Tuesday 25 October 2016

Little Bikes, big ambitions

Simon Evans tells Sean Gallagher about the lightbulb moment that kick-started his bike business for children

Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher with Simon Evans, inventor of the LittleBig bike. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Simon Evans, inventor of the LittleBig bike. Photo: David Conachy

Getting your first bicycle as a child is one of those wonderful milestones in life that most of us never forget.

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So when our three-and- a-half-year-old son, Bobby, recently announced that he wanted a bicycle, we thought this was great.

When asked about what type of bike he wanted, his answer was short: a blue one. Because his friend in creche had a blue one. However, for parents, deciding on what type of bicycle to buy your child can be far more complex than you might initially envisage.

Early the following Saturday, my wife Trish and I set off in search of the right blue bike. And that's when our education on children's bikes began. What height did we want? What thickness of tyres? Oh, and did we want one with stabilisers? All straightforward enough. Then we were asked what seemed an odd question. Would we consider a balance bike? One without pedals?

"Without pedals?" I asked, jumping to my son's defence. "No. Our little man will be well able for a normal bike."

However, once the shop owner showed us what a balance bike was, we were immediately taken by it. When he told us that it was part of the LittleBig Bike range of children's bicycles and had been designed by a young man who had previously worked in the shop, we became even more intrigued; and because it also came in a range of colours - including blue - we all left as happy customers, Bobby included.

Curious to learn more, I went in search of the young man whose innovative bikes are now taking the market by storm.

Set up in 2014, LittleBig Bikes is the brainchild of Simon Evans. A passionate and accomplished amateur cyclist, his business may still be a relatively small one with only two staff and a projected turnover this year of €500,000. However, based on the love he has for what he does, together with the quality of his designs, he is one young entrepreneur who seems destined for huge success.

"The LittleBig bike is a unique three-in-one bicycle that adapts to a growing child's needs," says Simon as he shows me around his production facility and showroom in Wicklow town. "Starting as a pedal-less balance bike, the young rider propels themselves forward by pushing off the ground with their feet in true Fred Flintstone style. By gliding along without stabilisers, kids quickly develop co-ordination and motor skills."

What is unique about its design is that, instead of having to buy a new bike as the child grows, all you do is simply rotate the rear of the bike's frame which immediately turns it into a bigger balance bike with a higher saddle and a longer handlebar reach. Finally, as and when your child is ready for the next stage, you then add a separate pedal and crank attachment, instantly converting it into a full pedal bike. Because they have already learned how to balance, learning to use pedals becomes much easier than if they were transitioning from stabilisers.

It is a simple but ingenious design, and the bike can be used by children all the way from the age of two up to seven.

"We focus almost exclusively on selling online, which has made it possible for us to sell to customers from all over the world," says Simon. "Approximately 50pc of our business comes from the UK, 25pc from the US, 10pc from Ireland and the remaining 15pc from far-flung places ranging from Canada and Egypt to the UAE, Korea and even Japan." As we speak, he puts the finishing touches to an order that came in online the night before from Dallas, Texas.

Sometimes, even he cannot believe the level of interest his new bikes are generating.

Originally from Greystones, Co Wicklow, Simon got hooked on cycling from an early age. Having received a degree in civil, structural and environmental engineering from Trinity College Dublin, he moved to the UK - to Cambridge - where he worked for three years as a structural engineer on buildings of a historical nature such as the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the Royal College of Arts.

In 2008 he decided it was time to leave his job to fulfil his lifelong dream of cycling around the world. Together with his long-time friend Fearghal O'Nuallain, he spent the next 18 months cycling up to 16 hours a day, covering more than 30,000km through some of the highest, driest and most remote places on Earth. They became the first Irish people to successfully circumnavigate the globe by bicycle, raising more than €25,000 for the Aware charity in the process. However, coming home to Ireland in 2010 was to prove every bit as challenging as the adventure he had just completed.

"Because of the slow-down in the building sector, it was impossible to get engineering work," says Simon. "Not wanting to emigrate, I took up a temporary job in a local bike shop as a mechanic while I weighed up my options. While working there, I saw first-hand the many shortcomings of the current crop of kids' bikes.

"Most were heavy, cumbersome and generally of poor quality. Because kids grow out of these tiny bikes very quickly, many parents, for cost reasons, often go for cheaper options or buy bikes that are way too big so their kids can grow into them - something that is not good for either their balance or their confidence.

"During my time there, I came across balance bikes for the first time - a relatively recent introduction to Ireland - and saw how easy and intuitive they were for kids to ride. Standing next to a row of bikes one day, I literally had a lightbulb moment. I thought if kids keep growing, then why not make a bike that can grow with them?"

He spent the next two years tweaking his designs and finalising prototypes before eventually finding a manufacturer that could produce the bikes to the quality he wanted while keeping the price low so as to be affordable for parents.

"While the parts come in from China, we assemble everything here. That way we control the quality of every bike we sell while also giving customers the added reassurance that everything has been fully checked by us before being shipped," says Simon.

However, not long after starting up, his resilience was severely tested when, having just received his first consignment of stock, the warehouse in which it was being stored was burned to the ground, resulting in the loss of all his brand new bikes.

The silver lining that year was LittleBig Bikes winning an acclaimed international Red Dot Award for outstanding design alongside global brands such as Ferrari and McLaren.

"My aim now is to continue to build the brand internationally, grow sales and ensure that our customers and their kids are 100pc happy with what we offer," says Simon. "If we can do that, we'll ensure that we make a name for the LittleBig bike as the best, most adaptable children's bike on the market."

With a patent pending that will give him protection in 128 countries, Simon's long journey to success is just beginning. But then, Simon Evans has already proved he is a man that can stay the course.

For further information see www.littlebigbikes.com

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