Ideals on wheels: Ross Evans and Xtracycle
As a college student, Ross Evans was a reluctant to become an entrepreneur because he believed idealism and business didn't mix. Years later his innovations haven't made him rich, but they have promoted his ideals by creating economic prosperity in the developing world and changing attitudes in the US.
As an undergraduate with a passion for bicycles and their potential role in economic development, Evans went to Nicaragua after his freshman year at Stanford to teach local people how to build cargo bikes. His experience there as well as his prior research convinced him there were better alternatives to the cargo bike designs used in the developing world.
Evans noted that cargo bikes, with two front wheels and big baskets, were not ideal for the average user. He compares the cargo bike to a UHaul truck in the US: most people don't drive them on a regular basis and instead opt for SUVs, station wagons, and minivans to carry things on a daily basis. In the same way, Evans determined that an intermediate form of bicycle was missing from the developing world. He began designing prototypes of a bike extension kit that would enable users to modify their existing two-wheel bikes to carry cargo. "The idea was to look at the available resources, adapt them to make this concept of a longer bike that could carry cargo, and make it as cheap as possible, really maneuverable, easy to load, and able to carry the loads that people needed to carry." Evans began with a welded-on attachment and developed it into a bolt-on design during a Hampshire College entrepreneurship fellowship.
It was the faculty mentors at Hampshire College that first pushed Evans to turn his product into a company. Evans says that one advisor "opened my mind to the possibility of business as a mechanism or tool, and using the market to figure my ideas out. Up until this time I was really an idealist about how I wanted to get this out there. I was more into the non-profit mentality and thought that the bad guys were out there in business and we were trying to find ways to get around that."
Evans was also tired of applying for grants. He decided to create a business that would sell the bike attachments to those who could afford them in developing countries and use the proceeds to fund his developing world distribution.
The venture has been a success. Over time, the business split into two arms-Xtracycle is the for-profit company selling to US customers, and Worldbike is the nonprofit selling in the developing world. Evans is involved in the day-to-day management of Xtracycle, and is a board member of Worldbike. The product concept for each company is similar, although the developing world product costs $25 while the US counterpart, with a more sophisticated design, costs around $300. The for-profit side has not reached the point of financially supporting the other, but it has helped by leveraging contacts.
In the US, sales are strong for a niche product, but Evans isn't satisfied with that status. "Our whole intention is to go big," he says. Just as Worldbike has a mission to improve transportation options in poor countries, Xtracycle has a mission to improve transportation options in the US. However, this requires fundamentally changing American culture to embrace more sustainable ways of getting around. It's a formidable task, as most Americans don't even consider a bicycle as an alternative to a car.
Xtracycle is trying to accomplish the task not by selling a better bicycle, but selling a better lifestyle. Evans and his team believe that "most people would like to get back to a simpler life. They would like to be healthier. They would like to interact with people more, look thinner, be more adventurous. These are intangible but real values that people have lost." Evans admits it would have been much easier to start a business with a product people know they need. The process of educating potential customers and convincing them of the product's life-changing impact is challenging.
With limited resources, Xtracycle relies on a core of volunteers who "believe deeply in the vision and want to see it happen." They are continually thinking of innovative ways to create awareness. Evans believes the acceptance of his product may one day exceed that of the mountain bike, which seemed novel when most bikes had skinny tires. "It took about ten years to catch on, but now most people have mountain bikes. Mountain bikes aren't even inherently useful."