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D.C. electric bike start-up picking up speed

Riide ramps up production, eyes new markets out west

Riide founders Amber Wason and Jeffrey Stefanis (center) work alongside their employees Deanna Jordan, Natalie Weil and Mackenzie Burnett in their office and assembly space in Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

In what would normally be considered the living room, the only furniture is a faded green couch along one wall. In the corner, where a television might have stood, several tool kits and cardboard boxes sit on the floor, a mix of wrenches and screwdrivers scattered around them.

In place of a coffee table, two seemingly standard bike frames, one with only a single wheel attached, take up most of the space in the center of the room. Nearby, in what should be the dining room, you will find a table, but not an ordinary one. Instead, a pair of doors, which were found on the side of the road and have since been painted hot pink, have been propped up and laid flat to form a large work space.

Jeff Stefanis and Amber Wason admit that it’s not your typical start-up headquarters, this old row house they found near Howard University’s campus in the District. But then, on closer inspection, these two entrepreneurs aren’t building your typical bikes, either.

Stefanis and Wason, graduates of Georgetown University and George Washington University, respectively, are the founders of Riide, a company making a hybrid electric bike for urban commuters.

Stefanis and Wason were introduced by a friend two years ago and discovered a shared interest in both entrepreneurship and biking, as well as a shared frustration with the traffic-riddled plight of traveling around their new city. During a visit to China, Stefanis saw that electric bikes were helping alleviate some of those problems in cities abroad, and he and Wason started trying to figure why such two-wheelers hadn’t caught on in the United States.

“We came to the conclusion that they weren’t popular here because nobody had done it right,” he said. “So we set out to do it right.”

Most electric bikes out on the market, he explained, have been built for and marketed to baby boomers who were once avid cyclists but no longer have the strength and stamina to pedal long distances. Most electrical bikes here are bulky, with a sizable motor and battery stuck behind the seat, and because they tend to weigh around 70 pounds, peddling them the old-fashioned way for any extended period of time is taxing.

So, with plenty of assistance from engineering students and several mentors at Georgetown, Stefanis and Wason built the Riide, which looks (and can operate) like a standard bicycle, but has a small battery built inside the frame. The bike weighs 35 pounds, and riders have the option of pedaling, twisting a throttle to call on the electricity, or doing both at the same time to reach speeds of more than 20 miles per hour.

The founders, who assemble every bike inside their row house headquarters, have incorporated a regenerative braking system that recharges the battery whenever riders apply the brakes.

“We basically taught ourselves how to design and build bikes by working with people in the industry, spending countless hours on the phone and doing research online,” said Stefanis, who studied entre­pre­neur­ship in college, while Wason majored in business.

“It was nose-to-the-grindstone for a long time, you know, the unsexy part of entrepreneurship,” he added. “I can’t say it was a fun summer, but we learned a lot and it’s definitely been worth it.”

After bootstrapping for more than a year and tinkering with a prototype last fall, the pair settled on an initial design and raised a small round of financing from friends and family. In January, they started an online crowdfunding campaign through the Web site Kickstarter with a goal of raising another $50,000.

Not 24 hours later, they had already exceeded that goal. Stefanis and Wason have now raised $117,000 through the online campaign and have taken pre-orders for 120 bikes.

Of course, now they have to build them, and for that, they’ll need more assembly space than the living room. Next week, they will move into a 1,400-square-foot garage behind the house that had for a half century served as an auto repair shop. It’s there that they and a small team of mechanics will start churning out dozens of $1,799 Riides, with delivery expected to begin in September.

Stefanis and Wason have also hired some help on the sales front, bringing in their first three employees — one from the University of Maryland and two from George Washington — a few months ago to start testing different marketing strategies around the region.

“We’re taking the bikes out to community events, holding test rides at residential buildings, going to food truck stops, basically experimenting with various sales channels,” said Wason, who previously worked for the D.C. Department of Transportation and helped roll out the Circulator bus line. She noted that the Riide team plans to travel to California this winter to try to break into new markets on the West Coast.

So, might this young company — which would seem right at home in Silicon Valley — consider moving out west? It certainly doesn’t sound that way, not with the way Wason describes her long-term vision for their charmingly quirky headquarters in Washington.

Once they have moved all the manufacturing operations into the garage, she and Stefanis plan to start transforming the inside of the row house into office space, and they hope to take over the second floor of the building and add a connecting corridor out to the garage.

In the courtyard alongside the building, Wason says she wants to add cafe tables and graffiti art, creating create a common area where Riide employees and local residents can work and mingle. Someday, she would like to add a showroom in the front of the building.

“We have a grand vision,” Wason said while standing in the currently barren courtyard, staring up at the side of the house. “We have to, we’re entrepreneurs.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.



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