Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our third season continues to explore how leaders help create a culture that supports innovation, especially with the stressors and new opportunities that businesses face during the pandemic.
Dave Franchino and I had the opportunity to talk with Ben Morris, Ben Morris, CEO and Founder of Coaster Cycles, Coaster Outdoor and CC Face Shields. Coaster Cycles develops innovative, eco-friendly transportation solutions for passenger, last-mile, and cargo needs. Coaster Outdoor focuses on pedicab-based marketing solutions. He started both companies in 2004. This year, in light of the needs for PPE at the beginning of the pandemic, he started CC Face Shields.
Ben shared how Coaster’s commitment to innovation, nimbleness, and community have helped it weather the challenges of the pandemic. Here are some takeaways:
Seize the opportunities
Ben started out as a pedicab driver and saw an opportunity to spread the fun experience he had in San Diego to Boston, where he was going to college. He started with a couple bikes near Fenway Park and it eventually grew to a national business called Coaster Cycles. From there, he quickly saw the opportunities for a new type of outdoor advertising using pedicabs and formed Coaster Outdoor. It was several years later, when they realized that mechanical issues were cutting into profits that they decided to design their own bike (with the help of Delve) and eventually realized they needed to manufacture it, too. Since then, the market has changed and they are looking at last-mile, cargo, and other transportation solutions. In addition, Ben and his team seized upon the Badger Shield open-source face shield design to get his employees (and other community members in Montana where they are headquartered) back to work in the early days of the pandemic.
Understanding the user is key
Coaster initially had no interest in designing and manufacturing bikes, but they knew their users and pain points. When they discovered there was no good off-the-shelf solution, they made the decision to design their own pedicab. We didn't know, like how you started, how you think. “We just knew as the operator, ‘OK, this was a pain point. This was an opportunity. Let's gather all those details and let's put those into writing and get up on the drawing board,’” Ben said. Learning about the iterative process of product design has been integral to their continued growth, but it all started with understanding their users.
Evolve with your market
When Coaster started, pedicab operations were a lot like taxi companies. You basically contracted out with a company to drive a vehicle around and collect fares, but you were your own boss. With the advent of rideshare and scooter companies, pedicab use has evolved into a more event-specific business that’s driven by sports, concerts, and conventions where companies hire them out for sampling and other activities. Even before Covid sidelined these activities, Coaster was seeing a growing market for last-mile transportation and cargo in increasingly congested cities. “We believe the format that we have can be a real asset for these (e-commerce) carriers, not only from an environmental impact, where with many of these instances, we're doing a one for one vehicle swap, one bike on the road, one vehicle off the street,” Ben said. “But we're also, in many cases, able to show cost reductions in terms of efficiencies gained by their ability to operate and bike lanes and not travel around looking for parking and things of that nature.”
Support community and let them support you
When Coaster decided to bring their workers back to make face shields at the beginning of the pandemic, they quickly had an order that outstripped their capacity. They went to the breweries, restaurants, and catering companies they knew in their small city of Missoula, Montana and asked if their workers, many un-or underemployed because of the pandemic, would be willing to build face shields. The response was inspiring. “I think in the height of when we were running, we had 115 people building the face shields,” Ben said. “We were doing about 50,000 a day. A quarter million a week. And about 55 of those 115 were with us (Coaster employees) and the others were in the community and spread across about five or six different businesses. And to this day, though we're not working with them, and the opportunity does arise there they are like ready to go and ready to jump right back in the swing of things and go back to making face shields.”
Learn from Covid
Moving their operations to a single focus showed Ben and his team the potential of streamlining and focusing their efforts in the future to improve business operations. Emerging from the pandemic, Coaster will be narrowing its product line and looking for efficiencies so they may be doing fewer things, but they will be doing them better.
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