How It All Began
MBA: What can you tell us about your background?
Chris Sugai: When I was 16, I knew three things I wanted to do with my life. One was to be a business owner, second to become a teacher, and third to be involved in politics. I attended Cal State University Northridge to study economics. While attending college, I started my first business in 1987 tinting windows for cars. That business (Solar Art Window Tinting) is still going on today. I dabbled in campaigning when I was younger but found the whole process very distasteful. I’m much happier working with nonprofits to engage positive change, which is something I still do today. I’m currently the president of Bike Fort Collins, this city’s largest cycling advocacy group.
MBA: How did you start Niner?
CS: With the window-tinting business being successful, I was able to step back in 2004 and spend a year searching for a business opportunity that I could enjoy. The often-referenced adage “Do something you love and never work a day in your life” was a guiding principle. Accordingly, I wanted to find an opportunity in one of my three passions: poker, Formula 1 or mountain biking.
I’d been riding with friends on the weekends and discovered that 29ers made me faster and made the rides more fun, both uphill and down. So, in 2005, I dove into building a company around 29er mountain bikes, way before they were as widely adopted as they are today.
MBA: How much money did it take to start the company?
CS: I started with a 100K initial investment, but it grew much larger over time.
MBA: How big is the company now?
CS: We have yearly sales in the range of $10–$15 million. We are sold in 355 local bike shops in the USA and distributed in 30 different countries.
MBA: What are some of your brand’s biggest innovations in the past and in recent years?
CS: In 2005 when I started Niner,…