To describe Twisted Road as a rental company for motorbikes falls way, way short. Twisted Road is a community for all true motorcycle lovers to share in.
Bike owners can rent out their bikes, and renters can hire within the community. The range they have accumulated is immense. If you are a motorcycle lover, you will be familiar with the massive diversity of models which you can find on the site, in addition to the movie lovers’ image of Harley riding on Route 66.
I had the enormous pleasure of chatting with founder and CEO of Twisted Road, Austin Rothbard, to find out how it all works and more about his entrepreneurial journey.
Austin studied civil engineering initially, followed by an MBA in Business Management at the Business School at Cornell. The corporate world followed, and he rapidly rose through the ranks working as a global consultancy firm, President of CABO Yachts, of Brunswick Billiards, Baker Furniture for Kohler, and lastly, for World Kitchen. However, he admits he was never happy in that corporate environment and had continually looked for ideas to have a business of his own.
I asked Austin at what point in all this did he start having a motorcycle of his own. He told me that, like many people, his mother had made him promise not to ride one. So, when six years ago he did, Austin asked his wife and friends not to tell his mother. Someone snitched, though, and the day he got his license and the bike, there was also a message on his answerphone saying, “I hear you have got a motorcycle. I don’t like it. Call me. It’s your mother.”
Austin says that he used to have a bias against riders, assuming they were reckless. When he got to know some and respected them enormously, he realized he had been wrong. From the moment Austin had his bike, he loved it. It was the perfect relaxation away from the corporate world he worked in, no phones, no emails.
A little later, when he and his wife went on holiday in the Grand Canyon, Austin said to her, “I wish I had my bike.” He looked around to see if he could rent one, but the nearest hire place was an hour away, only had huge Harley’s and was very expensive; too far, too big, too pricey altogether.
The issue came up again when Austin was staying with his mother-in-law and wanted to explore the area. He saw 952 bikes for sales locally but could not rent one. He was starting to think there might be a gap in the market.
The Twisted Road Journey
Forming the concept for Twisted Road, Austin started by talking to people in the industry to see what they thought of the idea, spoke to people who had started a business of their own, and ended up talking to tech people. He had always worked in product. If you wanted a phone cover designed, he was your guy. But tech was outside his expertise.
He then carried out a survey of 750 riders to judge the interest level in his idea and found that 10-15% would be willing to rent out and 20-30% would consider renting one. By now, Austin was convinced that this was finally the right time as it was the right idea, he had the experience and enough money saved. It was a bootstrapped start-up with him working for nothing for the first two years. In year three, he raised a small investment round so that he could put his team together. In year four, he did the same, but generally, he likes to keep it all tight.
Austin’s wife Pamela is a writer, so when he struggled to find a name for his new company, he asked her for some suggestions. She came up with four, one of which he misheard as Twisted Roads. He loved it despite her saying it was supposed to be Road, singular. Within a week, he had decided she was right, and her version was what he went with.
The first two years were spent getting set up. Austin needed to find someone to build the site firstly, and insurance was a battle. He found someone at the start, but it took the whole two years to find another start-up that was the perfect insurance partner. Now they have the best insurance program in the country, with insurance for the rider, the renter, and damage to the motorcycle. But at the start, insurance companies were reluctant to touch it. The insurers couldn’t see how they could quantify their risk, as they wouldn’t know the driver or their history or motorcycle’s condition. Also, at that point, they were too small for it to be worth the insurance companies’ while.
When the site went live, Austin remembers he was so excited. The site already had 79 motorcycles, and he told his daughter that his goal was a hundred. A few weeks later, Austin had 115, and his daughter was puzzled, reminding him of that goal. He explained to his daughter that when you get to the 100, you want 250, and then it will be 500.
The first rental came in the first day and then nothing for the next ten days. The time in between was, Austin says, “agony, waiting for the cash register to ring.” To get the venture off the ground, they made heavy use of Google and Facebook ads. At that point, they were spending $500 a day on advertising, and nothing was coming in. But slowly, it went up to one or two a week.
They partnered with people with a mid-size following; a club of 50 down in Indiana or someone passionate about motorcycles who posted all the time with a following of 1000. He offered them free days riding if they would talk about Twisted Road.
He has intentionally built up a community. He and all his team end any communication with “thanks for being part of our growing community.” Both renters and bike owners become part of this community for motorcycle owners to get together, share their passion, and share experiences. Many write about them on the Twisted Road website. This community or fan-based marketing engagement has made them the fastest-growing motorcycle sharing community on the planet.
He loves the community; is continually amazing at the wonderful stories of motorcycles brought back better polished than when they went out; the owners receiving gifts of pies and beer and in turn owners doing deliveries and airport pickups.
Austin says it is still a surprise to him that the word is traveling as much as it is. A month ago, or so before we chatted, he was in motorcycle stores just north of San Francisco, and he explained who he was and that he had an appointment. Another guy standing nearby, who later turned out to work for Harley, asked, “You aren’t ‘Austin, From Twisted Road, are you? THE Austin from Twisted Road?” Austin found it a strange sensation.
Twisted Road today
Twisted Road is based on the Airbnb model meaning the motorcycles are privately owned, and Twisted Road acts as the platform and enabler in the rental. Currently, there are five full-time people and ten part-time.
They feature over 3000 motorcycles on the platform spread across 50 of the States. If you want to rent a bike, you search by where you want it, the bike you want, and then book. Once you have been through the approval program, you meet the owner to learn more about the ride before driving off. Vetting is a hugely important part of protecting the owners.
Far more Americans have motorcycle licenses than they do own motorcycles, so it gives everyone a chance to savor their dreams for at least a moment. If you own a bike, the chances are you are an enthusiast, and any hobby needs funding. Renting your motorcycle out is an easy way to do that, and you get paid within 48 hours of the bike’s return.
From Corporate America to Motorcycle Entrepreneur
I was fascinated to find out how Austin had found this change when many entrepreneurs struggle to make the transition. I asked him the most valuable skills he brought with him from the corporate world to entrepreneurship. Austin told me there were three.
First comes strategy. Austin can see patterns in advance before others, and that vision enables him to grab opportunities first and mitigate risks better.
The next is problem-solving. Austin has learned not to get stressed. Austin told me a story at this point from back at the start of his corporate days. He was running a boat company, the first business he had ever run, and the family had relocated for him to do it. One day he came home mega stressed. His wife asked him what the matter was.
Austin explained that he had two boat dealers, one Mexican and one from California, in a massive argument over a boat deal. Next, there was the possibility of a lawsuit over something that had happened years before. Finally, two of his best people had just quit. Expecting sympathy, he was surprised by his wife’s response.
“Good,” she said. “The first two months were easy, and being a President isn’t easy. But the good thing is that you have established yourself so that now they all feel they can bring you these major issues. The second thing is it is all learning. One day you’ll have an employee quit, and you’ll think ‘that’s not a big deal, I once had two employees quit!’” Austin came to realize she was absolutely right. He was earning his notches on his belt.
The third is how to attract and build a team and a great culture. Some of the existing people approached Austin to work there, and this happens ongoing.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
I asked him how he might advise others thinking of starting up. Austin says it is simple. Only and always start a business for the right reason. The movies and TV all portray it as a life of free food, vast amounts of money, and independence. The first thing you learn is that you don’t own a business; the business owns you.
He is five years in now and not making a fraction of what he did in the corporate world. He works 14-16 hours a day, and there is no end in sight when the hours will go down and the money goes up.
When things are not going right, it is easy to worry if you have done the right thing. Every entrepreneur hits a time when they question if it is worth it to go on. But it is a hard decision. Stop too early, and you miss the opportunity; too late, you waste vast amounts of time and money.
The Future for Twisted Road
Austin knows that there are so many possibilities for the company in the future. They have thought about overseas branches, other vehicles such as off-road ones. But he says that the reality is that right now, he wants to keep his team small and flexible and grow as fast as he can at the same time.
Steve Jobs unlocked music for all of us. Austin’s goal is to unlock all the motorcycles sitting unused in dealerships, lying on garage floors, for everyone to use.
The story of another impressive American entrepreneur who made a huge leap to start her own business is Alyson of Modern Health – read her story here.