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Last week on the way to Outdoor Retailer I made a slight diversion to stop by the ‘world headquarters’ of Wahoo Fitness. They’re based in Atlanta, GA – just a bit outside of the downtown area in a relatively quiet area that’s largely residential in nature.
There’s long been an invite out to come and check out things in the Wahoo world – it was just a matter of making it work schedule-wise. The trip to Salt Lake City provided just that perfect opportunity for my schedule and theirs as well.
As with all Behind the Scenes posts, I pay for all my own travel – so I do them based mostly on companies that readers have interest in – or that I have interest in seeing how they operate. With that in mind, let’s dive into things!
An early morning track workout:
You know when you agree to something and then you realize immediately upon saying ‘Yes’ that it was probably a bad idea?
That would roughly describe agreeing to a 5:45AM track workout. There are many things I do at 5:45AM (ok, I lie, there are actually none) – but running around a track with a bunch of really fast skinny dudes is definitely not one of them. The last time I willingly went to the track in the 5AM hour was to run 62 laps around it. And like that time, when I arrived, it was dark out. See, proof it was dark out:
Though somehow because it’s The South in the summer it was still hot out despite lack of the big flaming fireball in the sky.
The reason I was here was that some of the Wahoo guys had decided it’d be a fun way to start the morning. And, truth be told, it actually kinda was. While in France I rarely run with other people. And from a running workout standpoint, I rather enjoy track workouts. Even more so with a group of people suffering alongside me.
I think my general enjoyment for track workouts comes in the challenge of executing them perfectly. Meaning, if you have a specific pace/time to hit, the challenge of how precisely can you hit said pace using simple time splits every 100-200m, or just by the feel of pacing. In DC I routinely did track workouts with a small group of guys, which were always entertaining.
For this particular workout in Atlanta, it was actually fairly straight forward with a self-serve warm-up followed by 2x2400m sets and then a cool-down. Another group substituted the main set for 600’s. Having a history with shorter-distance reps (like 600’s), I know nothing good comes of those. They usually result in throwing up on the side of the track.
The paces for the 2400’s were about 6:10/mile for the group, so a nice steady-state pace – not too hard. At one point however someone mind-bogglingly suggested that I could go faster than the group if I wanted to. I wanted to point out that at 6AM the only thing I’d be running faster to would be my bed or the Waffle House. But I decided against that response, for fear that they might actually speed up on their own accord.
Thankfully, the women who was in charge of paces for our group was scary perfect in her pacing on the track without any watch usage. She was always within half a second on each 200m chunk. It only hurt one’s ego a little bit that she was nearly double my age. Clearly she kicks ass.
With a nice hour-long workout complete though, it was off to the the Wahoo offices to shower and then to grab some breakfast.
Inside Wahoo HQ:
When you first roll up to Wahoo headquarters, you probably wouldn’t associate it with a fitness company. The building screams…well…not-fitness. And sure enough, aside from Wahoo the rest of the building is full of law offices and people in suits.
You’ll find Wahoo’s main entrance inside on the ground floor past the the row of lawyers with granite engraved signs. The lawyers are apparently good spirited though, as this past Halloween they all dressed up as fitness people. A tip of the hat to the parade of fitness dressed people (definitely not in suits) streaming by at all hours of the day.
As you enter the main door there’s a rack of of bikes up against the wall. While some are commuter bikes, many are there more for testing than anything else.
There’s a wide assortment of road and triathlon bikes present, with other bikes such as mountain bikes around the office. In fact, there’s pretty much a bike at or near every desk in the facility.
To the left of the bike rack is some lockers and a small private phone room – for those moments you need to shout it out with your favorite phone-a-friend.
To the right just inside the entrance is a shrine to past bibs and medals for events raced by Wahoo employees.
The Wahoo offices are setup in a bit of a loop with one main room and then a few smaller offices with 2-3 employees in each of them, plus a few conference rooms. Here’s the main room – complete with another Wahoo painted logo as well as the yellow stripe on the ventilation system. The Ikea chairs being a perfectly matched Wahoo blue, and the rest of the furniture also proudly Ikea sourced.
There are some 35 people employed by Wahoo Fitness these days. The majority are based in Atlanta, though a handful of developers are also based out of a few locations in Australia spanning the east coast there.
Within Atlanta, Wahoo currently fits on one floor – but is just about to expand to the space above them which will ultimately result in a single larger cohesive space after the stripper fireman’s pole is installed between the two. It’s unclear whether or not Wahoo will adapt the TICKR X to better understand the pole workout market (which is apparently booming these days).
Should they get into the pole workout market, their current wall of ‘Awkward Wahoo Moments’ would be well equipped to handle any potential windfalls from that:
Heck, Mike S. from Wahoo seems like he’s basically even dressed the part.
Meanwhile, in case you’re wondering about this. Wahoo had been involved in a major race in Atlanta and apparently the lead runner was going to be escorted on an ElliptiGO. Not familiar with said device? See this video. Said situation waterfalled into leaving Chip (founder of Wahoo Fitness and pretty fast runner) to be rocking the ElliptiGO. Which of course definitely turned into an awkward photo moment.
As you head around the corner you’ll hit the various offices up for some of the different smaller teams. And as usual, there’s trainers, bikes and bike parts strewn about most of them.
They’ve also got a dimly lit conference room, complete with various product historical photos on the wall.
For example, iterations on the Wahoo box designs…
…or a screenshot of being featured in an Apple keynote presentation:
Lastly, before diving into some of the product support and lab pieces, they’ve got your usual break room complete with lockers and beer.
Wait, you’re office break room doesn’t have either of those in them? Strange.
Product Support & Testing:
Of course, it’s not all beer and ElliptiGO’s at Wahoo HQ. As a company that makes and sells hardware, the focus in this area of the facility is primarily on building, testing and validating both their upcoming designs as well as current products.
Like most product development, there’s a component that looks at existing units in the field as well as new products. You typically learn from your existing products – both in terms of potential improvements as well as ways to innovate.
Within this room you’ll find products coming in from customers/bike shops, as well as parts and tools to work on newer products.
Critical to any such effort is interns. Yes, interns. These two are having ‘fun’ dissecting a KICKR that came in for service.
As part of that service of that KICKR they’ll use Wahoo’s new calibration set (which, you can actually buy now) to do so.
While you can do a calibration of the KICKR by just following the prompts on the app, you can also pickup this specialized weight and arm system from Wahoo to further validate your calibration findings.
The interns (or a regular Wahoo employee) will start by taking a unit that has come back to Wahoo for any number of reasons. These units hang out on a rack as seen below.
In some cases though, a unit may not have anything wrong with it at all. In fact, the entire second row is KICKR’s from Team Sky. The Team had used them this past spring at the Tour of California and simply shipped them back to Wahoo upon completion.
They were even kind enough to sign them. That’s Bradley Wiggins signature to the right on the below KICKR. These units won’t just be sent out to any random person as a refurb unit, but rather likely used in a special contest or giveaway down the road.
When I was there another unit had recently arrived as well – this one in a special protective travelling case (the black case below):
It belonged to none other than 2013 Tour de France Champion Chris Froome:
After his untimely early departure from the Tour de France this year (2014) he left Europe altogether and spent some time in California while the Tour was still going on. During that time he used one of the KICKR’s to get his workouts in. After completion he just sent it back to Wahoo (Wahoo is a sponsor of Team Sky).
For customers other than Mr. Froome however, you’re likely to work with Wahoo’s customer service department. Up until this year this had been a bit of a sore spot for Wahoo. While they were growing quickly in terms of sales, their customer service department was woefully understaffed – resulting in frustrated customers that had to wait days (or longer) for answers to questions, with what were very limited support hours.
They heard the feedback though and now have a much larger dedicated team of folks working support from this office. From a support standpoint everything starts and ends here. They’ll take your call and/or e-mail and then start the process.
In the event that you send something back to them, it’ll come into the office to get checked out. First the unit will be dissected and then put into bins as validated and tested.
This same team also sorts out various product returns from retailers in cases where the box may have been opened but not even used. This includes places like Best Buy, Apple Stores, bike shops and others.
Occasionally when these companies (especially larger ones) send stuff back to Wahoo, they get random things that are definitely not Wahoo made. For example, these:
Normally after testing items they’re re-packed back into boxes and sent along their way.
So you may be wondering about where production takes place. In that case virtually all production occurs in Taiwan. For example, the Wahoo KICKR is made by and in the same factory as Giant Bicycles (the world’s largest bike manufacturer).
Upon build of a trainer in Taiwan the units are loaded into their own container and placed on a ship to the US (or to Europe, depending on the batch). Once in the US they are placed on a train and off to distribution. Perhaps some day if I have a reason to go to Taiwan I’ll stop in and check out things in the factory there.
New Products In Development:
Like all companies, Wahoo is developing new products that aren’t yet announced. If they weren’t, they’d soon be out of business. But of course, like all other companies – those products aren’t something that they’re sharing publically at this time (well, except the one below).
I point this out merely because many times when I visit companies folks ask what new things they’re working on. I’d love to tell you, because as was the case here too, they are really cool things. But no amount of chocolate chip cookie deliveries will change my ability to tell you about unannounced things.
Of course, the reason companies (from Apple to to Wahoo) keep roadmaps quiet until they’re ready to announce is because dates, goals and target audiences change over the product development cycle. They may find out when they deliver a bill of materials to a manufacturing company that the price point is no longer valid, or that by the time the product hits market, it may no longer be competitive.
Unfortunately for tech companies things change so fast that companies have to be flexible with respect to features. They know that if they announce a product too soon and a person decides to buy a product because Feature X is planned, only to have Feature X cut, then the consumer gets upset.
In some ways, Wahoo has historically been caught in not only this pickle but the delivery date game as well. While Wahoo has typically delivered very solid and unique products – they haven’t quite been so good at delivering said products anywhere near the date they initially estimated. On the positive side, they did just hire their first project manager, who started the morning prior to my arrival.
Hopefully between the project manager and some of their past hard timeline lessons (which, they readily admitted), they’ll be able to get products into the market in the future near when and where they promise them.
The KICKR Desk:
Next up is a bit of a look at how products get developed and where they start. I do want to point out that this is NOT YET AN ACTUAL PRODUCT. They don’t know if they’ll even bring it to market, or for that matter when or how much. It’s just on the list of random pet projects floating around the office they were willing to share.
Like most engineers, Chip is always tinkering with new ideas. I’d be willing to bet if you asked anyone in the sports technology industry which one single person is most likely to make the most interesting and “Damn, I wish I thought of that!” type gadgets and ideas, people will likely name Chip (with others like Quarq’s Jim Meyer being in the same group).
The KICKR desk (non-official name) is one of those such ideas. Like many people with trainers, most have laptops o tablets floating around to watch movies on, or simply to control their trainer with apps like TrainerRoad. Typically these expensive screens and devices are placed atop a perilous Jenga tower of random household items. Something like an old swirling office chair crowned with an upside-down laundry basket and three text books (to get more elevation) and the laptop atop.
Of course, most of these DIY ‘inventions’ lack the structure and form to be easily accessible, or easy to place the myriad of other items a long trainer ride might utilize (such as gels, your phone, water bottles, towels, pet hamster, etc…). Thus, the KICKR desk. Or at least, the bare bones of it:
The unit has multiple positions, allowing it to go up or down and lock into several different places depending on what you’re looking to get out of it position-wise.
So if you want it higher up for actual typing (kinda like a treadmill desk, but for cycling), you can do that – just as you could have it more out-front if you’re hanging out in aero bars on a triathlon bike.
Now I will note that having seen some of the CAD drawings of more advanced design variants of it – there was a ton of brilliant little touches that turned it from a simple table surface to one that’s more flexible with devices and accessories you’d use.
But all of that will really depend on if Wahoo takes it to market. From their perspective they want something inexpensive enough (but not cheap feeling) that makes it a no-brainer decision to buy. Hopefully they find a way to make that happen, as I think it’s a cool idea that plenty of people would utilize and that would be more resilient to random mid-trainer cat visits on the DIY tower of terror.
The TICKR X:
It exists. For real.
Seen above, is an actual TICKR X. And more importantly, an actual TICKR X I took back with me. So it makes it doubly more real.
Right now the timelines are looking like September for release of units. In fact, the factory run for the pods starts here in the next week or so, with delivery in the US to Wahoo HQ slated a week or so later.
But the TICKR X is really all about software. It’s effectively a flexible platform complete with storage capacity and accelerometers that enable them to do all sorts of creative development. The challenge will be in what’s available out of the gate for the unit, versus what a long term roadmap looks like.
Wahoo has stated since the beginning that they see the TICKR X as a platform for continual evolution and new features. In my mind, that means that every once in a while (say, every few months), you’d see new features or functionality – at least for some reasonable amount of time. How precisely Wahoo plans to deliver on that remains to be seen.
So, this isn’t meant to be a preview, a review, or anything else. Just simply a note that said product does actually exist, and is still in the pipeline. And, importantly, is close enough to production that it’s actually in my hands. Or, rather, on my chest.
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