Q&A with Javi and Hugh from NS Carbon.
Earlier in the month, we sat down (over Zoom) with dynamic entrepreneurs Javi and Hugh from NS Carbon – a start-up bringing carbon fibre wheels to the masses through accessibility and affordability. The NS Carbon brand prides itself on being transparent and honest in a market that can sometimes feel like it’s anything but. Through connection and education, the NS Carbon team have created a loyal community of riders and customers and given many the chance to try carbon wheels for the first time. We wanted to find out how the brand came to be, and who the people are behind the NS Carbon name.
NZ Cycling Journal: It’s great to be chatting with you guys – here in NZ and all the way over in Dubai! First up, I know our readers would love to know more about NS Carbon – the brand. Can you give us a rundown on the who, what and why?
Javi: The origination of the idea came about in 2017. I was working in The Netherlands and had been doing triathlon for some time. I joined the Nike Triathlon Club and these guys turned up there with these fancy bikes and I was pretty blown away by all the pieces of kit. I was like, wow, what is this?! I got really interested in carbon wheels in particular and started researching, thinking it would be really cool to have a set for my bike. But, in doing my research, it really blew my mind how expensive they were and how inaccessible this market was, from all perspectives. I come from a strategy background, and to me this didn’t add up; how was it even possible?
And that was really the inception of NS Carbon. I got in touch with a colleague of mine in Shanghai and she helped me scan the market in carbon fibre wheel manufacturing, which is really concentrated in China. The one thing I truly wanted to understand was, what kind of margins are these guys truly doing? And is there a big gap between a wheel one of these guys can manufacture, in terms of quality and performance, versus one of the big boys?
I kind of left that on hold for a little bit and moved to New Zealand. After being there a while, I figured New Zealand was the perfect place to start a business – it’s small and there’s a lot of support for local companies. It was kind of easy for me to test, see how it goes and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We found some suppliers and bought some sets to New Zealand and got people testing them, made a lot of adjustments and from there we incorporated the company about seven or eight months after we got those first samples.
So, that’s really how we started – and why we branded ourselves from the very beginning as the ‘underdogs’, because we’re not really the typical ex-pro cyclist, or engineer of carbon fibre composites, but we’re people who really love the outdoors and love cycling. And, above all, we were just the disappointed customer, the rider.
NZCJ: I love the whole ‘underdog’ narrative and the fact that you just really own that. The brand voice came across really strongly in the wording on your website and felt very authentic. How did you guys meet and create that authentic brand ethos?
Hugh: I didn’t come on at the very first point, but I’ve basically been there right from the start. Javi and I worked together in Auckland, so that’s how we met; Javi had all the ideas and I had more of a creative background. So, I thought, let’s help get a bit of a brand going, so we went out and did the first photo shoots. From there we really got the wheels spinning, so to speak, and have been bringing the voice to life. We had to ask ourselves: what are we really doing? Because, as Javi said, we had the product there and we had people riding it, and people were asking how much we were selling it for, but I don’t think we’d really articulated quite who we were.
‘Accessibility’ is a word that encapsulates all that we believe in. It’s that piece about not being sure how to enter the market, the way Javi was when he first showed up for the triathlon club, and it means a couple of different things. It’s not just about price, although affordability is one of the pillars; it’s about being insightful and testing everything on someone who doesn’t know anything about the product. If it’s accessible, then anyone – no matter how little they know – can get their first foray into carbon. It’s about making it easy to understand.
NZCJ: Well, I personally know very little about carbon fibre wheels but feel like I gained a whole lot of knowledge just by reading your website. I didn’t feel daunted by the information, which I guess comes down to that whole accessibility piece, right? So, given the market out there for carbon fibre, why would someone choose a set of NS Carbon wheels over another brand or product?
Javi: We believe carbon fibre really is the superior material for wheels. There are maybe a few exceptions, potentially downhill mountain biking might be one of those but, overall, it’s a product that’s just going to make your life better. One of the things we have discovered is that the market was really catered to performance people – it’s all about how fast you can go. But for us, the question was: how can we turn this around and address the mass market? And one of the first things that we needed to do was drop the price. Carbon fibre, when applied to cycling, is something that goes back to the 70’s and 80’s, and it’s one of those things where you just think, ‘why – or how – is this product still so expensive?’ It just doesn’t make sense.
NZCJ: For sure. It’s almost as though that market is excluding a whole bunch of people from progressing in a really great sport – an epic lifestyle that we all love – when the entry to some of these products is so high, price wise. It’s something we at NZ Cycling Journal really want: for all types of cycling to be available to as many people as possible.
Javi: That’s spot on! Cycling is so exciting as a sport, but that excitement hasn’t always been properly conveyed by those in the game. And one of the key elements there is that it’s seen as a sport that’s only for an elite, exclusive group and it’s really hard for new people to get into it because they feel like they’re not good enough and don’t have the best equipment. I think for us it comes down to connection and being on the ground, as a brand. One offering we have built our brand around, that connects us to riders, is our rental option.
Hugh: People love that!
NZCJ: Yeah, that is so awesome! That feels like something you don’t see often, but it makes so much sense to offer it.
Hugh: People don’t expect it from a brand. But it’s a great way to interact because so many people rent and then want a set for themselves.
Javi: It was one of those things that came about thanks to being outsiders; with the perspective of, ‘I’m a new rider, I’m a new customer’. Coming in cold and selling someone the product without them being able to test it or even touch it, didn’t feel right. The rental offering was something that came so naturally to us. We just thought, we need to be able to provide riders the opportunity to test these out. And sometimes they just want to rent them for a race day.
Hugh: Put it this way – they’re certainly hard to get hold over summer. We’ve been booked out over summer – the whole fleet has been gone and a lot of that has been for racing, which is a shame actually because a lot of the racing has been cancelled this year. People also hire them for their training, to work out whether that’s what they want for racing. Other people are just interested in the product and want to give them a try.
Javi: We have sent out a few sets out to triathlon clubs, so that for a few weeks all of their members will get to try them. It gives them the chance to see what works for them and try out things like a solid disk. Not a lot of people are able to afford a solid disk but if you have the chance to see how it feels, you’ll want one for race day!
NZCJ: I love this initiate. It’s so different from what others are doing. It definitely ties in with your brand ethos, which is very unique and transparent. Is that way of thinking something you’ve purposely put in place since the beginning, or has it developed organically over time?
Hugh: We went in with some good ideas around who we wanted to be – and we’ve tried to never lose sight of that. In the past, we’ve both worked in large corporates and, well, there’s certain things about large corporates that just aren’t that pleasant, right? We talk about our own company culture – and right now we’re a company of three – and we’re very aware that the way we interact is the culture of this company, and we never want to lose that. We talk a lot about how we want to make sure we’re very customer centric and we really listen to and trust and believe our customers. If we put our best foot forward for customers, they’ll respect us. These are things we’ve always been really clear and aligned on. We’re here for the long haul.
Javi: There are components of our ethos that we really want to maintain, and I think we’ve done a really good job of maintaining so far. Transparency is key. From a customer perspective, if you don’t ride a lot or you kind of ride only at a certain speed, you’re just not going to see the benefits of aerodynamics – it’s like putting a big spoiler on your Volkswagen, it’s pointless. One of the things I was really missing from brands was the transparency to say, look, if you can’t ride at say, 35km per hour, you’re just not going to see the aerodynamic benefits. You’re going to benefit from more responsiveness and light weight, which adds to your whole experience, but it’s a different thing. One of our blogs is around ‘is this investment worth it for me?’ We address the fact that if you’re just doing it for the looks, perfect and we’re here to support you, but you’re not going to get anything out of it and you’re better off with $2000 in your pocket. That really encapsulates who we are and what we’re about.
Hugh: And we have customers who want to buy them anyway, after we have that discussion – they’re just like ‘let’s go!’ and we support that too.
NZCJ: I think that says a lot, not just about the product, but about you guys and the brand as well. Considering you have that sort of rapport with your customers now, what was it like initially getting the brand off the ground, being completely unknown in the market – and what is it like doing business now in these super uncertain times?
Javi: We chose to go completely organic from the beginning, because we believed the most effective way to get this brand off the ground was for riders to get it off the ground for us. So, they have to get this product, go ride, then tell us ‘this is awesome, I’m going to go tell my mates’. It was really based on whether the quality of the wheels is good, and it’s not about me saying so – you need to say it. We haven’t really done any marketing, in fact it’s pretty close to zero. It’s a double-edged sword; organic is super powerful because the riders and the community are doing the marketing for you but from a scalability perspective, and speed, it can be a bit frustrating.
Hugh: I would say the flip side of that is that we’re really proud of what we’ve been doing – it’s just that not everyone knows about us. We haven’t been plastering it everywhere or shouting, ‘look here, look here!’ So not everyone knows about us yet. We do social media, and we have our website and the way we communicate with our customers, but sometimes we’re like ‘wouldn’t it be nice if more people knew about us… The hardest thing is that we’ve spread out and so we haven’t had the team together in a while.
Javi: We want to be the reference point for carbon wheels in New Zealand, so when people talk about carbon wheels they’re talking about us. But we don’t want to be limited to just New Zealand, we want to be a beyond-New Zealand brand. We will always have our core market in NZ – this is who we are, this is where we’re from – but we want to have that overseas story as well and that’s why we’re apart from each other at the moment, until we get this done. The current global situation has mostly affected time, shipping and supply chain. It’s frustrating but there’s not a lot you can do when you’re up against these massive companies and their prices. There’s nothing you can do about it; it leaves you really powerless. For a small business, it’s make or break; a serious, serious challenge.
NZCJ: It seems there are many make or break moments in starting a small business, let alone with Covid lingering. What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt since starting out?
Hugh: What’s been quite classic is that we’ve always had a real DIY approach. We might see something and think that’s something we can do, so we’ll try take it on and execute it and I think as we’ve become a bit bigger we’ve realised we can’t always just do that. Letting others in is something we’ve really come to learn about. It’s taking the DIY piece and realising that we can partner up and rely on others with more expertise to execute something. I can think of the things I’ve learnt to do, for example code for our website, and I do lots of the graphics and there’s a lot of learnings there, but sometimes you’ve just got to let others in to make it happen.
Javi: For me, it’s that piece around starting slow and scaling up, but only if the business allows you to. It’s not like you create an idea and just pump the idea out like crazy with marketing, and grow something but it’s artificially grown. Some really good advice was that it really pays off to lay a strong foundation and platform which you can use to slowly scale. That scalability is way more controlled and way more powerful and as you start to scale people go, ok what is this brand about?
Hugh: Some of the most loved brands have had a slow, steady ramp in. There’s so much more chance to grow your roots and foundations when you do it that way.
NZCJ: I think it’s awesome to see brands return to a slower build after the hectic ‘influencer’ moment of previous years, when brands were just pumping out money and product to whoever had the most followers or could demand the biggest audience, no matter who they were. Was there a particular piece of advice you were given that has made an impact on the brand – or that has influenced you guys personally, or even your riding?
Hugh: It’s a pretty classic one but, you’ve just got to stick at it. Every successful business is a business that has stuck at it. That’s really the only measure – are you still doing this and putting the effort in? The emotional journey of it all goes up and down, but the advice is to just stick at it. The other big one is to make it real. It’s easy to dream and ideate and create all sorts of ambitions and goals, but you’ve just got to go out and do it and focus on the doing and the execution. It’s about asking, if we’re going to do this exercise or pursuit, how do we make it real for the business because at the end of the day we have to focus on maintaining a sustainable business. We talk to all sorts of people outside of the business, but those are the two pieces of advice that really push us along.
Javi: You have to be careful who you choose to work with, there has to be a shared passion. Hugh is really big into the outdoors, he didn’t have a cycling background per se but the outdoor element is really awesome. The original idea came from me, but when you decide to get on board with a project like this there has to be few elements that really give you energy, so that every day you wake up and go, ‘this is going to be amazing’. Starting a business has been branded by the media as this really glamorous, sexy thing and it’s all about unicorns and raising millions and then billions, and if you don’t do that then you’re not an entrepreneur and you’re just a nobody and no one cares about you…. The reality is that you might want to open a pie shop and you put down investment and take a risk and then you get customers. When you get yourself on this journey, it can get really lonely and tough. There are points where you really doubt yourself and you think, ‘what are we doing, this isn’t working’, and I think if you have the right people with you, it makes the whole experience so much better. That’s another thing that will make or break a small business.
NZCJ: Totally agree. It’s something that is so important but often underrated in the workplace or when working on a particular project. Speaking of people then, who is the typical NS Carbon customer and what is your relationship with them?
Javi: The first market we targeted was triathlon because it’s a little more open and accessible. The athletes are often open to new brands and trying things out. Still to this day, triathletes are one of the biggest customer segments for us, engagement with them has been really strong since day one. Often we’ll go to events and be on the ground. We’ll post that we’re going to be somewhere and tell people to drop in if they’re around and usually a few people will come along, and we’ll have a conversation with them – a lot of people ask a lot of questions, so it’s quite a big job. Some people have very technical questions and want to know all the details. So, there’s a big connection with educating our customers on the product and what is best for them.
Hugh: There’s the type of customer who just likes the known brands, so when we first started out we weren’t pulling many of them. Instead it was those ones who were genuinely interested in giving the underdog a shot, and they like what we’re about. I’ve been out and met some of these customers, on photo shoots for example, and there’s an element of being down-to-earth. A lot of our triathlon segment are just classic Kiwis who might not have the flashest bike, they might be riding a slightly older model, and they just love that there’s a brand out there that’s going to get them into the carbon wheel game – for a fair price. I remember going into the ‘pain cave’ of a bloke on the North Shore – he brought me in and there were just all these medals, he’d done so many events and had all the bikes racked up and he said, ‘I couldn’t believe it when I came across you guys, I felt like I could finally get to try some carbon wheels!’ It’s fascinating to me, to meet some of our character customers and, like Javi said, there are some really engaged people in our community, even on social media, they’re always talking to us and asking questions, and we really like that.
Javi: We’re having these really dedicated conversations with our community now. You need to approach different communities of riders differently – take for example, the mountain biking scene. They expect different things and have different questions. We’re at that point now where we need to start going into road cycling, gravel riding – there are so many different flavours of riders out there.
NZCJ: It never ceases to amaze me how many different genres there are under the one ‘cycling’ umbrella. I can’t really think of many other sports where that’s the case. That’s the beauty of it – and being able to communicate with all of them, on their level, is no easy feat. In terms of the sort of riding you’ve both done, where is the craziest place you’ve travelled to, or through, on your wheels?
Javi: I’m from Spain and lived in NZ for three years. Living in NZ, for me, was crazy! I know for you Kiwis it’s no big deal…. But I did a few rides to Piha, from Auckland, through the Waitakere area. It’s super technical with those steep climbs – I loved that. We did a photo shoot once on the Desert Road – I wasn’t expecting it to be so cold in summer, to be honest! But that area was something else for me.
Hugh: I have a set of NS Carbon wheels on this gleaming old seven-speed brown bike, and I just ride it around town. I’ve been riding with some of my friends who are much more keen cyclists than me – and I have taken it out riding alongside some of our athletes! It’s quite a dunga but I just love that. Now that I’m in Christchurch, it’s such a bike town, and all my friends have mountain bikes – I haven’t pulled the trigger on one yet but I’m quite keen to get into mountain biking.
Javi: Think of gravel as well, man! If you’re going to get a bike, gravel is the big thing now.
NZCJ: It sure is! It’s always a big topic for us now, in every issue. I know it’s hard to look ahead and predict the future, but what do you think is next for the brand and you guys as a team?
Javi: The next step is in terms of scalability. In terms of continuity and sustainability, we do need a certain volume coming through so that we can start getting really serious – moving from the cool, start-up stage into something more established. Another big step is that I’ll be based in Spain for the next two years or so, starting in April. We’ve got Mexico started, and the Middle East as well, with a really cool retailer called Air Works, obviously we have New Zealand, but Spain will be the next ambition. But the next step is also a bit of adventure, a bit of travel and really epic rides somewhere crazy.
Hugh: There’s probably a few under-the-hood things we’d like to do, so it’s about finding a bit more time to refine things. I want to do a new website and we have lots of campaign ideas in the works. The mountain bike scene – we can be honest and admit we haven’t really talked to them yet – so it’s about reaching out to that community and asking questions. Other than that, we just want to reach more riders and hope our riders have a better racing season – it’s been so disappointing for our athletes and our customers! They want the big events to train for and work towards and when you take them off the table, it takes away a bit of the ‘go’ to go riding. We understand it and we just hope for better things for our riders this year.
A huge thanks to Javi and Hugh for taking the time to chat to us. We’re looking forward to watching what comes next for the brand and taking our own set of NS Carbon wheels out for a spin.
Words: Kerrie Morgan
Photography: Cameron Mackenzie