About a year ago, I was given my late brother-in-law's electric bike. I didn't know much about it; my father-in-law thought it was a "Cannondale or something", so I said "Sure, I'd love to have it, thanks!" I had to wait some time for us to coordinate getting it to my house from Arizona, but we did eventually.
It was at the tail-end of summer, and biking season had largely wrapped-up. I did mess around with it a little; filling the tires, trying to charge the battery, trying it out without power, etc. Frustratingly, though, it didn't seem like the battery was charging. Eventually, I did get it powered enough to turn on the display. I realized there was a problem immediately. It has some kind of security code, and you need it to do anything with the bike.
After many, many trials, I was able to correctly guess the passcode that my departed brother-in-law used. Had I knew then what I know now, I might have just left it plugged into the battery charger for a few days, and called it a win.
I didn't, because it looked like the battery wasn't charging. It sat there with the charge light on for days. These being lithium batteries, and my desire to not have my garage go up in flames, I was too worried to do that. Because there wasn't any apparent progress, I assumed that the batteries were ruined. The trend these days is to hide the battery inside the frame, so I knew it was going to be a job to get it out.
Meanwhile, I had found the manual for the bike, and discovered that all but the most basic features required their mobile app. I downloaded it and tried to follow the required onboarding flow. None of this worked. The app kept saying I didn't have internet, but the real reason is that the "Flash" company had long-since gone out of business. I began researching everything I could about it. Somewhat ironically, another ebike company with a nearly identical product also went out of business, stranding its customers with shut-down servers, and abandoned mobile apps.
What is Flash Bike, anyway?
According to VentureBeat, Flash Bike was a company founded by Zach (Andrew?) Fountain, who brought on Michael Pan as the CEO, and Kai Huang, the same guy that did Guitar Hero, was named chairman. The "v1" was launched on Indiegogo in 2017. It did well enough (666% of goal, which in retrospect is a little sus), but it seems like the company couldn't really compete in the market. In the electricbikereview.com review, they compare it to VanMoof (heh), and Stromer in terms of design, but it retailed at about half the MSRP.
It's surprisingly hard to find quality information about Flash online. Through a forum post on electricbikereviews.com I found the companies real name: KPZ Inc. This unlocked a lot of the search, and through that connection I was able to find the LinkedIn for Zach Fountain (link above). Interestingly, he doesn't seem to want to talk much about Flash on his profile, and describes his time at Flash as "various startups". The salient points are:
- It looks like they bought the usual fawning press from the typical outlets, and tried to hype-build. I don't think their product resonated with customers.
- Their website was
flashbike.io, but please don't try to go there, the domain seems to be owned by a malicious entity now.
- I was able to find the FCC filings for the bike. It was interesting information, but there wasn't anything there that I hadn't already discovered in my reverse engineering.
- Finally, I was able to find the company page on opencorporates which lists the dissolution date as the first of May 2022.
After digging into this bike, and the company, I'm left with some interesting conclusions. That VanMoof went bankrupt at the time of writing further clarified my thoughts. I think, as consumers, and as technology leaders, it's imperative that we think about the things we make and buy holistically.
When you make a product, what is your legacy? What value are you producing, and who is the beneficiary of that value? Clearly, it's important to build a sustainable business. Your customers are no better off if you go out of business. But, if you're not producing durable value for the customer, then I don't think you have a reason to exist, and in a functional market you won't survive anyhow.
In the case of Flash, and especially VanMoof, they produced a product that lost nearly all of its value once they went out of business. They built their business in a way that relied on the pyramid-scheme hyper growth model of the tech industry, where deficits created by current sales are buoyed by expected growth. VanMoof, Flash, and Ampler bikes rely on cellular connectivity, cloud services, and mobile app maintenance. How do you pay for that? Unless you charge folks a subscription to their bike (possible, but unlikely to sell given "subscription fatigue"), the only way to pay these bills is to either:
- Model and build some duration of service into the purchase price of the bike, and assume that people won't keep them longer than that.
- Leverage the profit from new sales growth to subsidize the expenses of those sold before.
Option two is somewhat similar to option one, but doesn't burden early sales with the full cost of a lifetime of service expenses. By assuming continued sales growth, you can keep the dream alive.
What happens, though, when growth slows? I think a lot of founders expect that they'll be able to pivot when this happens. The nasty truth is that growth is never sustainable indefinitely. It is impossible to grow forever. Unless your strategy is to grow until you can IPO or sell, you must consider what happens when your sales taper. And, if your plan is to just IPO or sell then you are leaving your customers to "hold the bag" once the new owner comes to terms with the inevitable. Another example of this is Instant Pot...
The recent Instant Pot bankruptcy is an interesting example of the above. They made a product that was arguably, and was argued to be, too good. The Instant Pot is an almost perfect product. It does what it's expected to do quickly, efficiently, and reliably. Its launch was an instant (Pun very much intended) success, and they enjoyed huge growth.
Unfortunately, the Instant Pot is in the class of products that are "once in a lifetime" purchase. For another example of such a purchase, consider the Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Chances are good that you would put one on your wedding registry (for example). Your aunt would buy it for you, and you'd use it for the rest of your life.
It extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the meteoric growth needed to satisfy venture capital with this kind of business. As a result, Instant Pot was forced to restructure. I hate to say it, and this implies that these products are less accessible to people that aren't wealthy, but they probably priced it too low. They needed to price sales of the appliance in a way that would support the business even after the early sales evaporated, or structure their expenses in a way that the business could remain solvent at a lower price point.
Alternative take: Ampler
In it she echos many of the same points I'm trying to make here. I'll reproduce this quote of hers in its entirety:
One of the biggest challenges in our industry is to make sure we have quality over quantity and that we are able to service the bikes. If you grow too big too fast, then very often, that’s not the case anymore.
Our biggest challenge is to maintain customer happiness and product quality. We can do that by standardizing e-bikes so that people can either service the bikes themselves or take them to a regular bike shop, so it’s not difficult to manage the product after the purchase.
This model of development does empower the consumer to take full ownership of their product, and allows them to rely on their product, even if the manufacturer goes out of business. Bicycles are more like a KitchenAid or a Instant Pot than they are like an iPhone. I know competitive cyclists that get a new bike every few years, but they're the exception. My wife's bike is likely forty years old, and there's really not a strong case to be made for its replacement.
Warranted praise on her words aside, I do want to temper that with a bit of concern about their execution. In particular, their bikes appear streamlined and tightly-integrated. The battery is nowhere to be seen. The electronics are inside the frame, and the display is curved and inset into the frame. These parts, as we will see with the Flash, will be a nightmare to source if Ampler were to exit the market. Further, they do include Bluetooth, Cellular, an app, and cloud services in their offering; all features that will become inaccessible in that event.
I'm not sure how you square the circle of a truly extensible and customer-owned electric bike platform without the warts of external displays and batteries, but this isn't quite it.
I've decided to make it a project to make this bike into something that's actually serviceable. For that to happen, we'll need to strategically plan some reverse engineering tasks, develop a sense for what components can be salvaged, what has to be replaced, and what options are available for replacements. I, frankly, don't have the time to develop much from scratch, so I'll be looking for commercial options as much as possible. Luckily, the ebike market is pretty DIY friendly, so I have some hope that it'll be a tractable problem. I expect that I'll probably have to make at least one circuit board before the whole thing is restored to full functionality.