Sacramento man's bike rack invention fitfully heads into production

05/05/2012 12:00 AM

05/06/2012 1:49 PM

Steven Tiller, the Sacramento carpenter-turned- designer whose bike storage rack could be poised for big things, has begun the manufacturing process but is still working out many details.

Some things were expected, like finding a company that could build his rack, called the Bike Valet, at an economy of scale that made sense. Some came as a surprise, like the retail price. It had to be adjusted upward significantly – from $95 to $160.

Tiller, whose company is called Reclamation Art and Furniture, came up with the Bike Valet as a solution for storing his bike in his cramped midtown apartment. He built a prototype, then applied to Kickstarter, the online site that raises capital for new ventures by encouraging supporters to pledge money.

The design, with its flowing lines and clever use of counterbalancing to hold the bike in place, attracted plenty of attention on design blogs. It quickly surpassed the $10,000 needed on Kickstarter to begin manufacturing. Many considered it a thing of beauty and a piece of functional art.

Kickstarter's final tally was just over $13,000. Kickstarter got 5 percent and Amazon got 5 percent, leaving Tiller with about $11,000. The Bee wrote about Tiller's early plans in a story published Feb. 18.

He has since used the capital to get the first 100 racks made, then 200 more. Though the Bike Valet attracted international attention for its clever concept and flowing lines, actually making it and selling it isn't so simple, he said recently.

Tiller gets the product cut and bent at a local metal shop. Then the pieces are sent to another shop to be powder-coated, a durable paint technique that bakes the paint onto the metal. Tiller does the final touches himself, including packaging. The process, he concedes, could be streamlined.

"When you manufacture, wholesale vs. retail is a different animal for sure," he said. "Retail markup above our cost is 50 percent. We had to figure out what was going to work for a set price and what we needed to make on it."

Now comes the hard part. If Tiller wants to get bigger, his product will have to be more cost-effective in order to compete. Asking $160 for a rack that holds just one bike could be a tough sell beyond a niche market of customers coveting high design and unique products.

Irony is part of the equation, too. Though the Bike Valet was designed and built in an artisan spirit, handcrafted from start to finish, its success might depend on placing more emphasis on mass manufacturing – perhaps even overseas to save on labor costs.

"I'm somebody who has always worked with his hands, so to let go of those reins would be difficult," he said. "I don't know if mass manufacturing is my thing. But if we can get to manufacturing on a larger scale, the price will come back down."

One of his first customers was Andrea Lepore, creative director and co-owner of Hot Italian, the pizzeria well known for its commitment to design and sustainability issues. The company purchased seven Bike Valets for its new location in Emeryville.

Tiller is selling the Bike Valet on a new website, TheBikeValet.co (not .com). Marketing is neither easy nor cheap, even with word-of-mouth on design blogs. He is trying to break into retail stores, but the competition is fierce, and it requires a full-time commitment focused on sales and marketing.

"There are just all of these nuances and I've never done it before. It has definitely been a learning experience," he said.

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