In the same way that Richie Schley is an idol for all aspiring young athletes, Ellsworth has to be the gold standard by which all upstart companies, bicycle or otherwise, may be judged.
What I took away from that video is that you can run your company into the ground building unridable bikes, using decades old technology, supported by non-existent marketing, and at the end of all that still:
A) sell out and secure cozy retirement
B) somehow stay tangentially involved in the business without being cast into the cold night in shame
C) get paid to move to sunny San Diego
If that’s not the American Dream, apple pie, and white picket fence all rolled into one I don’t know what is.
On the other hand, you probably can’t pull a move like Ellsworth anymore. The market is too saturated, products too good, and competition too tight to pull an Ellsworth in today’s mountain bike universe. It’s important to remember how much brand equity Tony still had wrapped up in his weird, glorified garage brand. Even when no one seemed to buy his bikes anymore, old guys and dentists still got a little nostalgic thinking about the brand, much the same reason Ibis still sells bikes. That sort of brand equity doesn’t just happen overnight, it was only possible because Tony got in early and put in some good years before the market became truly competitive. Sure, by 2005 the Joker, Dare, and Id were the laughingstock of the bike industry, but only among those who actually rode bikes and knew the difference between good and bad, which of course is a minority among actual bike consumers and IBD’s.
Tony was able to coast well into the 2000’s on the momentum from the 90’s, all the way to a cushy buyout in 2014, for two key reasons:
1. He nailed his customer niche.
Competing on price is hard. Competing on quality is harder. Competing on aesthetics is literally an art form. Tony Ellsworth did none of those things. In fact, once the ball started rolling, Ellsworth didn’t even compete. Competing implies a sense of uncertainty, the unspoken possibility that the consumer might choose another brand. Ellsworth was shooting fish in a barrel.
You got picked on in high school. You were the last kid picked for every sports team. Even inside the cycling world, you aren’t good at road, downhill, or cross country racing, because let’s be honest, you were never really good at anything. ROBOT makes up for his talent deficiency by trying to make people laugh, but you have the humor and comedic timing of a box of pencils.
But now with your new Ellsworth, you’re part of something. When you throw an Ellsworth onto your Kuat rack, everyone and their brother knows that you go down to Moab once a year, walk most of Portal, and drink local 3.2% Stout from the brewery. When you roll up to the trailhead on your Ellsworth with Weirwolf’s front and rear, the other guys know once your cadence hits 110 spinning up those climbs, you don’t stop for anything. You don’t need a wallet that says “BAMF” because you already have an Ellsworth.
Once Tony figured a way into the hearts and minds of these guys, he was set for life, because these guys need Ellsworth like ROBOTS need oil. It’s called “dependency.”
2. He got in early.
That’s why years and years of irrelevant bikes didn’t sink the Ellsowrth ship; people always remember the glory years. And as far as mountain biking is concerned, “early” is gone. History will show the dropper seatpost as the last great innovation to truly change mountain bikes. The rapid evolutionary period is over. Clutch derailleurs and modern geometry are merely refinements, and plus-sized wheels aren’t a real innovation, they’re a circus sideshow freak intended only for beginners and idiots. Besides, every company on the face of the planet is already doing plus-sized bikes, so there’s certainly no “getting in early” left to be done. No, there is no frontier left in mountain biking. There will never be anything new again.
So while there will never be another Tony Ellsworth in mountain biking, the dream lives on. Here’s ROBOTS top five fledgling industries to pull an Ellsworth in. Each of these industries have easy product goals to hit, little in the way of real competition, lots of room for growth, and consumers that are currently mid-identity crisis and willing to buy anything to feel different:
1. Frisbee golf
2. Stand up kayaking:
3. Mountain boarding
4. Quesadilla makers.
5. Roaring twenties themed weddings: