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A conversation with The Rainmaker

Published April 3, 2015
BRAIN interviews the guy who runs one of the world's most-visited bike websites — in his spare time.

(BRAIN) — The intersection where bikes and technology collide is one of the busiest in the bike business. Established players like Garmin and Polar, along with new companies like Strava, Zwift, Stages Cycling and 4iiii, are catching the attention of the tech world as much as the bike market. Some of the new brands, though they are deeply involved in cycling, are run more like Silicon Valley startups, and some are eying eventual success well beyond the scale that this industry is accustomed to.

The paper of record for all this activity, at least on the product side, is, a site run almost entirely by one man, Ray Maker, in his spare time.

Like the space he reports on, Maker's site often operates beneath the radar of the traditional, brick-and-mortar, ink-on-paper IBD side of the bike world. That's why many were caught by surprise when they looked at a web traffic chart in the Feb. 1 edition of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.  The chart showed dcrainmaker sitting sixth in the rankings, with traffic comparable to many sites with full-time staffs and corporate support. Aside from a part-time copyeditor, Maker runs the site entirely by himself.

Maker, an avid triathlete and runner, still works full-time in the IT industry, in a position that requires him to travel the world constantly. He's an American, but now lives in Paris, France, with his wife. His far-flung trips are part of the appeal of his website, as he reports on his adventures and the running, biking and swimming opportunities around the globe. 

But the travelogues are just hors d'oeuvres for the meat of the site: Maker's reviews and news.

Maker uses his technical and athletic background, a chatty writing style, and a rigorous ethic of independence to deliver reports on everything from stationary trainers and GPS units to power meters and action cameras.

Mark Riedy, founder of the bike industry PR firm True Communications, said Maker and his site are a "very, very important resource" for some of his clients, who currently include Wahoo, Zwift and Recon.

"He’s as much a consultant with a following as he is a traditional blogger," Riedy said. "Because he has a deep understanding of technology and the process of bringing it to market, most of our clients feel comfortable bringing him in on projects at an early stage. As a result, he often sees and uses prototypes months before the product is brought to market.” 

Maker's not afraid to report on the nitty gritty details, down to first-hand reports on the latest firmware updates for various gadgets. He loves to geek out, mounting multiple power meters on his bike, or wearing several heart monitors at once, for example. He's also not afraid of going long, delivering thousands of words on some reviews. Increasingly, he writes with a deep knowledge of the trends and developments in the industry, in part because he is often invited to visit with companies developing new products.

Maker is careful to maintain his independence. When he visits manufacturers to consult, he pays his own way. He doesn't accept advertisements from companies he writes about. His site's revenue comes from two sources: an Amazon Associates program and an agreement with the endurance sport e-commerce site

A February article in BRAIN showed that is the sixth largest bike website in the world.

Maker also declines free trips to product introductions or other events that most bike media organizations (including BRAIN) regularly accept.

The result is an enormous level of trust between his site and its readers. Many articles have hundreds of reader comments, and Maker regularly participates in the discussion. He also spends a fair amount of time personally answering readers' email questions about products.

BRAIN caught up with Maker recently for a Skype conversation.

BRAIN: I think your traffic figures were eye-opening for a lot of people in the industry. What's your sense of your audience — is it the same readers who come to the other bike and triathlete websites, or are you reaching a different crowd?

Maker: I think there is a fair amount of overlap. You have people looking for technology-based stuff and they are going to see more of a PR-type copy on the more traditional, legacy-type bike sites, and then they are going to come to mine for a more detailed look at things. So that's the crossover (reader). But I think also there might be a fair number of people who are not so experienced in the sport, who might not be familiar with some of the other publications out there.

BRAIN: Are those people more from the tech side, who might tend to read some of the tech blogs as well?

Maker: Exactly. I think these are folks that may otherwise be leaning toward reading Engadget or The Verge or Tech Crunch or some of those major tech sites. There is definitely quite a bit of crossover from those folks as well as people who are looking not just at bike technology but also at wearables and that whole space. That space continues to climb more and more and lot of the wrist-based bike computers are now just as capable as an activity tracker as they are a bike computer.

BRAIN: Sometimes I wonder if the IBD part of the industry — the shops and the suppliers and the media — are being left behind while a whole separate group of companies spring up connected to the tech industry and the bike/endurance sport world.

Maker: I think there definitely is a cluster of companies like that and some of them are well-funded in the Silicon Valley mold.

I think it's really challenging for a bike shop keeping up on all the products they have from a component standpoint while also keeping up with the tech stuff. You're not going to walk into a bike shop and find that the person behind the desk can speak in detail not just about derailleurs but about the latest bike computer and all its features. Actually some of my readers have told me that their bike shops print out my reviews and post them next to the products.

BRAIN: Do you think a traditional shop can get into the tech product part of the market or is that destined to be an online market?

Maker: It's very challenging for folks to compete in that area right now just because of the shear pace that it's moving and that fact that there's so much technology involved in it. I think it's relatively easy for shops to stock the common brands and make them available to their local buyers. I think it's much more difficult for them to provide detailed support on those brands.

For example if something goes wrong with a Wahoo KickR, realistically a local bike shop's not going to be able to troubleshoot that the same way they could troubleshoot a derailleur. So for most shops, they need to call Wahoo or Garmin or whoever to get things taken care of. Thankfully most of the companies in the bike tech world are really good at support. If you look across the spectrum it's really phenomenal. If you call Cyclops/Saris you are likely going to get a human on the phone in the first couple seconds. I think the same is true for Quarq as well, for example. I think that makes it much easier for folks to bridge that gap and sell these products.

BRAIN: Have you seen any shops that are doing well with these kinds of products?

Maker: I think the ones that are doing the best are the ones that have product on the floor for people to try, and who get involved with the products. Some companies make apps available for mechanics to make sure their products are working perfectly from the get go. So the shops that utilize that kind of thing do well.

Instead of just saying, "here's your new Garmin head unit in a box, and here's your new bike," I think the retailers will see more success if they take the Garmin and pair it with your Quarq and get all the sensors for you on the bike, and make sure they get all the latest firmware installed and then go from there. It doesn't require a lot of technical expertise, but I think it will go a long way with a consumer.

"When you are basically cutting out 98 percent of the people who want to advertise with you, that's a big chunk of revenue."

BRAIN: I suspect a lot of times the customer knows more about this technology than the shop. They have time to Google every forum and website and educate themselves.

Maker: Yes, I think that's the case. But I don't think it's reasonable to expect the shop to know all the details about everything. They should be aware of the trends and know what features the different products have. I would think a bike shop mechanic should know the difference between ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart and some general pros and cons of the technologies. But I don't think they should be able to know the details about the latest firmware on every device out there.

BRAIN: Part of the reason people are excited about your site is your independence and your position on what ads you will and will not take. I was curious where those ideals came from? You don't have a journalism background, do you?

Maker: No, no journalism background. To my mind a lot of it stems from the whole "electricity and water" thing: I find it really hard to say that, on one hand you can be brutally honest about how a product is and explain how much that product sucks and yet, at the same time, take a multi-thousand-plus dollar advertisement deal from that same company. I wanted to make it really simple so I just won't accept advertising from any companies I review. My advertising comes primarily from Google AdSense, which is heavily filtered by blocking all the companies I review from buying ads.

Thus, when you are basically cutting out 98 percent of the people who want to advertise with you, that's a big chunk of revenue, but there's other ways I can try to make that up.

BRAIN: Were you inspired by Consumer Reports, or are there tech sites that have these policies?

"Maybe because I haven't worked in media or in the industry I'm not tainted by some of those things."

Maker: I'm not aware of any tech sites that do this, but definitely aware of Consumer Reports. I think for me it just started with seeing a lot of reviews out there — not just in cycling but in a variety of things — that you can look at a lot and go, "that was kind of a puff piece, that doesn't really look at how it works or consider the pros and cons to it." Sometimes products are good, but sometimes they are bad and I think it's really hard for a traditional magazine to call out products like that.

And I feel like I know what I specialize at, which is product reviews. If you look at a lot of the endurance sports media, there are a lot of fluff pieces that you wouldn't see in other industries. If you take aerospace for example, you don't tend to see a friendly piece about some new product. Instead you see critical yet fair pieces about how a given company is performing and gaps or strengths.

I feel like I'm applying consumer common sense. Maybe because I haven't worked in media or in the industry I'm not tainted by some of those things. For me the idea that an advertiser or a company under review pays for your trip is weird. I wouldn't go as far as saying corruption, but colluding a bit, at least.

Maybe some of it comes from working for a company in the past that did business in the government space. In that scenario you learn a lot of rules of separation. You can't even buy a government employee a cup of coffee because that could be considered a bribe. So I think a lot of that mindset I have comes from that sort of mentality for me.

For example, I'm going to a product launch tomorrow night and I'm paying for all my own airfare and hotel and everything, yet I know full well the majority of the media there are taking a free trip paid by the company. I just don't want to put myself in a situation where I have to go, "well, they paid for this trip."

I know a lot of bike magazines, not all of them, but a lot, will certainly not think twice about taking a free trip to Europe or to the Middle East to cover a race. There are a lot of examples of good journalism out there, but at the same time you have to question a lot of what people decide to cover.

BRAIN: So do you get paid to consult with companies about new products?

Maker: No, I pay for that. If companies want to take my advice I'm happy to give it to them but I pay for the travel. For me it's a way to get consumer feedback back to those companies. I get literally hundreds of emails a day from people with feedback for companies, so for me (visiting companies) is a way of letting them know what people are looking for early in the development cycle.

Companies find that valuable because they find out what the consumers are looking for in a widely distilled manner, and it's good for the consumers because they know their needs are being consolidated and communicated.

BRAIN: What's the upside for you?

Maker: The upside for me is that I'm more aware of what's going on, what's coming.

BRAIN: So with the revenue from the Google ads and Clever Training, does the site come anywhere near paying for the time you spend on it?

Maker: Yeah, I think it does. I spend a lot of time, so I'm not sure, but I think it's worth it.

BRAIN: Your site's FAQ says you spend 20-40 hours a week on the site.

Maker: Yeah, I spend a lot of time answering questions. I try to answer everything. Sometimes that slows me down on getting product reviews out, but I think people appreciate that level of interaction and being available.

BRAIN: Do you sleep? How do you manage to do that in addition to a full time job, plus training and a marriage?

Maker: I sleep a little. There's not a ton of free time outside of that unfortunately. At some point I'm going to have to shift around priorities or change things up, but for now it mostly works.

BRAIN: Are you still doing triathlons?

Maker: Yup, I'm doing the Paris half marathon in a couple weeks, then I'll probably do a couple triathlons this summer. Nothing super long distance. Some Olympic-distance triathlons and half marathons. Maybe a full marathon in the fall.

BRAIN: Do you see making the site a full time job at some point?

Maker: I think at some point. If I reach a point where I can't do both. It's probably getting relatively close to that, based primarily on time being put into it and my desire to reclaim some of what used to be free time.

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