Sexy Urban Bike: In Conversation with Knog CEO Hugo Davidson

29th August 2022

The Spokesmen Cycling Podcast

EPISODE 305: Sexy Urban Bike: In Conversation with Knog CEO Hugo Davidson

SPONSOR: Tern Bicycles

HOST: Carlton Reid

GUEST: Hugo Davidson, CEO, Knog

TOPICS: Knog, 20 years young this year, started with a scattergun portfolio of bike products, a messy mix of messenger bags, shoes and cycling gloves, tapping into the zeitgeisty fixie-cum-singlespeed scene of the early to mid 2000s. But there was also the Tadpole, a LED handlebar light with front and rear facing LEDs. This turned out to be the Australian design company’s breakthrough product, far more in demand from a global audience than the eye-of-the-beholder soft goods. But it was the next LED offering which made the company’s fortune. Shaking up the technical but staid lighting market, Knog’s halo product was the Frog, a silicone-covered LED that, with its much copied stretchy tail, could be easily, quickly and securely strapped and unstrapped from seat posts and handlebars. More than 10 million of these iconic bike lights been sold since 2006.

In this half-hour episode you’ll hear how Hugo invested to protect the company’s IP and how the edgy marketing of its early days — a punk messenger aesthetic — morphed as Knog matured.

TRANSCRIPT

Carlton Reid 0:13
Welcome to Episode 305 of the Spokesmen cycling podcast. This show was recorded on Monday 29th of August 2022.

David Bernstein 0:24
The Spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast is brought to you by Tern bicycles. The good people at Tern are committed to building bikes that are useful enough to ride every day, and dependable enough to carry the people you love. In other words, they make the kind of bikes that they want to ride. Tern has e bikes for every type of rider. Whether you’re commuting, taking your kids to school, or even caring another adult, visit www.tern bicycles.com. That’s t e r n bicycles.com to learn more.

Carlton Reid 1:02
Knog, 20 years young this year, started with a scattergun portfolio of bike products, a messy mix of messenger bags, shoes and cycling gloves, tapping into the zeitgeisty fixie-cum-singlespeed scene of the early to mid 2000s. But there was also the Tadpole, a LED handlebar light with front and rear facing LEDs. This turned out to be the Australian design company’s breakthrough product, far more in demand from a global audience than the eye-of-the-beholder soft goods. But it was the next LED offering which made the company’s fortune. Shaking up the technical but staid lighting market, Knog’s halo product was the Frog, a silicone-covered LED that, with its much copied stretchy tail, could be easily, quickly and securely strapped and unstrapped from seat posts and handlebars. More than 10 million of these iconic bike lights been sold since 2006. I’m Carlton Reid and today I’m talking with Knog’s co-founder and CEO Hugo Davidson. I’ve been reporting on the company from the very beginning, including trade mag scoops on Knog’s successful sashays into the world of copyright infringement protection.

The Chinese-made Frog was easy to copy leading to what could have been crushing sales losses for the putative innovator. In this half-hour episode you’ll hear how Hugo invested to protect the company’s IP and how the edgy marketing of its early days — a punk messenger aesthetic — morphed as Knog matured.

Hugo, people listening to to this will, I’m sure know your product. They perhaps have had a Knog Blinder, or any of the other ones that you’ve brought out over the years or perhaps even sad to say the copies that have come on the market. And you did.

Hugo Davidson 3:23
There’s been a few of those.

Carlton Reid 3:24
Yep, absolutely. There has. But I know where you’ve come from because I was there when you first sprang on the on the scene in the early 2000s. But but tell everybody else, because you weren’t originally lights. You had a broad, a very broad portfolio of products, didn’t you?

Hugo Davidson 3:44
We did. Yeah. And yeah, it’s interesting. You were there, you were one of the first to, I suppose recognise maybe the potential, maybe just that there were a couple of, of guys who really didn’t know much about the bike industry.

So we this is our 20th year this year. So we’re having an anniversary, which is very exciting. And we stemmed from design, consulting background. And so we’ve been designing and developing products for all sorts of other companies doing computers and mobile phones and toasters and kettles, the typical sorts of industrial design products that you would you would associate with a design company.

And then back then in around 2002, we wanted to develop our own product. So the the idea I think, stemmed from one of our employees who had worked at a bike store, and that was about as close as we come to bikes besides the fact that we, you know, we rode bikes when we were a little bit younger, and so we It wasn’t necessarily a passion for the sport. It was a passion for products and

developing things that were unique and were different. And so we thought it was a great industry because the people were very

straight up and there was they had a passion for what they did. And that was far more exciting to us than maybe

working with consumer electronics, per se. And so

Carlton Reid 5:24
Hugo, can we just stop there? Can we could Can you just define “we” and where because it was telling me the company name and your company, founder, co founder. And where you are, because we have only discussed where you work is your Copenhagen, where Knog is based?

Hugo Davidson 5:41
We’re from Melbourne, Australia. And Malcolm McKechnie, who’s my business partner, and an engineer, and myself,

who I’m an industrial designer by profession. We had had this consulting company back in Melbourne working for all sorts of company. So it was one of our employees back then who was a designer who said, look, the bike industry has lots of generic Chinese products.

And really, there’s so much scope for doing something which is different. So we started exploring that. And that’s when we realised, look at this, these, these lights really don’t offer anyone terribly much. anything terribly exciting. If you remember back 20 years ago, a black light was to double double A batteries and a couple of little LEDs.

And that was a really, you know, that was starting to use halogen lights for the front. And there was. So we started doing that. But we realised very quickly that we could, you know, there was, there were shoes that people needed, and all black shoes look the same. So we thought, let’s look at let’s look at some shoes that are completely different. We did waterproof jackets. And in fact, one of the first distribution partners we met was a British company called Extra.

And Brian, I met at one of the bike shows. And he said to me, you know, there’s lots of opportunity, because it’s so wet in the UK, you should be focusing on these sorts of products. Another distributor, we may have, we found in Australia that I think you should be doing this sort of a product, so and they were looking looking at luggage, so we ended up doing

luggage, saddlebags, backpacks, you know, all these sort of things, we and the other thing, which was interesting, from our perspective, probably I don’t know if it was interesting for anyone else’s. But we because we’d had a consulting company, we had really very strong

links with a lot of manufacturers in China, who worked in particular areas. And so some were some worked with fabrics and textiles, some work with luggage. And all these are all areas that I designed products for in a previous life, probably in the previous 10 years. And so we just went back to the same factories and said, Look, you know, would you be interested in working with us on a new range of bags.

And so it was a very easy, quick entry for us into the industry with products that

we could manufacture and sample quickly. And so we turned up to the first, our first tradeshow in Taiwan,

with just a hand a bag full of samples that were we had no idea if anyone would buy them. And we had no idea if there was any interest in them. And we’d we’d gone to one of the factories that made bike lights and picked a few of their products that we thought we could re-badge as well, which we don’t do anymore. But that was our first strategy as well. Plus this very unique bike light, which plugged into the end of your handlebar, which was our first real product.

So that’s how we started it was it was a sporadic approach across a whole range of different products based on the background we had as a design company. And it was it was so exciting. I just remember thinking, oh my goodness, we’re, I think that first trade show we we ended up signing up 16 countries and we looked at each other I think I think we’ve got a business here you know, I think we’re

so that was really the that was the start

20 years ago so yeah, fascinating.

Carlton Reid 9:31
Well, congrats and happy birthday. Now I’m looking at one of my original stories through the beauty of archiving on the web. And it’s not my first story that must have been in like in Bikebiz the mag but I can see on the website by BikeBiz.com I can see for 2003 that that you had 35 cycling accessories at that time, which is clearly massive. So you must have very, very quickly whittled that down

So is it just what sold the most? Or cos you said you know, Brian from Extra say do this and your other people? So how do you kind of like fixate on the handlebar? Light?

Which then, you know, which then developed into the silicone, you know, wrap around light, which is

for I say know you for anyway. So how did you very quickly narrow it down?

Hugo Davidson 10:29
Look, we had

probably the 2003 or thereabout anyway, we maybe I can’t exactly remember that the year when we did develop the first of the silicon lights. And they really were the that was the product that captured people’s imaginations that predominantly because it was it was a redefinition of what of how you put a bike light on your bike and how easy it was, and, and colour. I mean, everything before that was black. So we’ve ordered that in 12 colours. And so the end, the success of that particular product of the first little Frog light meant that we ended up with a Beetle and a Bullfrog and a Toad. And, you know, we ended up with a 1,2,3,4,5 different LED products for front and rear and

and it was at that point, actually, that the these early distributors that we had picked up in different regions, looked at and said,

these are clearly the front runner, these are the things that sell most, why I don’t really want to have a warehouse full of bags. And I don’t really want to have you know, clothes are difficult. They okay, we like what you’ve done, but they’re not your core skill, you know, could you please not design not develop any more products quickly, because we can, we can’t afford to put them in our warehouse. So we were very unique, not unique. Naively, we were of the opinion that we’ll just design anything, and people will buy it.

And we found that very, very quickly that that product sold in America has to be a very different product to those sold in Europe. And similarly something sold in Switzerland is very different from something’s obvious that Spain

or South nearly so every, every region has a particular nuance or requirement and learning that was probably the well, we had some very understanding distributors who just sort of bought things because we made them and then told us six months later that they hadn’t sold and that they wouldn’t buy anymore. So it wasn’t like it wasn’t very long before we realised that lighting was our feet. And that’s where we, you know, we, we were most successful. And so we really just, we just decided that we would focus our efforts in trying to actually master what it was as a lighting company in relation to optics and performance and function. And when we did that things

were very much more focused. And our approach was very much more focused.

Carlton Reid 13:05
So quite apart from the brilliance of that, that Frog light, which I remember vividly, I remember,

probably hadn’t got them in the garage today, in fact, orange ones and you said that there’s lots of different colours there. But I remember vividly the orange ones and how they wrapped around and that definitely was was very different for the time, but quite apart from that you are known certainly for the first few years.

A good five years probably for your really your your punk marketing. And and your your show. Sure, you’re probably told by your distributors. Why are you doing here? This is so out there. Because you were really, really out there weren’t you?

Hugo Davidson 13:47
We we loved I mean, you got to understand, I suppose, having worked. For my perspective, he worked in a consulting company where you would provide some ideas for someone and your client typically would choose the most conservative idea.

Suddenly having an opportunity to to build a brand

yourself and to to determine the tone and the approach yourself without anyone saying that you could or you could do it was absolutely liberating. And so I mean, we had we were very lucky because the the chap that we’d found to help us with all the marketing, it was himself a genius, Michael Lelliot. He was a creative. Yeah, he was really out there and had worked with brands like Crumpler in the past. And he came to us and said, you know, guys, I know you want this to be a brand about safety and but safety is not that sexy.

What I think I think what we should do if you really want to make a difference, we should. The key phrase for that or the byline should be “sexy

urban bike.” And you know, that’s what people are after they. So I was listening intently trying to work out what that meant for me and suddenly realised that when the first images for the catalogue came out there were there was a lot of imagery, which I wasn’t expecting.

But

it was it and it was polarising. It was, it was no question it, it got it, it grabbed people’s attention. I, you could recognise suddenly the engaging the engagement from everyone around you. And of course,

you don’t deny that you sit back go well, if that’s what’s going to happen. If we do this sort of thing, then I think that’s a that’s let’s start here and see where it goes to. So

Carlton Reid 15:46
let’s just describe Mike because Mike, Mike’s a tall guy.

A bicycle messenger type aesthetic. So here’s tall, cycling cap, beard,

Hugo Davidson 16:01
Big red beard, deep, very thick rimmed glasses looks a little bit like a gnone on steroids.

And he needed a look at when he started with us. He

he was far more conservative, but I think he took on the brand as well. And so he was with us for quite some time. Really, until I think we realised that the, you know, we had a polarised

a large portion of the market that were that, that no longer wanted to buy our products, and people were growing up. And the fixed gear scene had moved from being fixed gear and those cyclists were moving on. And we were at risk of actually just becoming irrelevant, because we’d sort of had moved with time. So

you know, Mike had had made incredible impression and was quite happy then to move on to other projects. And, and we decided we would try and sort of consolidate consolidate what we’re doing and broaden our appeal a little bit more see became like,

Carlton Reid 17:04
You went to the adolescent phase in effect and you’ve mature, but those those early days, they still they I’m sure lots of people who are back there in the day will will still associate you with those old days, because that absolutely propelled your brand quite a pop and the brilliance of the product. It was the brilliance of of the market that you can’t sustain that clearly, because there was some very anarchic marketing going on those and I remember some incredible Euro bike booths with was it like, Action Man and and Barbie dolls, you know intertwined in strange ways? Yeah, there’s some, there’s some pretty strange stuff out there. But then that just propelled you into a moment mature company, because you couldn’t sustain that.

Hugo Davidson 17:52
So I think that’s true. And I and I do think too, given I mean, it wasn’t just Mike. We have, we had a whole stable of people. And what I loved about that particular period of time, is that if you provide people with the licence to go and do, you know, to work within a framework, and to have fun, then they did so the people who were designing the the trade shows and the booths and the exhibitions, along with all the trends in the photography in the video. There will, there were a lot of people involved, and everyone just was we were having a lot of fun, I think I think it showed.

So I think we still have a lot of fun, but it’s just that I’m 20 years older than I was back then. Yes, you say it’s not sustainable. Yeah.

Carlton Reid 18:38
And then with the success of a product that is groundbreaking, and is new, you very quickly suffered from from knockoffs. So you’ve had a fair few intellectual property fights over the years. Would that be fair?

Hugo Davidson 18:53
We have Yep. Yeah. And we quite and thank you, Carlton, for your support over the years, because you’ve actually been very, I suppose, influential in your ability to report on those. And that’s been great that we, we take it very seriously. And

we certainly didn’t initially, because we didn’t realise how it would impact our business. And when the first of the knockoff silicon products came, I think our sales dropped by 50% in six months.

So we really went from from writing quite a high

you know, being on a bit of a high and then realising that actually, no one everyone was associating the silicone products with cheap Chinese products. They’d lost their

their boutique interest and they would ever they were flooded the market. So we had to change approach. The first patent I think we wrote we wrote ourselves because we couldn’t afford to get a patent attorney

And we held that up, and they laughed at it. So we started getting proper advice from intellectual lawyers, property lawyers. And we from that point on we’ve registered and or patented every design that we’ve done.

And it’s been really interesting because while it’s very expensive to run a patent case, and actually chase people down,

it has been a great way of stopping Chinese factories copying, and probably the most effective was a few years ago, when

we’d found that there was a company who had blatantly copied our products, and was advertising and they were going to show it your bike, and we knew, we managed to get the customs police to

take

take everything, they stand out and removed all the products from the stand. And we got some of the international press to to record that. So when that happened, and it was sort of broadcast to the world. It clearly the Chinese factory suddenly took notice. And we’ve had very, very few direct copies from that point on. Because I think people realise that we take it seriously. You know, does it does work? It’s expensive.

Carlton Reid 21:18
It must take a big part of your budget, I’m guessing, to protect IP?

Hugo Davidson 21:23
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It does. Yeah, it’s probably half a million dollars a year we’ve spent on intellectual property, which is, you know, it’s an awful amount. That’s the sort of straight profit that goes back in but it does allow us to, to stop

to stop the copy products. And there’s also a wonderful company in Italy, that that now searches the web for any Chinese copies, and it’s like whack a mole, and they actually shut them down. So that’s another part of the strategy. And together I think

all of these things help to, to fight and to ensure that if a company like ours is being innovative, and is developing products that are unique, and we invest so much energy and time and

add passion in coming up with something that’s new, then it’s only fair that someone else shouldn’t profit from that. So, you know, I’m a very strong believer that that’s, that’s the way we’ve got to go.

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Carlton Reid 26:55
Because you then branched out or

eight years ago maybe with with the bell. So that was a kickstarter. Didn’t you do that that was a Kickstarter product to begin with we yeah, we did.

Hugo Davidson 27:07
We did. We’ve done a few things on Kickstarter. And so the Oi bell was

pretty, it’s actually probably been our most

successful product as far as just sales. It’s one of the products I’m most proud of, because it does sort of redefine what a bicycle bell is. And we had this crazy idea that that’s, you know,

kicked out as a great way of marketing products as well as selling them. And so we thought that’s what would happen if we put it up there because it was so unique. And

it was it had a crazy response calendar, we ended up with a video

that you put up on the Kickstarter site, I think that was viewed 580,000 times. In those 30 days the campaign was running.

And we raised I think, 1.2 million Australian dollars or something like that. And we sold it into

40,000 Bells into 92 countries or something crazy, like the stats were incredible.

And

it was such a great marketing tool. Because all of the I think bike stores typically look to kick started generally just out of curiosity to see what is coming up. And so our distributors were getting calls left, right and centre from, from companies who often retailers who wanted to get their hands on this belt, you know, when’s it coming? When’s it coming? So, I think was, at this point in time, we’ve probably sold over 4 million units since that point,

which is, you know, that’s a fantastic achievement. And it’s just one of those those things that,

you know, we we didn’t know how long it would last. But I think it’s really has

found a place within sort of bike culture is a piece, it’s a piece of equipment that people really like to have on their bikes.

Carlton Reid 28:59
It’s simple, very loud. And well and striking, you could say literally, literally striking.

So again, that’s kind of your ethos of doing something quite interesting and different. And then do it really, really well. If you don’t mind me saying.

Hugo Davidson 29:18
Thank you. Yeah, no, thank you. And look, that’s, that’s what I say. I’m quite proud of it. It’s it came around the sort of philosophy that we wanted something that was more like jewellery for your bike, you know, something that was that was

people say to us, road cyclists don’t use bells. And that’s quite true and fair enough to because they’re bloody ugly, and they’re,

they’re a stain on what could be a beautiful bike. So we just said about trying to develop something which which would be sympathetic to the bike and where people would look at the product and go, Oh, my God, I love that. Then and that’s, I mean, that’s sort of what we try to do with all our products. You know, it’s got to have something

trigger something is unique and something that makes people go oh, yeah, that’s great. So people still doing that with the way bell I show people who haven’t seen it and sort of reaction. Yeah. So it’s, it’s a lovely, it’s, that’s the satisfaction you get as a designer. I think if you walk down the street and you see something like that on someone’s back, it’s nice. They appreciate it.

Carlton Reid 30:23
Let me go back to that story I did a few years 19 years ago, in which I actually used a bit of Shakespeare to introduce the word. No, because I back in those days, where did not come from. And and there’s a there’s a Shakespeare in phrase where he says, I will “knog his urinals.”. So when it was I was looking at your, you know, your anarchic punk phase, I thought, well, maybe that’s where that came from. But then you told me back in the day that no, it’s not it was just the noggin. The head is that right?

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III Scene I, A field near Frogmore:

SIR HUGH EVANS: “Pless my soul, how full of chollors I am, and trempling of mind! I shall be glad if he have deceived me. How melancholies I am! I will knog his urinals about his knave’s costard when I have good opportunities for the ork. ‘Pless my soul!”

Hugo Davidson 30:58
Yes, it’s not as exciting as your “knog your urinals”

we, I know, you told me that with great, great, great glee and pleasure. I think

it’s interesting, I think, I’m not sure

if we would have named it that had that.

We, yes, look, we were the first products we were looking at developing for for ourselves under this brand was were helmets. And

we ended up not doing how much but that was that was the idea. And so I we were trying to find a name that

for helmets that would work and noggin was where it stemmed from and then clearly, I can’t spell save myself. So we put a silent K in front of it and thought if we, if we reduce it to a four letter word that we can get a good website and, and something which is sort of recognisable. And we also, I mean, interestingly 20 years ago,

there was quite a if you are an Australian brand, or if you’re an Australian, you didn’t really want to associate yourself with Australia, there was in Australia, you would have, you know, flying kangaroos, and there would be Australian-made, it was always sort of very

I thought it was crass anyway. So we were happy to be considered as more European style and Knog had a certain ring about it was that maybe more Scandinavian than Australian so so it was just for those all those reasons we thought that’s it’s a, it’s a vessel. It’s an empty vessel. We’ll use it and we’ll fill it up with our own meaning. So that was that was where it came from.

Carlton Reid 32:39
Thanks to Hugo Davidson of Knog, and thanks to you for listening to Episode 305 of the Spokesmen cycling podcast, show notes and more can be found at the-spokesman.com Episode 306 will be out next month. But meanwhile, get out there and ride

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