Kona: The Smallest Biggest Bike Company in the World
Rider-owned. What mountain bike company isn’t owned by riders? Who else but a rider would have the fiscal patience and insensitivity to risk required to own a mountain bike company? Yet there are brands so strongly defined by their founders that it usually turns out they sacrificed nearly every other thing in their lives for bikes. They’re the type who possess a devotion to riding that is so deeply ingrained that founding a brand seems pre-ordained.
So what the hell does ‘the smallest biggest bike company in the world’ mean anyway?
Kona is a quintessential North Shore bike brand, yet their head office has almost always been over the border in Bellingham, Washington, a logging and mining town that is becoming increasingly well-known for its riding. We were long overdue to pay them a visit, so we drove an hour South and found ourselves in the town of 80,000. Partly to ride their trails, of course, but we also wanted to learn more about Kona and how they have managed success without losing the unique flavour that has always defined them.
The good owners also have a knack for hiring talented bike freaks who aren’t just in it for a discount, they actually get off on busting their asses and living with grease under their fingernails. Those employees add layers and polish to the culture the owners molded from frame jigs and late nights and cheap whiskey. And so it is with Kona.
Jake Heilbron and Dan Gerhard founded Kona in 1988. They met while working at West Point Cycles, the same shop that gave rise to Rocky Mountain. And Race Face. So the story reads almost like a creation myth, except it’s true. It is a good story – a really good one. It’s also a long one, so we’ll save the telling of it for another time.
Newer brands claim rider-owned like it is a badge of honour, but they might as well just inject words like ‘passion’ and ‘game-changing’ into their mission statements so we can sniff ’em out and sell ’em for parts to the cliché factory. For older brands like Kona, being rider-owned was just assumed. Financial success was not. But they did succeed, with a unique and irreverent approach that was reflected in the way they did everything.
Mitchell Scott’s haiku game needs a little work, but he is the perfect guy to be handling communications for Kona. You have probably seen his wordsmithing in the pages of Bike and Powder magazines, not to mention Kootenay and Coast Mountain Culture which are his literal paper babies.
Take the names of their bikes: Hei Hei, Stinky, Jake the Snake, Nanu Nanu, Humuhumu-Nukunuku-Apu’A. Ok, one of those is actually a 70s sitcom reference, but the rest are honest to goodness Kona models. And because these dudes really loved bikes and made good ones, they were taken seriously, even if they preferred not to act that way. Like all companies, they weathered their share of challenges along the way. But the heart beats strongly at the heart of the brand, and in the last few years the rosy colour has returned to Kona’s cheeks.
Of the many remarkable things about Kona, they are notable in their ability to parlay that playfulness into a personality that also feels thoughtful, like they know exactly what they’re doing. They didn’t just try on being silly for a few years and discard it – they were the original mountain bike company that had more fun than everyone else. And in these days of industry summits to discuss point of sale merchandising and suspension systems designed by people who could be working at NASA (but prefer to be able to smoke pot every now and then), Kona is still the cheeky brand that borrows the best things from each side of the Canada/US border. And like they straddle that border, they also split the line between being small and cheeky, and being big and successful.
Kona is the Smallest Biggest bike company in the world. And they’re still having more fun than everyone else.
What’s your history with Kona? Tell us about it. Give us your best Kona Haiku (a real five seven five haiku, not the Mitchell Scott version) and we’ll get them to send you some swag. Maybe even some of their famous rolling papers.