Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on February 27th, 2012 at 3:55 pm
Leave it to Portland to throw a party for a new bike light.
A sneak peek at Knog's new Blinder model attracted scores of bike shop owners and employees from around the region to a party in a cavernous art studio in northwest Portland Friday night. The shindig was hosted by Cyclone Bicycle Supply, a parts distributor based in Portland that supplies bike shops throughout the country.
Cyclone's Director of Sales, John Byfield, said the party served a dual role — to introduce the Blinder and to say 'thank you' to the hundreds of bike dealers he serves. With a full spread of finger foods, plenty of free beer, and a DJ, Byfield expected a healthy turnout from the over 200 shops he'd invited from throughout the Pacific Northwest.
While Cyclone isn't nearly as large as industry juggernauts like Quality Bicycle Products and J & B Importers, Byfield says they've found success by carving a niche among niches. Byfield plucks obscure brands — like Var Tools, Early Rider balance bikes, and Rubena Tires — from across the globe and introduces them to the U.S. market. While they have dealers across the nation, Byfield says Portland makes up a large portion of their business. "We really believe in the Portland market. It's what drives us."
Australia-based Knog is another company that believes in the Portland market. On Friday, one of Knog's four partners — and a key creative force behind its products and infamous marketing campaigns — Mike Lelliot, was there to show off their new lights.
Since bursting onto the bike scene seven years ago with their "Frog" lights, Knog has had a meteoric rise in the bike industry. Back in the early days, Lelliot says they grew from selling 1,000 lights a year to 100,000 lights a year in just two years. Today Knog employs 20 people in their Melbourne offices and sells over 2 million lights per year. Only five companies sell more bike lights than they do in the U.S.
Lelliot commands attention not just as the man partly responsible for Knog's enviable brand; but at over six feet tall, and with a beard sized to match his lanky frame, he's hard to miss. During our chat, as I strained to hear him over the thump of dance music, Lelliot explained how Knog owes much of its success to the creativity they bring to products.
"Obsessed with making things differently," he said their use of materials (they were first to wrap an LED in medical-grade silicone) and their design aesthetic is what makes them distinctive.
Speaking like a true product designer, Lelliot said at Knog he and his team, "treat even the smallest object [like their Frog light] with vast attention and importance." With a background in fine arts, Lelliot sees himself as an artist, and his products as, "public art for the urban gallery."
Knog's success has not gone unnoticed and their products have had a big influence on the industry. Much of that influence has come in the form of copycats. "It sort of sucks when big brands steal your ideas," Lelliot lamented Friday night.
While their designs have influenced other companies, Lelliot says Knog is inherently difficult to copy. Likening the designs he and his team come up with to the music of a rock band, Lelliot said companies will always try to copy, "But they can't get ahead of us."
Rock band or not, Knog has learned their lessons and they are trying to thwart the mimicry. Lelliot said they've filed for over 600 official design registrations (similar to patents) for their new Blinder lights.
One place Lelliot won't have to worry about copycats (at least in buttoned-up America) is their racy ad campaigns. Often featuring profanity, sexual innuendo, and scantily clad models, Knog ads have become infamous. Some U.S. dealers even refuse to include the ads in their shops and mailers. Lelliot, who has a large hand in creating the ads, says he's just trying to tell a story about youth, freedom, longing and urban adventure — things that he feels bike lovers can relate to. "The ads are just for fun," he said with a smile.
Fun for Lelliot, but seriously not funny for some of his critics. The emails and phone calls he gets about the ads used to worry him. But not anymore. "It used to worry me, but people still buy the lights, so I don't really care... You can't please all of the people all of the time."
The new Blinder lights are sure to please. They come in an array of anodized finishes, are USB chargeable, waterproof to 10 feet, and are super bright (80 lumens for the front, 44 for the rear). The rubber attachment band can fit a wide range of diameters and they've got a nice latch system. Knog even gave them a 15-degree tilt so when they're on a seatpost, they lay flat for optimal viewing.
The Blinder is a big step up from Knog's previous lights. Lelliot said when they debuted the lights at Frostbike last week, they sold four-times as many as they expected. You can find the Blinders in stores mid-March at a retail price of $44.95.
Nathan Roll, owner of Metropolis Cycle Repair in North Portland said Friday night that Knog has "Revolutionized the light market." As long as Knog continues to have eye-catching ads and products that are as functional as they are beautiful, that revolution seems far from over.