MICHAEL WALKER | MW DESIGNS
At The Loam Wolf we love to see people doing it their own way, creating the mountain bike products they want to make for the hell of it. It’s these passionate people that often produce the most lustworthy and desirable parts that grace the market, but it doesn’t come easily – without a big engineering team or well established in-house manufacturing facility, the small guys have their work cut out when it comes to trying to compete with the big dogs.
Michael Walker is a good friend of Robert, and it’s been truly awesome to see the results of his efforts – MW Designs bike components – popping up around the trails of Scotland. Following his journey closely, we know it hasn’t come easy, so thought he’d make for an interesting interview to give some insight into the process of making your own bike parts. And I don’t think we were wrong!
The Loam Wolf (TLW): Hey Mike, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions.
First up, can you give us a little bit of background info on you. Where are you from, what do you do as a day job?
Michael Walker (MW): Thanks for having me! I’m Michael Walker; a bit of a bike fanatic and general tech guy based in Aberdeenshire in the northeast of Scotland. In my 9 to 5 day job, I’m currently a Development Engineer for a small engineering design, R&D & technology consultancy. Typically I deal with product design and development from initial concept all the way through to completion and delivery. It’s quite a full-on role.
TLW: What’s your bike riding background?
MW: So initially mountain biking was my main thing from about 2005-2009, until my only mountain bike was stolen. It took me so long to get another one that I ended up falling in love with BMX, as it was the only bike I had. I stuck with that for the best part of ten years until I got my first “proper” mountain bike again in 2018. Ever since then it’s been a blend of mtb and BMX, with the big bike now taking up most of my riding time – likely around 95%.
TLW: What got you into mountain bikes?
MW: It’s fun, why else! I think it was a friend who had a mountain bike that got me into mountain biking initially. We would go about the town with our Kona dirt jump bikes and build little jumps to session. Things just naturally progressed from there.
The more recent transition back onto the mountain bike I guess comes from friends in the BMX crew getting into it, and just wanting to tag along and be involved. Now I can’t get out enough! I love to get engrossed in all aspects of the sport or culture, from riding to the tech and engineering that goes into the machines we all love so much!
TLW: What’s the story behind MW Designs? Why did you start to design and produce your own mtb components?
MW: As a designer in my day job, I couldn’t help but shift this urge to maybe one day use my skills and knowledge to work for a bike company of some description, and work on projects and products that I’m passionate about. So in that pursuit, I initially reached out to a few bike companies for impartial advice on the industry; how to get a foot in; and even offered to do a bit of unpaid work experience. Long story short, this didn’t get me anywhere, so I decided if no one is willing to help me then what’s stopping me giving it a go myself! At least then I can somewhat fulfill that urge to design and create things, and learn something along the way. Any time spent more involved with the world of bikes is time well spent in my eyes.
TLW: What are you looking to achieve with the project?
MW: Well, If I said to you that I had one clear direction and vision, I wouldn’t be telling the truth. At the moment I have short term goals and principles that relate to the goods I choose to make available to consumers. However, I have potentially longer-term goals too, which I guess to be more career focused.
On the product side, I want to be able to offer people high quality, no compromise components that are visually appealing, fairly priced and manufactured in the UK, simple as that!
On the flip side of that, as long as I can turnover enough to keep the project piggy bank topped up, I’m happy to keep myself busy and continue learning. This way I’ll be achieving my goals to an extent, along with gaining a load of experience that may one day feed into those longer-term career goals mentioned earlier.
So in short, it’s a bit of an open book really, and I’m just taking it as it comes.
TLW: As someone new to manufacturing their own components, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
MW: None of this was particularly easy, and it’s been a learning process from start to finish. But I’ve grown a lot from the challenge and failures along the way, and I’ve definitely gone out of my way in order to achieve the tasks laid out by myself. Learning how to CNC program and operate a mill to a level that is acceptable is definitely a good example of one of those challenges.
On a more personal level, putting what I’ve created out there for the world to see was potentially the hardest and scariest part, fear of I guess judgment. I definitely suffer from a dose of the old imposter syndrome now and then.
Another issue I’ve stumbled into along the way is not having anyone to ask or clarify details with when I’m unsure of something, be it an interface or specification etc. From my experience, people gatekeep really hard in the bike industry, and generally aren’t that willing to help sadly, even impartially. That’s not to say everyone is like this, and none of my projects would have been possible without the help of some awesome people. I’m beginning to feel like I have a really strong little network of people and small businesses who I can trust to help my vision and goodies become reality. Huge shout outs to Paul and Rob at 76 Projects and to Ed at Dward Design!
TLW: Now that you’re a couple of products down the line, are there still elements that are particularly challenging?
MW: The most frustrating challenge I still face is finding ways to make these parts financially viable on such a small scale, whilst keeping my pricing reasonable and sticking to the core principles each product must meet. Also having to weigh up how many variants and colors I can offer. As it’s just me, there’s only so much I can commit to.
A good example of this is currently with the first component I made public, which was the stem, currently dubbed the “BLTN” (better late than never) stem. The upfront cost of testing is proving difficult for me to justify without having to charge an outrageous RRP, based on how many I can realistically sell. So it sucks and can be frustrating, but if I’m strategic about my decisions I’ll eventually be able to afford to take bigger risks on things like that.
I feel it’s important to say I don’t intend to make bank doing this so to speak, but I can’t justify burning cash that could otherwise be spent on things I can deliver sustainably.
TLW: What’s your favorite part of it?
MW: The process! I’m constantly learning new things with each new product, and always improving on myself and my skills. A lot of this has already fed back into my day job, believe it or not. Equally, I enjoy the process of learning through trial and failure, although it can be stressful at times.
Another exciting part in the process is when all the parts of the puzzle are coming together and it’s close to final assembly, packaging, and completion. I’m almost sad when it’s over. Haha!
TLW: There’s clearly a lot of effort taken to ensure the MW Designs products look good. How do you try to balance aesthetics and performance?
MW: Appreciate the kind words!
As a consumer myself, I often buy into brands and products that I feel ooze “cool”, but have the performance on tap to match. It’s something I try to bring across in my own projects. I prioritise visual appearance and aesthetics, but never at the cost of compromising performance, reliability or quality. It can be a tricky balance.
To achieve this balance, my design process can be very iterative, and it usually takes several revisions to get to a place where I’m happy to show others what I’ve been working on. Personally, I’ve found over time there is a sort of goldilocks effect in design that’s typically governed by 3 factors:
- Does it meet the performance criteria? (Strength, Durability, Quality)
- Does it look visually appealing?
- Can it be manufactured?
All three of these must be balanced to produce a good product. I’ve found myself designing parts that look incredible, but would be a massive pain to machine and so just aren’t viable.
TLW: What do you think the bike industry needs to do better? Are there products you’ve been asked for, or any areas you think performance is lacking?
MW: Argh this is a tough one, bikes are so damn good nowadays on so many levels. I think pricing in relation to specification at the moment is pretty poor and needs addressing, especially at the entry to mid-level range of bikes. The practice of specifying poor quality components that function only to give the impression of quality – and performance features that wear out and need replaced in no time – in order to meet an RRP, just isn’t sustainable long term. It really bugs me, as it’s a totally false economy. Not every brand is guilty of this practice, but it’s certainly prevalent enough.
TLW: How would you like to see that addressed?
MW: I guess I would like to see more product managers and their teams take more care with component specifications than they have in recent years on that end of the market. I think that’s already begun to some extent, looking at the likes of YT and their still suitably-spec’d entry level offerings.
But there really should be a minimum level of quality the industry should embrace and that bar shouldn’t be allowed to be lowered as it has been in some cases.
TLW: What can we expect to see from MW in the future?
MW: All going well, more new products I hope! At the time of writing this, I have some chainrings not far from launching which I’m really excited about. Provided they do well, I can look to expand that avenue of componentry!
Also, I’m very likely going to investigate a proper rebrand. When launching this initially, I couldn’t have rushed the branding much more, and I’m beginning to realize the branding currently is selling me and what I do more than a product with a brand image with culture and set of values to go with it, which long term might become tricky to sustain.
And maybe some collaborations who knows! I’m always open to giving impartial advice, helping out or just generally nattering bike stuff so if anyone has a project in mind and wants some help I’m always open to chat.
Keep up to date with MW Designs on Instagram here.