Builder Brand

Some years back during an excruciating romantic entanglement the object of my endurance railed against coworkers who she sniped performed only the work they found easy. When I mentioned the nature of competency is to veer toward those acts we do well I suffered for it.

But that’s the nature of a career, in a nutshell. We find work that we do with competence, maybe later, mastery. Becoming good at something causes the brain to release reward chemicals so that our proficiency becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We do it over and over because it feels good to be good at something. And frankly, employers may sometimes want more, but they never want less.

The dream of the average frame builder is to be the torch set’s version of a one-man band. The fantasy most hold is one of days spent with the trade’s tools in hand. If not a torch, then a file. The reality is that what’s in hand is as often a phone, a pen or a mouse.

The pressure of being a sole proprietorship forces questions of profit and loss, fixed costs and production rate—details as unromantic as toilet paper, yet no less necessary. But even a mastery of the tasks necessary to run a successful business won’t it make.

Brand. For all the passion, technical wizardry and expert work I saw at NAHBS, the detail that united most of the builders there was a lack of branding.


Some years back a builder I was interviewing complained that his bikes didn’t get the same air time as those of Richard Sachs. My reply was less than sympathetic. I said, “Yeah.”

“Well how come.”

“I called you.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Richard calls me. Any time he calls me, he has something to show me.”

While I thought the message was clear, the builder’s profile rose not one stitch. I’ve never seen a T-shirt with his logo. His low output is at times the butt of jokes by other builders.

Sacha White has paid attention. He anted Sachs and then raised. Branding isn’t a cool logo. It’s not just your logo on T-shirts and tchotchkes. It’s more than a good graphic designer.

There’s no way to deconstruct how a pink grenade conveys speed, style and lust, but it does all of those things, and more. Further, my sense of what his brand stands for is just that: my sense. Because it’s my emotional connection to what he does, it doesn’t even matter if my perception is different from yours if both are favorable. Done well, most folks will get the same impression, even if not everyone ends up liking it. After all, no one gets loved by everyone.

I kept wandering by the Vanilla booth at NAHBS, partly because I just liked the booth, partly because it was near other stuff I liked (though the same could be said of every booth at NAHBS) and partly because it had a lively atmosphere with an ever-revolving cast of characters. In short, it was a good place to be. And though I’m not a coffee drinker, I know they were serving good stuff. I know this because of the coffee snobs who stopped by for a fix.

That Sachs and White both have waits that are measured not in months, but in years, has generated both gasps of respect and amazement as well as eye-rolling dismissal. As if all those customers were schmucks for their willingness to wait, when they could buy … well what would they be buying?

And that’s the thing. There were a great many beautiful bikes there. Strip the paint off all of them and the number of truly stellar bikes might surprise you. One of my very favorite builders there, a guy whose impact on road bikes can be felt in lug design and geometry—to this day—showed bikes of such ordinary appearance I don’t think I could buy one.

A bike should be stylish in my eyes. It should be something that unavoidably short-circuits my brain to associate its lines, its graphics with my sense of fun on the road. A glimpse of the fork should make me dream of descending some mountain. If, instead, I find myself thinking, “I should have sent it to someone else for paint,” then the joke is on me.

Say what you will, but a wait list is a bold-face confirmation of connection with admirers, admirers who became clients.

At the very least, most builders would benefit from the creation of an internal style guide. Any time I see a powder blue so light it looks like a faded duck egg, I know it’s a Speedvagen. And that hot pink? Well, since I stopped seeing Serottas in that color, Sacha has cornered the market. Even without a full-blown style guide, builders would do well to develop a signature color palette. The point isn’t to be hard-nosed about the appearance of their bikes; rather most would benefit from having a few colors that could announce the presence of their bike even when it’s moving too fast to read the decal.

Builders: Give us more to look at than just your bikes. Give us a window into your passions, your quirks, your whimsy. Give us a way to connect with you beyond just the frame. Be personal. Take a stand. Embrace risk.

Be yourself and we’ll love you even more.

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  1. randomactsofcycling

    You make a really good point Padraig and it is interesting to study how Vanilla and Sachs have gone about building their brands. One seems a very conscious effort and the other exactly and stubbornly the opposite. It’s almost a form/function debate. I actually have never read a review of a Vanilla but I have certainly heard many a journo wax lyrical of their beauty and design. However, all you hear of a Richard Sachs is about the ride and performance.
    I think they are both very good marketers!

  2. Touriste-Routier

    Tradesmen/Artisans seldom have excellent business acumen; it is a left brain vs right brain sort of thing. Hence it makes it very difficult for them to build a true brand vs merely producing an excellent product.

    Your points are well noted, but I think building a solid reputation over time and creating differentiation are paramount to building a brand, signature color or not.

    You have acknowledged a societal bias for the shiny object. How many times do we hear people wax poetically about an object (car, bike, etc.) based upon it’s appearance alone? That ’64 Mustang with a glossy new paint job may be a complete mechanical wreck, just as the bike lacking superb finishing work (or that is less visually appealing) might fly down a switchback filled mountain road with ease and grace.

    Perception often overpowers reality. In the end, marketing/brand building is an effort that fosters this, even if the reality is unimpeachable to begin with.

  3. TucsonMTB

    Thanks for bringing back great memories Padraig!

    Decades ago, when riding in USCF races was the most important part of my life, Jerry Casale sold me a light blue Sachs road bike previously owned by national team member. Full campy, too.

    Standing in his narrow Hill Cycle shop store front next to his ageless mom in Germantown, Jerry always underwrote PBC in a way that gave us poor young riders the chance to ride top notch machines. I treasured that bicycle for thousands of miles until I finally sold it to a close friend who rode it for several more years. It may still hang in his basement next to his current Trek Madone.

    Age has made me more impatient. Life is now too short to even consider waiting long enough to purchase another Richard Sachs, but that glorious bicycle will live on in my memory as long as these synapses fire.

  4. mark

    Spot on, Padraig. I’ve worked for companies that had great products and lousy marketing/sales and companies that had lousy products but great marketing/sales. The latter always make money. In an ideal world, these builders would focus on the product and leave the sales and marketing to an expert. But paying the expert while things ramp up is the challenge.

  5. crankles

    as the owner of a egg blue Speedvagen, I feel the need to correct the spelling of said machine 😉

    and while we are on the subject of branding, the most refreshing thing I find about vanilla/speedvagen is the thought/design the saturates every level of the marketing. I still have the “application packet” from the first run of Speedvagens. So over the top and unnecessary as to be comical. I loved it!

  6. Nate

    I had the honor of attending NAHBS, my first bike show, just because I live in the area. I took my wife, a non-cyclist. Guess what booth was her favorite. Not even close; she mingled around and took in every detail of the Vanilla bikes. She didn’t understand the technical aspects, but she knows beauty!

    Having her there also brought an unbiased view of bike appearance. I love the design of Parlee bikes. She gave a ho-hum to all of them. A asked her why and she said, “Their logo sucks – looks dated and plain”. After thinking about it, she is right. Has nothing to do with the function or workmanship beneath, but it’s nice when a bike manufacturer works to make the product beautiful.

  7. noel

    Padraig, you know.. that Vagen of mine is the one bike that I can descend Tuna on and hold your wheel. So there’s that too. Ive always seen riding as an aesthetic experience…. everything from how you pedal, what line you take, how you ride in the group, how you express yourself, how you sit on the bike, and the bike itself as it relates to the rider… all can be so much more when it’s a way of expressing something… and it goes beyond the logos and the paint. I’ve never seen a Vagen where the frame wasn’t well proportioned….

  8. Francesco

    Padraig, it seems like branding is especially needed for steel frame makers. If I were to have 2 makers each make me a frame from the same Pegorichie (as an example) tubes to my specified geometry, the resulting frames should ride the same way. That is, would Richard Sach’s bike really differ in ride and handling from someone else’s frame built with the same tubes, lugs and geometry? Because of this commoditization, marketing their brand is the only way the steel frame makers can stand apart. I think that’s a big reason the large companies love carbon fiber: they can manipulate the molds to create different tube shapes and then market the shapes as being superior to others’ designs.

    I agree with Touriste-Routier: many technical people lack skills in branding and marketing since it is a left-brain/right-brain thing. I am a very technical person and I know I definitely could never create a brand or market it.

    1. Author

      Francesco: I need to ask, just what do you mean by geometry. Not everyone means the same thing when they use that term. Are you using the term to be inclusive of both your fit and the handling geometry (i.e. specifics such as BB drop and trail, which are both independent of fit)? If absolutely every detail is the same, then yes, the frames should ride the same way. That said, almost no one would build a frame the same way as Richard Sachs.

      The moment you believe that steel frames have been commoditized, they are in your perception and you cease to be able to see the great variety out there.

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  10. Francesco

    Thanks, Padraig. You’re right, I didn’t think about certain handling traits. I think I need to do some more research online to see the difference between different makers’ frames created for the same use, such as a mix of road and dirt-road riding.

    For someone who hasn’t bought a bike in many years it is difficult to know the differences without first hand experience. All I used to see in bike shops was carbon fiber. Just seeing some steel frames was hard before the recent resurgence. Without seeing the frames in person, I have no idea what would set apart a Sachs from a Vanilla from a Hampsten. For what it’s worth, I’m old fashioned and ride steel and probably always will. I’d love to learn more about the differences to look for in steel frames if anyone has any ideas. Thanks

    1. Author

      This is what makes the conversation so interesting. I continue to be amazed by the bikes I can descend well on vs. the ones that I can’t get to turn. There aren’t many of the latter, but they serve as reminders that geometry matters. I believe the right bike can eliminate most of the fear in descending.

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