In 2008 I left my job as a structural engineer to follow a dream of cycling around the world. During 18 months on my bike, I covered over 30,000 km in 30 countries.
But travelling in some of the most remote places on earth I was effectively in a bubble, with little knowledge of the massive economic downturn at home.
On returning to Ireland in 2010 I was shocked to find out how quickly and dramatically the sector had changed. It switched from the absolute certainty of finding engineering work to being among dozens of applicants scrambling to get even the most basic role.
I had spent nearly five years abroad and didn’t wish to emigrate so I found a job as a local bike shop mechanic while I figured out my next steps.
Until I worked in there, I hadn’t realised how quickly small children grow out of their bikes. Having bought a starter bike for their child, parents would soon return for a bigger bike or else they’d buy a bike that was far to big for their child with the “ah sure, you’ll grow into it” mentality. There had to be another way.
A ‘light bulb’ moment
My many years of engineering got my mind churning and after a genuine ‘light bulb’ moment I came up with the idea for the LittleBig, a bike that adapts to a growing child’s needs – from a pedal-less balance bike for a two-year-old to a fully-fledged two wheeler with pedals and a chain for older children.
I began designing the bike while still working part time, but couldn’t make enough progress. I knew my idea had great potential so one day I jumped with two feet into the unknown, quit my job and began working full time on the business.
Following over two years of design and development, last Christmas I started selling the bikes online, shipping bikes to customers all over the world. Shortly afterwards, it won a prestigious global Red Dot product design award, featuring alongside the likes of Ferrari, Apple and Sony.
But in April this year, only 5 months after starting sales, disaster struck.
I received a phone call to learn that the Dublin warehouse where the bikes were kept was on fire. My heart sank.
Assuming all was lost, I couldn’t believe it when the following morning I got a message from Dublin Fire Brigade saying the bikes were fine. The relief was immense, but not without a slight bewilderment as I couldn’t believe the bikes had survived a fire that big.
Sure enough, that same afternoon I got this call:
Fireman: “So your bikes are on the first floor?”
Me: “No, ground floor.”
Fireman: “But they’re near the reception?”
Me: “No, the other end.”
Fireman: “Sorry man, but everything in that part of the building was turned to ash.”
I was gutted…again. Believing the bikes were lost once would be bad enough, but to effectively lose them twice was truly awful.
I had two nights of anguish where I had no idea if my fledgling business could survive a loss like this. Having put so much time, energy and passion into the business, it felt like it had all been suddenly torn away.
Suffering such a major blow so early on in my business was devastating, especially coming into the busy summer season – the perfect time to get the kids starting on their bikes. There was no time to sit back and lick my wounds though.
I immediately ordered a new run of bikes, which require months to shape, weld, paint, assemble, pack and ship. Tracking the gigantic cargo ship as it slowly made it’s way towards Ireland, I could feel my excitement build and build.
I know in a few days when I open those container doors and see those shiny new bikes, the apprehension, uncertainty and stress of the last four months will come flooding out.
Here are a few key steps I’ve learned, some in hindsight:
Get your own insurance policy
I had the bikes insured under the storage facility’s own policy, an add-on to the monthly rent. However the sheer number of destroyed units and resultant claims led to major delays, which massively affected my cash flow. If you get your own separate policy, you should be sorted much faster.
Keep your customers up to date
At the time of the fire there were orders that could no longer be fulfilled so I immediately contacted those customers to tell them about their bikes untimely demise. The fact that they were so understanding about it and were all willing to wait gave me a great boost of confidence.
Batten down the hatches
It’s always important to keep a tight watch on cash flow, but even more so when you’ve got minimal income. I was no longer paying rent, I handed back my rental van and stopped advertising. By reverting the online shop to pre-sales, I was able to keep orders trickling in and I was also able to draw down the second part of a MicroFinance Ireland loan to pay the deposit for the next production run.
Simon Evans is the founder of County Wicklow-based LittleBig Bikes.