Australia’s largest online bike retailer, Bicycles Online, recently celebrated a decade in business, prompting its founders to reflect on their modest and “naive” beginnings.
In 2011, Jonathon Allara and James van Rooyen questioned why none of the major brands were sold online.
“We had come from running a very modest bike tour business – renting out bicycles to tourists in the beachside suburb of Manly,” James says in a blog on the company’s website.
“It was our outsider’s perspective, or perhaps just naivety, that allowed us to see the opportunity that today seems just so common sense.”
After buying their rental bikes from a local distributor, James and Jono travelled to the Taipei Cycle to explore opportunities to buy direct from a factory.
“It was there we saw the opportunity to source from a factory and sell direct online. Our backstop was that we could always put the bikes into the fleet if they didn’t sell online,” James said.
“We bought a container full of bikes and started by selling them on eBay.”
They quickly sold all of them.
Equipped with a business concept and ambitions to “shake things up a bit”, the duo set out to find a headquarters for their new venture.
No Onsite Power, Water or Toilet
“Our first hurdle, however, was that we had no money,” he reflected.
“Our tiny rental shop was already jam-packed wall to wall, so we rented the only available space we could afford; a disused electrical substation for the princely sum of $100 a week.
“It had no power, no lights, no bathroom, no water, and no phone.
“We borrowed power from the neighbour and ran the entire business off a single extension lead.
“Together with a 3G internet dongle, we ran everything off that little power cord - laptops, compressor, printers, lights, fridge. How we did not blow a fuse or start a fire, I'll never know.”
“The only drinking water available was from a fire hose at a next-door car park. Public toilets were the only, very grounding, option.”
James said while the business’s web presence looked impressive, the pair’s physical work environment was much less flashy.
The venture’s branding also lends a lot to their small budget.
To save on repainting their shop, the duo kept the same colour scheme as their rental business.
“There was no focus group to decide on the correct colours back then,” James quipped.
As Bicycles Online gained momentum, they turned their attention to packaging and bikes design to make deliveries and bike assembly much easier.
“The standard packaging that bikes come in was not designed for customers to see, yet alone protect the bike for last-mile delivery, so we had to become packaging design experts and improve that too,” James says.
“We kept making improvements, from tuning and packaging, to eventually the design of the actual bike itself, ensuring it could be easily assembled by our customers in their living room.”
To assist buyers with bike assembly, Bicycles Online produced a range of instructional videos which have attracted a total of more than five million views on YouTube.
Bicycles Online incorporated P&A into its range, then expanded into Singapore in 2015 and four years later made the leap into the US market.
“In less than a year our US business outgrew the Australian business, one that had taken nine years to get to that size,” he says.
Now based at Frenchs Forest, in Sydney’s northern beaches, Bicycles Online has more than 100 staff and continues to grow.