Kyle Doerksen Discusses Inventing the Onewheel and Engineering a Lifestyle

Powered by Topple

Kyle Doerksen, engineer and inventor of the Onewheel, was looking to translate the act of snowboarding to more accessible, everyday terrain—like the sidewalk. As an inventor and innovator, he wanted to create something brand new in the world that provided an entirely new technological experience, outside of the screen. With a masters in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford, Kyle first worked at IDEO designing electromechanical systems for kids toys, bio-medical devices and consumer electronics. In his spare time, he tinkered in his Silicon Valley garage to build a brand new mode of transport. That eventually became the Onewheel prototype.

Onewheel is a self-balancing single wheel electric board-sport, recreational personal transporter. Part skateboard, part street savvy snowboard, it’s a brand new product that is taking the world—and Silicon Valley—by storm. We had a chance to catch up with Kyle about his obsession with electric vehicle design, the controversial decision to manufacture solely in the USA, and how Onewheel has managed to thrive during COVID times.

Powered by Topple

Kyle Doerksen, Inventor of the Onewheel

Jenna Bostock: Tell me a little bit about the company, the inspiration and the inception of Onewheel.

Kyle Doerksen: I grew up in Calgary, Alberta – I snowboarded a lot and hit a lot of powder up there. Powder snowboarding is like the gold standard for awesome experiences. I moved to California and I studied at Stanford. I got some good powder days there too but I was really just dreaming about how you could create the experience of riding powder while you are moving through town. After school, I was a design consultant at a company called IDEO in Palo Alto, leading design firms, find products and brands, and experiences for companies around the world.

I would take the train up to our other office in San Francisco, and would be walking from the train station. I’d think to myself “Man, I wish there was something I could just have on me that would make this all go a little bit faster.” I also happened to be working on some of the first motion control kid’s toys. If you remember when the Nintendo Wii came out, that was one of the first consumer products that had rudimentary motion sensing in it. The iPhone incorporated some of that motion sensing, and then that, of course, became the industry standard. That is the core technology that makes Onewheel work.

I was tinkering in my garage in Silicon Valley back around 2008, where many ideas come from, and the first prototype of what became Onewheel emerged. I was not really building it as a venture at that point. It was just building the thing that I wanted to have. I showed it to a couple of friends and they all said, “This is awesome! I want one for me too.”

They did not actually want the one I was building in my garage, but rather an actual totally refined consumer product. I put it back on the shelf for a while because the tech was not quite there yet to make it the refined consumer product that I wanted. Back then, there was a big bike chain hanging off the sides. It was really heavy, and the ride-ability was not there yet.

So I sat back and kept working an idea for a few more years, and then helped spin out an electric bike company called Faraday Bicycles, based in San Francisco. They are really beautiful, nicely designed e-bikes that we targeted at bike stops. We realized small vehicles were finally going to play a big role in the world. The technology had in fact arrived to start creating elegant products that I wanted to create. As an innovator and inventor myself, I wanted to chase something that nobody else was going to do. Even in the early days, you saw that a lot of companies were going to get into the e-bike business for obvious reasons. I wanted to bring something new into the world, something that if I didn’t do it, no one was going to do it. I wanted to leave my mark as an innovator.

We launched the product in 2014. The product hit the table and then we started getting Onewheel out into the world. We hand-delivered our first unit down in San Francisco.

We’ve delivered to quite a few of the Silicon Valley luminaries. I delivered one to John Doerr, one of the most famous venture capitalists in the area. He loved it. He was riding around this cul-de-sac in Palo Alto on it. Since then we’ve kind of been trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

It has been pretty crazy; the on-demand curves we have had. We are headquartered here in Santa Cruz. We wanted to be here because we are at the intersection of action sports and technology. It has a special place in the history of surfs, skateboarding, and mountain biking. A lot of the core brands: O’Neill, Santa Cruz Bikes, Santa Cruz Skateboards, and a few others are all based here.

It is also forty-five minutes to Silicon Valley. For us, it is this ideal location to see the ocean from our offices. It is really cool to think we have built this kind of company here. Traditionally there are not enough jobs for people that want to live here, people that graduate from UCSC, and people from the area. It has been really neat to turn that corner as there has been a resurgence of insanely creative and entrepreneurial startup activity, and lots more opportunities for folks that are here.

We built the product in San Jose, California. Obviously, most companies choose to build their products overseas. We decided from the beginning that we wanted to build ours in the US. That was important to us, for a lot of reasons, from intellectual property to having our engineers close to the manufacturing, which is the same reason why Tesla built their cars in Silicon Valley. It is definitely not the cheapest place to manufacture things but there are a lot of benefits you get from having people that are designing it right there with the people who were building it on the manufacturing line. We’ve expanded that a lot over the years. We have got people that all they do all day is test ride each Onewheel that comes off the line.

We are a millennial dream job. Now people all over the country in the world are riding around on Onewheel. I think the most unique thing about it is that people in San Francisco and Manhattan are using it but so are people in the mountain towns in Colorado. People will tell you that their riding goes on and off-road. Asheville in North Carolina probably has the most Onewheelers per capita.

Everywhere you go, Onewheel can fit in there. It can ride all over the place. I think that is part of what makes it super compelling.

Jenna Bostock: Did you have a growth plan? What was the plan to go from being local to the Bay Area to being on every continent?

Kyle Doerksen: We have really just been putting one foot in front of the other and try to step it up as we go. It is interesting—when I worked for the IDEO, the methodology there is Human-Centered Design and user research. I basically did none of that for Onewheel. I did not go to a focus group and figure out how many people would like this thing.

I just needed it for myself and I launched it into the world. We have really been creating a market for it by showing people how it is used, creating videos and working with cool people and influencers, and bringing it into the world organically.

We did not necessarily know how fast the growth was going to be. I had an inkling that we were going to see this sort of the rise of the small vehicle. You buy scooters, you skate, and everything, but now we felt that tidal wave kind of hit, right? Now we are just surfing that as well.

Obviously in addition to our own efforts, but also culturally now, there has been an awakening. With COVID, in a lot of ways, it has been another opportunity for us. A lot of streets are closed to cars that you can Onewheel on or ride a bike.

If you track the bike industry, bikes are basically sold out because everybody is like, “Oh, I want to get a bike!” Everybody wants to get a Onewheel. They want to ride around. Our sales velocity through COVID has been higher than we forecasted without COVID. People are looking for adventures close to home.

We do compete with vacation, essentially. It is like going to Hawaii for a week. We have two products, the XR eighteen-hundred dollar one, our flagship that goes at 20 miles an hour. We also have Pint, which is a little bit smaller, more approachable price points by fifty-percent. That is what we launched last year. That was part of the growth strategy to triple bite your question.

Onewheels are always in the fifteen to eighteen-hundred dollar range. Last year, I came out to New York to the launch event for the Pint. That was the first time we ever had a product under a thousand dollars. That really helped us expand the market a lot—at the same time a lot of people want the higher end. They want to go far. They want to go fast. They want to do this a lot. We see a pretty good split between the Pint and the XR buyers.

Jenna Bostock: Even though anyone isn’t making anything quite like it, how are you competing with a Hawaii vacation, or a splurge like that? How do you overcome those challenges?

Kyle Doerksen: A lot of things are shutting down so it is pretty hard to getaway. People are overwhelmingly busy and are also overwhelmingly experiencing technology through the screen.

Onewheeling is a technology, but then you experience it in a totally different way, right? You experience it with your body and your sense of balance. It does not really feel like technology. It feels like just the magic carpet. It feels like you are up high. You see that in like a micro way.

Flying somewhere to go skiing is awesome, but at the same time, you could have that experience ten minutes out of your front door, whether you are in Brooklyn or Kansas. That is a pretty awesome experience. In a larger sense, until you ride it is hard to understand. We just try to give people a taste of what the experience is like through our marketing. Ultimately, once you ride it, you get it.

Jenna Bostock: I was wondering how the brand was handling the COVID situation—it sounds like it hasn’t slowed you down much at all?

Kyle Doerksen: There have been challenges. We sold through a lot of independents outdoor stores across the country. Many of them were closed for a couple of months. Some of them are still closed. That has been really hard.

A major part of our businesses is direct commerce. E-commerce is thriving these days. An endless stream of boxes is showing up at my house and I think everybody is in a similar boat. We were running a marketing campaign called Destroy Boredom at the beginning. You are facing lockdown and shelter in place orders. Suddenly, destroying boredom was actually a pretty important thing for people. People are trying to figure out how they live in the new normal. Will they even be able to ski this year? We are finding ways to have the ‘normal’ experience but still stay close to home. Onewheel plays right into that.

Jenna Bostock: From an entrepreneurial standpoint, what are some of the best and worst pieces of advice you have received along the way as you have grown this company?

Kyle Doerksen: Someone early on told me that you are going to get all kinds of advice. Your job is to choose what you are going to listen to and what you are going to ignore. In many ways, a lot of our key strategic choices had been pretty counter-intuitive. We were talking about the decision to build in the US. Everybody said, “Oh, you should build this in China. It’s cheaper.” We said, “No!”

Now you are seeing a crispy snap back in terms of interest in American manufacturing for a whole lot of reasons. Even just the concept itself, it is not a no brainer that the Onewheel should exist. It is totally different than anything else that is out there. The doubters ask, “Oh, how big can the market be?”and, “Is it really going to be a thing?”

We have been able to achieve success in getting it out there. Ultimately, founders and CEOs need to know when to listen and when to ignore the conventional wisdom, all of it. You need to make those choices.

Jenna Bostock: The ignoring is just as important as the listening sometimes.

Kyle Doerksen: It can be hard. A choice we made pretty early on was when we wanted to navigate towards breaking-even and profitability relatively early. A lot of the companies, especially here in the Bay, are really young venture capital-funded program. They often try to scale before they are profitable. Ultimately we are in the hard goods manufacturing sectors. I can really see that. You really need to focus on building a viable business before you grow too much otherwise you are just going to lose money on a larger and larger scale. It is going to become more and more expensive and you are going to have to sell more and more of the company to support that.

Eventually, you get to a crossroads where you cannot resist and get around and run the business off cliffs. We were counter-cultural. By the end of our third year we could break even. That is obviously a big milestone for us. It has helped us to really grow intelligently without getting way in front of our skis but also keeping the accelerator press down.

We have been doubling in size for the last few years. That is a lot of growth! We will continue to surf this wave.