Isla Rowntree: Building a Business in Children’s Bikes

Before Islabikes, children had a raw deal when it came to bicycles. They were riding bikes that weighed half their body weight, struggling to reach the brakes, and generate enough power to use them even if they could.

And then Isla Rowntree came along, found a gap in the market, built a successful business and made a lot of children very happy in the process. We caught up with her to find out how she did it, and ask her for advice on buying a child's bike...

Isla Rowntree has a competitive cycling background. Among an array of achievements, she was the British Veteran Cyclocross Champion and Cross Country MTB Champion in 2010 and 2011 as well as being British National Cyclocross champ in 1999, 2002 and 2003. She has existed in the industry most of her life, getting her first job in a bike shop whilst still in school.

In 2005, she created Islabikes, and tells me: “Way back when, children’s bikes were not so bad – but they somehow lost their way in the middle. You couldn’t buy a decent quality children’s bike when I started the brand, that’s why I did it – there was not anything available.”

The company brought children’s bikes into the modern age, encouraging other brands to start thinking about making their bikes lighter, and more child friendly, too – but Islabikes were the first on the scene. That means a lot to their creator, who tells me: “Running a business is hard work, it has a lot of challenges, you set out to do something practical, and end up doing all sorts of stuff that you’re not very good at, you have to learn.

“The thing that makes it worthwhile is when you’re out and about and you come across a child on one of your bikes, using and enjoying it, that’s what keeps me going. It’s a really special feeling.”

Rowntree was crowned trade title BikeBiz Woman of the Year last month – a well deserved title for a business woman and designer who has achieved a great deal, tuning an idea into a small company, that has inspired more of its kind.

Ever Evolving Design

Designing for children brings with it its own complications – Rowntree tells be: “With kids bikes the small details really matter. What’s a small detail or an insignificant detail on an adult bike can be small and very significant to the experience of cycling on a child’s bike.”

Rowntree uses the example of the brakes which Islabikes are so renowned for – saying: “A 4-year-old’s hand is really very tiny and very weak, so getting that to generate enough braking force to stop a bike quickly is a real challenge.

“Getting it right isn’t just one small thing – it’s the handlebars, the grips, the brake levers, the cable routing, there’s a lot of detail in order to get it to work. It’s just like British Cycling’s “marginal gains”, really. You’re squeezing every last bit out to make a difference to somebody who is really tiny.”

A designer and problem solver through and through, however, Rowntree is always striving for more – she says: “I’ve got that designer’s thing were by the time I’ve got something available to buy, I’ve already seen how to make it better. You’re never quite satisfied, that drives product development.”

Isla on buying a child’s bike…

Of course, with the summer holidays in swing, we know many parents might be setting out to buy a new bike for their children, and we can’t think of anyone better placed to explain exactly what’s important than the woman who turns them from design to reality.

She starts with the ‘first bike’.

“The child getting their first bike is probably around four-years-old. At that age there are three key considerations: weight, ergonomics and fit.

“A bicycle at that age is a much bigger proration of the rider’s weight. A child at four-years-old might be 20 kilos – so if you imagine us riding a bike that’s half our body weight, its just horrifying.

“Ergonomics are really important. So making sure that they can reach the brakes and they can physically pull them on. It sounds basic but actually it isn’t always the case with some bikes, children can’t pull them on because the springs are too strong.

“The third thing is fit. It’s false economy to buy a bike that the child is going to grow into. Of course, you want a bike that they’ve got a range of adjustment on, but you can’t go too far.

“Learning to ride is challenging enough, without doing it on a bike that’s actually too big. Really pay close attention to fit, make sure they can stand over the cross bar and put their feet down.”

For older children, it becomes more important to consider what the bike is going to be used for.

Rowntree says: “For children that just want a bike – perhaps children who are going to ride in the parks, cycle with friends, maybe go out on family outings, weight is still important – go for the lightest you can afford.

“Try to keep it relatively simple. Suspension at five, six or seven years old is going to add no benefit for that sort of riding. It won’t move, they haven’t got enough weight to overcome the stiction.”

She goes on: “Gears – yes – but you don’t want multiple chainrings, because they don’t understand them, and they add weight. You need a nice low bottom gear, because they can’t muscle up the hills like an adult can. Apart from that, just simple – keep it simple.”

British Cycling, as Rowntree knows, have done a lot to develop children’s racing at grassroots, club level, and there are bikes for that too. Islabikes offer a drop bar bike that’s can perform on the tarmac or in cyclocross events that many children ride, and they also offer a mountain bike.

Rowntree says: “For children that are into more specialist disciplines – racing, road or off road – you might have more specific needs. You might want drop handlebars, or if they’re going to do mountain bike racing and are eight or nine-years-old you might be looking at suspension and disc brakes. But only get them if the child is really planning on racing, otherwise you’re carrying weight around for no performance benefit.”

‘Boys bikes and girls bikes’

Rowntree herself reminds me, and I hope she takes this as the absolute complement it is, of Sinead O’Connor. She’s has a short crew cut, will probably hate me for reverting to talking about her hair, and I immediately like her for that.

She became particularly animated when I asked her about the (probably tired) question of boys and girls bikes.

“One of the things I use to inform my design decisions is a huge book of child data sets. It’s got every body measurement that you could think of – the obvious things like height and weight and chest and hip and waist, but also the less obvious, inside leg and hand grip strength and hand girth diameter. It’s got each of those for male and female, from aged two up.

“In the data sets, pre-puberty, there is no significant difference between boys and girls on anything that affects the fit of the bike. Girls are generally very slightly smaller for their age, so then they’d still be on our bikes but would move up to the next size a little bit later.

“We don’t do gendered bikes, because there’s no need to. I quite actively promote our bikes as bikes for children. We don’t say “boys and girls” and have one with pink and Barbie tassels and one that look like a fire engine – that’s gender stereotyping and I actually feel quite strongly about that.

“It’s disappointing in this day and age when you look at some of the major children’s retailers how they gender stereotype. There’s the girls section with vacuum cleaners and the boys with science sets. Have both by all means but let the children choose what they want to go for.”

A discussion on the lack of female scientists and the lack of male nurses later, and we return to the original question: “There aren’t any significant physiological differences pre-puberty that mean we need a bike that’s a different shape. Although post-puberty with women’s bikes – absolutely – and its very different and some women need a different product.”

Advice for riding with children

Riding with children, and riding with adults, are two very different activities. If you’re planning on getting out with youngsters soon, Rowntree has some advice there, too.

“Adults often think ‘oh we’ll just go out, for 30 miles or whatever’ in one chunk. Children don’t really do long interrupted things well – so plan something around interest stops – stop to feed the ducks at the pond, stop for ice-cream, stop to look at windmills. Kids won’t be so focused about just the cycling, so combine it with other things.”

How To: Make Bicycle Themed Pancakes

The route is important, and Rowntree is a big fan or converted railway lines, routes around lakes and quiet lanes – adding: “If you’ve got a young family and not done a lot of cycling together, somewhere flatish is a good start – children will develop the ability to ride in quite hilly areas, but as a starter, those places are really good.”

She also suggests packing for all eventualities – saying: “Practical stuff. Cycling uses up a lot of energy so make sure you’ve got snacks or plan snack stops, drinks, waterproofs. Parents carry the gear and let the kids travel light, it’s great idea for parents to have a pannier rack so they can take extra layers and so on.

“And make sure you can fix punctures – you might have a spare tube for own bikes, but what about kids? You might have quick release wheels – but do they? If not you will need a spanner.”

Islabikes needs more women

Islabikes is now a medium sized company, with around 50 employees. Initially, Rowntree did it all – learning to embrace new skills. She says: “I learnt on the job, it’s about joining up the dots, seeing somebody struggling with something then working out how to make it better.”

The company is based in Bromfield, Shropshire, and always recruiting- particularly for female applicants.

Rowntree, who enjoys evening after-work rides and with her colleagues said: “We’re recruiting pretty much all the time. Most roles are in customer services and the workshop, but we do have other roles, marketing, HR and so on. Just over 20% of the current workforce is female – and that disappoints me, we don’t get many female applicants.”

Having been in the bike trade for four years, I can tell you 20 per cent is actually a lot, but the boss wants more. So if you’re a woman looking to get into the industry, it’s worth keeping an eye on this page.

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