It's been a year since we committed to producing the Slacker. It may seem like nothing's been happening, but it has! Just very slowly...
In Chapter 14 we signed off by saying "The Slacker is going into production. We ordered tubing this week. We don't know how we're going to pay for it yet but we'll figure it out; we always do."
We had arrived at the project tipping point. The point at which we had to decide to put real money down or back out completely. We didn't want to back out. But we didn't have any money either. And we needed around $75,000. Not ideal.
Nevertheless, we signed off on an order of tubing and in so doing, pulled the trigger on the first production of 100 Slacker frames.
We had always known it was going to be difficult to do this. Let's be honest, we could probably have produced a more mainstream bike and sold a tonne of them by now. When the pandemic happened, everything got harder. In spite of all the reports of a 'boom' in the cycle trade, it was a challenge for small businesses like ours to survive, so Christmas 2021 was still a very uncertain time for us. It would surely have been easier to shelve the Slacker and focus on the day job. But the day job isn't why Airdrop exists, Airdrop is about keeping it core and not always making the sensible decisions. We'd come so far, and we weren't going to bail out. So we placed the order.
It's probably good that we didn't know things were about to get a lot worse...
Lead Times Go Sideways
In the past lead times had been fairly stable. For a frame like the Slacker, we'd be looking at 70-90 days to have tubing made, 45-60 days for fabrication, 10-15 days for finishing and then shipping. We could expect to have stock to sell 5-6 months after we placed an order, all being well. As a small brand, we don't have any leverage so that all has to be paid for in advance. So we'd have this big up-front investment and not see any revenue for at least 6 months.
We're probably all aware by now what happened to bike industry lead times during the pandemic: they got blown to bits. To an extent we were prepared for bad news when we ordered the Slackers. We were told 210 days for tubing. We worked closely with the tubing factory, the tool maker, the CNC shop, the main factory and the painting house to time everything and got a commitment to 30 days for fabrication. So we were just about in a position to have stock here in Summer 2022. Later than we hoped, but still a lot better than nothing.
We scraped together the first payment to the tubing factory which set the whole thing in motion. And then there was an outbreak of the Omicron variant in Shanghai. One of the biggest ports in the world was in Lockdown from March until June. At first we didn't fully appreciate how this would affect the Slacker - no part of it was being made in China. But it soon became clear that the knock-on effects would be so profound that effectively nothing was happening. Not only were the Slackers on ice, but batches of Fades and Edits were too. We just about squeaked the Filters out before everything shut down but that would be all we had to survive on for several months. Even now, we're about to get a batch of Edits ordered and paid for in June 2021.
Suddenly, Airdrop Bikes was plunged into a massive crisis. And nobody knew. With lockdowns here over, infection rates falling and things looking up for 2022, people couldn't understand why we still weren't able to get things done. But we were looking at a perfect storm situation. This is where our commitment to independence really got tested: with no financial support, we had nothing to fall back on.
What Exchange Rate?
Most transactions in the bike trade are done in US Dollars. That means the price we pay for anything depends on the exchange rates from Taiwanese Dollars to US Dollars, and also US Dollars to British Pounds. Brexit had famously crashed the USD/GBP rate down to 1.16 but things had recovered back to about 1.32 when we ordered the Slackers. That meant the $75,000 we needed would be about £57,000.
However, the government had other ideas. Their blatant incompetence throughout 2022 had the exchange rate at one point as low as 1.03. Which was a particularly dark day for us. At that point the $75,000 was more like £73,000. The Slackers had got £16,000 more expensive for no good reason. We could choose to wait to make payments to our suppliers - hoping things would improve - but that would put them in a bind and also cause further delays. No good options.
We always knew we would have to fund The Slacker Project somehow. The original plan was to fund the prototypes and the tooling ourselves, get the design production ready and then offer it as a Kickstarter. Even if we didn't manage to make any profit out of it, at least it would be a reality and all those people who have supported the idea for so long would be able to get their bikes.
We were very much aware of some other bike related Kickstarters going wrong, and in some cases being downright fraudulent and that's not us. Some of the dodgy stuff that went down damaged the reputations of small bike brands and we were determined not to get tarred with that brush; we wanted it to be a certainty for Slacker buyers. And things were just too risky.
It was a tough call but we felt that it would be irresponsible to expose customers to any risk if we couldn't get the Slackers completed. We had to take all the risk on ourselves. The Kickstarter idea was, in reality, a Non-starter.
The solution, if you can call it that, was to go all-in. After seven years of building Airdrop up from nothing, it was a tough call to make. 'Fortune favours the brave' they say. But they don't have to take out a loan and a credit card and send it all to Taiwan. Which is what we did. At that point it wasn't just The Slacker Project that was on the line; it was the whole thing: Airdrop, the house, everything. But if there's one lesson that setting up Airdrop has taught me over the years, its that you can achieve much more than you think when you're fully committed. And you'd regret it if you didn't try.
For all the delays and the financial rollercoaster of doom, production actually went really smoothly. Maybe we got lucky, or maybe that was an unexpected dividend from all that time invested in design, development and testing. For all the risk we might have been taking in doing the Slacker at all, we didn't leave anything to chance in the design. So when we'd finally been able to assemble all the tooling, tubing, fixturing and CNC in one place, the frames came together beautifully. Of course that's what you would expect, but it's not always the case in the real world of making bikes.
The fact that production went so well is also testament to the skill and experience of our partners in Taiwan. It's not generally understood just how good they are at making bikes. They're the best. We could write a whole blog series about that - and maybe we will one day - but it's worth saying now that the people who helped us build the Slacker really are incredible at what they do. It's all very well us designing the shit out of it, but without the master makers, our designs couldn't become a reality.
All's Well That Ends Well
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this chapter has been mostly doom and gloom. And for much of 2022, it was. The Slacker Project was under a cloud of uncertainty, and that's why we haven't been posting updates. From the start we've tried to be honest about how we do everything at Airdrop. But we didn't want to sound like we were complaining about a situation that we had put ourselves in, especially when people are out there struggling to put food on the table. We just got our heads down and worked as hard as we could, trying to keep the dream alive.
In the end production took 12 months not 6. And a lot more money than we thought. We're almost exactly three years on from the original Slacker Project announcement. That's a lot of blood, sweat, tears and more than a few grey hairs. But we're finally able to confirm that in spite of all the setbacks, the dream is a reality.
The Slacker frames are finished.
Can we just take this opportunity to say sorry to everyone who's following. It must have seemed like we'd dropped the ball, or we'd given up. And also let's say thank you, because we've had so many messages of support and that's made a real difference. I've said it before but it bears repeating: Airdrop has the best customers. Pretty soon now you'll get your reward for all that patience.
In the next chapter we'll take a look at the range; all the different frame-and-shock options and full bike builds, what the specs are and why. As a Slacker Project follower, you'll get to see all this in advance of the launch, which is set for Thursday 26th January.
The Big Picture
The frames are complete and they're on the way to the paint shop. We've got a production bike here and we've been producing all the launch content (which we can't wait to show you).
The Slacker Project has a couple more chapters to run until the story is complete; stay tuned for more details on specs, the range, pricing and of course, placing an order.
The Slacker will launch on 26/1/23.
Ed is the owner of Airdrop Bikes. A former web and graphic designer, he sacked off his job one day and decided to start up a bike brand.
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