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How two brothers created one of the sport’s fastest growing companies by offering fast wheels for far less.
Chris Thornham, a 27-year-old engineering salesman, was combing the Internet for information on the best race wheels one day in 2010. When the set he eventually chose arrived at his apartment in Las Vegas, he opened the box and thought, “Why do these things cost so much?” He and his twin brother, Jon, also a mechanical engineer, agreed they could make and sell wheels for a lot less. Three years after this “aha” moment, their company, Flo Cycling, is selling wheels faster than they can make them. Here’s how they did it.
Step 1: Laying the groundwork
The Thornham brothers started their engineering careers as high school students in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, by designing and building a self-casting fly fishing rod that earned third place in the Canadian National Science Fair. The recognition helped them earn a scholarship to the University of New Brunswick. After graduating with degrees in mechanical engineering, they worked as water treatment engineers, then as engineering HVAC salesmen.
Step 2: Learning from failure
Flo isn’t the Thornham brothers’ first business venture. Their first try, Painting with Purpose, crashed because they “had no idea how to market,” Jon says. From this experience, they learned the importance of engaging with people, which became one of the keys to Flo’s success.
Step 3: Planting the seed
When opening the box of his new race wheels years ago, Chris was taken aback by how simple they were. “I thought I could make something comparable at a cheaper price. My brother was blown away when I told him the price, and we agreed we could do it,” Chris says. While other companies were already selling race wheels for comparatively low prices, none had an aerodynamic design comparable to wheels that cost more than $2,000.
Step 4: Getting started
The brothers started a blog and took to the Slowtwitch forum to share wind-tunnel data and their thoughts on cycling technology. “In the beginning we engaged with people and let them know what we were doing,” says Jon. While refining their designs using computational fluid dynamics software, the Thornhams set out to learn how to get a product made in a factory in the Far East.
Step 5: Meeting demand
Through global trade resource site Alibaba.com, networking with factory reps at the Interbike tradeshow and word of mouth, the Thornhams found four factories from Belgium to Taiwan to make their wheel components. People who followed the company from those first days on the message boards helped the Thornhams decide on a logo and the aesthetic finish of the wheels. About two years after posting their first threads, Flo started taking orders; the first shipment sold out in 20 minutes. Flo sold more than 1,600 wheels in 2012, and is on track to grow more than 200 percent in 2013.
The brothers say pacing the company’s growth is their biggest challenge. Although they are entirely self-funded (something they did by “living like college students well after graduating”), they have the cash to grow faster but don’t want to expand more than they can handle. As they grow at a measured clip, the Thornhams are also working on an entirely different product line. “We’re a design company—we won’t limit it to wheels,” says Chris. “Let’s just say that there are a lot of high-dollar items in cycling that don’t have to be.”
Flo’s wheels are all broad clinchers with wide, blunted deep sections. No aero wheel company has successfully patented this design style, so there is little that separates Flo’s wheel shapes from much more expensive alternatives.
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