Updated: Mar 6
These days, not a week goes by without someone asking me to tell them the story of how Tiller Rides came to be. The answer I give depends on how long I have and how interested they are but here is a blog length version of the Tiller Rides founding story.
The first time I realised there was a need for a new type of bike was back in 2010 when I was leading my first startup called Days of Change. At that time I lived in a suburb called Maylands which was 5 km North East of our office in the Perth CBD. From Maylands the ride to work was mostly on a dedicated bike path along the picturesque Swan River and so I decided to get a bike to ride to work. Given the bike would be at work all day, I decided to make sure the bike I got was suitable for myself and the rest of the team to use for meetings etc throughout the day. I also wanted to use it on the way home for things such as going out for dinner, going on a date, visiting friends or doing a little food shopping.
There were no showers in our office, so we wanted an electric bike that would prevent us from getting hot and sweaty. Furthermore, we often carried laptops or other items around so sturdy inbuilt carriers were a must. Mudguards were also essential to avoid getting soaked when the streets were wet after a rain shower. To avoid having to carry a big heavy lock, some sort of onboard lock was also on the features list. To eliminate the chance of getting stranded with a flat tyre, we also wanted some form of onboard tyre repair. The need to attend late meetings or go out to evening events also meant we wanted inbuilt lights that couldn’t be stolen off the bike and didn’t need regular charging. The final and defining feature we desired was style. At the time we were meeting and pitching to CEO’s of partnering businesses - these were often in a cafe we would park our bike out the front of. Needless to say, arriving on a styleless bike wasn’t a good first impression. Similar requirements applied to the dates I was going on at the time after hours.
By 2010 bikes had been used for urban transport for many decades and so I felt sure there must be a bike somewhere in the world that had all these features. In essence we wanted a bike that is designed much like a car - where everything is built in. I hadn’t heard of such a bike so I asked the team to start looking and to also put a request out to our cycling friends who keep track of what’s going on in the bike world.
Several months later, after a global search, I was quite astounded that the bike we wanted didn’t exist. What we found was that if a bike was stylish, then the functionality had been lost; and if it was highly functional, it gave little consideration to aesthetics.
Discovering the absence of an urban bike that married both function and beauty was the initial flame of inspiration for Tiller Rides, but at the time I was flat out running Days of Change so didn’t have any time to explore it further. This flame burned in the back of my mind until August 2015 when I accidentally found myself with some spare time while waiting for my next work contract to be signed. With two friends - a 3D modeller and a graphic designer – we challenged ourselves to design a bike that was both stylish and had all the functions I had been looking for in 2010 built in. Before we did any designing we did a lot of research to make sure that it wasn’t just me that had these urban transport challenges. In addition to the research, we formed a design advisory group made up of 12 people from diverse backgrounds who also rode for urban transport. This group met once a month for the last four months of 2015 to review our designs and provide feedback and ideas. By the end of 2015 we presented the group with a 3D model and a wooden mock up which they all agreed solved all their problems and collectively said: “if you build that, we would certainly buy one”.
In early 2016 this positive feedback from the advisory group combined with my belief that the trends of greater cycling in cities and more electric transport, caused me to do what all founders dream of - throw in my paid job. Doing it so early in the piece was in part because I knew I needed to move quickly to market if I was to create a competitive offering. I had also learned from Days of Change that a startup takes a lot of energy and anything less than full time compromises the chance of success.
Around the time I was deciding to go full time, I had a drink with my good friend Ray Glickman and showed him an image of the bike design. He looked closely at the image on my phone, smiled and said, “I love it, do you need some help getting this to the next stage?”. Given Ray’s experience as a CEO of several organisations and board member and his alignment with the project’s sustainability values, I immediately said “yes”. And so began our weekly leadership team meetings which then led to Ray becoming Co-founder.
2016 was then dedicated to recruiting and managing a part-time team of engineers and designers who, with only a future success fee as payment, designed each of the parts of the bike. When not designing, my job was to work out how to fabricate each bike part in my shed. After a lot of research and development, by the end of 2016 we had designed and built our first prototype: P1. When we showed this to the design advisory group and several of the growing number of supporters it once again seemed to hit the mark - despite it not having all the features we wanted to integrate.
Off the back of the positive reaction to P1, in early 2017 we registered a company, which was initially called Tiller Cycles. A few months later in mid 2017, we ran our first pre-sales campaign with a goal of pre-selling 30 bikes to demonstrate to investors that people were prepared to put real dollars down. Back then we couldn’t show the bike publicly, or promote it via images or video, so we conducted the viewings and test rides in a warehouse near Fremantle.
To see or test ride the bike, prospective customers had to sign a confidentiality agreement and agree not to take photos. Despite these restrictions to promoting the pre-sale we ended up selling out with 37 pre-orders.
The success of this pre-sales campaign enabled us to begin raising our first amount of investment which we closed in early 2018. With this money behind the project, we then built a larger full time team (at times up to 15 people full time) to design, engineer and eventually build Prototype 2 and Prototype 3 (our final prototype) which rolled out of the workshop three days before Christmas 2018.
Just before the end of 2018, after some reflection on how the ‘why’ behind our business was sustainable urban transport rather than bikes, we changed our name to Tiller Rides to reflect this. And so the story continues...
By Julian Ilich - Co-Founder of Tiller Rides