The sweetest, swiftest fixed-speeds in town are actually designed here, too. Brian Ruben, Chief Bicycle Officer of Venice-born and Venice-based Solé Bicycle Co., is on a path to building a recognized lifestyle brand largely influenced by the local beachside culture, and it all started just a few years ago when a simple frame stood out among a sea of clunky cruisers.
"We were walking home from class one day, and everyone at USC had these beach cruisers,” says Ruben. “We noticed a small group of people on these [fixed-speed bikes] and stopped the kids and asked, 'Hey where did you get these?'"
They said they made them, and that the bikes cost about $1,000 to $1,500. “We looked at each other and said eff that,” laughs Ruben.
At the time, he was a senior finance major, and Solé co-founders Jonathan Shriftman and Jacob Medwell were sophomores. As college students, they couldn’t afford to buy these bikes they wanted, and they definitely did not have time to build them, but they figured out a smart alternative.
Ruben graduated in 2009 and started his career in finance at Merrill Lynch while Medwell and Shriftman continued at USC and discovered the site Alibaba. It’s basically crowdsourcing for manufacturing almost anything, and through their research learned that, “90 percent of the world’s population of bikes comes from 15 factories in China.” They looked at hundreds of options and decided on a frame, nothing proprietary, but a perfect start to customize what they envisioned, and with a few thousand dollars in investment cash from family, they ordered 100 bikes. Each one seemed to have at least one thing wrong with it, says Ruben, but friends would come to the house where Medwell and Shriftman stored them and pay in cash or trade. They sold out within one month.
“This was all trial and error,” he says. “It wasn't like we all sat down and had some crazy, mastermind business plan. It's not like we studied the market. We thought these were cool bikes and we just wanted to sell them to our friends. We were literally slinging bikes."
They grew organically, and figured out ways to improve while keeping costs down. After a year, they launched a basic website with three Solé styles, and as sales continued to climb, timing was perfect for the three friends to commit themselves 100 percent. Medwell and Shriftman graduated and Ruben left his job to join Solé Bicycle Co. full-time. Since that initial run they're now on their fifth factory, working directly with their own sourcing agent, and visiting once every three months to oversee production. Since 2012, they’ve sold more than 10,000 bikes per year, and their sales continue to grow year over year. The bikes start $279 and work up to $399, plus $25 shipping anywhere in the US.
Bikes arrive in a cardboard box within in three days, 90 percent assembled. Customers attach the front wheel and handlebars.
After various sales approaches, Solé focuses primarily on e-commerce, but don’t expect to see them on a flash sale website anytime soon. They sold 500 bikes in four days on Fab.com, and it was great for exposure, but now they're positioned to drive direct sales. They will however have a Venice showroom, much larger than where they are now, and they'll have one in New York. They'll also have clothing and accessories. On the day we meet with Ruben, there was parking ticket officer happily loading a Sole into her Prius for a Christmas gift. There’s still a place for some retail, and they do love to interact with customers, but quality, affordability and convenience are top priority.
It’s core to how they got started back when they were in college. None of them are technical riders, but they loved fixed-gear bikes and wanted to bring them to everyday riders. They are the first to commoditize this style, but it’s the artistry and design that makes Sole a lifestyle brand.
"We want to become the first lifestyle bike company. We looked around and a lot of our inspiration comes from things that we like … skating, we're huge surfers, volleyball, all types of sports, urban wear, fashion. We thought there's a skateboard company that did it and there's snowboarding companies that do it, there's headphone companies that do it now. Why can't we be the first bike company that crossed that barrier?"
They've stayed away from neon, which is popular with other fixed-gear, high-performance bikes, and they keep customization to a minimum, another major differentiator from existing fixed gear brands.
Each bike has a name and a story behind it. On the website, there's a witty one-liner that goes with each one such as The Zissou, inspired by The Life Aquatic Starring Steve Zissou. Its tagline: “Nobody knows what's going to happen. And then we film it. That's the whole concept.” They also partner with local artists who want to customize a Solé. At their storefront/office on the first block of Brooks Ave., these one-of-a-kind bikes are hung up on the wall alongside sketched and painted murals.
Lifestyle brands have taken notice and some very cool collaborations have followed including one where Beats customized ten bikes for athletes to enjoy at the Olympic Village in London.
“We’re really flexible and we love to do collaborations that make sense,” says Ruben. “There's no template.”
For those who love Sole but prefer a more cushy ride than a fixie would allow, Sole is about to debut its new City Bike, a mix between the fixed gear and a beach cruiser. It's their version of the Linus for around $499 and it will come in two colors. Still no word on what their names will be, but may we suggest the Lincoln & Rose?