2016 started well for the inventor of JIVR Bike — he was included in Forbes “30 Under 30 Europe” list. The publication featured 300 young innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders across Europe who are all under 30 years of age and who are transforming business, technology, finance, media, and culture.
Marcin Piątkowski, the Founder and CEO of Jam Vehicles, one of Europe’s 30 Industry talents, spoke to Andrew Wrobel, Head of Editorial for Emerging Europe, about his start-up’s success and the long and bumpy road that led to it as well as his vision for the company’s future development.
Marcin, what is it like to be one of the world’s most talented innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders before you have even turned 30?
Wow! That’s a big question. Frankly I don’t consider myself to be particularly talented or anything like that really. However, I assume you’re referring to the Forbes “30 under 30” list. Well, I believe, that for myself, as the company’s CEO and an entrepreneur, I don’t really have any particular skill. What I would say I do have is a vision of what I want to do and persistence; I am really stubborn. I have set some ideals for myself and I want to “live” them plus, like I said, I am persistent on the journey.
Isn’t the vision and ability to pursue an ideal a feature of a leader?
It may very well be. What I was trying to say is that most start-up founders, that I know, have some very specific skills. It’s either engineering, coding, programming, product design or something like that. If you look at me, I don’t really have any of those skills. To be honest, I do understand product design, I do understand engineering; I understand them but I can’t do them myself.
As you said, maybe the biggest quality is having a vision and being able to pull together the resources, to draw the right people and to convince them to join me. If this is what you call a leader, then feel free to do so.
I would say it’s also about making the right decisions at the right time, anticipating things, spotting trends and opportunities, etc. But let’s briefly look back at the very beginning of what made JIVR what it is now.
Yeah, if someone looks at the company right now; where we are, what we do, he would say ‘Wow that looks great!’ However when you look at the whole history of the company and me in particular, it hasn’t always been like that.
The company started in April 2012 while I was still doing my MSc in Technology and Entrepreneurship at the University of Central London. I took all the money that I had for my tuition fees as well as the money intended to cover living costs and I invested everything into an idea I didn’t know anything about.
The idea was to start a company that would make bikes; electric folded tailored bikes. I registered the company and I got £50,000’s of funding from UCL. I thought that money would be enough to design, mass-produce and start selling the product but it didn’t resolve all the problems and the work just didn’t seem to move forward.
There were three of us who shared this idea but after six months my other core founders left me. Basically they got very good job offers. Plus they had always wanted to design cars not bicycles, so they left.
After that I almost went broke several times; I ran out of cash and no one wanted to back us because we didn’t have a working prototype, or anything even like it, so I decided to sell pretty much everything I had at that time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much! I also got a personal loan and I started moving forward by myself for about a year. That was 2013 and it was probably the toughest year up until then.
So, I got a little bit of money and then I realised that having the money to do something is one thing but actually being able to do it is another. I approached all the biggest companies I could think of in the UK: McLaren, Williams F1, Boeing and they all told me “we can design a bike for you but it’s going to be bloody expensive and you’re only going to sell a few”.
At that point we had investors on board and we had some customers waiting but no one wanted to design the products. I went back to Poland where I found some engineers and they designed it, they made it and it was beautiful. That was in 2014.
Then, still in 2014 we went broke again! We literally ran out of money again. We had designed the bike but we didn’t have any money to start serial production. It doesn’t matter how great the product is, if you can’t start mass-manufacturing.
This was followed by another problem; I had always thought our case was special and different to everyone else’s. Then I realised that products and projects like JIVR emerge in the bicycle industry every week or two. You have a new design, a new concept that everyone goes crazy about and then nothing happens.
But at some point the situation changed, didn’t it?
Yes. I kept pushing and I kept meeting the same people over and over again, asking for advice and asking what to do next. At some point I remember some of these people said, ‘Look, you’re so devoted and you’re so committed to it that I’m going to back you, not for the products, not for the money; I’m going to do it for you.’
As a result, I got a few people, then, who backed me financially and then everything started to roll out. I began to get a few investors interested and as they vouched for me somewhat that meant I could get the rest of the money lined up and eventually I could move forward.
So persistence won. I know that at some point you also had a few advisers on board. How did you come up with this idea – and here I’m talking about the people from Bentley, from Tesla and Pepsi Co.?
That was back at the very beginning of 2013 when we had no real traction. We couldn’t raise any money so I basically came up with the idea that said: look, I am a 23 year-old guy, with no background and no experience in engineering or bikes. I lived in a city where I knew no one and I needed to raise money to run the business. Realistically, no one wanted to give me the money for obvious reasons. So, I decided to build an advisory board. It was basically made up of people who didn’t need to commit to the idea financially but who could stand behind me and help me gain other people’s trust.
Everything changed as soon I got the people from Tesla Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Bentley on board. If you had those people standing behind you, saying we trust him, then everyone else you approached must have trusted you immediately.
I asked them to have a cup of coffee with me every one or two weeks. I would review everything I had done with them and they would say what they thought about it. I was just doing my homework. After six months Christiano, who was the Tesla Motors guy, decided to invest financially and then the others just followed him. Having a VP or a senior VP of Tesla Motors investing in the company simplified things, but it was really a pain getting to that stage.
So we’re now back to 2016 when everything is about innovation. How innovative is your bike?
I’ll put it this way: there are many innovative features that I’ll tell you about it in a second, but what is really innovative in what we do it is our perception of the customer and the way we try to turn things around.
The original idea was to get rid of congestion in big cities. To do that you can’t just offer another product or an upgrade option to an existing cyclist. Regardless of the problems, what you have to do is to convince non-cyclists to cycle. The product we have designed is not for cyclists, and very few of our customers are actually cyclists. They wanted to become cyclists but currently they’re not.
Now, the product has to follow our vision. So yes, we target people who do not cycle and try to give them a good reason to start cycling. We realised that these people usually cycle in smart clothes. They didn’t want to get sweaty or have grease splashing on their nice clothes, so we invented the chainless drivetrain. We also realised that all the big cities in the world have a huge problem with bicycle theft and people would not like to chain their bicycle to a fence somewhere outside your office but to actually fold it up and take it with them.
The final thing is that people like to keep track of what they’re doing on social media, so we got a special application. It’s not rocket science but when you combine it with the vision and the branding for the product, as well as who you actually sell the product to, then it turns out that no one else is doing what we are.
I remember meeting with you back in August last year and you were in the middle of the production stage. Where are you now in terms of the development of the concept?
August/September was the first month when we started setting up the production; it was the very beginning. Right now we’re six months on and serial manufacturing is underway. We’re looking for another manufacturing site because demand is so high. We’re preparing a big product launch right now, in London, because we want to focus on the London markets.
When is it going to be?
March, April, May. It’s going to be over a few months with various events. It’s not going to be just one launch event and then it’s over. We are doing different things in different cities in the UK but everything is going to start in the spring.
I know that you had a number of ambassadors who actually signed up to promote the bike and that you’ve also started selling those bikes online. How is this part of it going?
I believe we recruited 127 ambassadors, slightly more than that in reality, but there are 127 active ambassadors around the world. The ambassadors have yet to receive their products, so the programme really kicks off in March.
They’re actively supporting and promoting the brand right now but without the product. In March, they will get the product and the promotion will kick-off. For now, we’re not recruiting any more ambassadors because we have more than enough, to tell the truth.
At the very beginning of our interview we were talking about persistence and leadership and talent and so on. Your company is based in the UK but production is done in Poland. Do you think that there is some kind of stereotypical negative attitude to products or services that come from Central and Eastern Europe?
That’s a good question. I think there might be something like that. But it is not that Poland cannot deliver a good product because we can, and on many occasions, we deliver great products that are branded differently and perceived to be Western products.
I think the real problem is that, in Poland, people sometimes don’t really understand how modern business operates such as branding and marketing. We can do great things but sometimes they lack consistency. I think the problem is that we don’t have a long history of starting quality businesses in the country. The transformation was not so long ago, and we don’t have this heritage of starting successful international businesses.
However we’ll get there; we’ll get their eventually – it’s just going to take a lot of time. We’ve also yet to find out what is so good about Poland, however I think it’s just a matter of branding.
Do you mean nation branding? Some people, especially in the UK and the US, associate Poland with sausages and pierogi or dumplings, if you will.
Yeah, it’s really a problem. If you make something high-tech as we do in our industry, we cannot be based in Poland. If it’s B2B technology, then maybe okay, but when you look at everything we call start-ups, even if they start in Poland, they eventually relocate to the US or elsewhere within the first few years. However, if we keep relocating brands to other countries in that way, we’ll never build a strong presence in Poland.
You are based in London. Are you planning to do a similar thing or else be associated with the region somehow?
We’re doing things quite differently. First of all we are a British company. The company was incorporated in London, and everything that holds the value and everything we have is based in London. So are the core team, the sales people, the technical people; they’re all based in London.
What is Poland good at? We are really good in manufacturing and in the aluminium and steel industry. I have no problem with the product being perceived as a pretty design, which it really is and with having the manufacturing done in Poland. If you take advantage of the qualities we are really strong at, for example, high quality aluminium manufacturing, that is fine. But we’re not putting any emphasis on the fact that we are a Polish company because we’re not. We discovered we have very strong ties to Poland, however, because of the quality of their manufacturing.
So let’s talk about talent and leadership again. What kind of advice would you give to someone who is a bit younger than you are right now or who is the age you were when you started your company?
There are two things. One is not to work for money, never, ever, because sometimes it gets so freaking hard that money cannot motivate you.
I think there are two, or perhaps three, types of entrepreneurs. One is a person who launches a business because they have got tired of their current job or maybe of the thing they were doing such as studying or working in a corporation.
Another type a person who starts a business purely for the money and that’s probably the worst thing you can do because sometimes it gets so hard that basically money cannot motivate you.
Finally the third type is a person who starts a company for a vision and for an idea. They have a willingness to change the part of the world they’re living in and I think this is what is important. I know it sounds like a cliché but everyone who has ever done anything similar would understand that profoundly.
For me it was about making the lives of people living in big cities easier. Since the very beginning, whenever we talked with our investors, board members, board advisors or even the team, we never really talked about money but about ideas, such as how do we do that, how do we improve this experience or that experience. Only then did we sit down to make sure we didn’t lose money.
I also think people have to find something that they are really passionate about. They shouldn’t follow trends. Look at what’s “sexy” these days, find something that you really love and just keep doing that. If you continue to do something that you have a passion for, there’s no such thing as failure. Everything is possible. It’s just a matter of how long it will take and how much money it will cost to get there. If you don’t count the money, and if you don’t count the time because you’re persistent you will eventually get there, and get what you are aiming for.
So right now, if we press the fast forward button to 2026; what does your company look like?
2026? All right. Well first of all, it’s not a bicycle company because we’re not a bicycle company. It’s a technology company. What I would like to achieve is to look for a driver to be associated with my standard of living in big cities, whether it’s commuting, whether it is connecting with other people. Obviously we would also like to have a range of products that allows people to commute in big cities.
Click here to read about the firm and JIVR bike.
(All photos — courtesy of Jam Vehicles)