Why you should be excited about Zero Motorcycles

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The most interesting thing about the 2011 Zero launch wasn’t the bikes. Yes, the company has beefed up the components, restyled the existing line, added street versions of the dirt bikes as well as the new and very tiny XU model. Yes, the new management team has veterans plucked from Triumph, KTM USA and the remnants of Buell. Yes, Zero just scored $26 million in additional financing. That’s all very nice. What’s really exciting is how the company plans to spend that money. 

What you need to remember about Zero is that the company is still absolutely tiny, still in the process of becoming a fledgling motorcycle maker. It’s a privately-held company, so they don’t disclose current sales figures, but they’re likely in the middle hundreds. Perhaps even on the low end of that. Having said that, they’re already trying to change the way they do business.

The most obvious change at Zero is the sudden demand that you tell them everything you don’t like. Then they demand you tell them how they could fix it. I found that pervasive attitude incredibly refreshing in an industry that generally refuses to accept any of its products could be less than perfect.

Right now, they’re still in the midst of growing pains. Off the record, everyone I spoke to agreed the bikes are still lacking in the aesthetics department, that the first generation wasn’t ready for public consumption. They’ll also say the bikes are targeted to a new demographic that aren’t traditional bikers.

Being older, they scoffed at the notion that demographic could be late 20s to late 30s. I asked if that meant the bikes are targeted at a bunch of non-riders who are over 40 that are expected to take the plunge into riding a Zero just because it’s electric? “For heaven’s sake, no! It’s just that people in their 20s and 30s don’t have any money.” Oh really?

They stopped scoffing when I told them of the average management-level employee ages at Facebook, Google and Apple. All of which are headquartered within commuting distance from Zero’s facility in Santa Cruz.

Now, usually when you tell an OEM that they might be overlooking a viable market, they start speaking slowly with an air of the important lesson being imparted to a child. CEO Gene Banman, COO Karl Wharton and VP of Global Marketing Scot Harden all immediately followed with a rapid series of questions about what this untapped market wanted. “What are their spending habits? Are they interested in things like alternative transportation? How do they feel about motorcycles? Would they be interested in a Zero? What does the company need to do to make them want to purchase a Zero? What would they most likely not like about a Zero?”

Frankly, I wasn’t prepared for that level of engagement from industry veterans. I noticed others were caught off guard as well.

I told Wharton over dinner that I thought the Zero bikes reminded me of a Dell computer. He’d been fishing for opinions on the bikes from the moment we sat down. He wouldn’t let me get up until I’d explained why I felt the motorcycles reminded me of a device that does a job well but lacks aesthetic and, therefore, emotional engagement.

Then he demanded I tell him what I think could be done to remedy that. “Does that mean our bikes need to feel more retro? Does that mean wild designs like what’s out there now? Would you throw away the bike and start from scratch? Or are there small changes we could make to address most of the issues?” After Wharton was finished with me, he turned and started the same series of questions to the guy on his other side, who went a touch white and mildly panicked as if he’d been asked to identify a quadratic equation.

The next day over beers, I suggested to Harden that Zero needed a more attractive package to get us under-40 youngsters to buy. Someone else at the table made a snide remark about hipsters needing to keep up their image and Harden quipped, “None of us here married ugly wives.” Then he started laying on the questions.

Even with the $26 million infusion from their investment group lead by Invus, Zero knows they still have limits that are outside of the company’s control. Banman claims the batteries are currently capable of a seven-minute recharge with the proper connectors. The problem is the infrastructure that would allow for that kind of quick recharging. The power is already there, it just needs to be put through a proper conduit.

In the meantime, Zero says it is using the infusion to focus on building up a dealer network in the the US and Europe to move 1,000 models this year with a full line of accessories, improve quality control and flesh out the company’s infrastructure. There wasn’t talk of new models or new platforms in development, but everyone at the launch was definitely barraged with a whole lot of questions.

Zero is bursting at the seams with fresh cash, is highly focused on improving its products and actively engaging with user feedback to find a way to make its products relevant to a new customer. Know any other OEMs in this industry acting like that these days? Us neither.

  • duncanbojangles

    I desperately want electric bikes to make the jump from “neat” to a viable option for me. All I need is more range, and it’ll be my next bike.

    Then I won’t have to keep a “slut bike” just to teach friends how to ride motorcycles. “Can you ride a bicycle? Are you not completely incompetent? Then I can teach you how to ride this here electric motorcycle in an afternoon.”

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

    If that 7-minute recharge time is realistic, I’m excited. It wouldn’t take much for progressive, dense urban cities like SF, Boston, NYC, Seattle, etc to build a couple dozen charging stations. Plug in, take a leak, grab a cup of coffee, and you’re set for another week of commuting.

    My next purchase of a bike is years off, likely, but chances are better than even it will be an electric. Those little XU’s are very, very neat.

    As for styling, I think they’d be better served going for the clean “apple” look, rather than trying to adapt any type of vintage feel. An iPod on wheels may sound a bit sterile, but think about how much more music you listen to on an iPod rather than a turn-table with a hi-end tube amp.

  • gt1

    Apple never asks customers what they need.

    • Joe

      I’m pretty sure your mistaken on that. Apple’s original selling point was the ability to customize their product how you personally saw fit. So in a way, they did ask you what was wrong with their product and gave you the ability to correct it.

      • Justin

        That selling point is about 2 decades old and as dead as Elvis. The arguments on the inflexibly of apple products is way overblown, but you can’t overlook the fact that they’re the most locked down computers and nearly the most locked down phones on the market. They also have very good products in all those segments but they’re also is very few options in each segment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is.

        • Joe

          I am well aware of that now being a moot point. I was comparing Apple’s original strategies to Zero’s. One factor in Apple getting to the spot they are today had something to do with a willingness to listen to their customers. Exactly what Zero is doing now.

    • Darren

      Apple has over $60 Billion (yes, with a B) in the bank, and can afford to make mistakes.

    • Ryan

      Apple has a great way of anticipating the way people use computers, and you don’t get that kind of insight by not listening to consumers. The knack for distilling problems and coming up with solutions with above average industrial design is talent and love of the the product.

      Not asking what consumers think is why Apple has the Dock and the antiquated Menu Bar, and the iPhone 4 needs to have a rubber bumper to keep the user from shorting the antennas.

  • Chuck

    I love the idea of electric bikes but there are two things that turn me away from these.
    1.) The whole ugly thing. They are busted. But that is fixable. I look at most electric bikes and think, that is a motorcycle with a battery in the middle. Not sure what the answer is design wise, I’m just sure someone will find a viable solution.

    2.) My biggest sticking point with electric vehicles, is the high rate of obsolescence. You know that in 5 years your electric is going to look like a kids toy compared to the newest models. Just like other electronic devices, the shelf life on EVs is going to be short.

    The only solution I can think of to this problem, is to create a platform with the technology we already understand (suspension, geometry, brakes, etc…) and allow EV manufactures sell upgradable components that fit in those platforms. That way a new battery tech comes out, swap it in. New motor comes out, swap it in.

    Most people wouldn’t mind riding a bike that is 10 years old, but who would want to use a computer or cellphone that is 10 years old? I imagine that as we go electric, that attitude will carry over to bikes (and possibly cars as well).

    • Corey

      I’d agree with the “ugly” perspective. I get excited about electric bikes that lean toward a design that doesn’t scream, “I’m an electric vehicle.” I realize there may be limitations and challenges; don’t want to be too critical. Similar to the early Honda Insight car looking like a lunar vehicle, it seems they want to appeal to a segment of folks outside auto/moto enthusiasts.

    • Daniel

      My understanding in talking to Zero folks was that they intended to allow for future battery packs to be interchangeable, so owners of the 2010 Zero S would be able to swap in the (presumably) more energy-dense batteries of 2012. Not sure if they’re sticking to that or not, but obsolescence was definitely on their radar.

    • Ryan

      who would want to use a computer or cellphone that is 10 years old?

      People who aren’t concerned about other people’s opinions, and people who’s current cellphone or computer works for them.

      I don’t have a ten year old cellphone, but I have a ten year old desktop I still use. It runs WinXP and Unix-like OSes just fine.

  • Steve

    Refreshing, and overdue. But, I hope they ask ALOT of people, especially those that have both the interest AND the means to buy… otherwise, it’s not really going to matter. I’ll tell you something else as well- sometimes you’ve got to get your product out in the market at a loss just to get some visibility and create some buzz!

  • http://vtbmwmov.org Eben

    Pretty shocking that they have done basically no market research. It’s nice that they got people from Buell, but sounds like they could use some people from BMW or Triumph or, yah, Apple. Successful products begin with marketing and end with engineering, not the other way around.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      Karl Wharton is a former Managing Director for Triumph.

    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

      Successful products begin and end when design, marketing and engineering are harmonic, not competing with each other.

      Japan decimated the American auto and consumer electronics industries in the 1970′s and 1980′s because they took this principal to heart. They have mostly lost this lesson, but Apple, Facebook and Google are excellent examples of collaborative R&D structures.

      No one likes this touchy-feely, holding hands version of industrial development, because we worship the notion of individual genius, but great products are not magic.

      Great products are the result of hard work, positive collaboration and mutual respect.

  • http://greatjoballweek.blogspot.com/ Case

    Get your shit together Zero: HD sold bikes to old people and look where they are. Target SINKs and DINKS (Single- or Dual-income, No Kids).

  • Steve

    Actually successful products don’t start with marketing — they start with market research. In enthusiast markets, the most successful companies are full of their core consumers, who internalize that research — which is why BMW, Triumph, and Ducati are doing relatively better than the Japanese makers these days. As for the Buell people at Zero, they’re all on the technical side. The market research and marketing people for Buell all worked for Harley — many still do — and only at the very end, with the Barracuda 2, did they finally come around and start supporting the bikes that Erik really wanted to build.

    • http://vtbmwmov.org Eben

      Well, market research is certainly part of marketing in the modern, integrated marketing sense.

      But yah, it seems like Zero decided that electric motorcycles were a good idea, built some, said, “Who can afford this?”, and then went with the answer out of a magazine from 1987.

      • Ilya

        How would you research the market which does not exist? Zero is creating the market, and in this regard they are doing perfectly right things.

        • http://vtbmwmov.org Eben

          Rarely do products create markets. The people who are going to buy your product already exist before you start selling it. An integrated marketing approach will identify those people, their specific needs and means, and tailor the product to them right from the start. Building a product and then figuring out who to sell it to is a recipe for failure.

          That said, Zero’s approach is understandable. They’re in more of an R&D mode than actually trying to make a breakout product. It’s just surprising that they didn’t realize something as basic as the fact that young people have money these days.

          • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

            When the average age for buying new motorcycles has been 40+ for well over a decade, it’s easy for the boomers who have been running the industry for years to assume it’s because we under-40 youngsters don’t have money. That’s because OEMs have focused on blue collar consumers able to leverage years of credit accumulation, who aren’t the same as white collar consumers.

            That the younger generation with money to purchase bikes doesn’t like what the OEMs are offering, or would rather spend our money on other lifestyle goods? That thought has yet to cross their minds, sadly.

            Most OEM reps that I’ve spoken to still refuse to believe that the purchase of a new motorcycle, clearly a lifestyle product in most non-3rd world societies, that costs several thousand dollars is nothing short of a luxury good. The automatic bristled response is always the same, “What are you talking about? Bikes are Powersports. That’s completely different than a luxury good.”

            Sure it is, buddy.

  • James Dean Meyer

    +1 on the aesthetics. I for one buy bikes based on performance AND emotion. Quantya designed a good looking electric bike, even KTM’s rumored electric looked much better than anything from Zero. They are doing something right though. They have a good team and have collected lots of $$ to make their product better. Sounds like the performance is getting there, now eliminate the ugly and you might have something.

    • James Dean Meyer

      On the other hand, the Prius is ugly personified and people buy it BASED on its looks. It identifies them as different, hip, and environmentally conscious, whether or not any of those things are actually true. Maybe that is Zero’s angle.

  • James Dean Meyer

    Zero: As long as we’ve got your ear, look at what Red Bull has done in less than a decade. By sponsoring, exciting, non-mainstream, youth oriented events, they have tapped a very mainstream revenue source. They are the new Budweiser.

    How about an urban race series, with spec Zero bikes. A new revenue source for cities, no noise complaints, and you can capitalize on a motorsport market that doesn’t directly burn fossil fuels. Politicians, X-gamers and Prius types will all love you.

  • Erik

    Motorcyclists may be among the most conservative and traditional consumers out there, and I am not just talking about Harley Riders. Each faction has very specific ideas about what is right and wrong when it comes to their bikes. Most will tell you that ebikes are just wrong. They will come around eventually but it will take time. Meanwhile, if I was Zero, I would be after the people who might like a powered two wheeler but are turned off by the multitude of buffooneries associated with the various motorcycling sects. Kinda like Honda did back in the sixties with the ‘nicest people’ thing.
    I think Zero have the design right, it is clean, functional, minimalist, and from the pics appears to look like quality. They need to arrange for some celebrity Zero owners, how many Harleys did the Governator sell? Charlie Sheen may be looking for some endorsement work.

    • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

      Two British salesmen went to Africa, doing market research for a shoe company. The first one sends a letter back saying, “The situation is hopeless; nobody here wears shoes!”

      The second salesman sends back a letter saying, “The market is perfect! Nobody here wears shoes!”

      Zero/Brammo/etc al. need to be the second salesman.

      • fasterfaster

        Love it.

    • wwalkersd

      You’re not going back far enough. How many Harleys did Malcolm Forbes sell?

    • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

      Motorcyclists among the most conservative and traditional consumers? You for real?! Everyone I speak to or hear of who’s buying a bike always goes for something that has that ‘something extra’ that does it for them – the bike that makes them excited, thrilled, maybe even scared. My first bike when I was 21 (only 5 years ago) was a 2nd hand GSX-R600. I think you can see my point – there’s nothing conservative or traditional about a Gixxer as a first bike.

      My thought process went like this – I had AUD$10,000 to spend, I had always wanted a sportsbike (that was my big dream since childhood), there was no way I was going to pay $10k for a little 250, so 600 sportsbike it was. That’s all I test rode. Nothing like the FZ-6, didn’t even consider it.

      However more recently I’ve purchased an ’06 XR400 motard (just a few weeks ago). Radically different reason for buying that – I was sick of commuting in summer on my Gixxer (now 1000) and the radiator fan roasting my leg. I’d fouled two sets of plugs from riding slowly in the commuting portion of my week, and I actually did want a smaller capacity bike that was cheaper to run and also something that I could use more on dirt.

      So I guess you could say that represents both extremes of the non-conventional and also traditional in motorcyclists. If Zero had bikes to cover those two aspects I reckon they could do alot worse.

      The other thing I think of when I see an electric bike like the Zero – I just think it’s a dinky little bike, not a serious bike. Of course that’s wrong, but that’s my initial perception. Something like the Mission bikes on the other hand I am much more drawn to.

      Just another thought on electric bikes – I always seem to think of compromise when I think EV, like the technology is ‘not quite’ there yet. But maybe it is? (I just never hear anything like that from the manufacturers themselves.) The other thing is that I haven’t heard much about the maintenance on them. Could that be a good marketing angle? If I started seeing evidence in road tests and marketing that showed the performance was there – along with minimal maintenance that would have to put up a real hard choice when someone is looking at ICE Vs. EV?

      • Erik

        What I meant was that motorcyclists are very conservative and traditional when it comes to their preferred motorcycle’s style and purpose. Example, the Terblanche Ducati 999, and Multistrada, excellent bikes, but too far removed from what ‘conservative traditional’ buyers expected from Ducati. Another example might be using a sport bike or motard style bike for commuting :-) when a scooter offers better weather protection, under seat lockable storage for your lunch pail, helmet and rainsuit.

        • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

          Ahhhh… I hear ya.

          Scooters… pah! Haha, there we go ahead. You’re right, of course, looking from a very logical angle.

          Interesting comment about preferred motorcycles style and purpose. Now I’m wondering – what is an electric motorcycles preferred style and purpose? I think they’ve gotta invent one!

          • Erik

            That’s it!

  • http://theprojectbeta.com/ andehans

    Zero is basically doing what software companies have been doing for years. Launching beta versions and involving people from the outside in the testing and development with the aim of perfecting the product.
    Very refreshing for a company in a very traditional industry to have this attitude. Will be exciting to follow.

  • http://www.tripleclamp.net Sasha Pave

    Finally the R&D for electric bikes is accessible enough for a small outfit to really make a splash. Go Zero Go!

  • Justin

    doesn’t “off the record” usually mean they don’t want you printing what they say?

    • http://www.lgdm.fr stempere

      It usually means you can’t quote their exact words and write they were told by a company representative, it’s more of a personnal/company voice than a do/don’t tell issue.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Yeah, that’s sort of a catch-all term. Sometimes it means “don’t fucking tell anyone or I’ll break your legs” sometimes it’s “wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”

  • je

    Will buy a EV motard that gets 100+ miles to a charge and recharges in under an hour. Priced under 7500 is must. A design that allows modular components like seat, tank, etc so I can make it look however I like would be nice.

  • Marlon

    Silver frames look like arse.

    • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

      That’s very ambiguous…

      So do you like arse, or not?

  • Lawrences

    Electric bike(s) need to be upgradeable propulsion/charging system wise at reasonable cost, fun to ride, and most of all not another electronic uber-marketed fad-gadget. Lots of 50 year old electric equipment is still in daily use.

  • http://pinkyracer.com pinkyracer

    Since Google already has EV charging, I wonder if they’d also host a one-day MSF class in their parking lot on Zeros? Zero could organize it, find an MSF-certified instructor willing to skip the whole part about operating the clutch & shifter, and it could be free to Googlers (the company most likely to do this). Then Zero could offer a discount to participants.

    BTW- I’m chock full of marketing ideas, Mr. Harden :-)

  • Archer

    Any particular reason why HFL hasn’t touched upon the story reported elsewhere regarding the management heads that recently rolled at this company? Seems strange as one of those individuals is referenced in the story above.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      Meh. Zero has been changing up management for over 6 months now. That older management is cashing out and changing hats isn’t nearly as interesting as the company’s current shift in approaching new markets and the level of enthusiasm coming from a financially flush OEM.