Ten minutes with... Wahoo CEO Chip Hawkins
Taking the drudgery out of indoor training and going toe-to-toe with Garmin in the GPS computer market
Indoor training on the turbo is as popular as it’s ever been. Its applications are well-versed: you can use it to warm up, cool down, ride interactively online when the weather’s poor, and get focussed and detailed training sessions done so that your performance in the real world is as good as it can be.
This year, Team Dimension Data rider Steve Cummings rocked up to the British road racing championships and swept the board with both the road and time trial titles off the back of collarbone, shoulder blade and sternum injuries that had forced him off the road for the best part of two months and onto the turbo. If that’s not a demonstration of the device’s ability to hit the training sweet spot, we don’t know what is.
Not one brand is responsible for the rise of the machine, but it’s fair to say Wahoo are certainly up there as one of the great influencers. After all, with the KICKR it created the first open-source smart trainer that was capable of functioning with third-party software, and has since unveiled extra functionality with the CLIMB device at Eurobike, as well as continually improving its KICKR units.
In a congested market with many competitors, and innovations left, right and centre, Wahoo has a job on its hands to just stay near the top of the tree and remain one of the go-to brands for indoor training enthusiasts. We spoke to the main man at the Atlanta-based company, Chip Hawkins, and right from the off his enthusiasm for bike-related technology that makes life 'less tedious' is infectious…
RoadCyclingUK: We don’t know too much about you, Chip. Tell us a little of your background and where Wahoo is now.
Chip Hawkins: My background is in mechanical engineering and business, with Master’s Degrees in both. I’ve worked for myself for many years, so right out of business school I’ve done my own thing.
On the way to Wahoo, I’d had a dock business, a sign business, before the fitness business that everything you see now has grown out of. I grew up waterskiiing and windsurfing so that’s how I navigated into a dock business, then I started doing triathlons to improve my fitness and it became a great entrepreneurial ride from there.
Looking at it all now, Wahoo Fitness has become bigger than I could ever have dreamed. First it was just me and couple of people just making stuff in a little office in Atlanta – a hobby – but it’s not really a hobby anymore!
Wahoo was one of the first to bring the smart trainer to the indoor trainer market…
Well it’s funny, we were the first to approach it from an ‘open’ perspective. I have to say I was inspired by Computrainer – I bought one when I first got into triathlons and I hated it. But I started thinking there’s an awesome product I can make here, and that’s where the KICKR came from.
I’ve got to give them credit for that; it was around in the 1990s, but it was always a closed system. The KICKR was all about making it work with anybody’s software, with iPads, iPhones, computers, and I think that actually really helped to kick things off in the industry. Now we have the likes of Zwift and TranerRoad, and there’s a whole bunch of competition of 50 or so apps. In a way, it’s helped build the whole industry, which is cool.
Is that the cornerstone of your ethos then, that it has to be ‘open’?
Yeah, that’s the beginning and end of it really. We make sure anybody can use the KICKR and to be honest we’re not going to be true experts on software, so we let other people do that, while we come in and build the hardware. We stick to what we’re good at.
"The KICKR was all about making it work with anybody’s software, with iPads, iPhones, computers, and I think that actually really helped to kick things off in the industry"
How important is the rise of Zwift (and others) for the development of Wahoo?
It’s been awesome – we’ve partnered with them a lot because although a KICKR sells itself to riders, being able to ride a KICKR with Zwift just sells it that little bit more. We’ve got a bunch of Zwift stations that you pair a KICKR to in a retail shop, and we think you’re far more likely to sell them if people can actually get on them and try them.
So that works well, and the experience can be great. I mean, now I’ve got friends that literally don’t go outside anymore [because they enjoy the experience so much]. They literally have more fun on the trainer than not.
Are we saying that’s a good thing?
Well, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not! But, you do have to be careful with Zwift – if you use it just to do group rides then you’re missing something. But if you want to use it to become as fit as you can be, maybe to win races, then structured training on a KICKR will really give you bang for the buck.
That’s a big part of the CLIMB [launched at Eurobike] – anything we can do to make things more interesting and fun and take the drudgery out of it, then that’s good because it gets more people engaged.
The Climb – could it be described as the next step in smart interactivity?
It is. One of the things I discovered on a normal trainer was that outside, I felt I had pretty good form, but inside on a trainer I was literally putting half my weight on my shoulders, leaning on the bars, sitting up, stretching and so on. With the Climb, things are more realistic.
The first time I tried it, I cranked it up full and it was an “A-ha!’ moment, because you can’t lean on the bars so you feel like you are actually climbing. It just feels much more natural and, as I say, really takes the drudgery out of it.
Are you guys always looking for the next stage in interactivity?
I wouldn’t say that it’s a focus, but the more interactive and the more fun you can make it then the better we do and the more people enjoy it so who knows what’s next? But there’s definitely a lot more cool stuff to come around smart training.
“Anything we can do to make turbo training more interesting and fun and take the drudgery out of it, then that’s good because it gets more people engaged"
In terms of realism, then – you call it “fun"…
Yeah, it’s more about fun than realism. We can keep calling it realism and it gets to almost being ‘cheesy’, but it’s more about fun than anything else. The more I see Zwift and other platforms go to a video game style, the better.
I mean, I would love to see Mario Kart for the KICKR, you know? It’s about having fun… and doing serious training. If you can bring the two together, then you’ve got a great combination.
Tell me about your motivation for doing head units. How can you take on the likes of Garmin, who are arguably at the top of the tree in that market?
When I first got into this business, I used my phone on top of my handlebars, getting all of my data and had it all seamlessly working and had a waterproof case and… basically I had everything.
But, [we found] cyclists didn’t really want to put their phone on their handlebars. You can make it work, but I get it – you don’t get a good sunlight-readable screen, the batteries don’t last long when you leave it on – so, ultimately, over time I caved and we went with the RFLKT, which is an extension of your phone.
Now, honestly, that didn’t do very well. There was a group of a people that liked it but finally I said, “Alright, we’ve got to make a bike computer because we’re in this space."
Garmin has really cornered the market and it makes a great product, but I see the Garmin as the Microsoft Windows of the bike computer world, and I wanted to make the Mac OS. I think that they’ve piled on so much that they’ve lost the soul of it and so we tried to go back to the simple things, and it’s working as a formula so far. I’ve got to give them a lot of credit – they’ve built a great brand and a great business.
“Garmin has really cornered the market and it makes a great product, but I see the Garmin as the Microsoft Windows of the bike computer world, and I wanted to make the Mac OS"
You say Garmin does too much?
I don’t think you can hold it against them. They’ve been in the game long enough so they just keep piling features on, and it makes a product that I would consider to be a little overcomplicated.
They have all the neat and important features that people want, but it’s hard to find them all, so from our point of view we just think we don’t need the sixty-odd bullet point list of features.
Although, if we do have all those features, then we hide fifty of them and push the key ones to the front and curate them in the best way possible. I think that approach has really resonated with people.
It’s a lot of fun going up against them, you know, they just keep innovating! That keeps us busy too.