The Origin Story
Julia’s background is in urban studies and urban design, having studied both topics in her undergraduate and graduate degree programs. She considers herself as someone who is concerned with urban problems, particularly how people in urban cities can lead better lives.
Julia grew up in Asunción , Paraguay and was always interested in architecture. The beautiful, but deteriorating, colonial buildings that populate Asunción fascinated her. She credits this interest in trying to make those older areas of the city beautiful with her early attachment to urban design. While she took a few architecture classes in college, she ultimately decided that a closely related field, urban planning, was her path. Rather than look at design from a structural standpoint, she wanted to examine how people interacted with the structures around them.
Julia moved to Paraguay when she was ten; her father worked for the World Bank. She explains that while most international assignments last only a few years, she lived in Asunción until she was eighteen.
Afterwards, Julia moved back to the US to attend college and upon graduating, started working in economic development in Philadelphia. There, she interfaced with small business entrepreneurs from French speaking Africa and the Caribbean.
At no point in the beginning of her career did Julia ever think she would start her own small business.
Small Business Mindset vs. Startup Mindset
For the time being, Julia thinks of Flycycle as a small business and a startup. Julia think one of the ways to think about Flycycle as a small business is by examining their funding structure. They aren’t chasing venture capital or investment, unlike many startups.
The Idea of Flycycle
Julia has been an avid biker since moving to Boston. She commutes on her bike. She travels throughout the city on her bike. And one of the most frustrating parts of her daily life quickly became locking her bike at a bike rack.
Bikes often fall over. They get tangled up with other biked. Handlebars, baskets, and crates created a web of metal and plastic.
One day, Julia saw an flyer advertising a competition to design a better bike rack for her community in Kendall Square. She contacted her now-confounder with whom she had worked on a previous urban design project. After chatting for a bit, they started to draw.
The problem with most bike rack is that they’re only half the size of a bike or smaller. The Flycycle is an elongated bike rack with a ramp and cradle for the front wheel, so that one bike out of the two that can be locked to the rack is elevated, eliminating the tangling conundrum.
Finding the Right Cofounder
Julia’s cofounder, Jeff Olinger, has been an architect for the past decade. The pair initially worked together on another project, helping to design neighborhood infrastructure in Philadelphia. Julia remembers the first few times working with Jeff, she was impressed with his clarity of thought and his ability to communicate complicated ideas quickly and efficiently using a pen and whiteboard.
Their business partnership works well, Julia says, because they have very complimentary skills. They are able to challenge each others in various ways without competing over the same skill-based jobs.
Flycycle has been in business for a little over a year, and Julia remembers filling out paperwork to register the company. As she was completing the forms, it occurred to her that she was legally binding herself to her partner.
Winning a Design Contest
Flycycle started in an MIT Climate Co-Lab hosted competition to design a better bike rack. While the contest didn’t come with any funding, winning it gave the Flycycle idea a lot of exposure. City officials and developers made up the judging panel, so even though cash wasn’t allotted through the contest, Julia says their idea was able to not only get early traction, but also find prototyping money.
Prototyping the Flycycle
The first stage of prototyping the Fyclycle bike rack was to design electronic renderings– 3D models. Based on those images, they produced a full-size prototype at a local maker’s space called Artisan’s Asylum. Julia and Jeff were able to find someone working there who could build their first prototype for them.
After it was completed, the partners quickly realized that almost everything that had drawn was way off from how they imagined it. Their measurements for the ramp, wheel hold, and the body of the rack wouldn’t work in the real world, even though it looked right in their renderings.
Even though the first prototype wasn’t technically correct, they were able to take it to industry shows and bike shops to start getting feedback from consumers and potential customers. Julia reflects on how thankful she was to get honest feedback from people outside of her circle.
Flycycle is about 18 months into its life, and the design was tweaked consistently over the first nine months to get to their current model, which Julia and her partner have been selling ever since.
Finding a Manufacturer
While Julia will always be grateful for the original metalworker making her product, she was able to find a manufacturer in Pennsylvania to produce the Flycycle. When recounting how she found her manufacturer, Julia remarked “it was like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Julia credits her co-founder with the hustle to find their manufacturer. He was researching the types of machines they thought would be needed to produce the Flycycle, and he contacted the machine manufacturer. After receiving a list of names of companies who may be able to produce their product from the machine manufacturer, Julia and Jeff reached out to all of them and received one response.
Luckily, the original MIT contest judges include property developers in Boston and Cambridge. Julia was able to get her product installed in three of their new properties, giving them initial market validation and use cases.
Side Note: At this point in the interview Julia says something along the lines of “if we can only get 1-2% of the new building market in Boston…” I should have jumped in here, but I didn’t. Making the argument “if we only get 1% of a x-sized market” is never a smart move unless you have a step-by-step acquisition plan for how you’re going to get to this level.
Julia identified three sales targets: (1) the public plaza, which is usually a government sale; (2) parking garages; and (3) private real estate developments.
Advice to Young Founders
“Don’t disregard the power of serendipity.”
Julia never imagined a day when she would start her own business. But one contest later, one ideal co-founder later, one daily problem solves, and Flycycle was born.