A Different Kind of Company

A few months ago, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (BRAIN) ran a feature on Compass Bicycles. It drove home a point that I hadn’t really thought much about: Compass is a different kind of bike company.
BRAIN quoted Elton-Pope Lance about Harris Cyclery’s experience: “The shop doesn’t introduce customers to the brand; they come in asking for Compass tires or parts.”
This bottom-up approach is the opposite of the industry norm. Usually, a company launches a product. The company introduces the product to dealers at the big trade shows. The dealers then order it and present it to their customers, the cyclists. The cyclists usually are the last to find out that a new product exists.
With Compass, it’s the other way around: Riders go to their shops and ask for our products. Shops then contact us to set up a wholesale account. (It’s easy, because we aren’t a big company that makes shops jump through hoops.) Thanks to our customers, we now have more than 450 bike shops all over the world who carry Compass components.
The difference goes deeper than just how our products are introduced – it’s also how we develop them. Compass didn’t start with a market analysis. Compass didn’t really have a business plan, either. Compass started with a bunch of us riding our bikes.
For the long and adventurous rides we liked to do, we needed tires and components that weren’t available. So we developed them ourselves. We made prototypes and then put them into production by working with the best suppliers in the industry. That is how Compass started, and that is how we operate today.
We were surprised by the positive response to our products. We weren’t the only ones interested in tires for spirited rides that combined paved and gravel roads. Many riders also needed handlebars that were comfortable during all-day rides and beyond. They wanted cranks with chainrings that suited their gearing needs, rather than those of racers. And so on…
The BRAIN article quotes Kathleen Emry of Free Range Cycles: “Compass tires are much wider than even commuters are used to, yet almost everyone comments on how supple they are and how much faster they feel.” We are excited that customers enjoy our products as much as we do.
Thanks to customers like you, who spread the word about our products, we don’t have to go to trade shows or create marketing campaigns. Instead, we can focus all our resources on making better products.
We develop every product to meet our own exacting standards. When we ride far beyond the horizon, when we crest mountain passes at night, when we take our bikes to the limit on hairpin after hairpin during twisty mountain descents, we must have complete confidence in our bikes. That is the standard we apply to everything we make.
And we realize that without our customers, these products wouldn’t exist. And we wouldn’t be out there riding and developing new products, because we’d have to market our existing program. Without you, Compass wouldn’t be possible! Thank you!

32 Responses to A Different Kind of Company

  1. Rick Harker September 28, 2016 at 1:17 am #

    Since following your blogs for the past few years, particularly about tires, It is apparent that many “big” name manufacturers have followed suit in one way or the other. Others that make an open tubular have similar structure but limited theirs to a racing 23mm only recently moving to 25mm. Here weight may be a concern but only to those racing (actually or mentally) I suppose.
    For me they don’t feel fast but compared with higher pressure race tires they are vastly more comfortable and roll just as far, and fast, down my personal test hill.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 28, 2016 at 1:24 am #

      I am excited that many companies now offer Road and Allroad tires in wider widths, even in 650B now. However, I am surprised that virtually all of them are touring models with puncture protection. I suspect that these companies don’t do much riding in the real world, otherwise, they’d know that punctures are very rare with wide tires that run at low pressures. All those belts and reinforced casings make the tires less supple, thus slower and less comfortable.
      Almost all also use lower-end casings, not realizing that there is a need for high-end tires in wider widths. It’s almost as if they still aren’t taking Allroad bikes seriously.

      • Pete September 28, 2016 at 2:00 am #

        I suspect the manufacturers think they will struggle to sell a tyre with no flat protection, perhaps because they spent years educating the market that their “vectran breaker belts” etc were essential to prevent tyres being cut to ribbons after a few pedal strokes and therefore worth paying a premium for.
        When I tell people they will get less punctures if they let some air out of their tyres they look at me like I’m mad.

        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 28, 2016 at 2:16 am #

          When we started riding wider tires a decade ago, some of us wondered if we’d get more flats because the wider tire rolls over more debris on the road (wider footprint). Fortunately, after a year or so of riding wide tires, we realized that we were getting far fewer flats. We sometimes rolled over crunchy glass that would have punctured harder tires, yet rarely suffered a flat. We realized that the softer tire didn’t push as hard onto the glass, and thus the glass was less likely to cut the tire.
          This example shows why the “experience of the road” is more important than theoretical reasoning.

      • HaloTupolev September 28, 2016 at 3:08 am #

        If anything, casing seems even more important with wider tires. With more tire, heavier types of casing result in more added weight.

        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 28, 2016 at 3:13 am #

          It’s not the weight, but the casing determines the performance. Our testing has shown that a 24 mm-wide supple tire is much, much faster than a 35 mm-wide tire with a stiff casing.

      • Pete September 29, 2016 at 4:19 am #

        “This example shows why the “experience of the road” is more important than theoretical reasoning.”
        Yes exactly: The thing about theoretical reasoning is that there can be more than one theoretical reason because they are only hypotheses. I started reducing my tyre pressure because flints seemed to be stabbing through the tyre and puncture proof casing – my theoretical reasoning behind getting less punctures was that the increased contact patch would decrease the ground pressure and hence reduce punctures.
        People don’t tend to think for themselves and just buy the marketing – you guys haven’t.

  2. Adamar September 28, 2016 at 5:45 am #

    “Its cranks are 11-speed compatible”
    Is that some more unofficial official confirmation?

  3. Nick Bull September 28, 2016 at 7:47 am #

    “Our testing has shown that a 24 mm-wide supple tire is much, much faster than a 35 mm-wide tire with a stiff casing.” … and presumably the contrary? A 35mm wide supple tire is faster than a 24mm tire with a stiff casing? FWIW, most of my ~2500 commute miles this year have been on supple 700×32’s: Grand Bois Cypres 32’s and (when those finally wore out) Compass Stampede Pass 32’s. I ride on 1/4 of a mile of wooden bridge that tends to have splinters, and forms an excellent test for when tires are worn out, because that’s when I’ll get flats, whether it’s a “flatproof” tire or not. I’m also on downtown city streets for about a mile. I got one flat earlier this year in the rain on the city street, and one from the splinters. Other than that, nothing. (FWIW, Rando km’s are on 650×42’s, and I have gotten three flats in 5000km; two on Hetres in the rain, one on Babyshoe Pass after 7 miles of gravel road.)

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 28, 2016 at 8:15 am #

      A 35mm wide supple tire is faster than a 24mm tire with a stiff casing?

      Of course. A 24 mm tire with a stiff casing is the worst of all possible world. You have to run high pressure, so you still get flats, but no comfort and no speed.

  4. Zach Kaplan September 28, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    Any plans for high performance, supple, wide tyres in the 406 mm diameter for recumbents and folding bikes?

  5. Jacob Musha September 28, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    My favorite thing about Compass is that it’s not driven by marketing, (usually stupid) trends, or planned obsolescence. Sadly, this seems to be extremely rare in the bike industry.

    • Greg September 28, 2016 at 11:18 pm #

      So true. Bicycles have become fashion statements, like designer dogs and fancy leather goods, sadly, at the “mainstream” level!!

      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 29, 2016 at 12:01 am #

        Try to see the good side – if people spend their money on a good bicycle instead of an expensive watch, they might even ride it!

  6. Larry T September 28, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    You guys don’t get enough credit for pushing the industry away from too-skinny tires pumped up to too-high pressures though, as you note, they haven’t totally embraced the idea just yet. I have to admit it IS great to finally see some acceptance of the idea after so many years of trying to convince folks of the wisdom of wider-softer. Keep up the great work!

  7. Peter September 28, 2016 at 2:45 pm #

    Do you have a wholesaler stocking Compass tyres in Australia

    • Andrew Viles September 28, 2016 at 6:09 pm #

      Hi Peter. Both Commuter Cycles in Melbourne and Cicli Spirito in Sydney stock Compass tires if you want to buy a set. Both have a wholesale account with Compass and order direct.

  8. Tim Evans September 28, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    “Compass didn’t really have a business plan, either. Compass started with a bunch of us riding our bikes.” Obviously, and thankfully, that turned out to be a good business plan.

    • Jon Blum September 28, 2016 at 10:41 pm #

      Like Tim, I was struck by the comment about no business plan (or market research). Startups based on passion often die ugly – happens a lot here in Silicon Valley – and the bike business is pretty tough, so clearly you had some very good ideas and execution. Plan or no, you have found some neglected market niches and have started to influence increasing numbers of riders. The main threat to your business may come, paradoxically, from more widespread acceptance of your ideas. You’ll know you’ve “made the big time” when we start seeing counterfeit Compass tires for sale on a web site named for a large river in South America.

      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 28, 2016 at 11:58 pm #

        We just felt that our passion was shared by many. Of course, there were back-of-the-envelope calculations to make sure the numbers could work out… I am not too concerned about widespread acceptance of our ideas. It’s a good thing for cycling, and Compass will continue to provide the top end of quality and performance.

  9. Andrew Conway September 28, 2016 at 4:38 pm #

    Very nice article, and I was glad to see a mention of Harris Cyclery – longtime base of the late Sheldon Brown. Too bad the article misspells the location, though – it’s Newton, not Newtown.

  10. Bob C September 28, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

    The Compass and BQ team has made all of our lives better.
    I wish nothing but good things for all of you and I’m delighted to see that you’re getting attention for your passionate labors.

  11. Peter September 28, 2016 at 11:52 pm #

    Do you have a dealer in Switzerland, or failing that, mainland Europe?

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 29, 2016 at 12:00 am #

      We don’t have dealers in Switzerland, but our distributor in France, 2-11 Cycles, can ship all over Europe. For EU customers, there won’t be any custom’s charges and delays.

  12. Guy Jett September 29, 2016 at 5:58 am #

    Would it be possible to add a link to the Compass website listing local dealers? At least for the U.S.? For the rest of the world, list distributors if individual dealers not possible? I would like to know where I can walk in, look over, and purchase your products.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly September 29, 2016 at 6:03 am #

      We have been thinking about this. It’s hard to keep a list updated, because listing a shop that did a one-time special order for a customer won’t be of much use to you. And since we are adding new shops almost daily, the list would have to be updated frequently. Any shop can order from us – setting up a wholesale account is easy.

      • Ray Varella September 29, 2016 at 8:48 am #

        Perhaps setting up a map where the shops could pin their location and when you click on the location the shop could list which products they stock on their website.
        It would alleviate Compass from maintaining any sort of lists and trying to keep track of anyone else’s inventory or offerings.

  13. thebvo September 29, 2016 at 8:48 am #

    More than a company it’s the leader of a dare I say grassroots movement to make bicycles for real world cyclists. I think and hope it will have effects far beyond cyclotourists and their bikes. The industry will have to respond eventually. Pushed by the research at BQ Compass has started us down an awesome path. And your patience, hard work and even keel is paramount to what has been accomplished. I’m excited to see what else Compass and BQ has in store for the future.

  14. Conrad September 30, 2016 at 8:47 am #

    It’s unfortunate that the idea of making a superlative product that sells itself on its performance merits, is a novel idea in 2016. Only thing you can do is vote with your wallet. Thanks for making these products available!

  15. Tom Howard September 30, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    The revolution is gaining momentum. Congratulations on using research and real-world riding experience to steer the bicycle industry in a new direction. I’ve grown quite skeptical whenever the big manufacturers roll out new products. No doubt it’s just a matter of time before Shimano and Campagnolo introduce 12-speed cassettes, because, as everybody knows, 12 is better than 11.

  16. David Feldman October 1, 2016 at 9:04 am #

    For this Compass dealer, your approach is a refreshing change. I’m a bike industry lifer. I spent a long stretch working at a store that was an early dealer for one of the now very bike US bike companies. The service staff became seat-of-the-pants engineers fixing marketing-driven mistakes made by the factory. That store deserves credit for being the bike vendor’s last-state engineering and quality control facility for the greater Portland area.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly October 1, 2016 at 6:15 pm #

      It amazes me how many products are going to market without proper testing and development. Shimano’s first Di2 really could only be called a prototype, yet it was sold to the public. The same applied to the carbon fork of a cyclocross bike we tested, which had terrible brake judder. (The company’s engineers helped us cure it with a replacement set of brakes and careful setup that probably would be beyond the capabilities of most owners.) The pressure to a) beat the others to the market and b) keep prices low makes it hard for companies to spend the time and money required to get their products just right.