A Life of Climb Episode 9: woom CEO on the balancing act of scaling a business
Woom CEO and “Chief woomster” Mathias Ihlenfeld takes us on his journey from assembling kids’ bikes in a garage to leading one of Inc.’s fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S. Mathias also shares lessons learned trying to reimagine a 200-year-old product and the importance of creating magical moments for customers.
Discover how Mathias:
- Established a company vision to inspire his team and customers
- Developed a grassroots marketing campaign and a novel approach to helping customers find his product
- Overcame supply chain challenges and a 40,000-person waitlist
- Embraced learning from mistakes
Sam Reese: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of A Life of Climb podcast. I’m your host, Sam Reese. Joining me today is Mathias Ihlenfeld, CEO of woom, a globally-acclaimed kids’ bicycle company. Mathias, thanks for joining us.
Mathias Ihlenfeld: Thank you so much, Sam, for having me on your podcast. I feel very honored, and I appreciate your invitation today.
Sam Reese: I’m really looking forward to the discussion here. I just want to start with your titles. You’re founder, you’re CEO, but on your LinkedIn, you’re listed as “Chief woomster.” Tell us a little bit more about how you would describe your “Chief woomster” role.
Mathias Ihlenfeld: Well, thank you for pointing that out. We at woom, the term “woomster” came fairly organic, even in the early days. Our company is named woom. When we started woom, we had a small little Facebook group to communicate and we called it the woomster Group. Ever since then, that term resonated with us. woomster is pretty much a woom team member that shares our purpose and mission of inspiring children to fall in love with cycling and to make the world a better place.
That’s really what resonates with me. It’s not about me calling myself CEO or calling us chief executive officer. We’re all in this together. I’m here to serve the team, our woomsters. So when we coined the term “Chief woomsters” a couple of years ago, that resonated well with us and it resonated well with our group and our team members because I think it’s something that incorporates also our playfulness a little bit because we are in the business of selling smiles, so to speak, to parents and children all over the world. Sometimes, yes, we take our business seriously, but at the same time, we also want to have fun and enjoy doing it.
Sam Reese: I want to talk at the beginning with you. You’ve got this classic startup story. Company founded in the garage, UBNN, IBM, and SAP consultant. How you made this change is really interesting. But just take me through the journey of the garage in Vienna, Austria, to where you now are now in Austin, Texas. There must have just been a couple of really big decisions being an IT expert suddenly turn into a bike enthusiast. How did this all happen?
Mathias Ihlenfeld: I think it’s really a fantastic story. I’ll back up a little bit. I grew up in Germany. I stayed there until high school. Then I literally came to the United States with a toothbrush and two tennis rackets. I was a tennis player growing up competitively, and I played college tennis here in the United States. It never occurred to me that I would become a CEO of a consumer products company. That actually, frankly, was never really my goal, to become a CEO.
But I was lucky and I was fortunate. In 2013, my brother Marcus, he’s my older brother, he lived in Vienna and he and Christian Bezdeka, his business partner, started woom in a small, little garage in Vienna. That was literally 10 years ago. We’re celebrating our 10-year anniversary this year.
Sam Reese: Congrats.
Mathias Ihlenfeld: They had a dream, they had an idea, they want to really reinvigorate the kids’ bike, and they both sat down and developed and designed a lineup of revolutionary kids’ bikes. They built them in their garage. One of the first bikes that they put together — it was a red woom One. It’s a small, little balance bike. They sent [it] to me in Austin, Texas. Actually, my dad took it with him. He delivered it in person as a birthday present for my son, Luca.
As soon as I saw the bike and as soon as I saw Luca riding on the bike and experiencing the joy, I knew it was going to be something special. A few months later, my son was riding through the neighborhood and my neighbor saw the bike, him riding the bike, and then how much fun he had, and my neighbor asked him, “Where’d you get this bike? Millie, she most likely wants to have a bike like this too.” And I said, “I can get you a bike. Let me make a phone call.”
So I called my brother and I said, “I’d like to have a bike for my neighbor.” He sent me a bike. So I sold my first bike to my neighbor. That’s when the wheels started rolling a little bit. They started the online business in Europe, and they were immediately very successful with selling the bikes to market, and I said, “Look, let’s try this in the U.S.” So 2014, while I was working on my consulting practice, I started the woom U.S. business, and I treated it as a pilot. I was doing both jobs at the same time.
I was doing my consultant business, I was traveling all over the place, and then at the same time, I was also renting a small, little garage. I was maintaining the website, I was taking customer calls, I was emailing, I was shipping bikes, I was assembling bikes at night, over the weekends, and slowly but surely building the business.
That’s how it all got started.
Vision to inspire kids to fall in love with cycling
Sam Reese: You had this vision for woom. Besides the vision, or I guess maybe in addition to the vision, what is it that had you guys believe in you could actually go win in this crowded market? Bikes have been around for a long time, incredibly strong companies. What was it that was going to carve your niche?
Mathias Ihlenfeld: Yeah. The bike has been around since the early … since 1817, pretty much from even … Balanced bikes were around earlier than that in terms of what’s available on the market. I think you’re right, the industry has been well established and the industry has been around [for] quite a long time. When you’re looking at that specific space, bikes for children, it has always been served, but it has never received the attention and the attention to detail that children really need for their success.
And because the conventional thinking is that the parent may not want to spend as much money on the bike, you don’t have much focus and investment in the bike, and you also don’t have good quality and materials and components on the bike. So what ends up happening is the industry is constrained. They’re thinking, “Well, we can’t really spend so many resources on the bike. We can’t put really lightweight materials on there. We can’t design specific components for it.” That’s the big challenge.
So we took a gamble, we had an idea, and the idea was that we are going to design and develop bikes specifically for the needs and the requirements of children. So for example, the grips, not adult grips, they’re kids that we specifically design for children. The brakes are specifically designed for the size of the hands, the cranks as well. It’s all a tremendous attention to detail to really allow that four-year-old to be successful.
Because if you don’t set up your child for success, and that happens with many of the bikes that are out there, then your child may not fall in love with cycling, they may not want to spend time outside, and they may not gather the memories and experiences that they would otherwise do. Let’s talk a little bit about weight. I mean, [the] weight of a bike, to the listener, it may not mean much. It’s like, why is the weight of the bike important? Well, if you’re talking about a four-year-old, on average, a four-year-old weighs 35 pounds.
If you go to Walmart right now or Target or whatever else and you buy a bike, you pay $120, and that bike weighs, let’s say, 30 pounds. That is 80% of the weight of the chart, right?
Sam Reese: Yeah.
Mathias Ihlenfeld: How much fun am I going to have with a bike that weighs 150 pounds? That’s the same position we are putting that four-year-old in. We are going to ask them to operate and have fun on a bike that is extremely heavy, clunky, and not well-designed. So we design a bike that weighs 11 pounds. It’s the world’s lightest bike. Why do we do it? Because we are using aluminum, we design the product to make it extremely lightweight, but we also give them the opportunity to succeed because the componentry that we have on the bike allows them to learn to ride more easily.
All that magic we put together allows a child to be successful and to want to be on the bike and to fall in love with cycling. That’s something that’s… with words, sometimes it’s difficult to explain. But when you see it in action, when you see it on the website and when you see kids in the park, you notice they ride woom. When you see children who don’t ride woom, you also notice that. That spreads like wildfire and that’s what really fueled our success because we are here to support parents in their adventure of parenting and making sure that their child is successful. Sam, we ask this question. Most likely, you remember the first time you rode a bike, right?
Sam Reese: Of course. And I remember teaching all three of my boys to ride a bike.
Mathias Ihlenfeld: Absolutely. It’s a very emotional experience and that-
Sam Reese: Oh, yes. Yes.
Mathias Ihlenfeld: That’s what our customers experience. And this is why we don’t call them customers, they’re really fans of woom. It’s a community of woom customers that actually get it. That’s what inspires us as woomsters to really continue to really put all of our efforts in because we know we can make a difference in this world by inspiring these children to fall in love with cycling.
Sam Reese: I’m excited to dig a little bit deeper there, but first, a quick break.
Sam Reese: What was hard about America? When you brought the bikes here, was there any challenges that were unforeseen as you brought the business to America that you hadn’t thought about that made it more difficult with this market? Or were you able to just transplant the Austrian model over here?
Mathias Ihlenfeld: I was a little bit naive at first, right? I thought, “I got a great lineup of products, the best products on the market. I mean, there was no comparison early on. I also have a fantastic brand, I have great customer experience, and I’m going to go conquer this market. I just have to tell people.” Then I think I noticed that getting the word out, particularly to a target market that’s also very busy, right? I mean, parents nowadays — they have a lot going on. So I definitely underestimated that.
But I quickly recognized how I could make a difference. First of all, I needed to be in front of the parents that buy our products. So I knew that I had to spend a lot of effort in doing grassroots to really bring the bike to them, have them test it and experience it and make a difference. So just getting the word out there that way. But that was not really scalable. So the second piece I did, which was really a game changer for me, is I had to work with influential reviewers of products that would review products, write reviews, and rank our products.
That’s what I did early on in 2015. I worked with key product reviewers that were experts in the field and we ended up being “Top Bike” in every category. When you type into Google, “Best kids bike,” or, “Best bike for my child,” then these sites would pop up and then you’ll read the review, and that immediately gives you some credibility because the parents want to do some research before they buy the product. Building that trust through third-party review was something that’s extremely helpful.
Overcoming supply chain challenges
Sam Reese: You just have some eye-popping numbers when you look at the growth of the business. I mean, just congrats on all the accolades you’ve had with Inc. 5000. I mean, you see crazy numbers, 742% growth. How did you navigate that whole COVID issue with supply chain problems, the fact that you were building bikes on demand and now you couldn’t get the materials you wanted? What was your leadership strategy through COVID that helped your company continue to thrive?
Mathias Ihlenfeld: It brings back good and bad times, I guess. Our sales goals were already very strong, 50% year-over-year growth. We were in a good position. I do remember actually, it was one of the Vistage meetings with Dick Sanger, I could not pay attention in that meeting because that day I got news that the border was closed from our supplier, that the Port of Houston was shut down. Clearly, there was a lot of stress as it came to supply chain.
Around May or so, we recognized that there’s going to be a tremendous demand for bikes. Those were the first signs that parents were stuck at home and they were looking for bikes. That’s where we had to really pivot quite a bit because back then we were still in stock. But quickly, we were sold out and we were then having to work with our suppliers to get the products that we needed. You’re right, that was a very challenging time because it moved from an in-stock selling process to a pre-order process.
We knew that customers wanted to buy our bikes, but we needed to switch over and make sure that we were able to create a good pre-order waitlist approach. At one point, we had 45,000 customers on our waitlist. This is what I’m extremely proud of, is my team was able to pivot really quickly and nicely and really making sure that we’re taking care of our customers and making sure that we service them. There were some companies that were taking advantage of the situation. I was very adamant about we keeping the prices as they are, even though some of our costs increased, like inbound logistics.
But inevitably, COVID had a good impact in terms of getting the visibility of parents, of being active and being outside. But at the same time, it definitely created a huge disruption in the supply chain and in the industry, and it certainly had good times and a bad time. But we are almost back to normal now. I’m really glad that we managed it the way that we did.
Sam Reese: Is there something when you look back you wish you would’ve changed in this leadership journey or something you wish you would’ve seen earlier?
Mathias Ihlenfeld: I think one of the things that early on I was doing a lot on myself, I was doing a lot on my own because I thought I can, and it was a lot of energy and a lot of effort that was required. I think finding the right team members, finding the right partners to join you in the journey has been always very important for me. So I think I probably could have avoided quite a few mistakes had I surrounded myself sooner with maybe the right coaches or with the right people. I think that would’ve been helpful, I think, because I think I did make a lot of mistakes.
Part of it is experience, and I didn’t have experience running a business. So there’s a lot of stuff that I had to learn day one that I didn’t have experience with. I think that when I joined Vistage, for example, I think I learned a lot about different tools that are available to me. Things like that, I didn’t know, I wasn’t aware of, and those kinds of tools I have acquired throughout the years. But had I had those available early on, then I think I probably would’ve been a lot smarter in managing and leading my team.
Obviously, now I’ve had the experience, I’ve had this journey and this learning. I always say a mistake is only a mistake if you do it twice. As far as guidance for the listener is concerned, I mean, don’t be too hard on yourself. I mean, you are going to make mistakes. I think the key to success is if you take the mistake and you learn from it and you apply the learning and you do it differently in the future. I think that’s something that I also convey to the team. It’s okay to experiment and test and fail as long as we learn from that and apply the learning. But certainly, I have had my fair share of learnings.
Sam Reese: You mentioned something earlier that really hit me, was you talked about how you have to manage your own stress level. I just wonder: As you think about the future, how do you manage your leadership journey so you can continue to enjoy this ride?
Mathias Ihlenfeld: Yeah, absolutely. 100%. You have to have the self-awareness and the understanding of what I’m good at and what I’m not good at, what my strength and weaknesses are. So I think to me it’s very clear that I know that I’m also reaching a little bit of my limits right now. So you do have to find the right boundaries for myself, and I think that’s a process. And you can’t do it on your own. You have to have coaches or a coach with you that helps you process that as well.
And I think it is a journey because I think it’s a fine balance between pushing yourself and taking that opportunity and learning and growing and to really level up to where you need to be. At the same time, you also need to be aware that you have certain limitations, that maybe somebody else you can bring in to support you with that because it may be something that they really excel at.
Sam Reese: Let me ask you one final question here. I just wondered: If you were to have one of these entrepreneurs pull you aside and say, “Give me the top principles for being a good leader and scaling a business,” how would you describe those?
Trusting your team
Mathias Ihlenfeld: Bring in the right support and build the right level of trust within your team and trust them to execute what needs to be done. That’s really part of the learning that I had throughout the years. If and when I bring in the right leader and they can understand and distill from me what needs to be done, it’s a beautiful combination because it creates this bidirectional trust and I don’t have to be in the details. That leader gets what needs to be done and they do it in accordance to our values.
And it can only be done through trust and also having the transparency and having candid conversations around it. I think the biggest and best relationships I have is when we start off day one with complete transparency, okay? This is working, this isn’t working, and [these] are the facts. Let’s start off and be completely honest around it and give each other feedback and make sure that we’re going in the right direction.
Sam Reese: Thank you again, Mathias, for joining us on this episode. It was fantastic to get your insights. What a great success story you certainly are and love how much you always talk about your team. Great learnings today.
Mathias Ihlenfeld: Thank you so much, Sam, for having me on your podcast. I appreciate it. I also had a blast. Thank you so much.
Sam Reese: Thanks for joining us for this edition of A Life of Climb Podcast. Friendly reminder to please subscribe or follow the podcast to get all the latest episodes. And please visit vistage.com/podcast for more resources to support you on your leadership journey.