[Editors note: James Blair has since sold Karbon Speed so aspects of this article may no longer be accurate. For updated information on the company, please visit: http://www.prleap.com/pr/213064/ (as of November 2013)]
James Blair is currently the CEO of Karbon Speed, a disruptor in the cycling and triathlon wheel market. Before joining Karbon Speed, he founded LionsMouth Digital and QuickWhey. A recent graduate of Baylor University, where he studied Political Science, he owes much of his early experience to the Accelerated Ventures program, which funds student entrepreneurs – giving them real world experience. James has been a FoundersCard Member since 2012.
1.) What inspired you to create Karbon Speed?
I guess I have to first off admit that I was not the original creator of Karbon Speed, but was brought in early on and know the story really well. It started with the basic idea that the most expensive set of wheels and the cheapest set are nearly identical in material quality and design. On top of that, the speed advantage that is gained with a set of aero wheels over stock aluminum wheels is significant. So people want to ride faster, but not pay thousands of dollars – hence creating a direct to consumer brand meant we could make aero wheels (and their speed upgrade) more accessible. That’s our sole inspiration.
2.) You currently offer two types of Karbon Speed Aero Wheels: Element and XA. Can you briefly explain the difference and note which you model prefer to ride on, if applicable?
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the shape of an aero wheel (not the roundness it’s a circle obviously, think cross section here) The first is the classic V-Notch, which for years was the leading design. The other is U-Shaped, wide faring wheel. The best way to describe it is that the V-Notch is like an iPhone 4 and the U-Shape is the 4s. Both are a huge upgrade from the razor flip phone, but the difference between the two is only slight. What makes the XA superior to the Element is that we build the XA by hand here in the USA. This allows for better quality control, as well as a variety of hub options that the consumer can choose, something no one else does.
3.) What were some of the greatest challenges that you encountered when building your company?
Brand building is always really tough to do right. There were many late nights on the white board trying to nail down and articulate our brand identity. I think anyone who operates in the high quality, but less expensive category understands this and how tricky it can be. The other would have to be my age; I’m only 24, which is tough for people to swallow sometimes.
4.) What is the best piece of advice that you received when launching Karbon Speed?
There are really two pieces of advice that I’ve always taken with me no matter what company I’ve been a part of starting. The first is: “Imitate before you innovate”. It may seem counter intuitive, but there are a lot of best practices out there; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel (pun much?) with every challenge to be successful. The second is an important follow-up: “Focus on your USP (unique selling position)”. That is the lifeblood of your company, and what makes you special. Hone in on that, and focus on communicating that to potential customers.
5.) Based on your experience at Karbon Speed, what are some of the key ways that you were able to drive new member acquisition?
This is the best part, and possibly the most fun we’ve had. The basic principal here is to create value, when you do that, people want to engage with your brand, but since our products are so expensive, that can be hard at first. To begin, we built up a good following by partnering up with some of the biggest triathlon clubs in the country, but that wasn’t enough. So to prep for Black Friday, we ran a promo giving away free toe covers (if you’ve ever ridden in the cold, you know how valuable these are). The offer quickly went viral and had an amazingly high conversion rate (both for the toe covers, and later-on ingto customer). It built up a sizable, segmented email list, and quite a few new customers nearly overnight. Frankly I’ve never seen anything like the numbers we pulled off (CTR’s and CR’s). The best part is that this happened in the off-season, where industry wide the sales take a significant nose-dive – but not for us!
6.) Prior to your current success, what was the worst job you ever had?
I actually worked quite a lot before having any success. There were however two jobs that were particularly bad. The first was when I worked for a moving company during the hot Texas summers, and the second was having a boring desk job where I finished the work intended for 40 hours, in 2 and then sat around.
7.) How many days a month (or year) do you typically spend traveling?
I wish I were able to travel more, but probably only 6-8 weeks a year. We limit business travel to one or two trips to Asia a year.
8.) What is the hardest part about your job?
Right now I work by myself, so the hardest part is taking care of all the small stuff without forgetting to invest in the future. Time management is always an ongoing battle.
9.) What’s on the horizon at Karbon Speed?
One of the things that is peculiar about KS, is we aren’t planning on innovating anything about the wheel. Insert reinventing the wheel joke here, right? In all honesty, we are potentially getting bought out soon, which could mean huge growth for us.
10.) Where is your favorite place to ride, and how often do you get to ride there?
Dallas has a great trail system that ties into the white rock lake loop. It’s a favorite of just about everyone around here – unfortunately I don’t ride very often anymore.
11.) Are there any myths about cycling and racing you would like to provide clarification on in the cycling and racing industry?
There is no doubt that aero wheels will make you go faster. The thing that people seem to almost refuse to believe is that the most expensive set of wheels, and those that cost a fraction of them are nearly identical. There is a lot of fake science used as marketing by bigger brands that keep the consumer blind (think how political polling numbers are skewed). Our goal is to be transparent and show that you shouldn’t pay more just for a brand name.
12.) What sort of side projects are you working on now?
Well, in all honesty, Karbon Speed will potentially be bought in the coming months, so my side projects are starting to look like my next job calling! The first is sort of an exchange that focuses on manufacturers representing themselves to consumers, and the other is teaching myself Ruby on Rails and French.
13.) What is one startup that FoundersCard members should keep an eye on?
I’m a huge fan of Frank and Oak up in Montreal. They’re doing some cool stuff up there, and I relate a lot of what they’re doing to what Karbon Speed also wants to do. I’d probably go work for them, they’re that cool.
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