to see everyone that ordered frames get them, or get their refunds. I’m torn between finding them believable, but seeing and experiencing broken promises. If they’d sent me that email, would their answers have solved anything? Or would I just have had the equivalent of that drawer where you keep all the old phone chargers, just in case: a tangled mass of truths and excuses, differences of opinion and – maybe – alternative facts. I don’t know. The questions I asked are below – I’d be happy to have them answered (and I’ll add them below if I ever do get them). At least I get to walk away a little frustrated but just wondering. For those with more material losses, I’m sorry – the whole situation leaves me feeling just a little bit sick.
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What We Asked
1. You’ve been criticised by customers who feel their concerns have not been addressed, that updates have been inconsistent, and promising deliveries that don’t come. You’ve also been criticised for being abrasive in your responses to customer queries. Is this part of the punk/anarchic marketing, or is there another side to this? Are we seeing a vocal few?
2. What has caused the reported delays in frames and bike delivery? (If there are different issues for different batches, please summarise each – I know you’ve used a number of manufacturers so I imagine there could be different problems with each and I think making each different problem clear could help readers understand the complexity of dealing with many international makers).
3. You said that everyone would have their orders by May, are you still on track for this?
4. I think all your frames were ordered in batches – can you give any indication of how many customer orders are still outstanding? Is it a particular batch that is affected? How long have those customers been waiting?
5. You set out to do things differently and shake things up. Has that ambition panned out as you’d hoped? Would you do it all again (though maybe with some changes to the detail of how), or do you think that the industry makes different too difficult?
6. We’re aware that you’ve had issues with PayPal payments. Has everyone that requested a refund been given one? Has providing refunds in any way added to the delays in delivery? I imagine that it could easily create a cashflow problem when operating a new business in a complex matrix like fashion?
7. We’ve heard reports of people being sent frames which are not quite what they ordered, or which have quality control issues. What should customers in this position do to resolve this? Who should they contact?
8. On a more personal level, it’s easy to see why someone who has handed over a significant amount of money might get stressed about not receiving their product. From the other side, how has it been for you trying to meet customer demands?
9. Some are worried that the trademark issue around ‘Sick Bikes’ will lead to the closure of the company and the writing off of its debts/outstanding order. What can you say to allay those concerns?
10. While there are plenty of things that are outside of your control once you pass orders to a factory, it’s always good to learn from our own mistakes. Knowing what you know now about the industry, what do you think you would do differently if you had your time again?
11. You seem to be at a point where if outstanding orders were met, the world would give you another chance because you have cool ideas about bikes that appeal to them. People want your products – but they also want the confidence of seeing them delivered. You’ve got an industry legend on board in the form of Frank The Welder. Where are you going from here?