Interview: Toddlebike founder Jo Hockley

Toddlebike2

When Jo first posted about Toddlebike on CycleChat on 2011 we spammed her user account for commercial posting. After exchanging a few emails we learned that she was passionate about bringing this new toddler’s bike to a wider audience, so in a quid pro quo arrangement she agreed to send one to a CycleChat member to trial. Here’s the review. Both Toddlebike and Jo have since gone from strength to strength and in 2015 the new Toddlebike2 redesign hit the streets.

So Jo, tell us a bit about your life before the Toddlebike took over?

Toddlebike founder Jo HockleyIn my previous life I worked in Event Management and Marketing, a career which I really loved. I was also very active and enjoyed sports including cycling, wakeboarding, horse riding, surfing – I was having a lovely time! And then in 2008 I had my first child swiftly followed by a second in 2009 which kind of put a crimp / temporary hold on all of that.

Where did the Toddlebike idea come from?

Elliot, age 1, was a very independent active boy who hated being confined to his buggy. But with a newborn baby and no car I was also finding it difficult to manage the both of them out and about and he was way too small for a balance bike. As it turned out Elliot solved his own problem whilst visiting family in Belgium – he came in the room on this small, plastic toy that he was riding just like a balance bike but was perfectly suited to his size. Although I’m not even sure now if I would have seen its brilliance had it been on a shop shelf, seeing him on it and how instantly obsessed with it he was – and then taking it to the park and finding out how much easier the journey was made me 100% convinced that this was the bike we had been looking for. Back in the UK I tried and failed to buy even 1 so I contacted the manufacturer and negotiated exclusive rights and a partnership agreement and launched Toddlebike in 2010.

How did you find the manufacturer and convince them to let you have exclusive UK rights?

I returned to Belgium and bought the original toy and found the manufacturer from there. They were, and continue to be, very supportive of Toddlebike and we have worked together to launch Toddlebike2 which is now a completely separate proposition to the original models (produced to a UK specification with brand identifiers being that they all have black wheels, handlebars and seat with white hubs.) I think my enthusiasm for the project, plus my marketing background helped convince them that I might have a chance of building the Toddlebike brand in the UK.

Once you had sourced the bike and secured the rights, you started to promote it to cyclists and their families. Why did you choose cyclists rather than toy retail outlets?

Before I launched Toddlebike I realised I needed to fill the huge gaps in my experience and I did this by picking up the phone to almost anyone who would talk to me and it was Mick Allen of Cyclorama fame who convinced me that the best route would be to engage cyclists first as they would more easily understand the skills and progression in learning to ride. Plus they are an avid and well networked community so he advised going on to forums like Bike Radar and CycleChat to see what their members thought.

Being completely inexperienced in such matters I blazed in with a post along the lines of ‘Hey have any of you seen my Toddlebikes’ to be met with resounding cries of ‘SPAM!!!’ – you live and learn – so I offered all of the forum members with toddlers the chance to take a Toddlebike and road test it and let other members know first hand what they thought – good or bad. It was a nervous time as it really could have gone either way but the reviews were amazing and 5 years on I still hear from our original Bike Radar and CycleChat Toddlebikers who take the time to let me know what their little pioneers are up to now. We have continued to run the Toddlebike Trial every year since as it’s still the best way to demonstrate exactly what Toddlebike is and what it does for a toddler.

Jo Hockley with the original Toddlebike
Jo with the original Toddlebike

Was it difficult to sell the first Toddlebikes or were they an instant hit?

Very difficult! I remember talking to someone who was instrumental in launching the first balance bikes in the UK and I was so confident thinking ‘but this is a unique product and there’s nothing more suitable for this age range of child’ but he explained how difficult it is to communicate the need for something new – and selling the ‘not’ so it’s not a ride on? And it’s not a balance bike? I think potential customers are naturally suspicious of something new so it was way harder than I thought. I didn’t have any budget for advertising and certainly couldn’t compete with the marketing might of other retailers so I had to let Toddlebike sell itself – I developed partnerships with people like SureStart, Sustrans, Early Years Cycling Project, Cycling Festivals – the list goes on – and it really was a case of getting as many Toddlebikes out there as possible and letting toddlers and their grown ups see for themselves.

You took an opportunity to pitch Toddlebike to John Lewis and 6 months later had it on their website and in their stores. How did that feel?

Amazing! It gave Toddlebike the chance to move from the niche cycling world into the mainstream and John Lewis is a great combination of major retailer but also quite nurturing so I was offered mentoring and ongoing support and some amazing PR opportunities where me and my little Toddlebikes ended up in the Telegraph, Financial Times and as an ambassador for the government’s Business is Great campaign. It’s been quite a rollercoaster.

Did demand spike and were you able to handle it okay, or did it get scary for a while?

It’s always been scary – people always say to me that they would love to have their own business but it is risky and scary at times – and the bigger you get the bigger the risks. Plus suddenly you’re aware that you want to continue to grow and that you’ve now got something to lose. I hope I’m handling it OK but you never get the chance to sit back and think ‘that’s it – I’ve done what I set out to do’ – it’s continually evolving.

Toddlebike was redesigned in 2015. What were they key changes and have they been well received by your customers?

The most important change for me for Toddlebike2 is the colour scheme! It’s now much more identifiable as a ‘bike’ – so all Toddlebike2 have black handles, wheels and seat with white hubs. The colors are the frame only. In addition to this the seat is more in-line with the crossbar, riding position more centralised, steering limiter redesigned and new ‘easy reach’ handlebars. Yes, so far very well received – they certainly fit better visually as a first bike and the Toddlers seem to be as happy with their toy as ever – the key features such as size, weight, materials are common but it’s still nerve racking to change something that was so popular so I am very relieved! The price is the same (£23.95) as is the Toddlebike 3 year no quibble guarantee.

Toddlebike2

Are you still using the same manufacturer or do you make Toddlebike2 yourself now?

Yes I am still working in partnership with the original manufacturer and they have been amazingly supportive working with me to launch Toddlebike2.

What are your goals for Toddlebike2 in 2017?

I would like to get lots more independent bike shops on board! It would also be nice to see Toddlebike2 stocked in a major cycling retailer such as Halfords to improve their offering for 1 year olds who want to take the first steps towards cycling.

Finally, how have all of your own children got on with the Toddlebike and what are they riding now?

They were all obsessed with their Toddlebikes and transitioned to 2 wheels without a stabilizer in sight – Elliot was 4 when he learned to ride a ‘proper’ bike, Matilda 3 and a half and Pearl was under 3. They all love their bikes and we use them regularly. We’ve tried most of the leading bike brands (Islabike, Specialized, Giant, Dawes, Frog). Currently Elliot (8) has a Frog 52 we bought last year from The Little Bike Company, Tilda (6) is on a Giant Pudding 16 and Pearl (4) is on a cheap but surprisingly good BTwin 14 while we wait for her to be big enough for the bike-shaped presents that will be under the tree for them this year (2 Frogs and a Giant).

Kids and bikes on hols

Toddlebike website: www.toddlebike.co.uk