Business Week Online: Why Seven Cycles Is Racing Ahead: The Net

America’s No. 1 Custom-Bike Frame Maker Uses Its Web Site to Personalize Service, Speed Production, and Reach More Cyclists With Just a Small Staff

by Valigra

Former bicycle racer Rob Vandermark, 32, figures he has won the race to bring an old-style, low-tech business into the Information Age. In the two years since co-founding Seven Cycles Inc. (www.sevencycles.com), Vandermark’s company — so named because seven is a lucky number in many cultures — has sped to first place among the 250 or so custom bicycle-frame builders in the U.S. The Internet, he says, has been the key.

How so? Labor-intensive, mom-and-pop shops still dominate the custom bike market, and people seeking state-of-the-art frames often have a tough time finding craftsmen to make exactly what they want. But thanks to the Net, that has become a lot easier. Seven uses its Web site to let customers get deeply involved in the frame-building process, enabling them to design their own high-end bike frames and track their development all the way through the process. And the Web lets Vandermark reach — and service — more customers than rivals can, and with more of a personal touch than ever before. Mom-and-pop shops are able to make only 20 to 30 frames a year. Seven makes 1,000 frames annually.

Key Database

Here’s how it works: Seven’s frames are sold through a network of 125 dealers in the U.S. and distributors in 15 other countries. Dealers help fill in Seven’s four-page questionnaire asking for 50 or so details of the customer’s size and riding habits. That information is fed into a spreadsheet, and Vandermark uses the specifications to design the custom bike. The specs also are kept in a database, making it easier to develop future bicycles. “This database is part of what has allowed us to build custom bikes with such a small staff,” Vandermark says.

Before a single tube is cut for a bike, Vandermark and co-founder Matt O’Keefe call each customer and review their order, within 24 hours of receiving it. It then takes about 28 hours to build the frame. It can take six weeks or more to get the bike, partly because of Seven’s order backlog and partly because of customs delays on international deliveries.

One customer checked the status of his bike up to six times a day on Seven’s “Where’s My Frame” page.

What makes someone pay $6,000 for a bike they will not get to road-test first? Web-driven personalization can make all the difference, Seven dealers and customers say. Just ask Mike Tierney, 51, a Canadian fireman and cyclist who rides more than 100 miles a week. Tierney took to the Net to search for his dream bike, one that is high-performance, light, and custom-built to his own measurements and riding habits. He settled on Seven’s “Sola” — a $2,500 titanium frame. After buying the frame, Tierney had to add another $2,500 worth of hand-picked components such as hubs, spokes, and handlebars to complete the bike.

The cost was offset, though, by the attention Tierney got from Vandermark and his 19 employees. Tierney corresponded regularly by E-mail with Vandermark about his frame as it was being built. Tierney also checked — up to six times a day — on Seven’s “Where’s My Frame?” Web page, where customers can track the status of their bike as it goes through production, find out what’s being done with it in each phase, and learn who’s working on it. Tierney was so pleased with his finished Seven that he posted a photograph of it on his personal Web site.

Expert Hand-Holding

He’s not the only one high on the customization. Many of Seven’s customers have sent Vandermark disposable cameras to get a picture of their frame as it goes through each production step. And some customers are so keen to get their bike that they show up, in person, at Seven’s Watertown (Mass.) factory — a World War II-era structure formerly occupied by the Goddess Bra Co., which made 52 styles of bras. Seven’s bike frames come in 200 sizes or can be customized at no extra charge.

Letting customers tune in throughout the process is the kind of hand-holding that can come with Net service, Vandermark says. That isn’t lost on Seven’s dealers. “When the customer sends an E-mail, they get an answer from the bike’s designer. If you go to other major bike makers’ sites, all you get is some high-school kid reading out of a catalog,” says Scott Fader, a sales executive at Belmont Wheel Works, Seven’s largest dealer. The Boston-area bike shop sells more than 60,000 bikes a year, 100 of them Sevens.

Customers can reaffirm their decisions at each visit, and that helps Seven dealers sell more frames.

Seven’s Web site is one of its big selling points. Bill Revard, a Seven dealer at the Bike Line Inc. shop in Indianapolis, says Seven’s site is set up so customers can reaffirm their decision every time they log onto it, and that has helped him sell more Seven frames. The site gets more than 7,000 hits a day and more than 200 E-mail messages a week, which are answered within 24 hours by Vandermark, O’Keefe, and other Seven staff. The site also includes photographs of Seven’s staff and bike models, plus technical articles and reviews comparing Seven bikes with the competition’s. Says Vandermark: “Part of our success is that we are tied to a business model that includes the Internet.”

So far, so good. Last year, revenues hit $1.27 million, and the company posted $50,600 in profits — an uptick that came earlier than expected. With revenues expected to reach $1.9 million this year, Vandermark turned down a second round of venture financing.

But how much can the bike-frame maker grow and still stay No. 1 in personalization? “Our business can only get so large, and not larger,” says Vandermark. But he’s not worried about it, and neither are dealers like Fader of Belmont Wheel Works. “What’s special about Seven is the way everyone works together,” he says. For Vandermark, seven is proving to be a lucky number.

Bicycle Retailer and Industry News: Manufacturing Space Increases Sevenfold

Seven Cycles Completes Second Year with Success

by Jill Janov

Watertown, MA Despite a sluggish market, Seven Cycles rode strong sales of its high-end bicycles into 1998. The company, which produces some of the most expensive production frames in the industry, reported more than $1.25 million in revenue last year, with sales climbing 244 percent in 1998 over 1997. The young company, in its second year, is already showing profits and growth continuing in the first quarter of this year.

“We started the business at the hardest time to start a new business, when the market was in a downturn. But it hasn’t hurt us to be in the high end. Certainly the high-end is doing better than the rest of the market,” said Rob Vandermark, president and founder. The company’s frames retail for between $1,495 and $2,975, with the most popular model selling for $2,595. Vandermark also attributed his company’s early success to a focused mission, extensive frame-building experience, a hard-working staff and a connection to its customers.

Last year, the first full year of production, the company expanded its product line from 16 to 33 models, moved to a larger factory and cut operating costs. While the company doubled its production, the staff only jumped from 11 to 15 employees–a 36 percent increase. This made it possible for operating expenses to dip by more than 55 percent per frame sale, slicing overall operating expenses by 60 percent in 1998. This happened even as Seven moved to a new factory, seven times larger.

The number of retailers selling Seven’s bikes jumped from 75 to 125 last year, as sales per dealer increased nearly 50 percent. The company’s top five retailers are in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto and San Francisco.

“We could have taken on more dealers, but we wanted to make sure we were supporting our current dealers and giving them good territory bases. We thought more about the revenue per dealer rather than our expansion of dealers,” Vandermark said.

International sales for 1998 amounted to about 10 percent of the company’s revenues and increased by 8 percent, up from 2 percent in 1997. The company expects the number to jump to 16 percent this year. With 13 distributors worldwide–up from 7 last year–those in Canada, Japan and Italy handle the bulk of Seven’s international business.

The company nearly quadrupled its revenue per dollar spent on advertising in 1998. Internet sales, which links shoppers to retailers, have increased 7 percent.

Seven’s 1999 line has a straight-gauge titanium frame at a lower price point, a steel tandem, a redesigned rear suspension mountain frame and short-travel suspension road and cyclocross frames. In 1998, Seven introduced the Odonata, a custom, titanium and carbon-fiber frame that weighs 2.48 pounds; a custom short-travel suspension frame; a titanium tandem and custom titanium stems.

bicycling.com: The Perfect Ride

Joe Lindsey


Bicycling Cover

  1. In Seven’s expansive line of road frames, the Aerios is the lightweight champ. The frame employs Seven’s most radically butted tube set, compact geometry, and minimalist non-adjustable housing stops at the head tube. Like all Seven frames, it’s offered in stock geometry-but seven will build you a complete custom bike at no extra charge.
  2. Seven custom-built the Aerios for our test-drive. The geometry numbers looked wrong at first—Seven designs the bike with a much shorter top tube and higher bar than our subject usually rides. After extensive riding however, including the six-day Bicycle Tour of Colorado, our test rider fell in love with Seven’s fit. “It completely eliminated the neck, shoulder and upper back pain that had nagged me on longer rides. The position isn’t as aerodynamic as my previous bike, but I can ride longer and more comfortably now. I completely changed how I feel about my bike fit.”
  3. Besides reducing the Aerios overall weight, the medium diameter, thin walled, butted 3/2.5 titanium tubes have a delicious ride quality. Take the best traits of carbon and steel frames, throw them into a blender, and the resulting mix is much like the Aerios ride. It’s smooth and comfortable, yet it maintains a communicative feel. Seven customizes the tubeset for the rider right down to the butting.
  4. Because he was concerned about the overall stiffness of the frame, our 165 pound test rider requested that Seven put some extra beef in the platform. That lead to a slightly heavier frame, but at just 2.4 pounds it’s hardly porky, and it was plenty rigid enough for our tester to be happy with the ride.
  5. Our tester told Seven what he was looking for in terms of handling, and the company nailed it. “I wanted something like my previous bike. It’s on the quicker side, responsive and sporty, but it doesn’t fall into corners and it doesn’t have too-light a front end. It’s planted and hooked up going down or going up.”

Aerios

Seven Aerios

Best Thing: Having a lightweight road rocket built just for you
Worst Thing: Once you have this bike, will you never want another?
Our Verdict: Another amazing bike from Seven
Weight: 16 lb., 2 oz. (54cm w/o pedals)
Sizes: 44 to 67cm in 1cm increments (custom 54cm tested); custom (no charge)
Component Highlights: (as tested) Compagnolo Record 10-speed group; Neutron wheels; USE Alien post; Thomson X2 stem; 3T Zepp XL bar; Fi’zik Aerione saddle; Vitoria Open Course EVO CX tires
Contact: 617.923.7774; sevencycles.com

Mountain Bike Magazine: Seventh Heaven – We Found the Perfect Bike – Too Bad You Can’t Afford It

by Matt Phillips

Some humans—by their very nature—like to take things to extremes. Witness the legions of people who jump out of perfectly operational airplanes. Not content with that, they push themselves further by skysurfing, BASE jumping and other such nonsense. Bike riders are not immune to this phenomenon. One could certainly argue that after the derailleur was invented, the bike was ideal and didn’t need to be developed further. But we pushed and pushed. The Seven Odonata is the result of one company pushing the limits once again.

Oh, the Frame!

Seven bicycles are regarded by most who see them as beautiful, and by some who ride them as ideal. For president Rob Vandermark to cut up one of his stunning Axiom titanium bikes could be considered sacrilege. After all, the bike is already plenty light and rides like a dream. But Vandermark wasn’t content with that. So out came the titanium seat tube and seatstays, and in went filament-wound carbon tubes, courtesy of Advanced Composites—the same company that makes Wound Up forks.

What’s Vandermark’s reasoning? Weight and ride quality. An Odonata frame is 10% lighter than the all titanium Axiom, and according to Vandermark, it offers a plusher, more comfortable ride. In fact it was carbon’s ride characteristics that first attracted Vandermark to the material.

“The damping characteristics are too good to ignore, but I wasn’t satisfied with the all-carbon bikes out there. So I leveraged some of its good points while minimizing its problems.” To ensure the highest quality ride, Vandermark orients the carbon’s fibers so they provide vertical compliance in the stays, while the seat tube is designed for maximum stiffness in bending and torsion. The carbon is mated to the titanium in what may be considered an unusual manner. At the bottom ends, the carbon fits over lugs, while in the upper ends, the titanium fits over the carbon. Both ends and the brake bridge are bonded in place.

Enough about the carbon bits—there’s a lot of titanium to talk about, too. The titanium is Seven’s proprietary Argen butted tubeset. How and where the tubes are butted depends on you, though. Seven’s extensive custom kit tailors each tube based on your weight, ride style, handling and rigidity preferences. By doing so, the company can create an ideal ride for anyone. (And for those of you who don’t want to take the time to complete the “custom” paperwork, the Odonata is available in 24 stock sizes.)

Between the trick hybrid frame and the extensive custom kit, you may forget to just look at the Odonata. To do so would be like concentrating on the brush strokes of a Cezanne, instead of stepping back to see how they all come together. Seven doesn’t make frames—it makes art. The smooth tapers make the titanium and carbon look like one piece of material, while the brake mount is elegantly simple. Plus, you have those gorgeous welds (which are about the best you can find), that sexy seat clamp and the laser-cut head badge.

Oh, the Parts!

Our test bike was a stock-sized 56 cm. Nothing special about it. Of course that’s like saying a Lamborghini Diablo is “nothing special” because it doesn’t have a custom-made seat. You gotta look at the big picture. The bike is equipped with a relatively tame build kit of Dura-Ace nine-speed and some tubulars. The Wound Up fork was one of the first 1 1/8-inch around (the larger size is available with either a carbon or aluminum steerer). Even though the steerer is a larger diameter, either version is lighter than the 1-inch version with a steel steerer. Additionally, the 11/8-inch fork is stiffer, and with the carbon steerer, more shock absorbing than its 1-inch steel counterpart. Also, there was the $300 Seven “assassin” titanium stem, which is available in custom reaches, rises and stiffnesses. We swapped the boring Ritchey post for one of the new Thomson layback posts, which gave us the same seating position, but in a package more suited to the Seven. As it sits, the Odonata weighs 17 pounds.

Oh, The Ride!

Riding the Seven feels like cheating. It’s too fast and it’s too comfortable. But who wouldn’t take an advantage like this? Immediately noticeable is the weight. The bike surges away from stoplights and makes you feel like a high-mileage stud. Up climbs the best term to use is “float.” You may not look like Marco Pantani, but this bike makes you feel like him. Tied into all this is the bike’s efficient rear triangle, no doubt helped by the healthy 7/8-inch curved chainstays. Riders on this bike felt like they could use a higher gear than they use on their normal bike.

Around LA’s uneven roads the shock-absorbing abilities were welcome, especially for riders coming off stiff aluminum bikes. We’ve never heard a road bike described as plush, but it is applicable. Except in this case plush doesn’t mean inefficient, heavy or a bitch to get up hill. It just means all-day comfortable.

Shimano’s Dura-Ace performed mightily. If you think XTR is precise, wait till you try this stuff. Quiet and smooth running, the shifting never required maintenance. All elements of this bike—the weight, the comfort, the solid parts—combine to make it meld with the rider. You become one with the road, melting away the miles and pushing yourself further.

The worst thing about the Odonata is that it only confirms what we already know—there are benefits to being rich that most of us will never realize. Not even with their abundance of engineers, slick ad campaigns or lawyers have the biggest of the mega-bike corporations reached such a level of quality craftsmanship as Seven has here. Eat your heart out Trek, Specialized, Schwinn and GT—the folks at Seven have you beat. This is a contemporary bike for the modern traditionalist, a bike everyone would and could fall in love with—if only we could afford it.

Note to mountain bike traditionalists: Even though the company has excellent line of mountain bikes, Seven doesn’t have an off-road version of the Odonata. The company says it’s possible, but it would be heavier, more complex, more fragile and more expensive than the full titanium hardtail.

Mountain Bike Magazine: “Matt’s Favorites” – Best Bunch of Bike Geeks/Best Hardtail

by Richard J. Cunningham, courtesy of Mountain Bike Action

I prefer suspension to hardtails. But the Seven Sola hardtail that I’ve been riding for the past year is my favorite bike ever. Why? It fits me so well, and handles exactly the way I like. Why? It was built for me through Seven’s excellent custom program. I miss this bike when I can’t ride it. It makes me happy, it makes riding fun and I love it. Plus I have the satisfaction of knowing it was built by a small group of the most obsessed bike geeks on the planet, headed up by Rob Vandermark. What Seven did for me, they can do for you, too.