SWOBO is one of those brands in the bike industry that poses a cult-like following of fanatics. They’ve pretty much always had that following, even during the 5 years that the brand was gone. SWOBO is known to most people as a clothing brand- which they are- but they are also branching out into a bike brand as well. The brains behind the bikes is none other than Sky Yaeger, formerly the brains behind the bikes at Bianchi for so many years. Tim Parr, one of the original SWOBO-ites and one of the current owners, was genius enough to hire Sky and bring her in to blend her ideas and the culture behind SWOBO to generate some really fantastic new bikes. As a product guy myself, I’m a tad envious… but this isn’t about me.
At Sea Otter this year, I was lucky enough to sneak a quick conversation with Sky on the last day of the event and talked her into an interview, along with Tim Parr. After getting really backlogged at work, it took me a couple months to get my questions together for the two… but I did eventually manage to get my blather put down and off to the Dynamic Duo for their answers. What follows is pure gold… seriously…
- Why bikes with a Swobo name? Has it been a project on your mind for years, or just something that sprang organically out of the relaunch of the brand?
Tim- The brand has always been about an idea, and not a particular thing. Roskopp and I were planning on doing Swobo bikes….but not to the extent that Sky is capable of doing. Her involvement took a small idea…and made it big.
- Had you been thinking of a Swobo bike line before Sky left Bianchi?
- The “what’s it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry” question gets asked of you too often, so I won’t ask that question… BUT… do you believe it is your estrogen levels that allow you a certain fresh perspective because you aren’t a part of the Old Boy Network?
Sky- Wait, I thought I was an Old Boy! Not sure what part my gender plays in the creative process. Don’t even know what estrogen is. What is that?
- How easy or hard was it to reshape Bianchi for the US market?
Sky- For the last 10 years, Bianchi has been owned by a large Swedish group holding 10 other European bike brands. Italians owned by Swedish with a French management component, trying to find economies of scale in design and purchasing, and right or wrong, wanting one global product line. That’s all I will say.
- What’s it like to have created such a now-ubiquitous bike like the Pista? Do you feel good or bad about seeing them everywhere? What do you think of people complaining that there are too many of them around now? Is that a compliment?
Sky- I love seeing them. It’s a nice feeling. Nobody has complained to me that there were too many. The complaints I heard were that we never had enough in stock.
- What’s it like to have created one of the newest benchmarks for a fixed gear/ urban bike with the Sanchez?
Sky- I just realized I better get a frame, as I don’t have one!
- Had the two of you spent much time talking over the years, prior to discussing working together?
- How has the adjustment been, moving to a small clothing company that also makes some cool bikes, from a large bike company?
Sky- It was a very hard decision for me to leave Bianchi and the only analogy I have, is that it was like getting a divorce and selling your house at the same time. In college, when I worked in a bike shop, we sold Bianchi bikes; so I had many years of involvement with the brand. I miss a lot of the people I worked with. But I really wanted to do something totally different. I had bike ideas that could not have been realized in a big company. Now that it has been almost one year, I couldn’t be happier.
- I may have told you when we spoke at Sea Otter this year that I looked to your work at Bianchi as one of the things that has been a guiding principle for me, since taking the Brand Manager position at Masi. The way you breathed new life into the brand in the US was nothing short of astounding. Not to get you to divulge all your “secrets”, but what are the principles in your product thinking? How do you decide to do what you do? As a fellow product guy, it is cool and frustrating how you keep finding ways to raise the bar for us all. The Sanchez is an amazing bike, simply perfect in many ways. Both the Folsom and Otis are pretty kickass too. The functional simplicity and hip factor just kill! Damn you!
Sky- There’s no distinction between my job and my so-called life. My interests, background and education are in the arts, not mechanical engineering. Being creative comes naturally. And I think about, read and soak up bike, art, music, industrial design, architecture and car cultures.
- What bikes brands do you admire now and what brands inspired you or excited you in the past?
Tim- Admire now? The brands I admire now (in the bike industry) are for reasons that are only personal to me. That would be Kona and Santa Cruz. Inspired me in the past? None. My desirable future hasn’t been brought to life yet by anyone in the bike biz.
Sky- I admire people, not brands. Probably the most inspiring for me is Dario Pegoretti. Fulvio Acquati of Deda Elementi inspires me, but as a philosopher and teacher, not a maker of bike parts. Tim Parr, who no joke would come up on this list even if he wasn’t sitting next to me, created something 16 years ago that blew a typhoon up the skirt of the uptight bike industry. Tim and I are both inspired by the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, who Tim worked with at Patagonia. His book, “Let My People Go Surfing,” is one you should read more than once.
- How often do you get to ride bikes anymore? Your current bikes or any other?
Tim- I ride 8 days a week (in a good week). I’m riding right now in fact.
Sky- To paraphrase what Daniel Powell of Planet Earth said to me, “Some people call it base miles, I call it commuting.” During the week I have the luxury of not being stuck in a car on a commute and on the weekends I have the luxury of riding on Mt. Tam or West Marin on a road bike or MTB.
- What do you think of the bike industry in its current form? What do you think about the whole concept store/ single brand philosophy that is growing (sadly)?
Tim- I’ve stopped thinking about the bike industry. For years I preached in many trade rags about the dangers of “marketing to ourselves” and the over emphasis on the 40 something, suburban, white guy. I’m over it.
The future of the bicycle is outside of the bike industry. The concept store thing? I don’t care…it will have no effect on what we’re doing, and where we’re going.
Sky- The term “Independent Bike Dealer” seems to have lost it’s meaning, as far as I can tell.
- The HTATBL blog is a riot! Stevil Knevil simply rocks! He deserves a 2 case of beer per week raise. How involved with the blog are you guys? Is it a full-blown Stevil project or do either of you have input? As a huge blogging proponent myself, this obviously begs the question of what either of you think about blogging… so what do you think about blogging?
Tim- It’s just communication. We’ve always been pretty good at communicating with our people, and blogs are just another tool to make that happen.
I worked with Stevil to get the right tone and content flowing, then he has taken it from there. He’s good, and we’re fortunate to have him. He’s been with the brand since back in the early 90’s, so he understands exactly what we’re all about. He’s a good friend with a big heart.
Sky- Blogging is what it is. Steve is our hero, part of our soul. And he looks so sexy in an orange CalTrans prisoner jumpsuit.
- I exchange emails with Stevil from time to time- the dude rocks- and we were both kind of lamenting the “haters” out there- the people who seem to get all pissed off at you for selling products people want, as opposed to toiling away in the obscurity that they feel benefits their unique coolness. When do you think it became a crime to sell stuff that people actually want? Why is it so evil to tailor a product to a group of people based on style or functionality? Sure, some “scene kids” will buy a Sanchez (or any fixed gear, including my own) and then hang it up after they realize it isn’t quite like riding a beach cruiser. But… many people are buying the bikes, I presume, because they like them- whether they can ride them or not. I mean, why should that be seen as bad? (Oh, and I told Stevil he could tell the little whiners that I said to shut the hell up until they can do a better job.)
Tim- I don’t give any of this much thought. Zero in fact.
We’re on a mission….fish or cut bait.
Sky- Now that everyone in the world with a computer has a voice and an opinion, you gotta take the fruits and nuts with the seeds and stems.
- Swobo is one of those brands, like Surly (or even Bianchi for that matter) with a huge cult following of very rabid fans. The blog and the website both play to that- how much thought goes into what those folks will think of your products, versus developing products you personally think are cool or worthy? As somebody who runs a brand with a similar cult following, I know how hard it can be to satisfy those expectations. Does it ever feel like a burden? Sky, you had that in spades with Bianchi and to a possibly lesser extent now (but I don’t know if that’s true), how does that temper or impact what you do- if at all?
Tim- I’m not even sure that it’s what we think is “cool or worthy”. It’s a good question though… it’s broken down into percentages. Some things we make because we think there is demand, some things we make because we think are cool, and some things we make because we just woke up that day thinking it would be funny to bring this “thing” to market.
We have no problem making things that may in fact be viewed as “un-cool”. We’re not in the “cool” business….we’re too busy trying to tell a story.
Sky- Everyone was watching us, to see what the bikes would be. There were a lot of expectations, but at the same time a tremendous amount of support from people in the industry. I knew that if we designed bikes that were true to the vision of Swobo, we would hit the target for some people and others we would lose. That’s always the case. If you have to tell people you are cool, you aren’t. I wanted to do bikes that were like none out there, respecting the Swobo esthetic and culture. The challenge of imagining what a Swobo bike line was, considering all the Swobo fans expectations’ meant that we had to have total conviction in the design decisions. As a product manager, it is the ultimate dream assignment – to have a blank sheet of paper – and the total support of your partners, who would be Rob Roskopp and Tim, to whom I bow in their general direction.
- I know you must be getting some crap from some of the “old school” guys because you now have non-wool garments in the line. What are you thoughts on that? Does it matter to you? I mean, I still get people sending me emails that border on death threats for abandoning lugs and custom builds. I have people tell me I should go to hell for spec’ing bikes with anything other than Campy parts. I mean, at what point do you simply tell the “old school” crowd to simply shut up and quit whining?
Tim- I don’t give the product specific arguments any thought. We’re not a Merino company…it’s a product we started with 15+ years ago to differentiate ourselves with little (to none) marketing dollars.
I don’t tell our old school guys to ever shut up. They’re the reason I decided to do it all over again, and I owe a lot to all those people. They kept the brand alive when I wasn’t able to.
- I still have a pair of blue and a pair of black wool Swobo socks from around 1996-or so. Both are now shrunken and threadbare from years of use. I don’t think I’ve put either on in a couple years, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to throw them away. I love them too damned much! I have a sock drawer full of hundreds of socks, but the Swobo socks are still in there. That has to mean something to you about the durability of the brand and how people relate to it. I mean, I work in the industry and have for about 25 years, and there are very few items like those socks (and my Ibis Handjob bottle opener) that I cling to with love. Swobo is that kind of brand to many people. Why do you think that is? And, when are you going to recreate the sock so I can get some new ones finally?
Tim- The Swobo brand is unique. It’s rare that a name can dissapear for 5 years, then come back stronger than it was when it was originally operating. Why? Because we represent an idea within bike culture, and not STUFF within bike culture. There’s a huge difference there that would take awhile to explain….so I’ll leave it at that. Our strategic advantage is that the bike industry (culturally) is fixated on stuff…and not ideas.
Socks are on the way.
- What would either of you do if you weren’t doing this Swobo thing, or in the bike industry at all? Is there anything you haven’t done, either in the bike biz, or some other, that you would still like to try?
Tim- I’d be a shepherd.
Sky- I’d get an AARP card and a 19 foot Bambi Airstream.
- What are your future plans? Where do you want to see Swobo go? Is it going to become a bigger bike line than a clothing line? Are there other bike categories on the horizon? Sanchez fixed gear tandem with disk brakes and aero bars maybe? Just thinking outside the box here…
Tim- Future plans are on a need to know basis. I can tell you that what we’ve learned in version 2.0, is that in order to accomplish our goals, we don’t have to play by the traditional bike industry rules. All we have to do is get our ideas to people….in the best, most efficient way possible.
Bigger Swobo bike line than clothing line? Who cares…as long as the messages are being communicated about who we are, and what we’re doing….we don’t care about the medium.
Again…..that’s traditional stuff thinking. Not idea thinking.
Sky- Specifically, we will be adding more bikes, yes. We don’t see a need for more road racing or mountain bikes, though. We like the idea of pushing the bike line forward without derailleurs. We love internal hubs.
So there you have it! Straight from the sources! Thanks again to both Tim and Sky for humoring me long enough to answer my questions and get them back. I sincerely appreciate it.
It is no wonder that SWOBO is continuing to grow and increase the reach of it’s powerful and vocal cult of followers. With the popularity of the clothing brand, apparent success of the bikes and growing readership of the blog, it is certain that SWOBO has a place at the table set for quite some time.
Chief Kool-Aid Dispenser
(PS- Sorry for the weird formatting…)