7 lessons from the founder of Wattbike

For Ian Wilson and the Wattbike team, there was only ever one goal – to build the world’s most accurate indoor training bike. They were well-equipped for the challenge. “Competing in elite sport makes you single-minded,” says Ian, a former rowing world champion. “It’s a vital attribute in business, too.”

If you haven’t yet heard of Wattbikes, they are exercise bikes, but not as you know them. Forget that lump of metal that your dad bought one January after a particularly extravagant Christmas. The Wattbike is an athlete’s dream, faithfully replicating both wind and road resistance and providing reliably accurate power, technique and performance readouts with thousands of simultaneous measurements. Wattbike users include the New Zealand All Blacks, boxing superstar Anthony Joshua and Olympic Champion swimmer Adam Peaty. Pros love Wattbikes because they tell you – down to the last watt and centimetre – just how well (or how badly) you’re performing.

Today, Nottingham-based Wattbike turns over £35m a year and sells to more than 30 countries. Let’s find out what we can learn from its story.

Product excellence is everything

Ian says: “As we began product development, we knew from our experiences with Concept 2 rowing machines [Ian was the MD of Concept2 Europe for 35 years] that the sports-science world wanted something to test elite athletes on. They needed something that would provide guaranteed correct data. No bike on the planet came close to offering what they wanted. So my business partner John Wilson [no relation] and I, and two friends from the international rowing community, Milan Baconovic and Dusan Adamovic, got together to discuss what our bike should look like.” 

The birth of Wattbike reminds us of the importance of genuine product excellence. Clever marketing gets you so far, but if there’s no substance behind the sizzle, your business won’t last. With Wattbike, they defined the problem they wanted to solve at the outset and then set about finding the perfect solution.

Seek perfect guidance

“We approached Peter Keen, head of British Cycling at the time and Chris Boardman’s former coach. We asked him what data he’d want from his dream gym bike. He gave us a list on two A4 pages. Peter set the parameters for our bike and from the kitchen table, Wattbike was born.” 

Teaming up with an expert – the head of British Cycling no less – was a key moment in Wattbike’s history. To create an outstanding product, you need exceptional guidance. Who better than the foremost expert in your product’s field? 

Define your market strategy

“Building the Wattbike brand was an exciting journey. As well as working with British Cycling, we became accepted by the sports science community worldwide. We were fortunate to work with the best coaches who were all looking for a competitive advantage for their athletes. We picked up a roster of sporting superstars.”

Ian’s aim was precise: create a supremely accurate bike and aim it right at the top – at elite coaches and sports scientists. Win them over and they would then recommend Wattbikes to sporting pros. In turn, commercial gyms and stat-obsessed home amateurs would want a piece of the action. Such a clear market strategy has been key to Wattbike’s success. The team found that clarity by asking themselves: What’s the one thing we want to be famous for? Their answer was accuracy. Anyone can ask themselves this vital question and doing so will focus your mind, set your goal and create a development roadmap. 

Take the time to get it right

“In 2004, we went back to Peter and showed him what we’d done. He said: ‘Oh, I forgot to give you the other two sheets,’ and he handed us another wish list! So launching the bike took much longer than we had expected. But we kept going until we got the accuracy we needed. We could have come out with a bike much earlier, but it would not have displayed the precise data we wanted.”

Painful as this moment was, there was no question of cutting corners. The single-minded instincts of the Wattbike team kicked in and they stoically improved their bike. Getting the data that the scientists needed was difficult but imperative. Nobody had done it before. But it was worth the effort. 

“Our patents are still holding and nobody has come close to us on accuracy. Wattbikes are now the standard all over the world and that includes for Olympic testing.”

Build a unique product or service

“Your raw-power figure – which you get from Wattbike’s six-second test – is in your DNA. You can only change it by around 5% – no matter how much training you do. It’s not a strength or fitness thing; it’s how well you’re connected between your brain and muscles; it’s how everything works together. We wanted a fast and accurate way to find individuals with incredible, God-given raw power. We found that 2000 watts is the gold standard. For example, Chris Hoy’s six-second peak is 2000w. Steve Redgrave’s was 1850w even ten years after retiring. The highest number I ever saw was Manu Tuilagi – 2700w.”

By taking the time to build a unique product, Wattbike came up with its famous six-second test. During this test, a rider sprints for six seconds using every ounce of his/her power. The resulting readout reveals so much to sports scientists. As far as we know, no other bike can measure a human being’s power output so accurately. This test, along with many others in its armoury, has propelled Wattbike to the top of its tree.

Apply logic to your funding strategy

“My house was on the line, but we weren’t under any external pressure to launch before we were ready. We were confident that the Wattbike was going to work, but we didn’t know when. We were years behind our timeline, but we knew that measuring watts accurately and following Peter’s guidance to the letter was vital.”

Ian and the team could take their time with Wattbike’s development because the business was initially self-funded. Had they taken on pre-launch investment, they might have been pushed into an early launch at the expense of product quality. It wasn’t until 2011 that Wattbike accepted outside investment, taking on £4m from a group of investors who later became 24 Haymarket Private Equity. Later, towards the end of 2020, brand specialists Piper PE injected a further £11.5m of funding. 

Plan your growth carefully

“We’re now gearing up to go even bigger in the US. We’ve been cautious so far because it’s such a complex market. You’re effectively dealing with 51 separate countries. The future is huge for Wattbike, but we had to make sure we were properly set before embarking on the next chapter. Finance is a huge thing. You can run out of cash so easily.”

The next big project for Wattbike is to grow sales in America and overseas. But just as the company took its time to perfect its product, it is deliberately taking its time to build the foundations for the next stage in its growth journey. Now that the finance is in place and the brand is strong, the time is right to power forward. And it’s easy to see Wattbike winning over millions more stat-obsessed fitness fans around the globe.  

Closing thoughts

The Wattbike story is awash with key business lessons. Wattbike’s development team originally set out to create the most accurate bike on the market – a clear goal yet fiendishly difficult to achieve. But by setting a well-defined target and then pursuing it with the single-mindedness of a true Olympian – and by finding the perfect coach to guide them – they have succeeded in building one of the most trusted brands in sport. It’s hard to imagine stronger foundations on which to build for their next chapter…