PDW’s Dan Powell: Succeeding as the Little Guy in a Big Bike Industry

Dan and E.T. escaping the Feds at a Portland cross race.

Portland Design Works‘ Dan Powell has gumption. It’s a fitting word to describe a man who left his job at Planet Bike to move halfway across the country to start a new bike accessories company (along with fellow ex-Planet Biker Erik Olson) as the US economy crumbled around them. Almost three years later, the company continues to grow and PDW continues to garner recognition in the bike world (thanks in part to the press garnered after Dan purchased a mini velodrome and installed it in their warehouse. I spoke to Dan about the foundation of his company; the struggles of a little company in a big, established industry; the ups (and downs) of living in America’s biketopia, and the general awesomeness of owning a miniature bike track.

Can you take me through your history in the bike industry?

I started working in the basement of Puck and Pedal, a bike shop/hockey store in East Lansing, MI in 1997. I was racing bikes and wanted cheap stuff. I started building bikes and moved up the ladder. I went to a couple of different colleges and kept working in bike shops throughout. I started figuring out that it was a lot of fun and I liked the informality of the bike shop business and the comradery. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing. I stuck around the shops, graduated from Northern Michigan University, and ended up in Madison, WI with my wife looking for jobs.

I ended up at Budget Bicycle Center in 2001. Budget’s a big store, it’s got about 90 employees in the summer time with five shops on one street. A lot of those guys and girls at the shop became really good friends of mine. Many of them ended up moving away from Madison, but stayed in the bike industry. It created this nexus of bike industry people that I continued to associate with.

In 2004 I got a job at Bike Magazine. I was an intern there and lived in a van in their parking lot. Then I got a job at Saris Cycling Group. I worked on technical assistance and dealer support for Saris and continued to freelance for a couple bike magazines at the same time.

Eventually I got my job at Planet Bike. Working there was awesome. It was just four of us running a pretty good-sized company and we learned a lot of the ropes.

Then in 2008 Erik Olson and I decided that we would strike out on our own and try our hand at starting our own brand. We sold our houses, uprooted our lady friends, and moved to Portland, OR.

Why did you want to start PDW and what sort of hurdles did you have to get around to get the company going?

Our main motivation was that we were looking for the next challenge. Planet Bike is a great company that’s made a lot of really cool products. But, we knew there were certain things the company would never do and certain products the owner had no interest in making. We had a list of things that we wanted to try and thought, “man, we can totally make this happen if we want it to.”

Erik had been doing product design at Planet Bike for five years and I was handling all the warranty, dealing with 13 or 14 distributor accounts, and doing all the marketing and customer service. We knew the pitfalls small businesses can encounter and decided to go for it.

The main hurdle you encounter in this industry is no one knows who you are. Even with all the contacts we’ve got from being in the industry for a long time, the main challenge we faced initially is you have to build a brand that people want to associate with. You have to be authentic. You can’t just manufacture stuff and hope people buy it. You have to give people a reason to want to be part of the brand. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two and a half years. Not only coming up with products that we’ve always wanted to see as cyclists and buy as consumers, but being the brand we’ve always wanted to be part of.

Dan (left) and Erik donating lights by bike to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland.

The bike industry is a small place, did it any problems arise when you left Planet Bike to start up what’s essentially a competing company?

Yeah, I mean, you’re always going to have some issues. In 1996, Bob Downs told his bosses at Trek, “look, the way this industry is going, the way bikes are going, you need to make commuter products.” Trek wasn’t receptive, so Bob hit the road and started Planet Bike later that year. He made computers, lights, and fenders and that was pretty much it, initially. This was the days before the Internet, so he built the brand up by driving a Volkswagen van around the country talking to anyone that would listen to him, doing all the consumer shows and visiting shops.

On the one hand, he was probably pretty pissed at us for leaving Planet Bike. But, on the other, I think he saw a lot of himself in what we’re doing, too. He might not admit that in public, but I hope that’s what he felt.

We definitely compete in some categories. But the thing is, Planet Bike will always be more of an every man’s brand. We’ve tried to push the design and the manufacturing process a little further at PDW. The finish and industrial design is a little better. We design something from the ground up for the most part. That’s definitely happened with the tools and the pumps and to a large degree the lights. We’ve worked with our vendors to make something new that’s not already out there on the market.

Since you moved to Portland to start PDW, I’m curious about your outsider perspective on the Portland bike world. Is it the bike utopia everything thinks it is? Are there aspects of it you don’t like?

There’s definitely parts of Portland that are really awesome. We just moved to a new location in the city. We were down in southeast Portland by the TriMet garage in a rail yard area. We had to keep everything locked down all the time to keep meth heads from trying to steal anything that was metal. It was a bummer place to work.

Now we’re up in northeast Portland off of Williams. Just to put that in perspective, we’ve got four custom frame builders, a wheel manufacturer, a bike shop, a custom wheel building shop, and UBI all within a few blocks of us. Williams is also a major bicycle commuter highway. We can stand on our roof at about 3 in the afternoon and its just a constant stream of cyclists headed home from work. It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch and I’ve never seen anything quite like it, not in the States at least.

So there’s the one end of the spectrum. It’s totally rad. But, people are always comparing Portland to Copenhagen or Amsterdam saying how, like them, we’re going to reach 25 percent mode share. My wife and I went to Copenhagen and Amsterdam earlier this year and I’ll tell you right now, comparing Portland to Copenhagen and Amsterdam is like comparing the Green Bay Packers to a high school football team.

There are just so many people on bikes there. People are riding bikes everywhere at all hours of the day and night and they look like normal people. They’re not wearing helmets. They’re not wearing lycra. They’re just on single-speed townie bikes. It’s incredible. So, I think Portland has to wake up to the reality a bit that we may be the best place to ride bikes in North America, but on the world scale we’ve got tons of room for improvement.

Along the same lines, one of the reasons Bicycling Magazine chose Minneapolis as the best cycling city in the country is we have no mountain biking in Portland that’s accessible by bike. We’ve got some epic riding. If you go an hour in any direction you’ve got some of the best trails in the country. Unfortunately, you’ve gotta load the bike in the car and drive there. It’s not that people aren’t working on improving access, but the city and some constituents and some special interest groups are not all for it. They feel like cyclists have already been given everything so why should they give up trails to the cyclists too.

The city vehicles all say “Portland, The City That Works” on the side. Chris King’s Chris Distefano likes it say it should be, “Portland, The City That Plans.” It’s always “we’re going to have a joint sub-comittee meeting on this” instead of actually getting anything done.

But on the whole, it’s awesome here. On any given night there’s something going on, whether its mountain biking or group rides or crits or booze cruises. If you want to look for it, it’s here.

Circulus. Photo by Jose Sandoval.

How did you come to own the Circulus? And has it made life better in every way as I can only assume owning a mini bike track would?

I first read about Circulus on Urban Velo around May of last year. The kid who built it, Sam Starr, had put together a five minute video about it with footage of him riding it in his college library. I saw it and thought it was really awesome. There’s actually a feature story coming out about it in the next issue of Urban Velo, so I won’t totally rehash it, but in the mid-90s I’d heard about the Human Powered Roller Coaster. It was this allycat scramble in Toronto that featured a figure-8 track with a flyover built in a warehouse. The original event was sponsored by Dunhill Cigarettes and Fishbone played live during the race. I remember thinking that it was the most bad ass thing I’d ever seen and it was in the back of my mind that I wanted to put on an event like that someday. So I’ve always kind of wanted a portable bike track, but never thought I’d actually own one someday.

Then in July, I read on Urban Velo again that the track needed a home. I emailed Sam, then didn’t hear from him for a while–I think he was over riding around Europe. But he eventually got back to me and said I was the only one who’d expressed interest in it. I asked him what he wanted for it explaining that I didn’t have a whole lot of money, but I was interested. He said he’d put about $3,000 of his own money into it and said if he could get half his money back he’d be happy. Without even thinking, I offered him 1600 bucks and two or three days later he agreed. Of course, I didn’t have $1600, but that was just a technicality I thought I’d figure out at some point. It turned out he couldn’t sell me the track until January of this year, anyways. A chunk of the track was in an art show down in Riverside, so in the meantime, some friends—Kelly Peterson and Lyle Hanson of Cognition Caps and Zach Rielley of ZR Cycles—loaned me the money to make it happen.

I bought a one-way ticket to Ontario, CA. A buddy and I rented a 24-foot diesel truck, loaded the track up, and brought it back to Portland. I convinced my business partner Erik to let me put it up in our new warehouse.

I really did not buy Circulus as a marketing stunt or anything. I just wanted the track and bought it.

It’s gotten way bigger than we’d imagined, however, to the point that Interbike has approached us about having Circulus at Interbike this fall. And it is fun. It’s ridiculous. It’s been a real treat to watch men and women and cyclists and noncyclists get on the thing and figure it out. It’s quite a bit easier than a lot of people think.

Can we keep it up forever? No. We’re having some other people move into the building with us. But for now, it’s been up for a month and a half or two months. We’re going to throw an event with it this summer and it’ll pop up some place and there will be a party. Then it’ll probably go away again until it pops up at Interbike, then beyond that we really don’t have any plans.

Anything else people should know about Dan Powell or PDW?

PDW’s got some really exciting stuff that we’re working on. A lot of the stuff that we’ve done to this point was about rounding out the brand or it was things that were quicker and easier to bring to market. Stuff that we didn’t have to have a lot of money to get our hands on. But we’ve got some stuff that we’ve been developing for a couple of years that will be coming out in either 2011 or 2012 that I think are going to be the kinds of things that will make our brand more well known. Some more cargo stuff. We’ve got a front basket coming out. We had a sample of it at Interbike that was pretty popular and people are just clamoring for it now. So that’ll be a big thing. We’ve got some other things that are close to being done that people are going to like.

And if there’s anything I want people to know about Dan Powell it’s that I like bikes. And I think that more people should ride them. The world would be a lot better place.

One Response to PDW’s Dan Powell: Succeeding as the Little Guy in a Big Bike Industry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *