Business trip

Cleverchimp has a customer in Madison, Wisconsin, who bought a Stokemonkey kit. Customer started out with a frame too small, but just barely, and it took a good deal of tedious trial and error to conclude that it wasn’t going to work. So customer bought another bicycle, and proceeded with the installation.

Customer experienced connector integrity problems, perhaps exacerbated by the prolonged installation handling. We fixed that temporarily, and stopped shipping product with the same liabilities.

Customer then experienced a prompt failure of the driving Shimano freewheel, possibly related to operation in sub-freezing temperatures. (Sales into Wisconsin outside of “bicycle season” tell us we’re reaching the right people.) This is a rare, but not unprecedented occurrence: freewheels fail periodically in “normal” applications too; ease of replacement is one reason I use only industry-standard drivetrain components. But coming on the heels of the other problems, customer’s patience began to wear thin, understandably.

Customer then exposed the indoor battery charger to rain (don’t do this!); water entered and the charger failed shortly thereafter. We replaced without charge. We began to fear that the stars were aligned against this particular marriage.

Customer then took a 20-mile ride in 10-degree weather, and had the drive chain pop off several times. Much roadside rage ensued. The following support call uncovered prior miscommunication of some important installation details. The installation corrected, the next lengthy ride went off without a hitch, to a resounding YAHOO!

But the very next ride saw some kind of slippage occur with the mount, and the chain deraillment problems returned. Ouch. There’s still something wrong with the installation. I’m confident that I can get to the bottom of the problem and fix it quickly, the key word being “I.” I don’t want the customer to expend his last measure of patience on another try if there’s any risk of failure. I’ve offered to refund his money, but we’d both much prefer to fix the problem rather than cut our losses.

So I’m fixing to fly out to Madison for a service call. It’s one thing for the product to perform as designed, and have people just not like it — that would mean we need to screen sales better. It’s quite another if they really want to like it but can’t make it work: I just can’t let that happen. And frankly, it’s more money out of my pocket to refund the purchase price than to travel. Obviously I have some important things to learn here. Cleverchimp won’t succeed if only MacGyver-types and I can install Stokemonkey reliably on the first go. It’s probably the case that my experience developing the mount and doing so many installations has given me a privileged degree of mechanical intuition that I can’t count on in people new to the product. I don’t believe it, but there’s also a remote possibility that there’s something funny going on with this particular bike and maybe the frigid conditions that my mount design doesn’t take into account. There’s only one way to find out.

And no, I won’t be at the Madison Bike Swap to meet Mssrs. Babilonia and Thil; I’m going sooner. Maybe there’ll be a satisfied customer there, though.

Another thing: once a reader remarked that it took “courage” to be open about business problems I’m experiencing. I don’t see it that way. One model here has been Grant Peterson’s Rivendell. Grant’s Reader articles have frequently gone into excruciating detail about every credit crunch or supplier problem or bad customer experience. It humanizes the company. It also lends credibility to the positive things the company says. That’s priceless in the electric vehicle space in particular, which has suffered countless waves of lying hype going back a century.

14 thoughts on “Business trip”

  • Jim

    Interesting take on forthrightness on your business. I’ve recently received advice from several friends that I shouldn’t write about details of my business on my blog because I might someday wish I could keep certain info under my hat. But I see it as you do, that talk about the negatives reinforces the positives, and that talk of “shortcomings” humanizes the company. But more important than that is the feedback that you might receive, which I consider to be quite valuable.

    If there’s slipping between the mount and the seat tube or other frame tube, and it seems to be related to ultra-cold weather, my first inclination is to consider the differential thermal contraction between mated metals of different compositions. Those things are made to fit together at room temperature, but if the seat tube shrinks when it gets cold relative to the shrinkage of the mount, I can see how slippage could potentially be an issue.

  • Customer (Mike)

    Hello All,

    I am said “Customer” in the above post. I assume the assignation with some trepidation. My concern is that I am being a knucklehead, and blind to some assembly step(s). I don’t_think_I am, but I am still concerned. I am happy to contribute to this endeavor, by way of offering my experiences to date, but if my experience only helps me, I will be very disappointed. I have put in many many hours, under some extreme conditions, to deal with my issues. And Todd’s service has been exceptional. I am very happy to be doing business with him. This has been a very bumpy ride for me, but as far as riding partners go, Todd is the best.

    On to the post itself. I did initially try to install the SM on a 17″ Giant Cypress SL. This bike has a low standover height, which would help with an original goal: creating a hybrid commuter my daughter (standover height of 28″), my wife (30″), and I (32″) could all ride. No such luck. However, getting to the no luck point took many hours of trial-and-error dinking with various permutations of motor and mount positions, including mounting the Free Rad tongue below the stays, rather than above. As I had scratched the frame a bit while dinking, I could not in good conscience return the bike.

    I then purchased a Kona Dr. Dew. Solid bike, but probably a bit big for my daughter. We’ll see next spring. The install of the SM on this bike was a snap. However, I had some significant issues with the Anderson connectors. There is a distortion on one of them stopping it from seating properly. This issue was discovered while out in a freezing rain, in the dark, several miles from my house. I am not a big fan of the Anderson connector.

    After talking with Todd, I eliminated the switch, and I filed down the bulbous connector and snapped all the Anderson connectors into one big block. This improves structural integrity, and helps with strain relief, besides being neater, imo. The canister solution Todd was using was also causing some grief (I’ve since read your thread on this Bill, and think just snapping the lid on is a good idea), particularly with the switch smashing or being smashed by the canister’s contents. I’ve moved to a saddle bag, which I find more satisfactory.

    My major issue right now is keeping the chain on. I did not understand the importance of the tension cable. I thought Todd had said that it was less important, but misunderstood him. I will be replacing the cable today, and moving it from brake bridge to seat post, to get a better spread between each side, and to get more distance to use the tensioning mechanism. When faced with a sloppy chain, I had been retightening the clamps, which worked for a bit of time, but would always loosen up. I thought that the clamp was slipping somehow, but Todd assures me this is highly unlikely.

    I am using the bike under fairly extreme conditions. Temps in the low teens, or below, plenty of snow, icy roads/trails, high winds. My commute is 19 miles each way. It’s not the weather I prefer for test rides, but I ain’t waiting for spring. Is this fair to the SM? I think so, but it is pushing the envelope a bit. I would prefer to push the envelope after establishing some norms, but again the weather is not allowing that.

    As I noted above, Todd has been fantastic to do business with. This is a noble endeavor (yes, I think that can be said without hyperbole), and I am happy to be part of it.

  • Todd

    Mike, it sounds like you are determined to whack the tar baby some more before I get there. I’ll be calling. Videoconferencing, that’s what we need!

    The mount clamps only the Xtracycle, not the bike’s frame. Because the Xtracycle isn’t rigid enough to keep the motor in alignment (and the drive chain on) as the bike is ridden, there’s a tension cable assembly that loops around the seatstay bridge or similar. [mount]

    The cable, properly tensioned, limits the flex of the Xtracycle chassis to an amount insufficient to derail the drive chain. It also helps keep the clamps honest, just as do the set screws. Mike, at the last failure, you said that the cable slipped, leaving the chain in a grossly slack state. I read this to mean that one of the cable retainer bolts let the cable slip (so tighten it more!), and that in the absence of all tension, one or the other clamps gave way, suggesting inadequate tightening or set screw engagement. I also wonder if some of the grease on the clamp threads has spread to contaminate the clamp or tube faces, making them more liable to slip. The top clamp (grabbing the plated steel tube) has less purchase than the bottom one, so it’s more likely to slip.

    OK, enough guessing. What fine suspense.

  • Bill Manewal

    Todd – One suggestion to preclude these kinds of problems is to work with the machinist who made your clamps and come up with torque ratings for the six allen-head machine screws.

    I would think that if they’re tightened sufficiently, nothing would slip regardless of the set screws. But then I’ve never lived in really cold temperatures and aluminum is affected by temperature much more than steel. Maybe Mike should be tightening everything once it’s cold, since, as the blocks contract, the hole in the center gets bigger.

    I’d guess most of your customers either have or could borrow a torque wrench, preferably one rated in inch-lbs.

    Finding the optimal amount of tightening force is trial and error (stripped threads) without a torque wrench and your supplying the correct specs (as do disc brake vendors) could remove guesswork.

    The Third Hand catalog lists torque values for brake cable binding bolts as 55 to 75 inch lbs. and the straddle nut (yoke) as 50 to 70.

  • Mauricio Babilonia
    Mauricio Babilonia December 26, 2005 at 12:55 pm

    Hey Todd, if you’re coming to town, why not combine the service call with a sales call? The tofu and Birkenstock set has been watching the development of the Stokemonkey (and Xtravois) with great interest…

    If you’re able to find the time, that is.

  • Jim

    Torque, schmorque. I prefer loc-tite.

  • Bill Manewal

    Loc-tite, Schloc-tite.

    Great stuff to keep things from loosening, but does NADA to insure that whatever’s being held is being held tight ENOUGH not to slip, or is being tightened to the verge of stripping the threads, e.g. aluminum threads encountering stainless steel bolts.

    As a former machinist, I trust my “feel” most of the time, unless I’m tightening into a material that’s new to me. But lots of people haven’t stripped enough steel, aluminum, brass, nylon, bolts and nuts or oil pans, and motor heads to develop “feel”.

  • tricky coyote

    I say ovalize the clamp grooves and champfer the clamp groove ends so they don’t point-load the FreeRadical UpperStay when you TIGHTEN THE CLAMPS TO THE POINT OF DEFORMING THE TUBE INTO AN OVAL CROSS-SECTION, so the thing don’t never slip agin. But it takes balls!

  • Todd

    o, tricky, i don’t think that would ever go over with the xtracycle people. but it would be cool if the top stay were ovalized at the factory, and flipped around to improve the clearance for many smaller and not-so-small “compact” frames, like so: [flipstay]

  • Nicolas Nelson

    Wow. Except for the bit about forthrightness in business communiques (I totally agree: have disarmed some very unhappy customers that way, and by the end, one of them actually was encouraging me and giving me positive suggestions for how to avoid frustrating folks like him in the future), this is over my head. But I want to learn to swim in these waters. Thanks, all, for using precise terms not wrench slang so I can figure things out as I read.

    Can’t wait to slip over to my local bike shop and take a look at their torque wrench.

    –a possible future Stokemonkey customer

  • Nicolas Nelson

    …and by the way, when are you coming out with that rear-triangle bag that rock* mentioned?
    …bug Todd at I think he’s about to have just such a bag produced to hold the controller for his stokemonkey electric x; it should hold other goodies, too
    [xtracycle forums>product suggestions>rear triangle bag]

  • Customer (Mike)

    A few more details:

    I’m tightening the clamp bolts in the cold, my garage isn’t heated, and is pretty close to ambient temps.

    I don’t have, and I’m not wild about, torque wrenches in this application. The adjusting space is quite small. I am tightening the bolts until they chirp (per an email from Todd), which should be sufficient. I also don’t like Loctite. It makes taking things on and off much more difficult. I would prefer to think of a different method to maintain bolt tension, if necessary.

    I did not understand the importance of the tensioning cable. It did loosen completely in one of my last rides, and the chain was so slack the bike couldn’t be ridden. I now have it cinched very tightly, with very taut chain tension. I rode 20 miles this morning in 30F temps. I checked chain and cable tension when I arrived. Both were still very tight. I’m hoping this solves my problem with chain derailing. However, my freewheel started slipping 18 miles in. I’m using a Shimano 16 tooth. Does anyone have any experience with the White Industries ENO freewheel in cold to very cold weather? I’m drooling over the dual cog version–16 tooth on one side, 18 on the other. I’d use the 16 for winter, and the 18 for high speed commuting in more clement weather.

    I’ve said this above, and I’ll say it again: I am absolutely happy with Todd’s service and commitment to this endeavor.

    [Mauricio--who are you? It's fun to see other Madisonians on this list. I'm wondering where your interests lie wrt SM and biking?]


  • Bill Manewal

    Mike – I recently installed the heavy duty 18T ENO and it’s a beauty. (The Shimano bearings bit the dust, perhaps because of too much tension on the chain from a turnbuckle I was experimenting with). The sound of the 6 pawls is like a Swiss watch.

    It never gets very cold here in San Francisco, but if you drop an email to White Industries, they may have some cold temp experience to share. I was going to get the combo unit like you, but I wasn’t sure of the spacing. Let us know how it works out.

    BTW, I use a 10″ extension on my ratchet and an allen-head socket wrench to tighten the clamp bolts – lots of room.

    Congrats on getting the cable to do its job. I’ve found that once it does its initial stretching and get adjusted, it holds things just fine. I’ve also found that looking down on the alignment of the chain and chainwheel while perched on my seat riding, is a good way to check proper lineup and prevent chain derailments.

    Ride on,

  • Jeffrey Osborne

    A lot of small businesses succeed due to this level of personal attention. Many of them share this experience one customer at a time. Part of the brilliance of the blog is that it documents (and shares) Todd’s care and concern for making this whole deal kick ass. Plus, a post like this has all the elements of a good story. I like good stories.

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