Alumnus Adam Miller, a product of CC’s new entrepreneurial spirit, is at the helm of one of the biggest fat bike operations in the world.
Adam Miller did the impossible.
While most seniors finishing up their college career are starting to think about an entry level job, Miller — a 22-year-old who will graduate this May— went ahead and made a career for himself.
Miller, during his junior year, created his own company, turning a lifelong passion for bikes into a livelihood.
“I thought maybe I would start something as a side hobby, makes some bikes, sell some bikes to people,” Miller said.
But that was just the start.
A year later, the company — called Fat Bike Company, which created the Borealis bike — has become the largest of its kind in the world, selling a specialty bicycle called ‘the fat bike’ to outdoors enthusiasts everywhere.
Miller’s story is one that spans several continents, includes thousands of hours of hard work, and at the center of it all is a Colorado College class on entrepreneurship.
The Fat Bike Company is a commodity of new initiatives at the college aimed at creating an entrepreneurial spirit, including The Big Idea, which offers $50,000 to a student or student group who creates the best start-up concept. While Miller isn’t a direct result of that contest, he is a product of the spirit that accompanies it.
A FAT WHAT?
Fat bikes are a type of mountain bike that have fatter tires, which allow for extra traction and floatation for riding over snow and sand and dirt, giving the rider more control. As opposed to the traditional two-inch mountain bike tire, fat bike tires are four to five inches wide.
The bikes only started to gain popularity in the past five years and were initially used as snow bikes in Miller’s home state of Alaska. A competitive mountain biker and triathlete himself, Miller began riding the bikes, like many other fat bike riders, as a way to ride throughout the year in the snowy conditions.
For a time, Miller worked for and became very involved with a fat bike company called Nine Zero Seven Fat Bikes, which is how he became invested in the business side of the bicycles. However, Miller wanted to see a bike made from a lighter carbon fiber and not low-end, cheap aluminum, like the bikes of Nine Zero Seven Fat Bikes.
Miller had ideas for improving the bikes and getting more people interested in riding them. When the owners were hesitant of Miller’s plans for change, he decided to begin making those changes on his own.
The creation of the Fat Bike Company began when Miller teamed up with Steve Kaczmarek, a co-professor for Jim Parco’s entrepreneurial class and co-founder of “The Big Idea” in late 2012. Miller was an economics major with a focus in business, yet he never actually took Kaczmarek’s entrepreneurship class.
They met last October when Miller’s economics professor put Miller in contact with Kaczmarek.
As Miller asked for advice and explained his plans, Kaczmarek proposed the offer of making Miller’s idea a larger project. Kaczmarek had recently retired from a successful business career and told Miller about his passion for riding bikes and that he would love to work together on Miller’s idea.
Miller’s response? Hell yeah.
Kaczmarek contributed a large amount of business knowledge to Miller’s specific knowledge about bikes. Together, they made a team.
Fat Bike Company originally projected that after several months of development, the company could manufacture about 50 bikes to retail at $5,000 each during their first year. Miller worked on the bike design and negotiated with manufacturers in China throughout last November and December.
While Miller waited, he took a semester off from school and went to Africa for three months. He and Kaczmarek talked over Skype almost every day. From conversations in Internet cafes in Zimbabwe, the business began to form.
While Kaczmarek worked on the business side from the U.S., Miller prepared the product side by talking with Asian manufacturers. In the spring, Miller went over to China and spent about three weeks there with his manufacturer finalizing everything and then came back home with first prototype.
Shortly after, they published the first pictures alongside an article on “Bike River,” an online blog trafficked by many bike enthusiasts. It was the first carbon fat bike and the lightest weight fat bike by ten pounds. Most of the bikes out there were 35 pounds; Borealis fat bikes were coming in at 25 pounds.
A BIG ARRIVAL
That first article was released around 10:30 in the morning, and by about 1:30 in the afternoon, the Fat Bike Company had sold over 50 Borealis bikes. Twenty minutes after the article went up online, both Miller and Kaczmarek’s phones were ringing like crazy.
“We very quickly changed mindsets at that point from this plan to sell 50 bikes and make it a hobby on the side to: we better figure out how we can keep up with all this demand,” said Miller.
Unlike their original business projection, Borealis has hit $1 million in inventory and will more than likely pass $2 million for this year alone.
“The main challenge,” said Miller, “was that I wanted to finish my senior year and have this as a side hobby and sell a few bikes. So, a big challenge is figuring out how to manage [my time].”
Only a few months after the initial concept of the Borealis bike model, which is made from lightweight carbon-fiber, Fat Bike Company won “Best of Show” at the world’s second largest bike industry trade show, called Interbike in Las Vegas. Over 5,000 people and 2,000 vendors competed against Miller and Kaczmarek.
The market for fat bikes is still very young, however, and only in the past two years of its five or six years of existence has it made a measurable mark. At the moment, Miller and his team are on the front of this new development.
The Borealis bikes retail between about $2,000 and $3,700.
The other unusual aspect of the Fat Bike Company is that the enterprise is local. Their Borealis brand was designed in Colorado Springs, where it is still assembled and distributed.
It’s so close that a lot of the people on the CC bike team have taken FatBikes’ cycles for rides. Since Fat Bike Company is a sponsor of the CC bikes team, they let students ride their bikes whenever they want.
The Fat Bike Company also won best start-up of the year in Colorado Springs, showing their involvement with the whole community, including the downtown partnership and the business alliance. The city is excited about this young company, bringing a new sense of entrepreneurial spirit to the community.
With a Kegerator in their downtown Colorado Springs office and a full bar, the hard- working team still knows how to have fun.
“If we were to start this business in Denver or Boulder, it wouldn’t be anything special,” Miller said. “It would just be another bike business, but since we’re here and there’s not as much of this outdoor culture, it’s really taken off, and we have gotten a lot of support from the whole community.”
FatBikes is also dedicated to producing the highest quality goods. The design of the bike frames is a collaborative effort.
“I sort of geeked out with the engineering stuff,” Miller said.
With the help of carbon engineers, his dream became reality.
Borealis’ customer base is rooted mainly in Alaska, Minnesota, and the other northern states of America. Fat Bike Company also has a growing market in Europe.
Traditionally, the bikes are for snow, yet Fat Bike Company is pushing for its bikes to become year-round bikes that one can ride in sand as well as snow. As more and more people find out about Fat Bikes, the company is hoping to expand their market in warmer climates where sand riding could take off.
Miller’s and Kaczmarek’s message is simple: any CC student can likewise accomplish as they did.
“I see it’s improving really quickly,” Miller says of the entrepreneurial spirit and opportunities on campus.
BY Katlyn Frey and Zoe Holland