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Zeitgeist wants to be the Warby Parker of electric bikes

TechCrunch TechCrunch 20/04/2016 Kristen Hall-Geisler

The Zeitgeist electric bike was designed to solve one problem: getting uphill on a bike. That led to other goals, like creating a battery that only had to be charged every two weeks and was hidden within the structure of the bike. This, then, led to favoring design and performance over the cost of the bike. “We want to be the Warby Parker of bikes,” said Zeitgeist CEO Kartik Ram.

The carbon-fiber electric bike was designed for the Seattle-based company by Brian Hoehl of Denmark and has already won several awards. The battery, which slides seamlessly into the bottom tube, was designed in-house and patented. The entire bike, including the 500-watt battery, weighs only 44 pounds — still light enough to work with a bike rack. “You can carry it up three flights of stairs,” Ram promised.

The battery only assists the rider as he pedals; there’s no throttle. But that assist gets you up to 28 mph, the legal limit for electric-powered bicycles in the United States. Company cofounder Gregg Stewart noted that you can ride up a steeper hill on an electric bike than you might be able to using only your own leg power. “Brakes become crucial on the downhill,” he said with a laugh, which is why the Zeitgeist has ventilated disk brakes.

Zeitgeist’s research showed that there are cyclists, and then there’s everyone else. The people who love riding bikes are always going to love it, hills and sweat and showers at work included. But the Zeitgeist is aimed at casual riders, people who don’t want to take the car to run errands. They’ll use this bike a couple times a week, not as a daily commuting vehicle. The company has already established a relationship with Thule to create a basket and panniers that fit the bike for these point-to-point riders.

Stewart pointed out that at $3999 for the first batch of bikes, the Zeitgeist is going to be treated differently than a commuter bike, which is often a $200 beater. Ram added that the bike’s buyers are “round trippers,” people who take it to get coffee and then ride back home. The Zeitgeist can be locked up at the coffee shop like any other bike, but the battery can also be unlocked and popped out, removing one possible reason to steal the bike in the first place.

Since the Zeitgeist was designed from the ground up — not by modding an existing bike model — it’s going to be sold differently too. Ram and Stewart found that neither traditional bike shops nor big-box stores were a good fit. “We’re going to showcase the bike in pop-up shops and online to sell it through direct channels,” Stewart said.

To get the company off the ground, the founders approached Tesla for a partnership, but that was a nonstarter. They also decided not to get “stuck in a Kickstarter hell,” according to Ram. They ended up working with Crowd Supply, a funding platform based in Portland, Oregon, which found the project unique. “We were able to test it,” said Crowd Supply’s Josh Lifton in an interview, “so we were able to back Zeitgeist up with confidence.” At Crowd Supply, delivery rate matters most. When you order your bike, the ship date depends on how many people ordered before you.

Ram said the company is going to sell the bike in small lots. “That’s key,” he said, adding that Zeitgeist is approaching the market more like Tesla than like Faraday Future. “We don’t like to tease. We want to give people the future now.” The first few backers on Crowd Supply will get their bikes shipped within about a month. The company wants to work closely with those early adopters to get feedback on how to improve the design for future iterations.

Ram and Stewart hope that people realize how easy it is to explore their surroundings with an electric-assisted bike. And, as Ram said, “People want to buy cool stuff.”

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