It was 2017 and Dan Necklen’s three-year-old son, Isaac, was getting pretty fed up pootling around a Rotorua forest carpark on his balance bike while Dad or Mum and his two older siblings headed off on adventures down forest trails. He wanted to come too.

Dad wanted him to come too. As a mad biking enthusiast he was dying to share his passion with his children as soon as possible, and get them off their screens. 

But when Necklen investigated toddler mountain bike seats, he couldn’t find anything that worked. His bike’s grunty rear suspension meant he couldn’t fix a kids’ seat above the back wheel, and Isaac was too old for a ‘bucket’ seat up front.

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So Necklen contacted his mate Tom Hayward, who happened to be a product developer as well as a mountain bike aficionado.

Hayward made a few prototypes. The best saw Isaac sitting in front of his dad, holding his own handlebars and with his feet stable on mini pedals. Necklen got noticed by other parents when out riding with Isaac, and he and Hayward realised they had a business opportunity on their hands – or rather under Isaac’s butt.

They called their company Kids Ride Shotgun. 

(The term ‘riding shotgun’ comes from the era of stagecoaches and the bandits who regularly tried to rob them. The bodyguard sitting next to the driver and armed with a weapon was ‘riding shotgun’. And, okay, with the mountain bike seats, the kids sit in front, not beside the driver, and guns aren’t legal for toddlers. But who’s being etymologically pedantic?)

The pair sold their first 50 seats to family and friends and then set off on a road trip where they sold a boot-full to bike shops. At some stage local media wanted to do a profile and asked for the company’s web address. Kids Ride Shotgun didn’t have a website, so Necklen – a digital marketing specialist in a previous life – secured a domain name and put together a website overnight. 

They got some seed capital from local investors, Hayward sorted Chinese manufacturing and they went on sales trips to the northern hemisphere – Europe and North America – visiting trade fairs and signing up distributors.

Dan Necklen (L) and Tom Hayward have sold 250,000 bike seats globally in five years. Photo: Supplied

Then as they headed home, Covid locked down the world. And suddenly, unexpectedly, the idea of mountain biking with your stuck-at-home children went ballistic.

“Turns out Kids Ride Shotgun had a very Covid-bubble-friendly product,” Necklen tells Newsroom. “Governments around the world really restricted what people were allowed to do, but biking was often one thing you could do.

“We couldn’t keep up with demand.”

Kids Ride Shotgun’s financial year runs from April 1 to March 31. Between the 2020 and 2021 financial years, the company grew 580 percent. That’s tech start-up territory.

Staff numbers went from four to 14 (they are now 18). The company dealt with shipping problems and counterfeiting, expanded its supply chain into Thailand and Taiwan as well as China, and launched new products – an ABC book, a tow rope to help older children on their own bikes get up hills, and gloves (called pogies) modelled on the ones UK posties wear that are attached to the handle bars. Even kids can’t lose those gloves.

‘Pogies’ are gloves attached to the handlebars, like posties wear in the UK. Photo: Supplied

It was a crazy time.

“We had our heads down trying to keep up.” 

Kids Ride Shotgun bike seat sales are now in the hundreds of thousands, Necklen says. New products are in the works, including a balance bike previewed on BikeRumor, the world’s largest cycling tech blog. The company sells 95 percent of its products overseas and is in 20 markets, mostly in Europe and North America. 

Late last week, Kids Ride Shotgun won the top prize at the Tauranga Business Awards as the business of the year as well as scooping the ‘marketing and communication’, and ‘excellence in international trade’ categories.

“It’s good to get this recognition,” Necklen says. “It’s been harder to get perspective as we get busy, so it’s good to have the opportunity to celebrate and to have other business people looking over what we are doing.”

Longer term, the business target is “to create a mini-mountain biker brand to give parents everything they need for the 0-5-year-old age group and be the leader in that category”.

But beyond business, the company is also on a mission – getting kids off their devices and into the outdoors. 

“We’re a close-knit team of mountain bike parents with a global vision – to raise the next generation of mountain bikers.

Close to 95 percent of sales are international, mostly Europe and North America. Photo: Supplied

“We believe that riding, and everything it offers, helps positively develop kids, and leaves a lasting impression on both parent and child. And we believe that this is genuinely good for the world.”

What about Isaac, the three-year-old whose wish to join the family on their mountain bike adventures in 2017 started Kids Ride Shotgun? How does he feel about the company’s success?

Isaac is off the crossbar and onto his own bike, Necklen says.

“He’s pretty pleased – pleased he’s grown big enough to not get roped into photo shoots.”

The tow rope helps children bike uphill. Photo: Supplied

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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