Interview Meindert Wolfraad / Lekker Bikes
"Success isn’t about money; it’s about really liking what you do."
Craving adventure and hoping to improve his English, Meindert Wolfraad set off for Australia. But finding no suitable bikes for daily use, he decided to introduce a staple of Dutch culture by shipping over a container full of Van Moof bikes and setting himself up as an importer. That went well, but there’s nothing quite like owning your own brand, and thus LEKKER Bikes was born. However, getting that off the ground would prove to be no easy ride, and involved everything from living in an igloo made from bicycle packaging to life lessons in China. But, says Wolfraad, “I’ve always believed you can achieve your goals if you just keep at them.”
Interview by Daphne van Langen / Translation by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Do you remember your first bike? Of course. My father is quite good with his hands, so he fixed up a second-hand cyclocross bike for me, and painted it red, white and blue. I loved it, and rode it every day and everywhere. I could get about faster, and even do bunny hops. It also allowed me to explore further afield and discover new neighbourhoods.
What were you like as a child? I buzzed with energy, so I was a bit of a handful. I just couldn’t sit still, and was always testing my limits. I was severely dyslectic, which made reading and writing difficult, which in turn made me a bit of an outsider at school. I never actually got bullied because of it, but it did force me to find a different way to establish my identity, which I did by being good at sports and playground games. I also wanted everyone to like me.
What remains of that child today? My craving for adventure and my sociability. I'm still quite dyslexic, but it doesn’t bother me; I treat it with wry humour. And I still buzz with energy and enthusiasm.
If you were a kid today, you’d probably be labelled “ADHD” For sure. Though it’s no longer quite as bad as it used to be. I had a pretty serious scooter accident five years ago. I couldn’t watch TV or stare at a computer screen for half a year afterwards; I couldn’t even handle the sensory stimuli invited by cycling through the city. I’d taken such a knock that I’d become sensitized to all the potential risks. It’s made me a lot less carefree, as well as calmer and wiser.
You grew up in Hilversum but moved to Gelderland when you were eight. How did you find that? We moved to Lochem because my father got a new job. It was quite an upheaval — we’d moved from a large urban area to a small town with a distinctive dialect. There were moors and forests everywhere you looked, and we had our new house built from scratch. The dialect sounded so foreign that we couldn’t even communicate with the construction workers. School was no easier: a streetwise kid from Hilversum plonked in a class full of well-behaved kids. I ended up repeating the year, which turned out to be a blessing as I was now suddenly the oldest and coolest kid in class.
“The way I learned wasn’t by reading but by listening to audiobooks for the blind, which I played on my Walkman.”
What did your parents do for a living, and what were they like as people? My father worked for Fokker, the aircraft manufacturer, and later for Vredenstein, a tire manufacturer. He comes from a seventeen-generation family of Amsterdammers. He loves talking about science, but not so much about things of a personal nature, such as emotions. My mum’s the opposite; she’s more sensitive. She worked as a dietician long before healthy eating became part of mainstream culture, so she was the first to offer such a service in Lochem and it gave her so much pleasure to care for people in this manner. I'm a good mix of both: my father's energy and sense of mischief, and my mother’s consideration for and genuine interest in the wellbeing of others. I had a golden retriever called Toby from the age of ten until I was 23. He meant a lot to me as a child — and he was my best mate; we used to play in the woods every day after school.
What did you study? I didn’t follow the conventional route. I attended middle and higher technical school (MTS and HTS) and occasionally accompanied friends to university lectures in subjects that sounded interesting, such as business studies and mechanical engineering. The way I learned wasn’t by reading but by listening to audiobooks for the blind, which I played on my Walkman as I wandered the forests with Toby. I’ve always believed you can achieve your goals if you just keep at them.
What was the decisive moment in relation to what you now do for a living? After my studies, I worked as a strategic account manager at a mechanical engineering company called GTI. Then I got a job at an employment agency called Vitae. That was an incredibly cool company that treated people like human beings. Wonderfully inspiring for my personal development, but also sales-driven: you had to perform. That was where I learned about entrepreneurship. We were given lots of freedom, but also trained to keep asking ourselves three questions: “Who am I, what do I want and what am I capable of?” Each of us had a personal development file in which we charted our strengths and weaknesses, made notes about what we wanted to work on, and laid out our five-year plan.
That’s handy. And what were your dreams? I wanted adventure, to see the world, and launch [and sell] something exciting and sexy. My biggest obstacle was something quite absurd, but also rather embarrassing: I was 28 and spoke hardly any English. I’d tried all sorts of courses and boarding schools, but it just wouldn’t stick. When my relationship fell apart after four years, I seized the day and upped sticks to Australia.
Why Australia? Because summer was over in Europe, but just starting in Australia; because I always had O’Neill diaries as a kid, with pictures of cool surfers and gorgeous women; and because that’s where everyone went on their gap year. I’d done really well at Vitae and earned some nice bonuses, so I had enough to see me through an entire year. I gave up everything, sold my boat and everything else I owned, and left on a one-way ticket to learn English.
But things didn’t go entirely according to plan. Quite. I began to feel restless after four months of doing very little. Everyone around me was chasing their dreams, and I began to wonder: “Well, what’s my goal?”
I was on a five-month English course at a university in Sydney — surrounded by Asian students — and felt like riding to class, but couldn’t find any normal city bikes; there were only mountain bikes and racing bikes. So during a visit to the Netherlands that year, I started looking around for bikes that might sell in Australia. I decided on Van Moof bikes, a brand belonging to a good friend of mine. I bought a shipping container and filled it up.
“The shipping container arrived, and I literally had to store the bikes in my bedroom. Some went in the living room, much to my flatmates’ displeasure.”
You bought a shipping container? I had flexible credit, some savings, took a small loan from my parents and had an investor I’d met at a sailing club in Sydney. So I just did it. The idea didn’t get many takers in Australia. People simply didn’t get where I was coming from. The idea of cycling to work in your suit was culturally alien. It took me half a year to realise that I wasn’t selling bicycles, but a way of life.
How did you respond? I’d flown back with one of the bikes, and when I rode it around Sydney I stirred up enough interest to take 20 advance orders. Then the shipping container arrived, and I literally had to store the bikes in my bedroom. Some went in the living room, much to my flatmates’ displeasure. But I also parked a few in strategic spots around the city, with my business card stuck to the saddles, and my self-made website suddenly began lighting up with hits. I later went on a four-month cycling tour through Australia to practice my English, and before I knew it I had 60 dealers.
Is it that easy for tourists in Australia to start a business? Yes, very much so. Arrive as a backpacker and you could be freelancing within 3 hours — that’s how long it takes to sort out the paperwork online. In fact, everything unfolded so smoothly that it wasn’t until the container arrived that I gave much thought to the gravity of the situation. I’d be sending bikes to retailers I did not know and who were scattered 4,000 kilometres across Australia, in the hope that they’d pay me when they made a sale. And I’d be doing this with only a passable grasp of the language in a country I’d only lived in for six months as a student on a working holiday visa.
How did that make you feel? Panic-stricken! But then I thought: “If other people can handle things like this, so can I.” I had to do lots of research, and I got shafted a lot, as a foreigner and as a student. For instance, it was only later that I discovered I’d been charged $1,000 more than necessary on import duties. But well, you have to begin somewhere, and the money I lost was part of the learning process. A year of grace as an entrepreneur is the best MBA anyone could ever hope for. No book could ever hold a candle to that.
“I call it the BananaDrama bike ride. They couldn’t have been further from what I’d ordered — these things were closer to circus bikes.”
And thus you became a Van Moof importer. That is until you began to yearn for your own brand. I dawned on me after a while that I was quite good at marketing and, at the same time, that in running my business I was resolving a lot of issues for Van Moof. So I thought: “I might as well do this for myself.” Van Moof is a designer bicycle, but I was interested in introducing Australia to the traditional Dutch bike. So, once I found myself with a bit of extra cash from a good deal, I began my online research for bicycle manufacturers in China. I flew to Shanghai and had some business meetings at the Hilton, while spending my nights at a cheap hostel around the corner. Whenever I had to visit one of the five factories I ended up visiting, I’d have a limousine pick me up outside the Hilton and drive me to the destination. The drivers spoke no English, so I had to trust that everything would be fine, even when the trips took hours. It’s only afterwards that you think about the risks. But it always worked out okay. That's also my motto: it’ll all work out in the end.
Did you find a partner among the five? Yes. Though I was to discover shortly afterwards that he shafted me big time. He saw this an opportunity to get rid of his old stock, so when the shipment arrived, we had ourselves a crisis. I call it the BananaDrama bike ride. They couldn’t have been further from what I’d ordered — these things were closer to circus bikes! I eventually managed to sell them off as fancy window dressing.
What was your gravest rookie mistake? They’re never mistakes; they’re an inevitable part of the process, and you don’t get far without them. I discovered that you have to be physically present for a number of things when doing business in Asia: striking deals with suppliers, monitoring things and checking what’s being shipped. Our standards, values and cultures are really quite different. I consider these my most important lessons, rather than rookie mistakes.
What was it like as an entrepreneur when you first started? Sleeping in a room full of bikes with a notepad on your bedside table. Lying awake at night thinking about all the things you need to do and organize, and about all the things and people you don’t know. The first year was purely about survival, and proceeding by trial and error. For a while, I even lived and worked in a warehouse, inside an igloo built from bicycle packaging! You have to keep your overheads low to make it. I was $100,000 out of pocket and sales were slow. It was only after I started doing press and publicity that things gradually began to look up.
You eventually found a supplier in Taiwan and launched your own brand, LEKKER Bikes. How did you come up with the name? It’s a commonly used Dutch word that I translate for Australians as “sexy, nice, tasty” — they get that. And it sounds almost the same in Swedish, German, Danish and Afrikaans, so it works internationally. The logo consists of the three vertically aligned crosses from Amsterdam’s coat of arms enclosed in the outline of a tulip. After all, not only is Amsterdam one of the nicest cities in the Netherlands, it’s also the cycling capital of the world.
“The standard Dutch design wouldn’t work in Australia: with all that sea air, the steel frames would rust through within half a year.”
Is the Amsterdam connection a selling point in Australia? Absolutely. And it works both ways. You’re selling it as a symbol of Dutch pride, and on the authentic design and cycling culture, but with some minor adjustments for the Australian market. The standard Dutch design wouldn’t work in Australia: with all that sea air, the steel frames would rust through within half a year. They’re also black, and the steering height is totally unsuitable for inclines. LEKKER Bikes are built to a different geometry, with more gears, and lightweight frames in fresh colours. Eight years from launch and I’ve got a range of bikes for the Australian market that the Dutch market wants, too. So I’m now selling ice back to Eskimos, in a way.
In what ways do the cycling cultures differ? A bike is an accessory in Australia. You put on your hip threads and ride through the park one Saturday a month with a croissant and a bottle of wine in your wicker basket. Whereas in the Netherlands, a bike is like a pair of shoes.
Who designs the bikes and what's your role? I co-designed the bikes with an Australian product designer. I supervise the operation and make the deals with suppliers. My role varies quite a bit, and often involves a fair bit of random firefighting, which is actually what I most enjoy. I’ve made the transition from entrepreneur to manager; now I need to become a leader, and tend to the company’s vision, mission and progress.
What are your strengths and weaknesses? I’ve got a good feel for business and I’m good at managing people and relationships: I know how to motivate and enthuse people. But the flip side of this strength is my weakness, because I sometimes overstep boundaries and end up micromanaging — I’m easily preoccupied with inconsequential things.
Have you had anyone to rely on as a tower of strength or source of inspiration? One of my close Dutch friends is now one of my investors. You can choose to make quick money or smart money, and I’ve gone for the latter, a somewhat more modest income stream, but in partnership with a good and reliable coach with whom I can share the responsibilities. Other than that, I consider Richard Branson a source of inspiration. He’s fairly dyslexic, too, and does things for the sense of adventure. There are aspects of his character that resonate with me.
How does it feel to have opened your flagship store in Melbourne in 2014 and to now be selling worldwide? Opening the store was an absolute highlight: from wholesale to direct sale. The bicycle market is fairly conservative, but I managed to break into it by being the first person to sell through both channels simultaneously. Can’t say it’s earned me a spot on every retailer’s Christmas list.
In 2013, you combined a feature of Dutch heritage with Australian beach culture to form LEKKER Boats. Are you hoping to reshape sailing culture the way you’ve done with cycling? Yes — in Australia you only see fishing boats, speedboats and super yachts. None are cosy or comfortable, and they consume lots of fuel. That Dutch thing of sailing slowly along a canal with a friend is totally foreign to Australians. Sailing isn’t social in Australia, so I devised a boat that’s both fast and cosy. The idea’s starting to catch on.
These days you typically spend the Australian winter months in the Netherlands. What’s it like to live in perpetual summer? My double-life comes with lots of benefits, the most obvious being an endless summer. I get to enjoy both sides of the planet: when I’m in the Netherlands, I have the company of friends and family and the Dutch culture; and Australia offers abundant nature, a warm climate and adventure. I can focus a lot more on work when I’m in Australia because I have fewer distractions. I'm a bit of a workaholic.
“A year of grace as an entrepreneur is the best MBA anyone could ever hope for. No book could ever hold a candle to that.”
Any drawbacks to this lifestyle? Yes — it takes me at least a week to reorient myself. It’s not just the jet lag, but also simply refocusing. It’s more of an issue when I return to Australia than when I arrive here. I often have a lump in my throat on the flight to Australia. Fortunately, I can now afford to visit the Netherlands four times a year.
What are the most significant differences between the two countries with respect to doing business? An Ozzie will say, very politely: “I will think about it”, when they mean “NO”. I know now that it’s pointless to keep pushing once I hear that. The Dutch are stingy curmudgeons. Australia has a credit card culture, so people think nothing of having their bike done up like a Christmas tree, with shiny bells and leather saddles. The Dutch expect delivery within 2 or 3 days. In Australia, if it takes a week, “No worries, mate!”
How about in terms of behaviour? Australians can be a bit over the top and fake. There is much more emphasis on appearance. Dutch women are a lot more self-assured, more emancipated and less fussed about men being gentleman. You have to do things to please Australian women: lend a hand, hold open doors, hold out their jacket while they slip into it. I had to learn by trial and error, as I wasn’t at all used to any of this.
Any similarities? Yes, our sense of humour!
You did some voluntary work with LOOP Cycles in 2013. What was this about? It was really cool. We assembled and sold bikes at Burning Man, and these were donated to us after the festival so we could ship them to Namibia. The shipping container itself was converted into a bicycle repair shop. The kids we donated them to can now cycle to school, instead of having to walk three hours.
“You can choose to make quick money or smart money, and I’ve gone for the latter.”
What would surprise someone who knew you as a student if they saw you today? People always thought: “He’ll probably be okay, that guy,” and now they wonder: “Good God! How did he pull that off?” I think a lot of people underestimated me, which motivated me to demonstrate that not only could I survive, but also that I could create something.
What’s your proudest achievement? If I reflect on what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years, in the context of the meaning of life, I’d have to say my proudest achievement is getting 50,000 Australians to ride LEKKER bikes. Whenever I see someone cycling through town on one, I roll down my car window and holler, “Hey, enjoying the ride?” and you can see them thinking, “Who’s that nutter?”
What advice would you give anyone who’s considering moving abroad to set up a business? Muster the courage, believe in yourself, and go for it.
And, if you could, what advice would you now give yourself as a kid? The same three things. Success is about really liking what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you need to stop doing it, even if it earns you shedloads of cash. Unless the money allows you to do something more meaningful, in which case you have other reasons for doing the job.
On land and sea ... and, perhaps, in the air? What does the future hold for the LEKKER brand?I’d like to focus on bikes and boats for the time being. I haven’t decided what comes next. I would like to create a dream island: LEKKER Dreams, set on island in Fiji, and offering a combination of windsurfing, kite surfing, sailing and biking. But also snorkelling and deep-sea diving. A sort of Disneyworld with outdoor activities, adventure and nature.