Young Los Gatos Entrepreneurs Launch Vintage Electric Bicycle Company
By Judy Peterson
POSTED: 03/05/2014 06:02:17 PM PST
From Apples to HPs, products invented in Silicon Valley garages have taken the world by storm. Now, a group of young entrepreneurs from Los Gatos is making a splash on the world stage with the vintage-style electric bikes they're handcrafting with skill and precision.
It all started when 2010 Los Gatos High School graduate Andrew Davidge and a classmate issued each other a challenge. "My best friend, James Dolan, and I always competed building stuff," Davidge said. "So we had a challenge to build vintage motorcycles. He built a gas one and I built an electric one. From there, I built the first prototype vintage electric bike and everybody seemed to want one, so I looked into turning it into a business."
The bicycles have wide, white wheels and the body style harkens back to bygone days with big fenders. Powder coat custom colors range the gamut from robin's egg blue to brilliant crimson or basic beige.
The business, appropriately named Vintage Electric Bikes, started in the Davidge family garage on Tait Avenue. But once orders--and money--started coming in, Davidge moved the business into a machine shop/manufacturing facility off Montague Expressway in Santa Clara. That happened in April.
Since its official launch last year, Vintage Electric Bikes has sold 58 units at an average price of $4,495. Orders are coming in from all over the world, with a hotel in Dubai recently ordering seven bikes and a French winery ordering 25.
A recent spate of overseas press coverage is bringing in more orders that are being processed now.
So, Davidge has been able to hire five employees, all of them Los Gatos High School grads.: Allison Sughara from the class of 2005; class of 2011 grad Blake Harrington; 1999 grad Shea Nyquist; Brian Hamilton, class of 2009; and Nash Livingston from the class of 2010.
Thanks also to increasing sales, the employees are all being paid, with a payroll system set up a little over a month ago.
Even so, Vintage Electric Bikes is still in the start-up phase, which means long hours and dedication. "I work 90 hours a week so I don't have to work 40 at a regular job," Davidge joked.
That's exactly why marketing guru Allison Sughara joined the team. "I was looking to get out of my full-time web coding job," said Sughara, who has a degree from San Diego State in media studies. "I created the initial web site and I've just redesigned a new one. We weren't active in social media, so I'm reaching out and creating communities. Anything else we need I jump in and do it."
The new web site launched Feb. 28 at vintageelectricbikes.com.
Sughara is confident Vintage Electric Bikes will succeed. "We lucked out," she said. "Through word of mouth people have been liking us. From there we'll find our loyal customers. This is new for me, so I'm learning a lot about bikes, but I love it--it's so random. I decided to take a chance and I would definitely do it again."
Word of mouth is not the only thing that has brought Vintage Electric Bikes to people's attention. Just pedal backward to mid-August 2013. "It's the night before the opening of the Concours d'Elegance in Pebble Beach," Davidge said. "That's where we premiered our first bike--at a private party that attracts race car teams, manufacturers, sales people and designers. The party is all about fabulous vehicles--cars, motorcycles and airplanes. Our first bicycle rolled off the line at 4 a.m. before the party."
The bicycle was well received by the vehicle enthusiasts. "I think they were interested in the whole vintage thing," Davidge said.
Davidge's team can build two bicycles per day by hand. "The frame arrives from the manufacturer, made to our specifications," he said. "Then we make modifications at the shop to accommodate the battery. We have to weld and drill four battery mounts. The castings for the battery cover and controllers are all done in-house."
The battery cover is a triangular-shaped box since it sits in the bicycle's front triangle.
"I did all the initial fabrication for the battery box mounts," employee No. 2 Shea Nyquist said. "I learned to weld in metal shop in high school and used my skills to get a job in North Carolina building custom motorcycles. I went to DeAnza College for my machinist certification and I'm still at San Jose State taking aerospace engineering."
Nyquist and his brother Ryan are well known in town for the BMX bicycle stunts they perform during the annual Los Gatos Children's Christmas and Holidays Parade.
As is the case with Davidge and Sughara, the entrepreneurial spirit is embedded in Nyquist's psyche. "I like being hands-on and putting my time and money into something that's more rewarding than working for someone else," Nyquist said. "You make your own schedule and make your own job."
Nyquist is in the process of designing a leather rear rack and saddle bag system for the electric bikes.
While Nyquist is doing his thing, Blake Harrington is busy making the battery box itself. "I put all the electronics together," Harrington said. "We get a computer, a key switch, a charge port and headlights. I take the box, machine it so the parts fit and then I touch it up and make it look nice."
The battery box and components weigh about 9.8 pounds, but Harrington quickly adds, "The rider doesn't care about the weight because pedaling is optional."
Still, it's a nice option to have in case you accidentally run out of juice.
Nash Livingston's responsibility is to make sure the bikes actually work. "The bike aspect has to be perfect because it still has to function as a bike," he said. "So I pedal them around and make sure the brakes are adjusted properly, the chain line is correct and the bars are centered. You're starting with a raw bike, but there's a lot more going into these than the average bicycle."
Brian Hamilton, who has a degree in business management from San Jose State, is in charge of inventory control. "When we were really small I helped build all the bikes," Hamilton said. "Now that we've started to grow I'm running the business side. I take care of inventory--the supply chain and production side."
But Hamilton's knowledge of the actual bike-building process is important in case an employee leaves or gets sick. "When we're in a pinch I still get my hands dirty," he said. "But mostly I take care of parts. If everyone's standing around doing nothing it's my fault."
Hamilton lives in Lake Tahoe, where he teaches snowboarding in the winter. But he's crashing at his parents' house in Los Gatos more and more often now, since the bicycle business is taking off. "The crazy thing was a year ago we were in Andrew's garage and we thought we were building a cool bike for him to ride," Hamilton said. "Now we learn something new every week and we're getting better at it. Our motto is to continue to innovate."
That's evident by the fact that a new model of the electric bike will soon be revealed. The model that premiered at the Concours d'Elegance is known as the E-Tracker. The new one will be a limited edition, art deco, 1950s style beach cruiser.
The beach cruiser is being designed by Mike Leeds of Santa Cruz, who is one of the company's mentors and is also a world-renowned hot rod developer. The 68-year-old Leeds said, "It's like teaming up with my younger self. I was doing this stuff at 13, 14 years old, so it's a thrill for me to see this happening. These guys are creating the future."
Leeds met the team through Los Gatos resident Bill Weiner, who is another mentor and a longtime Davidge family friend. Coincidentally, Weiner has a background in the automotive industry. "Part of the challenge is that every bike is built to the exact same standards, no matter what," Weiner said. "I brought in some people as consultants so we could re-create the same quality over and over again."
A Vintage Electric Bike can go 35 miles on a single charge, although instructions say that 30 is more realistic. It can attain speeds of up to 24 mph in city mode and 40 mph in racing mode, making it a fast runabout for people who don't want to use "pedal power" to get around.
It takes two hours to fully charge a Vintage Electric Bike.
Davidge says the electric bike story wouldn't be complete without mentioning former Los Gatos High metal shop teacher Doug Muntz and current art teacher Emily Christie. "Those two taught me you can create cool things," Davidge said. "Having those two programs taught me things like just-in-time manufacturing. If it wasn't for metal shop I wouldn't have been able to do this."
He added, "Ms. Christie opened my eyes to art in different forms, and that led me into wanting to be an automotive designer and eventually, that led to bicycles."
Former Los Gatos High shop teacher Ron Castle gets kudos from Nyquist, too, for getting him started.
Davidge, Harrington, Hamilton, Livingston and Nyquist also learned the tools of the trade from working at Summit Bikes, which is just down the street from Los Gatos High School.
With so much hometown support behind them, it's no wonder that a Vintage Electric Bike is now on display in downtown Los Gatos. It's a cream-colored number and is just about the first thing you see when you walk into C.B. Hannegan's at 208 Bachman Ave. Bike enthusiasts can take a looky-loo through late spring.