Don’t be afraid to shift focus
Plane Frameworks (formerly Flying Machine)
Issue: The designer bike business had too many moving parts, and the niche they originally occupied was becoming crowded.
Strategy: Niche the business further by moving away from total bike production and focusing on the specialised and high-margin element: a custom-fitted frame.
The businesses repositioned as a B2B, rather than customer-facing enterprise, and re-branded to Plane Frameworks in 2016.
Result: It is still a work in progress, with Plane Frameworks currently raising capital via crowdfunding platform Australian Small Scale Offerings Board to expand production capabilities.
Matt Andrew’s fruitless search for a stylish bicycle 10 years ago has taken him further than he could have ever imagined. It started with a few Google searches: now he’s up to his ears in carbon, building beautiful custom bike frames from his studio in Burswood.
“Initially, it was more about design than being a bike nut. Now I’ve transformed into being a bike nut,” he admits. Today, his high-tech frames are tailored to fit individual customers, like Saville Row suits, to deliver ultimate in performance and comfort.
But in the beginning, it was all about style – or a distinct lack of it in the bike market. “I was looking for something that had more of a designer/artistic look to it,” says Andrew, who has a background in fine art and landscape architecture.
He wanted clean and unstated, but could find only boldly-branded performance cycles – “things with the company name written 15 times all over the bike in every little space you could possibly manage to fit it.’’
Andrew realised he had stumbled on a gap in the market for those who valued aesthetics as much – if not more – than function.
“It started as a bedroom/after hours kind of business that turned into a full-time thing which has been through a lot of different incarnations,” he says of the long and winding road to Plane Frameworks.
Initially, Andrew set out to design and supply complete bikes direct to customers, working with suppliers in Taiwan. But as he progressed he noticed the niche he initially spotted was becoming less and less of a niche.
“There are actually quite a lot of brands out there that do what I was looking for quite well now,” he says.
“So, ironically, if I was in the same position now looking to buy a bike, I probably would have found what I was looking for and just gone and bought one.”
Fortunately, Andrew’s growing interest in the functionality of the bike and natural passion for engineering was leading the company to a much smaller niche in the high-end bike market: custom-fitted, single-piece, carbon frames.
That’s cutting a very long story very short, but the transformation of Flying Machine to Plane Frameworks began with Andrew working to elevate his bikes’ performance to the same level as their design.
“When you’re getting into that higher end of things you can’t look good and not have the performance, and you can’t have the performance and not look good.”
Slowly reshoring some build processes and teaming with the CSIRO to explore the 3D printing of titanium components eventually led to a lightbulb moment. Instead of designing 3D models and outsourcing the manufacture, Andrew and his business partner decided they could do it themselves – with the right equipment.
They took the plunge and invested in a CNC foam cutting machine. Working from CAD designs, it now runs 24/7 cutting bespoke polystyrene frame molds.
These are then hand-wrapped and cured to create single-piece carbon frames. The unique value proposition is that these single-piece frames are not only beautiful, they are made-to-measure to fit the leg length, arm length and weight of individual customers.
“I read a good analogy about bike-fitting the other day,” says Andrew. “It said that in terms of comfort and performance, you’re better off having a well-fitting $1500 bike than a poorly-fitting $15,000 one.”
Moving away from complete bikes to focus on frame construction involved completely re-imagining and repositioning the company from customer-focused to B2B.
“It’s kind of a whole new business from what we were doing to what we’re doing now.”
But from a business perspective, the shift was a no brainer. The firm had been getting bogged down with the breadth of work and materials involved in delivering a complete bike. “We decided it would be much simpler if we were just doing the real core of the business,” says Andrew.
Frame construction was also where Andrew’s passion – and highest profit margins – lie.
“The value adding on the raw materials (to construct the frame) is much, much higher that the margin we would get on components.”
Under the new business model, Plane Frameworks takes orders from bike retailers. They deliver the custom frame and the retailer fits the remaining parts.
The narrowed focus has dramatically simplified Andrew’s process and stock requirements as well as creating a unique business niche.
His advice to other SMEs:
- While Andrew’s strategy was more organic than planned, he said the take-away lessons were “simplify your inputs and your outputs”
- Focus on the parts of your business that generate the best margins
- Make the best use of your skills.