How I Launched: VanMoof

Two men drinking beers in an office surrounded by bicycles.

Amsterdam member and VanMoof cofounder Taco Carlier shares the story behind the brand creating innovative bikes that ‘outsmart the city’

As told to Mikael Jack    Monday 21 October, 2019

Taco Carlier founded VanMoof in 2009 with his brother Ties, with the mission to get as many bikes on the streets of cities like New York, Paris and Tokyo as there are in Amsterdam, where over half of all commutes are by bike. From a realisation in New York, to leading the charge of e-bikes as the solution to over-polluted cities and tough commutes, he shares the story of how the award-winning brand came to be, how it’s tackling bike theft and what the future holds.


‘I grew up in the Netherlands and studied industrial design engineering at the Delft University of Technology. I was at university when I started my first company with my brother, creating machinery like beer token vending machines and a device to automatically attach wristbands for events and festival industries. We liked working together and complemented each other –  he trained to become a car mechanic so is more technical and I’m better on the theoretical side – and wanted to carry on creating cool stuff. Of course, sometimes we argue, but some of the best ideas arise from those fights.’


‘We launched in 2009, but the idea for VanMoof came around 15 years ago on a business trip to New York. We always rented bikes in foreign cities – it’s the best way to explore and get to neighbourhoods that tourists usually don’t – and we discovered that New York is one of the best cities in the world for cycling. There’s an amazing bike lane along the Hudson River [part of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway] and another that crosses the Brooklyn Bridge, but we also saw that there weren’t many cyclists. We wanted to design a bike that would make more New Yorkers want to cycle.’


‘The form always follows function, combining innovation and design. In the last 10 years, we’ve not only designed bikes but redesigned the way they’re made, integrating lights and locks, making it lighter and adding anti-theft and tracking technology. We launched our first bike with 10 per cent of the parts designed in-house; now we work differently to most of the industry, designing most parts ourselves.  We learned a lot from Apple when it comes to designing software and hardware that works perfectly together. My brother moved to Taipei eight years ago to set up a hardware team there – almost all high-quality bikes are made using parts from Taiwan, so it was where we could find the most skilled engineers – and the software and creative design teams are in Amsterdam. We have more than 50 designers.’
Man cycling down the street

‘We worked with distributors and bike shops at first, which was a great way to start as we were global in just six months, selling in Australia, the US and all over Europe, but we found it hard to combine innovative products with traditional multi-brand retail, so switched to direct sales after three years. The process of choosing where our eight stores are located was pretty simple – we opened where we were already selling the most bikes online. Amsterdam was first, then we had the opportunity to buy a bike store in New York that was already selling a lot of our products. We opened in Taipei and Tokyo – Ties was keen to have stores close to him and we felt a deep connection to those markets – and last year in London, Paris and San Francisco. However, we sell 80 per cent of our bikes online, so making that journey very clear and building trust with the brand is crucial too.’ 


‘We didn’t have any investment for the first seven years and used the cash flow from our first company, but in 2016 we started growing faster than we could manage on our own so we sought some investment from an Amsterdam-based venture capitalist. We have such a close relationship with our customers that we wanted to give them the opportunity to invest too, so we did some crowdfunding in 2017 and again this year, which was a great success. We’re preparing our second round of investment now, to take us to our next stage of growth.’ 


‘In New York again, we saw a big opportunity with e-bikes and developed that technology, launching them in 2015. Hard pedalling in the city’s summer heat means you’d arrive to work drenched in sweat, San Francisco’s hills make it pretty tough at any time, and London is just too big. E-bikes counteract those issues. After we launched the Electrified bike, VanMoof started growing really fast. We’ve doubled our sales each year since then.’


‘We make commuter bikes, so they have to be safe on the street. When someone other than you moves your bike, you get alerted [via an app], the bike’s alarm sounds, the lights flash, the lock is engaged permanently, and it starts transmitting its GPS location. We have a team, our Bike Hunters, who then get to work on finding your stolen bike, working with the police in each city. If we don’t find it, we replace it. In one week, three bikes were stolen in Paris and were all headed in the same direction to Brussels, then Morocco. We found them in a warehouse there among around 5,000 other stolen bikes from all over Europe.’
A modern storefront

‘Luckily, it was easier to boost your company online and on social media without huge costs when we started out. We opened up the company with content that people engaged with and started sharing, telling our story, showing what we do, even the mistakes we made. After seven years, it felt like the right time to invest in media advertising and that is something we are slowly building. We get feedback directly from our customers every day, in our stores and online, that help us continue improving.’


‘A big challenge was in the US, where about a quarter of the bikes we shipped arrived damaged. It became so inefficient that we had a meeting about stopping shipping to the US altogether, then Ties had an idea: our boxes are similar to those for large flat-screen TVs, so we put an image of one on every box in the hope that handlers would take a little more care. Overnight, our shipping damages dropped by almost 80 per cent. Every new development presents a challenge too. It would be so easy to buy a part and just attach it to an existing design, but for us there’s a whole thought process about how it gets there, how it’s integrated, adapting other parts to allow it to get there. I want us to keep coming up with innovative ideas and technology, but as we grow, it’s much scarier to try new and experimental ideas. We’re still figuring out, looking at the Apples, Nikes and Teslas of the world for inspiration, and hiring great people.’


‘I believe we’re at the beginning of a revolution. I think e-bikes will completely change the way we commute. I’m not sure if we can match Amsterdam and Copenhagen, but I’m convinced that we can help change big cities into even more beautiful and greener ones. Of course, I’d love for every bike to be VanMoof, but as long as I play a small part in that I’ll be happy.'

Main image: Taco and Ties Carlier in VanMoof's Amsterdam offices (all images courtesy of VanMoof)
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