This business plan is road-ready
Bicycle designer targets niche market
By RICK ROMELL
Posted: June 5, 2006 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
For years, self-described tinkerer John Schlick has scribbled sketches and jotted down ideas in thick spiral notebooks.
He's filled three of them, often writing just before going to sleep or even after. His wife, Cheryl, has bought lighted pens for him so he can write in the dark.
The notebooks, Schlick said Monday during a break from his work as a self-employed computer consultant, are filled with "a lot of ideas around cars, stuff around businesses, everything from electronics in homes to - I don't know; I guess I'd have to look."
Now, after some 10 years of jotting, Schlick is on the verge, for the first time, of taking one of his ideas to market. And it looks promising enough that he is among 27 finalists competing for more than $100,000 in prizes in the third annual Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest.
Schlick, 37, has patented an idea for a new bicycle design in the genre known as cruisers - fat-tire, easy-riding, old-fashioned bikes that are enjoying a resurgence of popularity. It's a category that made up about 4% of units sold by bike shops in 2004, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. But that was up from just 2.2% two years earlier, said Loren Mooney, an executive editor of Bicycling magazine.
"It's been on a steady upward trajectory," Mooney said.
Schlick's twist on the venerable design includes a special frame on which the seat can slide backward or forward along a rail that arcs over the rear wheel. That lets both short and tall riders use the same bike, with anyone able to rest both feet on the ground without rising from the saddle.
"It's (a) really comfortable riding position, kind of like a touring motorcycle," Schlick said.
He calls his bike the Schlick Shark, after the fin-like profile the back end of the frame suggests.
Except for the fact that he doesn't ride much, Schlick is a bit of a bike nut. He has eight bicycles of his own in his Menomonee Falls garage, plus Cheryl's bike and the five they keep for their three kids.
The Schlick Shark, in which Schlick so far has invested "probably a little north of $40,000" of his own money, evolved from a friend's gift of a cruiser from the '50s. Schlick loved the styling, but said the bike was short on performance and comfort.
The tandem recumbent he and Cheryl sometimes use, on the other hand, is "really comfortable, but a little bit goofy to ride."
Wanting to combine the best features of both, Schlick started sketching.
He came up with a design he described as comfortable but very functional, and higher than a recumbent, allowing the rider to see and be seen in traffic.
At first, Schlick thought about opening a shop to make the bikes. But his financial projections led him instead to turn to Richard Schwinn.
Schwinn, great-grandson of the founder of the famed bicycle company that bears his name, runs a small, high-end bike-building firm in western Racine County called Waterford Precision Cycles.
Schwinn's company is now finishing up the first 10 Schlick Sharks. Initial retail price: probably about $1,900. If the bike gains traction and can support larger production runs, Schlick figures the price eventually will drop to $1,100 to $1,300.
That's still pricey. The average cruiser purchased at a specialty bike shop - not Target or Wal-Mart - sold for $270 in 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, said Fred Clements, executive director of the bicycle dealers' association.
Seeking affluent buyers
Schlick said his bike, which he calls a performance cruiser, offers more comfort than its traditional cousins, with less pressure on the rider's hands, shoulders and neck. He's counting on the bike's functionality and styling to attract buyers such as well-to-do baby boomers who haven't ridden a bicycle in a while and want to ease back in.
"It's a design that I can see a lot of wealthy customers wanting for a cruiser," Schwinn said.
He said he was skeptical of Schlick's idea at first, but said changes to the initial concept have "really helped make it a sensible design."
John Jensen, owner of Johnson's Cycle & Fitness, a Wauwatosa bike shop that stocks many cruisers and which will display the Schlick Shark, also likes the new bicycle.
"It's a neat idea," Jensen said. "It's a fun idea."
He doesn't see it, though, as a bicycle that will sell in big numbers.
"It's going to be a very small market," Jensen said, "but I think he's going to have a very good captive audience."