As avid mountain bikers, Chris Kratsch and Katy Bryce have spent years bike touring and trail building. They’ve long used BOB trailers to carry their stuff. However, when they bought new mountain bikes in 2012, they realized they had a problem: They couldn’t attach the BOBs. Their new carbon bikes had 12 mm thru axles that attached to the wheel of the bike frame, unlike the older, quick release skewers.

“The solution was to make a different axle,” Katy says. Chris was working in a machine shop at the time and had a few made up. They asked around to see if their friends would want the new axles (they did). In short order, the couple launched a small website to sell them, thinking that others likely faced the same issue.

The pair named their endeavor The Robert Axle Project, a play on the connection to the BOB trailers. They now sell axles in 35 countries, and are planning for some big growth this year.

Oh that? It’s Switzerland calling

“We had no idea that this would be a full-time business,” Katy says. But the universe of bike touring enthusiasts had other plans. Within just a few months of launching, they received an order from a large bike parts distributor in Switzerland. (Katy, a freelance writer, used her SEO experience to give the site some juice. It worked). The pair recruited their friends to help fill the order, and a business was born.

Chris and Katy, founders of The Robert Axle Project.
Chris and Katy, founders of The Robert Axle Project.

“We did a happy dance when we got that order off,” she says. The Swiss order was a sign of more to come: Now half of their sales originate from outside the U.S. Katy attributes that to prominent bike commuting and bike touring cultures overseas. They still manufacture their products in Central Oregon.

The Robert Axle Project provides an elegant solution to what turned out to be a common problem. The thru-axles allow cyclists to attach trailers and kid carriers to their modern bikes. The startup also makes axles to attach cargo racks or use indoor bike trainers.

The business has made a profit from the beginning. Chris, who was previously the head of customer service at Metolius Climbing, had experience working with big accounts and exposure to supply chains. “The trickiest thing for us has just been staying ahead of the orders,” Katy says.

Making a market

The Robert Axle Project essentially created a market when they launched their product, and now they dominate it. No other company was making thru-axles for trailers. Now they have one competitor, but the startup is actually in discussions to manufacturer that company’s products as well.

The company sells direct-to-consumer via its website and then through wholesalers and distributors. They have an OEM agreement with a big German trailer company, and they’re also in negotiations with one of the largest manufacturers in the world.

Small - BOB Axle - Part numbers BOB003 and BOB015

The Bend outdoor and bike industry has embraced the Robert Axle Project. The company went through the Bend Outdoor Worx accelerator last year, and they won the $10,000 prize at the inaugural BOW pitch night. The startup’s future includes more growth. The company sold 6,000 units last year and anticipates doubling that figure this year. The Robert Axle Project is also preparing to expand into other product categories.

The most recent challenge? “We want to remain a passion-driven business and balance our work with why we got into this in the first place,” Katy says. That means making time for mountain biking and longer bike trips, which the pair now calls product testing.

“It’s been a wild ride and I don’t know if we thought we’d ever work this hard,” Katy says. “But hearing our customers talk about going on adventures with our products — that’s what makes it all worth it.”

Kelly Kearsley

Kelly Kearsley, the co-founder of StartupBend.com, is passionate about startups, entrepreneurship and Bend. In addition to writing this blog, she creates content and manages content projects for global financial companies, tech firms and startups. She began her career as a newspaper journalist and later worked as a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in WSJ.com, Money Magazine, CNNMoney, MSNBC and Runner's World. See her work at kellykearsley.contently.com or kellykearsley.com.

You can reach Kelly by email at [email protected].
Kelly Kearsley