Niko Klansek is from a family of entrepreneurs. “My grandfather, grandmother, mother, uncle — everybody owned their own businesses,” he says. As a kid, though, Klansek was more interested in basketball. He played for the National Team of Slovenia (where he grew up) and it was a basketball scholarship that first brought him to the US. But after his move to New York in 2004, Klansek started to think about his future.
“I was eighteen when I realized I probably couldn’t make basketball my job,” he says. “So I told my mother I was going into business.” His mother, Lucia Klansek, was thrilled and worked with him to build his first venture: a smoothie company that packages its product in shelf-stable pouches designed for space. After all, astronauts need fresh fruit too, but getting produce into space isn’t easy. By the time he sold it four years later, Klansek was already thinking about his next business. He knew he wanted to be in the bicycle industry, but he wasn’t quite sure where he could make the biggest difference.
The humble bicycle has been around since the early 19th century, yet there hasn’t been a large leap forward in the technology for everyday bikes since the first electric versions were designed over a hundred years ago.
Klansek saw an opportunity: to bring the bicycle into the 21st century. His new company, FlyKly, does just that with a line of products designed for city dwellers who need a way to commute that’s (a) more efficient than cars and (b) offers more freedom than public transportation.
FlyKly’s Smart Wheel is an electric pedal assist that quickly attaches to the back wheel of any standard bike. It charges as riders brake, and lasts for up to 60 miles on a single charge. Boosting rider’s pedal power, it makes cycling bearable in even in the most humid NYC summers—or up the steepest SF hills. Arriving to work covered in sweat? No more.
FlyKly also makes The Smart Light, a light that’s powered by the front wheel that can charge your phone while you ride.
Both products connect to the FlyKly app which provides a full suite of options to fine tune the rider’s experience, including route suggestions, charging and battery information, and the ability increase or decrease how much assist they’re getting from the Smart Wheel. Riders can even lock the wheel when they park, and use the built-in GPS system to alert them if the wheel starts moving without them. (Bike theft in San Francisco is endemic. I can hear the cyclists rejoicing!)
We recently sat down with Klansek to learn more about FlyKly’s go-to-market strategy, how he managed to get his company off the ground so fast, and where they’re headed in 2015.
Let’s start at the beginning: why bicycles?
I’ve always ridden a bike — to school, to basketball practice, and now in New York. I get weird looks here, because I always arrive to meetings sweaty. So I was thinking about the bicycle industry for a long time before I started FlyKly. Then, while I was traveling in South Asia for two months, I kept seeing these electric bikes everywhere. I bought five of them, and sold four when I got back to New York. People kept stopping me on the street saying, “What is this? This is amazing.” I thought: Okay. There’s something in this.
So I got a team together and we designed our own completely electric bike. We ran a popup shop in New York for a month and then traveled around United States with the bikes. The next year we opened another popup shop, this time in Barcelona. Then we did the same thing around Europe. The whole time we were doing this, I was really in it to learn more about electric bikes, about the bicycle market as a whole, and just meet as many potential customers as possible.
Why did you switch the main focus of FlyKly to the Smart Wheel?
There were a few reasons. What I learned while traveling with the fully electric bicycle was that in the United States, people tend to think of electric bikes as more mopeds than bicycles. And they like bicycles more. And then the other thing is that many people already have a bicycle and they like it. They aren’t interested in buying an entirely new electric bike, but if I can make their bike smarter with a pedal assist, they’re instantly interested. And then also, at least in Europe, there are legal issues; any fully electric bicycle is considered a moped, but installing the Smart Wheel on bikes doesn’t legally change them from bicycles to mopeds.
What kind of changes have you seen in bike culture and infrastructure?
I’ve been in New York for ten years, and it used to be that there were no bicycle lanes, but now it seems like every other street has one. We’re working to make it every street. Because our app can track where people are riding, we can show city officials that data—what routes most people are actually using and further bike friendly infrastructure.
Did you validate the demand for your first product?
Not officially. By talking to a lot of people about bikes, I got the idea that this is something that people really wanted. And then we did the Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter is great for three things: To see if there is a market for something, to get feedback before going to production — we actually changed the design based on the feedback we got — and then, of course, to get some funding to start production. So we did Kickstarter in November 2013 and then for the first year we partnered up with a company to set up our production and development. In November 2014, we started shipping our product to our backers and first customers.
That’s fast. How did you manage to get from concept to production so quickly?
We did a lot of development before we went on Kickstarter, then we partnered up with really good production development company. They’re a part of the Polytechnic University of Milan— which is something like MIT in Europe. Phenomenal engineers. And, you know, Italy is a huge bicycle country. Almost all the good bicycle part companies are in Italy.
Do you have plans to alter the price point at all? It seems a bit high for the average consumer.
If we compare our product to buying a new electric bike, it’s actually cheaper. A new electric bike costs around $1,500 and the smart wheel is $1,100. But yes. We do plan to bring the price down. First, it’s about reaching a certain volume. Also, our production is currently in Italy, and we have plans to have some parts made in Asia. This will bring down the price a lot.
And what kind of upkeep does the Smart Wheel require?
Well, first it’s very easy to install — takes only a minute on a regular bicycle. And then it needs minimal upkeep, about same as a regular bicycle wheel. Inside the hub, there is actually constant monitoring going on. So, if something breaks or isn’t working properly, the app will notify you. We also get a notification at FlyKly. If it’s something the customer can repair themselves, we’ll show them how to do it. If not, we will send them a box so they can send in the wheel and we can fix it. This way we can catch small problems before they might become big problems.
Can you tell us about the Smart Light?
It’s a light for your bicycle, a holder for your phone, and a charger for your phone while you ride. The holder fits any phone from the smaller smartphones all the way up to iPad minis. The charger is exactly the same as charging it through your computer — it uses a usb and uses 5 volts, so it charges at the same speed as you’d get if you plugged it into a usb port on your computer.
What’s the biggest country for FlyKly right now?
In 2014 our top three countries were United States, German, and then Australia. Interestingly, we never expected Australia to be one of the top three, but it is. The US is 40% of our sales; and then Europe is another 40%
What’s next? Do you plan to launch in stores?
At the moment we are being sold in stores, but it’s more like test drive locations. In the second half of 2015, we plan to expand and be in more bicycle shops in the US and around the world. We have interest from retailers (in the United States and Europe) to have FlyKly at more than 3,000 store locations.