Cargo bike gets goods and people moving in a healthy, responsible way
17 February 2017 • 10:00am
Entrepreneur Lawrence Brand had to stomach a rather large serving of dog food before he could launch his custom cargo bike company, Porterlight Bicycles. Not literally, of course, but “eating your own dog food” – an industry term that describes when a company uses its own product to test and promote it – was precisely what Brand did when he cycled from Bucharest, Romania to east Kazakhstan on a prototype bike that he built on his living room floor. “It was a gruelling test run,” remembers Brand, who in April 2014 quit his job at a start-up to make the 5,000km journey solo. He cycled through eight countries, up and down mountains and across the vast grasslands of the Kazakh and Ukrainian steppes. Each night he slept in a tent at the roadside. The cargo bike – which looks like a standard bicycle, but is slightly longer, with a flat platform behind the front wheel to carry bags, boxes or, in this case, Brand’s camping gear – comfortably survived the epic journey.
“I broke a spoke and a few little bits, but it was about 90pc there,” says Brand, who learned a lot about the product. “I discovered that I would have to tweak it to be a bit stronger and lighter, but overall it was very encouraging. It was a real confidence-building trip.” Brand flew back to London to spend another year refining the bike, making the body more compact and strengthening the joints. He launched it and the business in late 2015. His inspiration for the company came three years earlier, as a student living in Lund, Sweden. In nearby Copenhagen, he saw cargo bikes for the first time. He recognised their potential not just for riders – a commuter with a lot to carry, or a business owner making a delivery – but also entire cities. “These bikes carry out journeys that might normally have been made by a car or van,” he explains. “It’s a congestion-busting, zero-emissions trip. If you can take a van off a city road and replace it with a bike, it’s not only low cost for the person riding it, but it’s good for your health and reduces emissions. I thought: this has to happen in London.” Brand quit his Masters course in international development and returned to London to work on his own cargo bike, while employed by another start-up. It would be strong and fast – and a wobble-free ride. “I would get home after a long day of work and see this big pile of metal in the corner,” he remembers. Exhausted, Brand would get to work, sawing and welding late into the night. His extra curricular activities led to a prototype. The best way to test it, he figured, was to properly put it through its paces. Five-thousand kilometers and a few adjustments later, Porterlight Bicycles was born. Brand’s first big decision was whether to outsource production. “The obvious option would have been to look to somewhere like Taiwan, but you can’t refine and control things when your product is being made so far away,” he says. A manufacturing setup to which he was close, physically, would work best, Brand figured; he could spot errors early on and correct them quickly. But setting up a manufacturing process isn’t cheap, and having bootstrapped the business with £10,000 of personal savings, Brand had to improvise. “It was torturous,” he explains. “Not being able to afford to outsource in the UK or abroad meant that I had to actually sit down and figure out the process myself.” So Brand designed and built his own adjustable jig, bringing the manufacturing in-house. “Instead of a classic factory jig, which will bash out one thing all day long, ours are adaptive,” he explains. “It means that we can make changes to a bike if a customer wants it, even tiny, millimeter-small ones.” Whether it’s a personal rider or a corporate brand in need of a fleet, Porterlight can custom-build the bike to fit the precise requirements of the customer. It became a unique selling point for the three-person strong company, which registered turnover of £65,000 last year – its first year of trading.