UK-based Islabikes opens North American headquarters in southeast Portland

UK-based Islabikes opens North American headquarters in southeast Portland

Google Streetview of Islabikes new Portland location
at SE 7th and Lincoln.

Islabikes, a well-known brand from the U.K., is the latest bicycle company to chose Portland for their North American headquarters. The company plans to begin selling their full range of children’s bicycles from a 5,200 square-foot building on the corner of SE 7th Avenue and Lincoln next month.

Islabikes was founded in 2006 by Isla Rowntree. The company started from a small old barn and now employs 19 full-time staff from a new home in Shropshire, England. The North American operation is being run by Tim Goodall, who has worked with Rowntree since the company started. I spoke with Goodall this morning to learn more about Islabikes and how they ended up in Portland.

“We just loved Portland… Instinctively, we just knew it was right.”
— Tim Goodall, Islabikes

Goodall says Rowntree, 43, started in the bike business as product manager for a large bike retailer in the UK. “She was often asked for her recommendations for decent children’s bikes,” explains Goodall, “When she looked, there wasn’t anything she could wholeheartedly recommend, so a flip switched in her brain.” Rowntree was an accomplished racer in her day and she’s still involved in the day-to-day operations of the company.

Islabikes has grown steadily every year since 2006 and has successfully expanded their business across Europe. The company has a direct-to-consumer model (meaning they don’t sell through bike shops). That’s important, says Goodall, because it allows them to have better customer service, insure proper bike set-up, and keep their bikes affordable.

Islabikes in action.
(Photos: Islabikes)

Goodall says after Europe, North America is where they get most of their calls from people wanting to buy an Islabike. “We’ve always said no. Partly because we’ve been so busy in the U.K. we were afraid we couldn’t provide good customer service.” But Goodall says they’ve long known the North American market is ripe for their bikes, so two years ago they made the decision to come here.

The way Goodall tells it, they opened up a map of America and thought, “This is a huge country! Where on earth are we going to locate?”

From a business and logistics perspective (the bikes are made in Vietnam), Goodall and Rowntree realized the west coast made the most sense. They started looking in California and after Rowntree visited a few prospective sites, Goodall says she came back and “She was just flat. It just didn’t feel like it was the right place. So we said, let’s look at Oregon.”

The “Beinn” model.

Goodall and Rowntree visited Oregon last summer and spent time in The Dalles, Hood River, Portland, Eugene and Salem. “We just loved Portland,” recalls Goodall. “We were here for three days and instinctively, we just knew it was right.” They returned last October and signed a lease on 2113 SE 7th Avenue (just one block away from the headquarters of Showers Pass Clothing).

Goodall uprooted his life in the UK to establish the U.S. office. Where Islabikes set up shop was important from a personal perspective, not just a business one. “It came down to a personal lifestyle choice. Ultimately, it was Portland where I really wanted to live.” Goodall says he loves the city’s culture and of course, “It’s a fantastic place for cycling.” “For an American city,” he adds, “There’s a very European feel to it.”

Islabikes plans to have a showroom and fitting studio open for business by April 15th. Their location will also be used as a warehouse, customer service center, and workshop to assemble bikes prior to shipping them out. Goodall has already hired one employee that will start Monday and plans to add more as business grows.

People interested in the bikes can look online or in the showroom and then make an appointment with their child to get fitted and do test rides. Goodall said they take fit very seriously and like to double-check it with parents before the final sale. Because of that, they don’t offer online ordering. All orders are finalized either in person or on the phone (after filling out an order form you can print from their website).

The bikes themselves range from a balance bike suitable for 2-4 year-olds to a 16-speed road bike aimed at 11 year-olds. Prices range from $189 to $699 and there’s a wide variety of wheel sizes (14″, 16″, 20″, 24″, 26″ and 700 c) and styles.

Here’s the “Rothan” balance bike:

And the “Beinn” 20-inch wheeled junior bike shown with optional rack and fenders:

This is the 26-inch “Luath” which can be set up as a road, cyclocross, or touring bike:

All of Islabikes road handlebars come with top-mount levers:

Goodall says what sets Islabikes apart (besides having a range of 11 child-specific bikes) are three key things: weight, ergonomics, and quality of the components. To keep weight down (their largest, 26-inch bike weighs 21.7 lbs), they use aluminum as a frame material and use specially-drawn tubesets that are thinner than adult bikes, yet plenty strong. More weight savings come from “scaled-down components” and parts they’ve designed and developed themselves. They make their own handlebars, grips, brake levers, rims, and even saddles to work well specifically for smaller, lighter bodies.

Many people buy children’s bikes several sizes too big, thinking the bike will last longer. But Goodall warns that can make the bike unsafe and unpleasant to ride. Islabikes offers a buy-back program, but Islabikes hold their resale value so strongly, Goodall says people generally sell used ones on eBay and Craigslist as their children move up through the range.

Islabikes opens for business on April 15th (the website just went live today) and Goodall says they’ll start taking appointments that same week.

Check out Islabikes.com for more info.

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