Every business starts with an idea. The stand-out startups start with uncommon ideas, and that’s exactly what Al Roback had.
During a trip to Japan, subcontractor Al Roback began experimenting with bamboo and immersed himself into cycle culture, starting a cycle co-op with local students, repairing bikes and encouraging cycling. But it wasn’t until he returned that the idea for a business was sparked.
“When I got back, I was kind of in a rut and in reverse-culture shock,” he says. “I felt disenfranchised from things I was doing and thought ‘heck, why don’t I start a company?’” And that’s when bamboo bikes popped into his head.
Al was familiar with Renovo wooden bikes out of Portland, Oregon. Because of his background with materials, he decided that bamboo would overcome any limitations related to other woods. He says wooden materials “don’t lend themselves to be bicycles very easily, so you really have to structurally engineer it, whereas bamboo is point-to-point construction and you’re good to go.”
With two long-time friends—a carpenter for movie sets and a professional in middle management—Al began Grass Frames in Vancouver, but it wasn’t an easy road. “We had to learn quite a bit from the ground up,” he says. “What does a business need? What permits are needed? What connections are needed to source parts?” And he had to really know, inside and out, what a bike was, how it worked, and how to make it work well with a bamboo frame.
“We came into it with a passion for cycling and cycle culture but that didn’t mean we were necessarily qualified for it. Because we didn’t carry a lot of bias from metal bike construction or carbon construction, we were able to rethink a lot of the process.”
The trio self-funded the company in the beginning by working on the side, using savings, drawing from several lines of credit, getting some help from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, and a matching loan from a local credit union. “I felt I needed to do something for myself and my future customers and I really want to build a company from the ground up,” says Al. “I was willing to take on the personal debt.”
After some time, Al’s two partners decided to leave Grass Frames, leaving Al to run the entire operation himself, while still working on the side.
“I’ve had quite a bit of mentoring over the last three years and one of the key pieces of advice has been to not get partners,” he says. “You’re the one with the vision, so if you can get the funding, it’s much better to have people working for you.” That said, Al admits that he likes having feedback from others and a flow of ideas but, after his ordeal, he sees partners as problematic as well.
Despite these obstacles, he continues to have a lot of inquiries about his unique product. He was just at Capilano University, for example, being pitched to by marketing students. “When they were choosing topics, Grass Frames came up as an option and eight students thought it was interesting enough to jump at it. It was a really neat experience.”
Al has two key points of advice.
First, start small. “No matter how many people told me that three years ago, I just wouldn’t accept it,” he says, “so I ended up with a studio about four times too large.”
And the other is to be realistic about profit and money and to focus on sales. “If you don’t have sales, it’s not a business. It’s a hobby.”