The first Bike Labyrinth became a reality in 2011. Giannis, Job, and Ella's first commission was from Topaz Overrhyn, an assisted living facility. But once the client was happy, they packed up their cable ties. And it felt like they were packing up Bike Labyrinth too. That might have been the case were it not for the media coverage: “They’ve got something really unique over at Overrhyn!”
We got two requests for quotes. One was from Jan Willem at Friends of Topaz (Vrienden van Topaz); he dreamed of equipping every Topaz facility with Bike Labyrinth. The other was from another Leiden-based foundation, Marente, that wanted the same thing for over ten of their locations. The folks at these foundations proved to be true visionaries because they believed in us and Bike Labyrinth at such an early stage. Ultimately, they both said “yes” to our quotes.
After manufacturing and delivering the first 23 Bike Labyrinths, other orders trickled in. Job had created a simple website for potential customers to find information. We upgraded the product together, and I called and emailed all over the country looking for prospects (plus, I bought every green lunch box in the Netherlands for – that’s right – Bike Labyrinth 1.0). We would never have made it without Job’s mom’s car; that little Skoda took tons of Bike Labyrinths to their new homes.
We spent the first money we earned on our first trade show, which included a booth for three days at a huge Jaarbeurs [a convention center] event attended by loads of potential customers.
A year later, we were featured in an article in de Volkskrant because, by that time, we’d filmed our first route abroad – Paris! I'll be happy to tell you how terrifying that was another time.
In the period that followed, we mostly worked on maintaining the Bike Labyrinths at various assisted living facilities and listening to ideas from users and customers. That way we could keep developing our product. But we also still had to put food on the table: Job was building one website after another for the Leiden-based MKB, and I had swapped my job as a software engineer for a job that only required me to work two days a week and only just made ends meet.
That proved unsustainable. Even only working two days a week left me with too little time for Bike Labyrinth. So, I called Job up and told him: “I'm quitting my job. Financially speaking, I think I can just about make it work.” To which Job replied: “Great plan! I'll quit my job too.”
Luck played a big role in what came next. In those days, we seized every opportunity, created new routes, and Bike Labyrinth steadily grew.
Although, it soon became apparent that content was king – everybody wanted to bike through a familiar setting. So, we almost exclusively focused on filming. Job drew the maps. We never skipped a city wall, and we shot bridges, churches, and medieval buildings from the street that captured the building's best view.
In the summer, I'd be in touch with Job every morning at around 7 a.m., when we’d wonder whether the sky was blue enough and talk about where we were going to shoot. Our standards were high. Was the sky marred by clouds? Tough luck... We’ll have to cancel the shoot. Wait, the sky is still clear in Roosendaal? Awesome! We’d hop on the train, rent a bike, mount the camera, and start filming. Meanwhile, I'd become a cycling office and help desk; after all, sales and service had to go on.
Filming was done with a special bike with a complex, very expensive camera setup. Well... That's what we said, anyway. In reality, we shot with the cheapest action camera riding OV (public transport) bikes, which could be rented at many stations for just a few euros a day. We would slightly deflate the tires to add stability to the picture and then say that the “tires were a little soft” when we returned them. To this day, that’s been our biggest secret. It allowed us to create tons of high-quality routes quickly so that as many people as possible could bike through a familiar setting.
Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes the OV bikes ran out, or you’d have to stand in line for hours to get one. For example, that was how Job ended up taking the train to Deventer three times without managing to film anything. Once, when he finally did manage to score a public transport bike, it turned out that there was a book fair, and half of downtown was off limits to cyclists.
After several incidents like that one and five years of limiting our work to us and occasional assistance from another self-employed person, it was time for our first real employees. We either already knew them from our network or had met them by chance. A neighbor, a friend, a friend’s partner, an artist friend, someone at a conference, and a student who dropped by to show us something cool. They worked a few hours (or more) a week for us and did all kinds of jobs, from simple to groundbreaking.
That’s how we built our numbers. At the same time, we were also accumulating more stuff, so finding an office space became a priority. By then, we’d become a little more financially adventurous; not having to pack twenty computers into your baby’s playpen felt like Cloud Nine. We settled on a 26 m2 space at BINK36 in The Hague. Three Bike Labyrinths, two desks, and a hometrainer fit – just right.
We employed the people we’d met by chance. All of a sudden, we had to cut paychecks, do accounting, and deal with retirement-related questions. And we had to do it all with the entrepreneurial mindset of “I've never done it before, so I'm pretty sure it's possible” (i.e., the Pippi Longstocking method).
We’ve never stopped diving in and getting it done, and the team has continued to grow. Now, we’re a Bike Labyrinth team of over twenty people worldwide.
Would you like to know how Bike Labyrinth is doing today? Just ask a Bike Labyrinth user about their experiences. Sure enough, you’ll hear something about Ireland, where Game of Thrones was shot, sheep randomly crossing the routes, McDonald's in Germany, the boat to Norway, or Wally in Berlin. In our next article, “How it's going (and growing)”, Ella will give you the lowdown on how Bike Labyrinth is doing today.