ADDRESS: 245 SW Cummings, Corvallis, OR 97333
OWNER: Dan Coyle
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 3 years (2 years R & D, 1 year sales)
WHAT HE SELLS: Wood bicycle helmets (and, locally, Laser Engraving/Cutting and CNC Router services)
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: The helmets Dan creates are both beautiful and functional, and the materials used to make them are far more sustainable than helmets made from plastic and foam.
Bicyclists, artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are among the diverse group of people who have been fascinated by Dan Coyle’s wood bicycle helmets. Offering a beautiful yet functional product, Dan has developed one of our community’s few manufacturing businesses, and he has generously shared what he has learned with OSU students and other community members who have been awe-struck by what he has created.
When and why did you decide to start your business? As a kid, I always said I wanted to be an inventor, and when I was in my 20s, I did a lot of do-it-yourself projects—sewing my own outdoor gear, making paddles, and so on. The feedback I often got was, “You should be selling these!”
I was doing research at OSU in biology, genetics, and plant pathology. After that, I worked at Santiam Crossing School and then Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy, working with kids. It was wilderness-based programming, including clinical therapy and treatment for teenagers with drug and alcohol and mental health diagnoses. I had been thinking about taking my hobby and turning it into a profession, so I learned about some of the machinery that would be required. All I needed was the inspiration. It happened in the summer of 2010, when I had a transformative experience that made me feel like anything was possible. I started the business in August 2010, when I did my first design and built the prototype for the wood helmet.
Tell us more about your products. What are your favorites? I focused originally on helmets for kayaking, but I found that the largest market was for bike helmets. I often get asked to make wood hard hats, and wood helmets for motorcycling and snow sports, but I haven’t had the time to do that yet. I used to make wood eyeglasses, and I’d like to get back into that.
The wood helmet I make is a super cool product from a sustainability standpoint. Most of the wood I’m using would rot in the forest or be burned in a wood stove. Even the wood chips I produce get turned into usable products; the “waste” is upcycled.
Regular bike helmets are made with petrochemicals in foreign factories. They have a very limited life-span, since the EPS [Styrofoam] is UV-sensitive and ages quickly. The wood and cork I use to make helmets are mature materials that don’t deteriorate rapidly with age once sealed and treated.
My favorite woods to work with are those that are less predictable—like madrone, myrtlewood, and maple. You never know what you’re going to get until it’s done. It’s really functional art.
What does being featured as the Local Business of the Week mean to you? It feels like I’m part of the community. I have a sense of belonging to something that’s bigger than myself.
Do you fill an unusual niche? This business is one of a kind. No one else is doing it. There are others out there using wood and similar production processes to build goods that we typically only see made from plastics—skis, surfboards, bicycles, etc. That is the closest thing there is to an industry for what I am doing. In Corvallis, I am one of a few shops that can provide CNC Laser and Router cutting and engraving service.
What challenges have you faced as an independent local business owner, and how have you met those challenges? Everything about my business has been a big challenge and a cool learning experience. I’ve learned a lot of different things because I had to. Learning all the skills—both technical and professional—has been a major challenge. For other professions, people have connections in their field. It has felt overwhelming because there’s no one else out there who’s done what I’m doing.
Funding has been a big challenge. Also, it’s been a challenge doing market research for a product that’s totally new. Realizing I have to buy some things from China has been another hurdle.
In June 2013, there was a major fire in my shop that destroyed the laser machine for cutting and engraving. That was the most dramatic challenge I’ve had, but it was easier to replace the machine than to address other challenges I’ve had. There was clarity about what I needed to do.
What do you feel is the impact of local independent businesses on Corvallis, and what does the future look like for the local independents? To put it simply, if people spend money here, then it makes the people in Corvallis richer; if you spend it elsewhere, people in Corvallis will be poorer. It’s really hard not to buy things on Amazon because it’s easy and cheap. So supporting local businesses means changing habits.
Supporting local independent businesses also helps build relationships with people who can help you – people who become your champions. Having that word-of-mouth support is really important. A lot of local businesses in Corvallis support each other. Peak Sports has displayed my helmets. I’ve sold the helmets on 5 different continents, but I like having local legitimacy.
As far as the future goes, when I think about the global economy, there are many businesses that will always need to be locally based. A lot of people in Corvallis are smart; they understand this. The City and the Chamber seem to emphasize the growth/recruitment of larger companies like HP and OSU at the possible expense of supporting a robust small business environment. Also, my experience has been that the Eugene/UO-Corvallis/OSU rivalry is damaging because there is so much cooperative potential that goes untapped. Schools and businesses could do a lot more together. Collaboration makes more sense than competition.
What do you enjoy most about owning a local, independent business in Corvallis? What excites or inspires you? I like the creativity and flexibility I have. And I like owning a business in Corvallis, where there are 4 or 5 bike stores, a lot of bicyclists, people who enjoy outdoor sports, and a university like OSU that has a lot of innovation and a College of Forestry with great resources for aiding in the development of businesses like mine.
What I’m doing is valued for its function, its art, and its sustainability. There’s a lack of manufacturing in Corvallis, so I like being someone who’s into manufacturing. I might be an inspiration or mentor to others. I get asked to speak a lot, especially at OSU. I like interacting with the students and showing them what’s possible. The relationships I’ve been able to build with students and faculty at OSU have been great. The business has so many different aspects—from marketing to wood science to testing. I’ve done a lot with the College of Engineering and with the School of Design and Human Environment.
If I had the resources, I would just be doing R & D, not marketing. I’ve never been aggressive about actively selling. I go to shows, but I haven’t touched my website since I created it. I don’t have enough to stock a store. My sales are basically to people who see the product and they appreciate what it is. It’s also cool for media people, since it’s unusual. Everyone in the world knows what helmets are. The media get excited because it’s interesting to their readers. I’ve had people from the international community write articles, so I’ve sold on 5 different continents. Right now, many of my customers are the pioneers—the people who want the latest thing. For people to buy the helmet sight unseen builds my confidence.
I don’t have a storefront, but I’m excited to have people come by. So if they want to visit, they’re welcome to call me and set up an appointment. It’s been a sacrifice to be so isolated, so it’s nice to have people come by.
What is your relationship to the community? What organizations do you support or participate in? I’m a member of CIBA and the Sustainability Coalition. I’ve supported the OSU Foundation because they’ve supported me. I’ve done a lot of volunteer bike trail work at the BMX Park and on mountain bike trails through Team Dirt. I did a booth for Spring Roll, and I’ve done some driving for Dial-a-Bus as a volunteer. I also work with the Waldorf School and Parks and Rec Department doing wilderness survival classes.
Please give us your one-sentence take-away message about your business. Our helmets are made locally, from natural materials, are 100% customized and offer the customer inspiration as much as they offer protection.
(Interview and article by Annette Mills – September 22, 2013)
The Local Business of the Week program is designed to help the Corvallis community identify our locally owned independent businesses by featuring one business each week. The program is part of the Buy Local First campaign co-sponsored by the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and the Community Independent Business Alliance (CIBA).