SRAM chief Stan Day on eTap, disc brakes and competing with Shimano
SRAM occupies a very competitive sector of the bike market. As one of the ‘big three’ of groupset manufacturers, it’s made waves in recent years as the only company to produce a wireless electronic groupset. SRAM has captured the imagination of the cycling industry, with the SRAM Red eTap system one of the most sought after on the market.
If Shimano is considered the powerhouse of the groupset industry and Campagnolo the Italian maestros with a remarkable history and craftsmanship attributed to its products, then SRAM has something of a reputation for being the first to the post with innovation. Wireless shifting, grip shift technology, trim-free front derailleurs, 1x drivetrains, all the way back to the PowerDisc and Speedtronic braking and shift systems… it’s testament to the American company’s ambition to continually innovate.
Expansion has also been on the cards for SRAM, too. Since its inception thirty years ago in 1987, the ‘corporation’ has expanded to include Zipp and Quarq, as well as mountain bike brands Truvativ and RockShox.
Naturally, you don’t get to be so big – it now has over 3,500 employees throughout the world – without a couple of snags along the way. Notably, the hydraulic road disc brake recall of 2013 sticks in the mind, but while at the time it sent shockwaves through the industry, SRAM has bounced back.
Who better to hear about the history and future ambitions of SRAM than from its CEO, Stan Day? We sat down with the SRAM boss to get the inside track on the company that, in part at least, features his name.
RoadCyclingUK: Tell us a bit about the genesis of SRAM. The name is an acronym, right?
Stan Day: It is! We started the business back in 1987 and there were only three people: Scott, Sam and me. My middle name is Ray, so we put Scott, Ray and Sam together and got SRAM.
Now, we had to do that because we were trying to come up with a really cool name to start the company, but all the names we liked were trademarked. We got right up to the deadline before the trade show we were attending that year without a name, but they needed to know who we were. We just played ‘alphabet soup’ with the initials of the guys there at the beginning.
It’s expanded a lot since then with several brands under the SRAM umbrella. Could you have foreseen such growth?
No, when we first started we just thought that we were going to make a shifter to go with other people’s drivetrains. That was the vision at the time but we were successful at making those so we just thought, ‘let’s keep going’.
“It wasn’t until 2006 and 2007 that we decided to get really committed to the road bike market”
How has SRAM developed since then?
The first product we developed was Grip Shift; it was actually for road bikes and it was a twist shifter for the end of a drop handlebars. The one that was most commercially successful was the twist shifter for mountain bikes. We did that back in in 1997, and around that time we bought the Sachs Bicycle Division. With it, we also got a terrific array of knowledge and engineering talent, and so at the time we were very much in the mountain bike division of the market. It wasn’t until 2006 and 2007 that we decided to get really committed to the road bike market too.
With that commitment, you have to be on top of the latest developments and keep innovating. Is that important to SRAM?
Yes, and we really want to be at the forefront of product development, whether it’s through the development of the new suite of Zipp wheels launched at Eurobike, or eTap, or even our leadership in the development of 1x drivetrains for cyclo-cross. The thing is, we really ride our products, and our engineers are also real enthusiasts who test them, too.
Is that ‘enthusiast’ mentality a cornerstone of SRAM’s ethos?
Absolutely – you can go all the way back to Grip Shift, and nobody had done that before, and it’s what gets us excited. Other people may be excited by IT or commercial success, but we’re really focused on innovation.
You’ve mentioned it already: eTap. How successful has it been for you guys?
Phenomenally successful. It works great, people love it, it’s easy to install on any kind of frame, and our sales have been two to three times more than even we expected. So, I think we’ve really hit a chord with the industry in terms of the simplicity of the system. If you can get rid of the wires, then get rid of the wires, you know?
Did you set out to make a statement with eTap, or improve on the Shimano Di2 system? What was the approach?
We didn’t want to be different for the sake of it; we wanted to be better. Give Shimano credit here: they came out with electronic shifting first, and to be honest I didn’t think it would catch on as it has, so I made a mistake there.
“We didn’t want to be different for the sake of it; we wanted to be better”
But, we then decided to get committed to electronic shifting, and we didn’t just want to repeat what Shimano did – we wanted to improve on it. So, we came out with numerous innovations that made it very lightweight, eliminate the wires, and introduce the Shiftlogic system. There was a lot that went into that design in order to move the game forward.
There was a long build-up to eTap being launched. Was that just about getting it right?
Yes, although one of the funny things we had while developing eTap was the dummy wire system.
I remember at the Tour of California that spring, we had the Bissell team riding the product. One of the riders got into a break with two others, and one of those other guys dropped back and looked at his derailleur and said “hey, dude, your wires come out”. It had, but of course it was shifting just fine without it. We knew then that the game was up!
It was fun to do that though – we kept it under wraps until about two months before we planned to release it, but the way it came about like that was pretty fun.
Regarding your other groupsets, do you find motivation in trying to compete with Shimano’s dominant market share?
To my mind it’s not about market share – it’s about offering a product that people want to buy. It’s been really successful for us, and our team continues to develop new innovations, listen to feedback and improve our products and fix problems. That’s the main focus for us.
Well, first it was really disruptive for our customers who bought the brakes, then it was really disruptive for bike brands that had the brakes installed, it was really disruptive for the dealers, and of course disruptive for us, too. It was just disruptive for everyone.
But, you know, the fact is that we made a mistake. We had to own it, we had to get through it, and those things happen unfortunately. You’ve got to take responsibility for it and we did that. It was painful – It was like going to the dentist and it hurts – like, it really hurts – but you get through it and the next day you’re moving forward.
“The fact is that we made a mistake. We had to own it, we had to get through it”
It was a tricky thing because we discovered the failure when people were riding ‘cross in zero degree fahrenheit [-17.7 degrees celcius]. Those are extreme conditions; not many people ride in those temperatures. The seals and the pistons just froze up and let the fluid pass through.
It was a very unusual situation, but we also realised that this kind of thing could happen occasionally. We didn’t think that was right, so we brought the product back and improved it to get a better product in the field.
Do you think that you’ve managed to rebuild your reputation now, what with the development of the latest hydraulic brakesets?
I think part of it is reputation, but I also think part of it is learning on the engineering side of things. You know, you learn a lot, and our engineers didn’t like what happened. They really dug in and found a better solution, and we’re in a better place as a result. Customers are, too.
The thing is, nobody did it intentionally, so everyone really came together… What was really amazing to me was the process we went through to get the updated product ready. Normally it takes us around 18 months to design and create a product. We didn’t know about the failure until it actually failed [so the redesign was full]. Yet, we managed to get a new design into the field and into production in just six months. It was incredible, amazing, a huge deal.
Looking forward, what’s next for SRAM?
We’re continuing to focus on what gets us up in the morning: product innovation. If you don’t like product innovation, this probably isn’t a good place to work!
“We’re just bike guys and we like it best like this”
But there’s an idea and a process to follow. For example, at the end of the day, everyone has a beer and they think about it and talk about it together. I think that helps us produce the best product. We’re focused only on the bike industry, where some of our competitors go and do other things too, but we’re just bike guys and we like it best like this.
There are definitely new and exciting products coming in the coming year or two, but you’ll have to wait to find out what they are. Absolutely, you can be excited for the future.
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