The very best businesses start not with an idea, but a problem. For Tiller Rides founder Julian Ilich that problem was transportation. The way he saw it, humans needed – and wanted – to rely less on gas-guzzling cars and other motorised vehicles. Instead, they were after ways to get around their cities that were good for their own health and wellbeing, as well as the planet. But regular pushbike-riding came with a set of barriers that often made it troublesome. If you were solely reliant on your own physical exertion to get you to work or social events, you could arrive hot and sweaty, and then there was all the additional equipment needed, like locks, lights and bells that could fall off, get lost or be stolen.
He knew there had to be a better way.
And so Julian, a mechanical engineer by trade, got together with a team of advisers in their hometown of Perth and spent around five years researching, designing, prototyping and then building what they hope is the ultimate stylish and practical ebike: the Tiller Rides Roadster. It has a lightweight aluminium frame, long-life battery, efficient motor and built-in lights. Plus, it looks pretty great.
Here's how Julian turned a problem into a small business idea, then a sustainable electric bike company.
The Heart-Led Idea
To quote The Castle, I’m an ideas man. I’m not someone who’s just business focused, and I think that’s important. If someone’s just in business to make money then go home and have their life, I’m not really a fan of that.
That’s actually where the word Tiller comes from in our business name. It’s the idea of having your heart as the tiller [or rudder] of our business. When I started looking into this idea, what I really wanted to do was increase the amount of cycling for transport, purely because of the affordability, integrated health and wellbeing, and reduced footprint on the planet. That’s how things started to precipitate in my mind.
Bring in Others to Fill Knowledge Gaps
A lot of startups are run by people who are the least experienced in business – people like me. I’m not historically a business person, so I reached out to a good friend of mine, Ray Glickman. He said, “Look, if you need management support and that’s not your strength, I’ll meet with you once a week and we can have a wine and a chat and you can ask me any questions.” He calls himself a junior co-founder but, time-wise and investment-wise, he’s a co-founder.
I also worked with a guy who helped with the 3D modelling, as well as a graphic designer, a 12-person design advisory group, and a board. Around six to eight people were responsible for designing different parts of the bike and I was responsible for pulling it all together. It meant there was always someone to go and ask before we did anything major.
Compensating the Startup Team
A lot of people use interns or volunteers with a startup, but they don’t acknowledge these people are actually working, that they’re the people who helped get their thing off the ground. We made an agreement with the people who helped us: people had to do four hours a week and turn up once a week to a team or design meeting. Now, we have a debt to them we need to pay – we call it a success fee. That will come now we’re actually making an income. We also gave the top five contributors equity in the business.
Challenging Established Truths
One of the hardest parts was working out how to build our ebike frame. It’s easy to form steel, but forming aluminium and heat-treating it is really challenging. Eventually we figured out how to form it, but then we needed a kiln to heat-treat it. I finally found what I think was the last kiln left in WA that was large enough for the job. I showed the guy what I wanted to do and he said, “Oh, that won’t work.” He told me it would twist up after it came out of the kiln and was dropped into water.
Eventually – reluctantly – he agreed to do it. He dropped it into the water and got it out. And it worked. There was a little bit of warping on one side, but I managed to get it flat again. He’d said he didn’t think it would work, and this was a guy who’d worked with aluminium for 45 years. So one thing I’d advise is to get mentors who know their stuff. But don’t let them stop you, because they also have their limits.
Prioritising Personal and Professional Development
Over the past year, I’ve spent quite a lot of time and energy on my professional development as a manager. But it would have been good to do that in little bits over time. Bringing in Ray as a mentor was helpful, however I found I’d often just ask him things instead of developing my own perspective.
These days, I listen to a lot more podcasts to find out what successful people do well. Now when I make a decision, I think, “I reckon that’s what Steve Jobs or Elon Musk would have done.”
Finding Sustainability in Unexpected Places
Being a startup, we were conscious about budgets, so we bought some of our equipment second hand. To connect them all up and make it all work, we were basically heading down to Officeworks every day or two to get the cables, the cords, even the mice and keyboards that we needed. And that’s where we do our printing, too. It’s really good value, whether we’re printing small things or massive things. We basically do every bit of printing – from flyers to brochures – and photocopying down at Officeworks.
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Communicating With Transparency
Recently we had to send an email to some of our investors, who’ll be getting a free electric bike as part of their investment. I still think it’s a good idea, but now we have to delay the ebikes. We were getting advice from all sorts of different people, who kept saying, “Don’t tell them it’s because of cash flow! You don’t have to tell investors everything!”
But I’m uncomfortable with that. Communication should be about authenticity. That’s how I am as a human – I want to treat customers or team members as I would my friends. So we told them the truth, and everyone who replied back said they completely understood and appreciated that we were so upfront.
Keeping Values and Mission Front of Mind
My personal theory is you have to keep in touch with your heart, whatever that means to you. It’s like there’s a compass inside you that directs your life, your career and so on. You can get tempted by a million dollars or some well-paid job that isn’t about something you really care about, but there's something in you going, “That's not really what I want to be doing.”
As a founder, I keep asking myself what am I here for? When I lie on my deathbed, what will I remember contributing? For me, this business isn’t about making me rich – it’s about making a difference.