A Two-Wheeled Experiment for Entrepreneurs
September 18, 2019
From the pages of Issue 4: Plans Change
How Kathmandu-based Portal Bikes is trying to revolutionize cycling for the working class.
JENNIFER GURECKI | @yogurecki
In a country where it is impossible to find the proper materials, all the way down to the nuts and bolts, why would one entrepreneur start a bike company that only caters to locals? That’s a question that Caleb Spear, the founder of Portal Bikes, is still trying to answer.
In 2006, when Spear moved to Nepal, he found himself frustrated along side the one million residents of Kathmandu who experienced load power outages. Everyone assumed that the country didn’t have the infrastructure or financial means to keep the power on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One year, after the holiday season, the power miraculously stayed on. Come to find out there was a new employee—with an electrical degree and no ties to the large energy corporations—who chose to keep the lights on. The things that people thought were never possible all of a sudden were, and it elevated the spirit of the entire city. That was all the motivation Spear needed to start Portal Bikes, a social business whose mission is to develop the most innovative and adaptable bicycles that transform lives and power businesses.
What Spear knew then, as he emphatically knows now, is that the bicycle could be used as a tool for economic empowerment. “People don’t need handouts, they need jobs,” he said with an unwavering conviction. What he saw all around him in Kathmandu were men of the lowest caste who had no way of transporting themselves, their supplies, and their goods around the heavily congested city. Their main mode of transportation was their own two feet, paired with a push cart. He wondered how he could make their daily lives easier and their existing work more efficient and profitable. As an avid cyclist, Spear knew that there was a faster way to get from point A to point B: a bicycle. And since time is money, with more of it, his theory was that entire families would benefit.
Hundreds of Kathmandu residents have proved his theory, using their bikes to beat the traffic through narrow alleyways, transporting their supplies from one job to the next, and delivering more goods to their suppliers. Despite the success with their early adopters, Portal Bikes is like any start-up––cobbled together by the founders who are constantly shifting strategies to solve problems, and meeting the needs of their community, all while staying cash flow positive. It takes grit, a certain amount of suffering, and a willingness to do whatever it takes. Like pack-your-bags-and-defy- customs type of risks.
“For the first few years, every piece we needed I carried over in a suitcase and every spare part came from America,” Spear said laughing. Fortunately, Portal has evolved and improved their manufacturing over the years. They currently maintain relationships with manufacturers in India and Taiwan and assemble the bikes in Nepal, a decision that is allowing them to produce bicycles that are more reliable and cost less.
Although things are improving and they are seeing growth, like every venture that begins in a place with limited infrastructure, nothing has been easy. Despite the affordability and a seemingly huge market of people who need reliable and cheap transportation, it’s been an uphill battle. To state the obvious, people are unbelievably poor. Despite the rise in mountain biking—both with Kathmandu locals and tourists—bicycles are for the working class, the lower caste Indian immigrants; there is a social stigma that is difficult to overcome. And bicycles just aren’t that cool or fast when you can spend $400 on an old beat-up motorbike, Spear said. Unless the bikes are given away for free, there’s not a huge market. And while Portal was created to make money, it needed some sort of revenue. So Spear asked himself the question so many founders ask themselves: “How can we pivot to serve the local economy?” This question was answered for him, unfortunately.
After the earthquake in 2015, things rapidly changed for Portal. They knew they had the capacity to build structures—they had the steel, the pipe benders, the knowhow—so they trained 18 organizations to build more than 5,000 emergency shelters. They realized that they could alter their make-shift housing plans and turn them into permanent structures, which they did. 175 homes later, there’s still color-coded, Lego-like pipes at Portal headquarters waiting to be distributed to the next person who was ready to build. Portal Prefab and Portal Shelters are helping to fund and keep the momentum going for the 10 local employees at Portal, which is the most important part.
Tenjing Gurung is one of the Nepali team members. He works at Portal because it’s a way for him to bring his ideas into reality, a way to bring positive change to his community. “I work for Portal because I want to help our locals whenever possible. At the same time I get opportunities to learn and explore more about social business. Portal is trying to bring creativity and sustainability in communities… There is incredible value to them,” he said.
When asked the one question that every entrepreneur dreads—"What will you do if you fail?”— Spear is relatively calm. “It’s our poor choice,” he said laughing. “I guess we could have gone vanlife-ing for five years, but we did this for seven years instead. The kids will have to run faster or study harder to go to college.” For the imminent future, Spear is looking at how they can tap into the expanding market of mountain biking tourism with guided trips in the Himalaya that will support Portal in maintaining their bicycle production. Spear and the entire team are still committed to creating jobs and helping the lower castes gain freedom of movement and economic empowerment that they haven’t experienced before. It’s just a matter of how long they are willing to wait out a market that will hopefully soon come to realize that with the costs of fuel and the stand-still traffic, the bike will prevail as the faster, more economical choice for entrepreneurs who are ready to take their two feet off the ground and onto the pedals.
Learn more about Portal Bikes at PortalBikes.com and give them a follow on Instagram at @portalbikes.