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Q&A: Crank Brothers founders talk genesis, haters, and having a boss

  • By Logan VonBokel
  • Published Feb. 13, 2014
  • Updated Feb. 13, 2014 at 5:44 PM EDT
Crank Brothers founders Frank Hermansen (left) and Carl Winefordner (right) get to design products for riders, and leave the business decisions to the guys upstairs, though their portraits do watch over the "conference room." Photo: Logan VonBokel | VeloNews.com

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. (VN) — To find Crank Brothers, head down Broadway in the center of Laguna Beach, California, and peek inside an unassuming office building. Behind you is a Bentley, parked across the street, belonging to some local celeb doing his shopping downtown. But it’s not the car you’re here to see; its quarter-million-dollar sticker price may be equal to about 588 pairs of Crank Brothers premium titanium pedals, but the pedals, and the people behind them, are far more interesting.

Once inside the doors of Crank Brothers, things are much more normal, at least closer to our normal — mountain biker normal. The conference room table is a ping-pong table. There’s a fridge full of beer, and there’s barely a speck of free space, as employees’ parked bikes are strewn everywhere.

The layout of the office is simple. Engineers are on the main floor, in a bullpen room off the entry way. The sales team and CEO are upstairs, while founders Frank Hermansen and Carl Winfordner, well, they’re in the bullpen with the other engineers.

Some might find it odd that the founders of a brand don’t have their own corner offices, but at Crank Brothers, it’s that way for a reason: it works, and everyone enjoys it. VeloNews sat down with those founders to talk Crank Brothers’ genesis, dealing with haters, and what it feels like to have a boss at the company they built.

VeloNews: Tell us about the origin of Crank Brothers.
Carl Winfordner: Our first Interbike was 1997. We launched the Speed Lever (a tire lever), which started in early 1996. The brand launched September of ’97.

At that time, Frank and I were roommates in Costa Mesa and then we were in Corona del Mar, working our way south. We’ve been in Laguna Beach since 2001. Originally, we didn’t have any financial backing. We started with nothing and operated the company out of our homes.

VN: The first product was the Speed Lever?
Frank Hermansen: The first product as Crank Brothers, yes.

We started working together in the scuba industry. That’s how we met. After we quit there and started designing bike products, the first product was a drink system we licensed to Blackburn and later was spun into what today is Hydrapak.

When we did the Speed Lever it was the right product. We had a friend who owned a production place that could do the molds. He financed it, and allowed us to pay him back in royalties.

CW: We did not envision we would ever start a company. We even considered calling the brand Speed Lever, which I’m glad we didn’t do.

VN: What product are you most proud of? That really embodies the brand?
FH: For Carl and I there is commercial success of a product, and then there’s us knowing what it took to develop it and how clever we feel that it was. The Speed Lever is as dear to our hearts as the Eggbeater (pedal), but the Speed Lever is a tire lever, and you can only sell so many tire levers.

When we did the Eggbeater, everything changed. It was something magazines wanted to write about and suddenly it took us to another level, but as a product, I think the Speed Lever is as close to our heart as the Eggbeater.

CW: We always try to solve problems we encounter on our rides. That’s how the pumps came to be. We never saw ourselves as a tool company. But, still, it was weird when we came up with the pedal because other people thought we were a tool and pump company. Then there were the pedals and some people don’t even know about our previous products, they just think “you’re a pedal company,” but we’re making all kinds of stuff.

FH: Really we were just cyclists, you know, who designed stuff. So whatever we designed is whatever popped into our head for whatever problem we had. We never sat down and thought, “It makes business sense for us to make this.” There was none of that until Andrew Herrick joined us [as CEO]. He joined us at a point where the Eggbeater had blown up. Suddenly the phone was ringing every five minutes, and Carl and I were looking at each other saying, “No it’s your turn, I’m not picking up.” We roshamboed for who had to answer the phone.

CW: We thought we would sell 5,000 in the first year and we sold 30,000 and we were always behind. We weren’t doing anything wrong, per-se, but we were drowning in the success. We really just wanted to do product design, so Andrew came along at the right time where he could handle that entire side of business.

VN: The story of how Crank Brothers came to be where it is today is interesting. You two are founders, Selle Royal purchased most of the company from you, you both sit downstairs with all of the other engineers, and Andy Palmer was brought on as CEO six months ago.
CW: Andy’s role is not one we ever wanted. Our strength is in product design, and we’ve fortunately worked it out so that it is what we can focus on. It’s what gives us the most joy and it’s the best use of the company’s resources.

FH: One thing we have been very aware of, and important to our success, is that we know what we suck at, and we avoid it. No matter how weird a job is, or how boring it is to us, there is someone else who likes doing it, starting with Andrew [Herrick]. We hated the business side, and we sucked at it.

CW: Well, we were mediocre. We did OK, considering we didn’t enjoy that side of it. We bumbled around and made mistakes we shouldn’t have made.

VN: Is it weird having a boss of sorts in this office?
FH: Yes, it’s weird, but fundamentally it’s a good thing, because our passion is designing products. It’s what we like to do and it’s what we’re good at.

VN: What are your professional backgrounds?
CW: I’m a mechanical engineer and Frank is an industrial designer. We have a much bigger overlap than most engineers and designers, because most engineers design ugly things that work and most designers design beautiful things you can’t make. But, we both have an appreciation for the other side and he has very good engineering instincts.

We do stuff that is very different. We don’t buy designs and products off the shelf and put our logo on them. That wouldn’t give us any satisfaction and it’s not why somebody comes to Crank Brothers. We do it a little differently, and not for the sake of being different, but we try to solve a problem for at least some people. We firmly believe that if you try to make something that is great for everybody, its just ok for most people. We would rather have it be that you either love this product or you hate it.

You know, the Eggbeater, some people loved it, and other people thought it was too small. Then we came out with the Candy, and then the Mallet. People said, “Finally, you solved it,” and Eggbeater riders were like, “What are you doing?”

FH: It’s interesting, you know, we have a lot of haters, which is a little difficult for Carl and I. To know that there are people who hate us, and fundamentally I believe it is because we try to make something that is better for somebody, like Carl said, but then other people are going to think, “Well it’s wrong for me.” They hate it, and I know it’s a passion industry and we’re all very passionate as cyclists. Try to say “29er” downstairs [in the engineering bullpen], and you’re going to start a fight. We understand that there’s going to be people who are passionate, and are going to be judgmental. Fundamentally, it’s still a little difficult when you have people trashing something.

CW: Like in the forums. People don’t even need to see a product before they’ve decided they hate it.

VN: As far as your haters, the biggest complaint I hear from Crank Brothers’ customers is that they don’t feel like they should have to rebuild their pedals. What’s your take on that?
FH: If you look at the history of our company, we are still a very young company and we have definitely gone through a learning process with most of our products. There is a certain amount of stuff that you only learn through years of having the product out there and experiencing it. We can only do so much testing and riding on our own. We could never envision some of the things people are doing in Colorado and other places. I think that the truth is, our products have gotten so much better over the years, through that experience that we have gained.

CW: The warranty rate, and the durability, is so much better. We are never going to stop trying to make it better, but I think we are approaching a point where people should not have to rebuild them. They could rebuild them. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the feature where you could rebuild our pedals, but I think at this stage, you can look at our warranty rates, and the latest generation of pedals is very low.

The problem is, that if you have a bad durability reputation, say with the 2003 to 2005 pedals, it takes a very long time to get rid of that perception and the same is true with the other side. If a company has the reputation for making a rock-solid product, but they start falling off, they’ll still maintain that good reputation for a long time.

We’re ok with all that. There’s probably still people that look back and think, “Well, we’re not carrying those, they fell apart,” but that was a long time ago and you know what? We took care of you if anything happened to you.

Editor’s note: Crank Brothers covered travel expenses, including a flight and hotel accommodations, for Logan VonBokel’s November 2013 visit.

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Logan VonBokel

Logan VonBokel

Equally at home on a mountain bike above treeline and chasing down moves in the heat and humidity of a Midwest criterium, Logan Vonbokel is something of an oddity in cycling. Since he first swung a leg over a road bike as a freshman in high school, Logan has been a lover of both cutting-edge technological innovations and the clean lines of classic handmade bikes. Logan joined the tech team in May 2012, bringing with him nearly a decade of high-caliber road racing experience and his undying love for the mud, cowbells, and culture of cyclocross. Logan still races at the Cat. 2 level on the road and in cyclocross, and carries a seldom-used Cat. 1 mountain bike license.

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