Framing a Bike Business

Framing a Bike Business

Northfield-based Rawland Cycles boasts practical, versatile bicycle frames—and a catalog of Norwegian monikers.

Sean Virnig, a die-hard cyclist since childhood who’d been putting together his own bikes for years, saw a void in the bike market. “I reached a point where I wanted to offer bicycle frames and forks with certain design parameters that were not available anywhere,” he explains. One key attribute that Virnig believed was missing: frames that allow for a more comfortable ride.

In 2007, Virnig and his wife, Anna, launched Northfield-based Rawland Cycles despite having no previous business experience. Rawland—the English translation of Virnig’s mother’s Norwegian surname—offers steel bicycle framesets, consisting solely of a frame and front-wheel fork. Designing and selling framesets alone isn’t an uncommon business model for new bicycle firms, where specialized small-scale designers are bubbling up as rapidly as craft brewers. After all, most companies that market entire bikes use a variety of components—brakes, wheels, and so on—produced by outside suppliers.

Rawland’s first models—the single-speed Olaf and the geared Sogn—retailed for $650. They sold quickly and drew attention from magazines and online communities. Virnig has seen complete bikes using Rawland framesets, typically assembled at certified bike shops, selling for anywhere from $1,500 to $6,000, depending on the other components.

One of the company’s distinctive designs is an extended front-end head tube that allows the handlebars to sit as high as or higher than the saddle, resulting in a more comfortable riding position. Rawland also uses specially designed fork crowns—the part of the frame that holds the fork together—that can accommodate many tire widths. Another Rawland touch: a built-in bottle opener for post-ride imbibing.

Rawland-frame bicycles are available at several Minnesota retailers, but 95 percent of the company’s business is conducted on line. The Virnigs, both deaf, utilize smartphones and laptops for communication. Besides running Rawland, Sean Virnig, a licensed educational administrator, is currently vice president of Auditory Sciences, a division of Northfield-based translation company SpeechGear.

“Technology levels the playing field for us and . . . will always remain the core of our online company,” he says, adding that Rawland framesets have been shipped as far away as Japan.

Anticipating an uptick in sales with the introduction of Rawland’s newest model, Drakkar, Virnig hopes to increase revenue “by more than 100 percent for 2010 and beyond.” (He won’t disclose specific revenue figures.)

Drakkar—Norse for Viking longship—was expected to hit the market this spring. The new frameset can accommodate geared or single-speed drive trains and is designed for disc brakes (versus traditional rim brakes), which Virnig says offer better control in Minnesota weather.

For Drakkar, Rawland is using high-end tubing from Columbus, an Italian company that has produced steel bicycle components since 1919. The tubing is constructed into framesets by a manufacturer in Taiwan.

Though Rawland is focused on framesets for now, the company will “not necessarily limit itself to this aspect of the industry,” Sean Virnig says.