Engineering a Better Life
It didn’t take him long to realize he’d gone through the wrong door.
“If you are a small part of a huge machine, it’s hard to see the change you are making. I want my work to have impact. The only way I could think to do that was to start a company. You take the risk … but you control the results. In a big company you have external factors; GM went bankrupt while I was working there.”
It became clear to Sean that, even with this dedication and drive, he did not control the end result.
“We did all this work on the project but the vehicle it was going into was cancelled so it was all for nothing. I learned a lot, but the actual result was not good.”
So, Sean began to engineer a better future for himself. Unlike many small business startups, where an idea sparks a business, Sean and his friends went looking for an idea.
“It started with John and I talking about this for four to five months at lunch. Two other guys were added – one is my father. We broke every startup rule; don’t work with friends and don’t work with family.
We knew what we didn’t want to go after something that required a ton of upfront capital. It had to be feasible to prove out. We wanted to see if we could find a problem that we have the specialty skills to solve.
We were open to any ideas. We looked at some wacky ideas. We even looked at alternative energy stuff. We looked at over 100 ideas. The idea for the automatic transmission bike actually came from one of the non-engineers in the our party of four (Mark Simpson). Some mechanical based systems are out there now, but we knew we had the skills to design an embedded controller you can set for what you need. People will be able to interact with our bicycle. It will adapt to your riding preferences.”
I asked Sean to tell me more about how Autobike got started and how his team plans to “evolve the bike”.
As you started this venture, what was more difficult than you expected?
“Finding the right team – people, with the right skillsets, who have time, or make time, to help out – was the hardest thing but also the most rewarding. I looked for team members on message boards, went to networking events, etc. That was a long, difficult journey. In the end, almost all of them ended up finding me once I got the word out.”
What’s been easier than you expected?
“Easy? Nothing has been easy. I guess that people respond so favorably to the idea. When the article in the Free Press came out my phone rang off the hook from people looking to buy, invest or sell me stuff.”
Autobike is scheduled for consumer release in September 2012. What’s the biggest challenge as you move forward?
“We’re finding it hard to describe the bike in a way that does the ride justice. What keeps us going is that we built the products and we know how awesome the ride is. We can ride the bikes and feel what other people are going to feel – it’s an awesome riding experience. We maximize the comfort of the ride. We’re using a continuously variable transmission. You’re on the bike and it just feels right.
The consistent feedback is everyone likes the ride and then they offer new ways that it can be improved further. We have the capability to give everyone the canvas on which they can paint their own biking experience. Customize your ride to you – as much or as little flexibility as the rider wants.”
Do you plan to focus on a particular target market?
“There’s a broader range of appeal than we thought at first. We designed it for people who ride bikes casually and recreationally, but one of the guys in our group is a hard core rider and he said this bike is awesome.
Getting people on the bike will be our plan of attack. We’re finishing off 10 beta test bikes with our shifting system installed on purchased frame. We’ll be at every bike event we can this summer, getting feedback from test riders. We’re starting broad and then determining where our most loyal market will be – and where we will be able to find the most success on our shoestring budget.”
What’s next for AutoBike?
“We’re simultaneously collecting feedback, lining up sources for components and designing the bike. We’re going to assemble the bikes in Michigan.
We want to build a sustainable business, but also a company that will be a leader in new technology for everyday bike riders. There’s a disconnect between the bike companies out there today and the everyday bike riders. We want to try to get a community of people who like specific riding settings and share that. We want people to interact with the bike in a new way.”
Given, your experience, do you feel more college grads should think about starting their own business or working for a startup right off the bat?
“At least seriously consider it. I wish I would have looked for a startup. I didn’t know to do that. People want to start companies but have trouble finding other people who are willing to take the risk. I think that’s changed now. You’re not going to get paid a large amount, but you can be a part of something that is growing.”
What advice would you give to someone who wants to break free from the corporate world and go their own way, as you have?
“There’s always a way out and a lot of times people don’t look into all the different opportunities. Even if you fail, think of it as another piece of your education; it’s not a wasted effort. It’s an investment in a skillset you can apply in a number of ways.
Things are so compartmentalized in a large company. I’m never going back to that. I was so motivated and I thought I would make a huge difference. Then I was beaten down and I realized I had to do this.
I didn’t think it out rationally, that’s what stops people. Go with your gut and have supportive people around you. Be fearless, or stupid, or a mixture of both. If someone had told me that it wouldn’t have been successful at this point, I’d have still done it.”
For more information on Autobike, visit http://evolvethebike.com/
Sign up on their web site if you’d like to reserve a pre-production unit.