Over the past few years, we’ve watched in interest and excitement as an entire industry of small, locally-owned businesses have popped up in response to the growing interest in cycling on Vancouver’s streets; economic opportunities created – in part – by the City’s investment in a network of bike lanes for all ages and abilities. Whether it’s Cycle City Tours, Shift Delivery, Earnest Ice Cream, or even Modacity, organizations that wouldn’t have existed eight years ago are demonstrating the potential for bike infrastructure to serve as an incubator for budding entrepreneurs.
Among this ever-growing list is Reid Hemsing of Two Wheel Gear, who – while born and raised in Calgary – owes much of his company’s recent growth and success to a move to Vancouver in early 2014, just as cycle commuting was reaching unprecedented heights. Nowadays, Reid ships his signature stylish bike bags around the world, including, most notably, Mountain Equipment Co-op’s 21 Canadian locations. But, funnily enough, Hemsing owes much of Two Wheel Gear’s existence to the corporate locker room bike culture in one of the biggest players in Alberta’s oil and gas industry: the TransCanada Corporation.
Landing a Coveted Career with the TransCanada Corporation
After graduating from Mount Royal College with a Bachelor of Applied Small Business and Entrepreneurship in 2008, Hemsing ran his own landscaping company for about a year. Growing tired of shovelling dirt seven days a week, he decided to apply for a highly competitive position through TransCanada’s New Graduate scheme. While he was short-listed from over 200 candidates, Hemsing ultimately fell short, convinced his lack of a university-level bachelor’s degree cost him the job. So Hemsing returned to Mount Royal in 2010, which had since attained university status, with a renewed focus on his studies, determined to land that coveted career with TransCanada.
It was during his final year at Mount Royal – while acting as Vice President of the local chapter of Students in Free Enterprise – that Hemsing crossed paths with Craig Coulombe and Ken MacLean. “These two guys approached one of my professors,” recalls Hemsing. “They'd invented a homemade bike suit bag they had been making in their garage since 1999, and were selling online, but were having trouble growing their business.” Hemsing immediately saw the potential for such a versatile and visionary product, and within months, had taken over full operation and ownership of Two Wheel Gear, as Coulombe and MacLean’s career paths took them in another direction.
"I Have to Become the Person I'm Selling My Bags To"
Hemsing moved the business into his basement while he finished up his degree, once again applying at TransCanada; this time successfully landing the role that would all but ensure a lucrative salary and upward career trajectory for the rest of his working days.
Until that point, Hemsing hadn’t regularly ridden a bike more than the occasional recreational ride, but commuting from Calgary’s suburbs to the city centre provided him with an opportunity to get into his customers’ (clipless) shoes. “That’s when I really became a bike commuter,” says Hemsing. “I realized I have to become the person I’m selling my bags to. I bought my first really good bike, a Specialized Crosstrail, and started a year-round, 11 kilometre commute along the Bow River.”
Over the course of three years, despite being immersed in an environment that involved high stakes, high pressure, and a high level of commitment at TransCanada, Hemsing tirelessly worked on Two Wheel Gear on his evenings, weekends, and even personally delivered orders on his lunch hours. He partnered with a Toronto-based industrial designer and a Calgary-based garment manufacturer to refine the design of the suit bag, considering feedback from his customers, coworkers, and his own experience of bicycle commuting in one of North America’s toughest climates.
Embracing Vancouver’s Burgeoning Bicycle Culture
After countless iterations, Hemsing finally arrived at a design he was thought was ready for the masses. Around that time, at his own urging, Reid’s longtime partner Amber packed up and moved to Vancouver, to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a Naturopathic Doctor with a degree from the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine. Despite flying out to visit her on a regular basis, after a few months, Reid opted to take his own gigantic leap away from a comfortable career path at TransCanada, to the uncertain and unpredictable world of entrepreneurship on the west coast.
After opening Two Wheel Gear’s inaugural office space in Gastown in February 2014, Hemsing immediately embraced Vancouver’s burgeoning bicycle culture. He became a sponsor of HUB’s bi-annual Bike to Work Week, donating prizes for participants, and hosting celebration stations with free product demonstrations, tune-ups, and refreshments. Two Wheel Gear also supported local track cyclist Georgia Simmerling, offering a portion of every sale to help her attend the Rio Olympics earlier this year.
Hemsing has also been incredibly supportive of Modacity’s various ventures, sponsoring our yearly Cargo Bike Championship, and generously supporting our #CyclingAbroad trip to The Netherlands, while providing each member of our family with a co-branded pannier backpack for our travels.
"Manufacturing Physical Product Is a Difficult Business"
While most of Two Wheel Gear’s products have been incredibly well received, Hemsing isn’t willing to sugar coat the reality of operating an inventory-based startup. “Manufacturing physical product is a really difficult business in terms of cash intensiveness,” Hemsing reveals. “It requires a great deal of cash that you have to continually reinvest into the business. Even if you have a good sales year, all of that money goes back into buying additional inventory, while your fixed costs remain. So I’ve been learning a lot about why there aren’t many small companies like Two Wheel Gear that make it into the bigger retail outlets, because it is very difficult to grow in that manner.”
While many would consider securing MEC as a retail partner a undoubted windfall, Hemsing has seen firsthand the resentment and resistance from independent bike shops, who view the mega retailer's tax-exempt status and unparalleled buying power as an unfair playing field. “I’ve had meetings with really great shops who like the products, and admit they would do well in their stores,” Hemsing recounts. “They say they’re going to carry the bags, only to come back and say ‘We just can’t get over the MEC thing.’”
"We Want to Be a Symbol of the Rise of Biking to Work"
This past spring, Two Wheel Gear launched their Pannier Backpack as a follow-up to the suit bag, which was a tremendous success, selling out all of their stock within a matter of weeks. It’s a product with which Hemsing hopes to broaden his market, which he admits is about 80% male, the majority of whom are older urban professionals. He is assured by the growing number of student and female customers discovering his products through the backpack, and hopes to build on that success, and complete his product family with a laptop bag in the coming years.
In spite of the pushback around partnering with MEC in Canada, Hemsing’s sights are firmly set on U.S. retail giant REI for distribution south of the 49th parallel. He corresponds with their buyers on a regular basis, and believes it is only a matter of time before they sign on the dotted line. “That would change the game for us,” he says optimistically. “We would go from being a little unknown Canadian company to becoming a recognized North American name in the world of bike commuting.”
In the meantime, Hemsing is working with large local players such as Electronic Arts, SAP, Vancity, and the Vancouver General Hospital on their internal bike to work programs. These schemes provide incentives for their staff to choose "win-win" commuting methods, resulting in increased productivity and fewer sick days. As Amber prepares to open her own practice as a Naturopathic Doctor, Reid sees Vancouver as an ideal city to lay down their roots, both personally and professionally. “We want Two Wheel Gear be a symbol of the rise of biking to work in North America,” he admits. “And Vancouver is the perfect place to make that happen.”