Behind The Wheels Of NS Carbon: The Kiwi Startup Challenging Cycling’s Status Quo
If you only have a couple of minutes to spare, here’s what you should know about Javier Garcia Royo and NS Carbon.
• NS Carbon is a cycling brand that produces carbon wheelsets for road, gravel and MTB riders.
• They’re starting to gain traction inside and outside New Zealand. They have signed retail partnerships in the UAE (Dubai) and Mexico.
• They primarily market themselves organically through channels like Instagram, email, and one-on-one conversations rather than paid advertisements.
• Deep market research and strong customer relationships are helping them identify new markets and new verticals to expand into.
• They hope to take their brand to the world and inspire more people to ride.
On the back of signing retail partnerships in Dubai and Mexico, NS Carbon is establishing a solid positioning in the cycling space, both domestically and internationally.
Their core product is carbon wheelsets for road, gravel and MTB riders. The idea came to Javier Garcia Royo (founder) after joining a Nike Triathlon Club in the Netherlands. Their club athletes used a lot of fancy gear (including carbon wheels) that piqued Javier’s interest. And he was blown away when he found out how expensive carbon wheels were.
So he dug a little further. With a professional background in corporate strategy, he spotted an opportunity that led to the inception of NS Carbon – high-quality, affordable carbon wheels.
Three years later, NS Carbon is on a roll. In the last 12 months, they’ve completed their second capital raise, introduced a gravel wheel to market, and expanded internationally.
When we jumped on our call, it was 8am in Dubai, and Javier had just dropped his kids off at school. Balancing family, building a company, and networking with the most exciting cycling retailers and up-and-coming athletes are now all part of the gig.
What started as a passion project and a labour of love. Worked on in the evenings and talked about with triathlete friends on weekends. NS Carbon is now a well-known brand amongst New Zealand’s top endurance athletes and starting to grace some of the biggest stages in riding.
Join me in this wide-ranging discussion with Javier about building a cycling brand and the hard-earned lessons won along the way.
The Idea for NS Carbon, Bringing A New Product To Market And Finding Their Wedge
Javier is a talented athlete in his own right. He’s a former high-level football (soccer) player and now a competitive triathlete. Which is how he ended up at a Nike triathlon club in the Netherlands.
Javier was on a good salary working as a corporate strategist when he joined that club. But as I mentioned earlier, he was surprised by and unprepared to pay the prices the top-level gear those athletes were using demanded.
Carbon wheels were viewed as a luxury item reserved only for athletes with big budgets for a long time. But Javier’s research led him to believe that could be changed. And that’s why he started NS Carbon.
As you can imagine, with no prior manufacturing or industry knowledge – trying to bring a niche product like cycling wheels to market is very hard to pull off.
It took 7 to 8 months from the moment we started researching products, getting samples, testing, making adjustments, and settling on a few wheelsets we were comfortable with.
As a new player in their industry with no prior credos, the biggest hurdle they had to overcome initially was a lack of trust.
The beginning was all about proving that the product was worthy of cycling and the cycling community in New Zealand.
And there’s no better way to do that than getting endorsed by competitive athletes. We got quite a few athletes using the product and giving us feedback – that is when we really started to take this seriously.
NS Carbon found their wedge in the New Zealand market with triathletes. Javier was already friends with a few and has since built relationships with many more.
We started with triathlon riders. We feel very comfortable around triathlons and triathletes. We know their preferences and the way they go about making purchasing decisions. The average budget they have available, when will they potentially buy and all that stuff.
Road is another huge segment that we are starting to understand more.
Road meaning road cyclists is the next sub-set of riders NS Carbon are tapping into. And they’ll follow the same approach they used with triathletes. Using personal connections to learn about these people before slowly building brand awareness with a large group of riders across New Zealand.
Assessing and Expanding Into New Markets
NS Carbon is now firmly established at home. After three years of building their wedge in New Zealand, they’re expanding off-shore.
The most important market for us is Oceania and definitely still New Zealand. But we’ve started seeing some sales coming from international markets, and we want to explore these opportunities. Which is how I ended up in Dubai.
Javier has spent the past year getting a deal over the line with a UAE cycling retailer, Airwerks Cycles (more on that shortly). He sees opportunities as far abroad as Spain (Javier’s birthplace).
Javier’s corporate strategy background influences NS Carbon’s approach to entering new markets.
Rather than dive into any market and network with whoever they can. They do a top-down analysis to understand where the opportunities are and what approach they should take.
First, they assess a market vertically by looking at existing supply chains, competitor brands, retailers, etc.
You have four different riding applications: road, MTB, gravel, and track. These four applications are entirely different. It’s a different set of customers; it’s a different set of riders. Each has very different preferences, decision-making, budgets, and way of looking at riding. So you need to know and understand the ecosystem first. For example, understanding that the gravel (market) tends to be different to road. So you need to decide on the ecosystem you want to start with.
Then they choose specific targets (brands) within that vertical (for example, road) that they want to partner with.
We created a list of all the UAE market players and prioritised who we’d like to partner with. Then we started reaching out to them.
It starts with an email and eventually leads to face to face meetings. We show up in their shops and start having conversations with them. So they can, you know, understand the product, the specs, the kind of warranties, margins and other financial elements.
At some point, we’ll say, let’s bring you some samples. This is what we always do. So we get them some samples, and they test the samples and provide us feedback. When they really feel comfortable with our product, we start working together.
What’s Moving The Needle For NS Carbon.
Getting the Dubai retail partnership over the line has been the biggest needle mover for NS Carbon in the past year. It’s been huge for us, which we finalised and formalised a few weeks ago. It took 12 months to get the deal over the line due to logistics issues caused by COVID and teething issues due to this being their first significant distribution agreement.
They’ve also just expanded into the gravel market with a carbon wheel for gravel bikes, the fastest-growing vertical in cycling.
Going gravel was a natural progression for NS Carbon, driven by customer demand, learned from one-on-one conversations, and an eye on market trends.
So when we look across every geography, gravel is the fastest-growing vertical. Just last year, UCI, which is like the FIFA for football, added a gravel world championship for the first time.
Gravel is sort of in-between road cycling and mountain biking. It’s for people who want to get more into nature but don’t have the technical skills to ride challenging tracks. It looks a lot like a road bike but has wider tires.
To launch their gravel wheel, they collaborated with the NZ cycling journal, who featured them in a Q&A interview and tested NS Carbon’s wheels for their latest riding adventure, ‘At the mercy of mother nature.
How NS Carbon Are Marketing And Building Their Brand With (almost) No Ad Budget
Beyond one on one relationship building, Instagram has been their most effective brand-building tool.
Instagram is our number one tool, especially Instagram stories and our website. That’s how we keep engaging with our people.
We’ve always been very keen to grow organically. So if you look at the money that we spend on marketing, you’d be like, wow, this is crazy. It’s near-zero.
Instead of investing in paid ads, they spend that money on collaborations with athletes to create well-produced content that gets high engagement, is authentic, and helps build credibility.
So we barely spend anything on promotions. It’s all about organic promotion. We’d rather collaborate with athletes as we did recently for the GODZone race. This is an adventure race in the South Island where we’ve got a team of athletes riding with NS Carbon that we shoot and tell stories about. We talk to them and have them explain the process of racing which is really insightful for the people that care about NS Carbon. Those are the stories we’re chasing and telling.
There’s a strategy behind this content-first approach. Social media ads lean on people making impulse buys, but NS Carbon product’s price point is too high. Their customers take time to consider their options and deeply learn about their wheels before purchasing.
There’s a lot of back and forth. They just want to understand a lot of stuff before they purchase. For most people, we go through a similar process, from the basic questions about the difference between each wheel to specific questions like weight and bike model/size and what you recommend.
Off the back of these thousands of interactions, NS Carbon is about to release a tool on their website. They hope this will reduce many of the back forth conversations in their DM’s and give their customers a cleaner customer service experience.
So we’ve been working on this pretty unique thing I haven’t seen anywhere in our industry. It’s a digital tool that will ask our customers 7 questions about what, how and why they ride and produce a highly personalised wheel recommendation. It’s not just a sales tool; we’ll be educating them.
They’ve also picked up occasional PR opportunities like last year’s feature in the May issue of Air New Zealand’s in-flight magazine.
Javier pointed out it definitely makes a difference, but it’s difficult to track the impact.
You can track them in the short term because you can see people going to your website and customers inquiring and saying, Hey, actually, I read an article on that. But there is also that word of mouth effect that’s difficult to track.
Being present in these publications makes a difference at the end of the day. When you are present in many different places, people start to put the pieces together. One piece in isolation is not going to make a big impact.
Keeping Direct Relationships With Customers Is A Competitive Advantage For NS Carbon
Even though NS Carbon is building a tool to reduce the number of interactions with customers before each sale. They don’t want to eliminate them. Javier sees these conversations as a competitive advantage.
Most big brands have dismissed the on the ground aspect and have completely disappeared. They’re nowhere to be seen, and we don’t want to do that.
They know their customers intimately, understand their problems and work with them to build products they love. Their big brand competitors seem to only worry about professional athletes. They are so far removed from everyday riders that they leave space for niche brands like NS Carbon to enter.
I believe a source of competitive advantage for us is understanding our customer’s problems and responding to them. But as you grow and scale up, it’s much harder to do. So it’s finding the intersection between retailing through distributors, maintaining that DTC touch, and staying close to the riding community.
Why NS Carbon Raised Capital And Reflections On The Process
NS Carbon just finished their second capital raise.
We closed about three months ago. It was a small raise. The main goal was to move to full time and have some working capital.
Retailers want to work with them, but until now, they didn’t have the scale (whole team dedication & working capital) to support these bigger partners.
To a certain extent, large retailers expect to be able to place an order today and receive the stock tomorrow. So they needed to reduce product lead times from factory to shop. And to get deals over the line, they may have to front the first order (provide credit).
If they can land more partnerships, the positive flow-on effects from this capital raise for NS Carbon are hard to measure. Literally, one deal can double or triple their revenue overnight.
When I asked Javier about the whole experience, this is what he had to say.
It consumes a lot of time and a lot of energy. Because of that enormous investment, he thinks the next time they raise, it’ll be a lot more – a significant amount of money that justifies the negotiation work.
He noted most angel investors prioritised tech investments and didn’t see retail brands as a promising sphere to invest in. But there’s a gap in the venture capital and angel investment space for startups building brands. I believe there is a heavy focus on technology and fintech, which I understand. But I also think there’s huge potential in building brands.
They focused on friends and family during their first-round to help get the ball rolling. But this time, they wanted to bring on strategic investors that could provide strong advice based on experience across different domains of their business.
For example, one of them runs his own athlete sponsorship agency that represents some of the top tennis players. So they have a lot of insight into how you structure sponsorship agreements, how you pitch to athletes, and the best way to make the most of these relationships. Which is huge for us in terms of collaborating and exposing ourselves to people in the sport.
Another one works for Amazon, and he’s in charge of one of the biggest fulfilment centres in France. So he’s the guy in terms of logistics like supply chain forecasting, stock, shipping, and all those elements.
Dealing With The Surprises Of Entrepreneurship – Almost Nothing Goes To Plan
Dubai wasn’t in Javier’s sights when he started NS Carbon, nor was much of his journey to date has been unpredictable.
As much as you want to lock in on a strategic vision and direction for your business, things will keep moving and evolving. At the end of the day, you just need to be good at adapting. You need to be nimble and kind of move and keep shifting.
You need to go from point A to point B, but you don’t know what that path is. You’re going to find out as you keep progressing. You know that you want to get to point B but just don’t know how you will do it. I didn’t know that when I started.
I thought many people go, okay, you know, this is what I want to do. This is how I want to do it, and this is the plan, now execute. I think it’s probably 20% like that, and 80% is like, man, just be ready – have the attitude to be ready for whatever is coming at you.
Javier likes to keep founding principles in mind to stay focused during tough times. You need to remember why you are doing this. Kind of like key principles, which are the backbone of what you’re doing.
Facing Doubters, Self-Doubt And The Importance Of Your Team
I think the one thing we should do is not give up. If you think you have a strong value proposition and an idea that makes sense for people, and there are like two or three people who have benefited from it. Just keep going and learn what is not working, and fix it.
Even when the criticism is negative, people tell you this doesn’t make sense. If you have a dream and an ambition, keep going.
If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I don’t think we should be afraid to fail. You’ll never know if you don’t give it a go.
There will always be moments where it is hard, and you feel like living your life without this huge stress. I think most people face these moments of self-doubt; even big companies like Facebook probably thought this didn’t make sense at one point.
Going on that journey is much easier when you do it with the right people.
Choosing who you work with on this journey is extremely important because this is not like a job with colleagues where you respect each other, do your job, and go home.
This is a huge commitment. People are putting a lot on the line. We could all be working jobs making probably three or four or five times what we can make [at NS Carbon] in the next 1 to 3 years. So we need to trust each other. We need to like each other. We need to have each other’s backs. So I think the people element is the biggest one. Choose very carefully who you go on this journey with.
Switching Off From Work
Spending more time with family and friends is something I’ve craved for quite some time and that I really need to do.
Besides family and friends, sports is Javier’s favourite way to disconnect. NS Carbon was a choice to align work and passion, so going for a ride is both a way to disconnect and trigger new ideas and ways to improve what we do at NS Carbon. Just like a Chef having lunch!
I also like listening to from the top podcast. It features founders of the most iconic brands in cycling, from Canyon to Cervello to Swift to Rapha, all the big ones you can think of. And it’s incredibly well done.