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After roller-coaster year, Portland Design Works looks ahead to 2017

Posted by on November 2nd, 2016 at 1:45 pm

The Portland Design Works team: (L to R) Jocelyn Gaudi, marketing manager; Matt Cittadini, sales manager; Hazel Gross, office manager; Chris Smitherman, warehouse and customer service coordinator; Erik Olson, founder.(Photos: J. Maus & PDW)

The Portland Design Works team: (L to R) Jocelyn Gaudi, marketing manager; Matt Cittadini, sales manager; Hazel Gross, office manager; Chris Smitherman, warehouse and customer service coordinator; Erik Olson, founder.
(Photos: J. Maus & PDW)

Just over eight years since he founded Portland Design Works, 37-year-old Erik Olson is about close out one of the toughest ones yet. In the past six months he’s endured the departure of his co-founder and business partner, lagging sales thanks to a global downturn in the bike industry, pesky counterfeiters, and an unexpected cross-town move. Despite these hurdles, Olson is sanguine about the future.

“We’re moving in the right direction as a company,” he shared from the floor of his warehouse on Southeast 21st Avenue during a visit yesterday. They’re located just a stones-throw from the new Lafayette Street Bridge (which he and other employees use with their bikes every day) and the Orange MAX line.

New packaging from Bern for the Asteroid rear light.(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

New packaging from Bern for the Asteroid rear light.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Back in May, Olson settled his company and four full-time employees into a new 3,800 square-foot warehouse and office space. They were previously based in a much larger space on Northeast Hancock (you might have noticed the PDW mural on the west-facing wall as you pedaled up Williams Avenue just north of Broadway) — that is, until a wealthy donor with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art decided they wanted to buy the building and move in. It was a lot of work to get everything packed up and out with relatively short notice, but in the long run it’s been a positive thing for the company.

Unlike the separated spaces and dark interior offices of their old building, the new offices have lots of natural light and all the employees are close enough to easily talk and exchange ideas — a key ingredient to PDW’s success.

The relatively small brand has established itself in the industry by offering a line of thoughtful and distinctive products. They seem to be in that sweet spot where they’re small enough to be able to quickly dream up new products and improve existings ones, while being large enough to keep inventory high and costs low. Part of the reason for that, Olson shared, is all the products are made in small factories in Taiwan, instead of mega-factories in China.

One of their latest projects is a new collaboration with Bern helmets. Starting in January, the Massachusetts-based company will package, market, and sell the PDW “Asteroid” taillight with a custom mounting kit that snaps into the goggle port at the back of all their helmets. Olson thinks the partnership will raise the profile of PDW due to Bern’s reputation and strong presence on the East Coast – where PDW isn’t as well-known.


Fake!

Fake!

Then there are companies “collaborating” with PDW illegally without their consent. In a sign of the times, and perhaps a sign of PDW’s success, rogue actors have started to make a counterfeit version of the PDW’s popular Danger Zone rear light then set up shop on Amazon.com. That’s led to a frustrating drain of time and resources in what amounts to whack-a-mole. PDW Marketing Manager Jocelyn Gaudi says they often first track the fakes down after reading a negative online review.

Olson showed me one of the fake lights from a company called “Raypal.” It looks similar enough, but the materials and finish are very poor. Olson has a list of about 40 of these bogus resellers and so far emailing them cease-and-desist letters hasn’t completely solved the problem so he’s got an employee who monitors the web for fakes on a daily basis.

“Weren’t you sort of flattered to be copied?” I asked. “Heck no! I was pissed!” Olson replied.

Combatting counterfeiters is one reason PDW is moving toward a new system where they only sell to “authorized resellers.” This is a big move for a small company that now has to get 1,300 existing bike shops and other dealers to fill out an application form and make sure they all follow some basic rules. The new program will likely cause a dip in sales as unsavory dealers are cut off; but since those who pass the test will be required to sell PDW products at a set minimum retail price and present the products in a professional way, it will ultimately strengthen the brand by weeding out discounters while raising revenue from trusted dealers.

Beyond their lights (which got a boost in lumens this year thanks to the trickle-down of light technology), fenders have become PDW’s bread-and-butter. With the Full Metal Fenders in their top sales spot, they now have a polycarbonate version dubbed “Poncho Fenders” that come in at about half the price.

While they continue to tighten up their product line, raise the integrity of their sales channels, and oversee a major update to their website, Portland Design Works is on a strong course for 2017. They’ve come a long way since opening up shop in a leaky tin shed (which they shared with Ruckus Composites, another Portland bike company who has found their stride) eight years ago.

Gaudi, the marketing manager, wanted me to ask you, dear readers, what type of products you think PDW should make next?

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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36 Comments
  • SilkySlim November 2, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Rooting for these guys ever since I got my first pair of Speed Metal Grips. And now I get to roll by their front door daily. They easily replaced Bulls Eye Glass as my favorite business on the block. But then again, what are the arsenic levels in those grips??? 🙂

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Dan A November 2, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Love my Radbot taillight with built-in reflector. Although I do wish I could get to the batteries without a screwdriver, but maybe that’s personal preference. Actually, a USB rechargable Radbot would be sweet…..

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  • Brian November 2, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Is that a Rabbits t-shirt? Nice.

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  • Bob A November 2, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    I actually got one of the counterfeits from Amazon. Didn’t work right out of the box, and i emailed PDW about it. They asked a couple questions about the light and confirmed it was counterfeit. Sent it back to Amazon and asked them to not deal with counterfeiters, and then got the real deal directly from PDW. Great light, btw.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Buzz November 2, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Their lights are already annoyingly bright, they don’t need ‘more lumens’, yeesh!

    Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Kevin November 2, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      I see many riding around town with lights so dim they might as well not even bother.

      Recommended Thumb up 9

    • Dan November 2, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTUQyEr-sg0

      more lumens = more better

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    • Mossby Pomegranate November 2, 2016 at 5:27 pm

      Meh… I have a Serfas light capable of 1800 lumens if I need it. The poorly lit wet streets I ride on on the east side of town need a bright light.

      Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Robert Burchett November 3, 2016 at 11:51 am

      Tuesday morning at the top of the Lovejoy ramp: while waiting for the light, I could see the light from another bike bouncing off a sign overhead. Yeesh, again! Where are your lights pointed, people?

      Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Shreddy Vedder November 2, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Been rocking PDW lights on my commuter for 7 years now and love ’em. Great products and better folks over there!

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Spiffy November 2, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    maybe they could do faux leather products for us vegan types… had to turn down a bike shop recommendation of buying their grips only because they were real leather… I had to buy a competitor’s faux version…

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • Matt S. November 2, 2016 at 5:29 pm

      If the faux leather product you rock is made of petroleum, there’s a good chance that the fossil fuel is partly made up of decomposed animals. Can anything really be vegan unless it’s entirely made of plant matter?

      Recommended Thumb up 13

      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty November 2, 2016 at 11:04 pm

        Oil has very little animal matter in it… it’s mostly plants. 99.99% cruelty free.

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      • Spiffy November 3, 2016 at 8:38 am

        and some plants get some nutrients from the poop of animals… it’s the Mr Hankey cycle of poo…

        but they’re fossil fuels, which means that nobody alive killed them… they weren’t killed for our use…

        and the amount of animal in any of them is probably quite small…

        it could turn out that our universe is inside the spleen of some animal, and I don’t think I’d feel guilty about that…

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      • Paul Cole November 3, 2016 at 4:05 pm

        LOL, thanks for chiming in. That’s not a line of specious reasoning that’s been tread upon about a million times.

        -Grumpy Vegan

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      • Adam H.
        Adam H. November 3, 2016 at 4:17 pm

        Don’t you just love it when you ask for a specific thing and people chime in to tell you that you’re wrong for wanting it?

        Recommended Thumb up 0

  • I wear many hats November 2, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    best blinkies out there.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Rebecca November 2, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    Full Metal Fenders are as solid as they come – a great Christmas present for anyone whose wheel you might have to follow this winter.

    Keep up the good work, Erik – you make great stuff.

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  • Alex Reedin November 2, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    I know this is moving more into the “component” side of things – but I think PDW could well in making a super awesome flat pedal for utilitarian riding. The pedal I have in mind would be the very grippiest when it’s wet out, would have integrated reflectors because it just feels better to have reflectors when you’re riding in traffic, and would have sealed bearings and spin like a top even after you’ve ridden it for a while. Pedals are something that people do change out upon buying a bike, so my theory is that PDW could get away with staying aftermarket and not have to deal with getting into the bike supply chain unless it wanted to.

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    • Mike Cobb November 2, 2016 at 6:06 pm

      With toe clip and messenger strap compatibility and an integratable rain deflecting toe clip cover. The “Portland” pedals.

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      • patrick November 3, 2016 at 10:49 am

        I like the sound of this too. PDW has done some really nice work over the years and I hope 2017 is a great year for them. Love their leather grips, which I reviewed ages ago and have used for many years on our cargo trike.

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    • Adam H.
      Adam H. November 2, 2016 at 10:54 pm

      Check out Velo Orange. They have some nice pedals.

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    • GlowBoy November 3, 2016 at 11:19 am

      A lot of flat BMX pedals come pretty close to what you’re describing, and come in both 1/2″ BMX spindles and the 9/16″ used on most bigger bikes.

      I have two pair of Odyssey Twisted PCs, and they are awesome. Free spinning, lots of miles with no problems, pretty good grip with lots of plastic studs, big platform, decent reflectors. And they cost well under $20 at Universal Cycles.

      They come in lots of colors too, which change from year to year. I have a pair of turquoise ones for the Madsen, black/red ones for my black and red fatbike, and am about to get a third pair (Kelly green, maybe?) for my street bike.

      Not that they couldn’t be improved upon. I agree that PDW could make a killing with a great Portland-specific pedal.

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      • Alex Reedin November 3, 2016 at 4:02 pm

        Yeah, I use BMX pedals myself currently. But A) ones that are both reflective and durable are hard to find (although they do exist) and B) unless I go for the sharp spikes, which I’m not willing to subject my shoes to, my feet still slip out occasionally when it’s wet and I find my toes tensing more than I would really like. Yeah, it’s just an annoyance, but so was having my coffee mug occasionally jump out of my life Electra cup holder and I am happy that PDW removed that annoyance from my life.

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  • Joe D. November 2, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    Much love. Matt’s the coolest.

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    • Huey Lewis November 3, 2016 at 9:42 am

      Matt has questionable taste in sports teams seeing as how he’s a New Englander (fortunately accent free however). So he’s suspect in my book. I know you’re gonna see this Matt! You are suspect!

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  • Shawn Small November 2, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    We miss our old days of sharing space and beers in the Tin Shed Technology Center. Cheers to growth!

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • shirtsoff November 2, 2016 at 9:21 pm

    I use PDW for both my front and rear light needs. I love their products!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • fourknees November 3, 2016 at 9:46 am

    I always thought flat pedals that had built in lights powered by a generator inside the pedal were intriguing. All the ones I’ve seen though always had poor quality/reviews, so I never purchased. Would definitely consider from PDW.

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  • Greg November 3, 2016 at 11:23 am

    I ride a Bike Friday folding bike and my fender options for 20″ wheels are not great. I love my PDW lights and would buy PDW metal fenderes for my Bike Friday in a heartbeat if there made them.

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  • Andrew Squirrel November 3, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    This company seems like it has so much potential and I’m really rooting for them. They have some really innovative products that I often recommend to friends. I just wish they were a little more forward looking with their headlights and taillights. German light manufacturers really have it all figured out and I wish PDW would hire some real engineers to create similar lights to what B&M are putting out. Headlights really need some asymmetrical beam shaping & cutoff like automobiles, tailights need to be bigger with less concentrated lumens spread out over a wider area with fresenel lenses. A blinding, beacon-like single point of light is terrible for other road users and frankly should be illegal.
    I really hope this crew sees the light and evolves their lamps instead of making more garbage lights trying to win the lumen war.
    I’m glad they are making fender mounted lights but the Fenderbot was, hands down, the worst light i’ve ever used.

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  • Eric November 3, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    You can put reflective tape on anything.
    Look at the VP flat pedals like VP-001 and VP-Vice which accept straps, have sealed bearings, come in colors, and are very durable.
    http://www.vpcomponents.com/product_categories/pedals-city/

    Mike Cobb
    With toe clip and messenger strap compatibility and an integratable rain deflecting toe clip cover. The “Portland” pedals.
    Recommended 3

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  • wsbob November 3, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    The origami rear fender looks interesting. Would it work for me better than the SKS X3 easy attach fender I’ve been using? I’d know better if I saw it firsthand. PDF instruction manual shows what seems to be a snap lock attachment design for quick and easy on, off. Don’t know of stores out in Beaverton that may have it Bike Gallery?

    I’d heard of the radbot tail light, and might have got one had it been usb rechargeable. Instead, because it had it, and was well reviewed, I got the hotshot, which while bright, generally seems regarded as weak from side angles. I’ve heard that competing manufacturers designs corrected that weakness some, but not spectacularly, and at a higher price. I see that PDW now has its Danger Zone USB tail light for 38. Looks good, but only 1 watt total compare to the hotshot’s 2 watts.

    It seems to me that really effective, good looking, integrated helmet lights could have potential. Not a big challenge to devise a means to attach a bike light or a flashlight to a bike helmet, but to me, though an improvement in visibility safety, that looks hokey. Taking advantage of bike helmet contours for added illumination, seems to be a logical thing to try doing. Some time back, there was a quickstarter project that tried to do this. Didn’t seem promising, but haven’t heard either, how that turned out.

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  • Kareem Abdul Jabbar November 4, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    You should do a PDW commuter powermeter

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  • EricIvy November 7, 2016 at 11:43 am

    I had a button that failed on my PDW tail light and they replaced it no questions asked, and asked for the old one so they could see what wrong. I love all my PDW stuff!!!!!!!!111one

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  • EricIvy November 7, 2016 at 11:45 am

    As far as Jocelyn’s question, I think it’d be great if they designed a nice BBQ grill or Propane grill you could easily attach to one of their beautiful racks. Let’s face it, Portland is getting expensive and people don’t have time for anything anymore so they need to grill while riding on their commutes. #rideonfire

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