Twisted Throttle: A Look Behind the Scenes
There aren’t too many companies that hang a disco ball in their board room. There also aren’t too many companies whose CEO laughs at himself and the fact that he has (accidentally) set motorcycles on fire on more than one continent. Or, companies leading the charge on technical support with the industry’s highest marks for resolving issues, along with requiring that all employees have their motorcycle licenses. Yet that’s the way it rolls at Twisted Throttle and with its founder and CEO Erik Stephens. It’s serious business, but it’s also fun.
The company started by accident. In 2002 Erik was planning a motorcycle camping trip, but at the time the only crash protection and luggage available for his V-Strom 1000 was from European company SW-MOTECH. They told him they’d only ship to the U.S. if he had a large enough order so Stephens organized a group buy. Soon after, V-Strom enthusiasts asked him to organize another group buy… then another and another… a year and a half later he quit his day job to dedicate himself full-time to Twisted Throttle.
Distributing motorcycle parts was great, but early on Stephens was frustrated that so many cool products from different manufacturers didn’t work together. He persuaded companies such as Kaoko™ Cruise Controls and Barkbusters Handguards to tweak their designs so one could, say, use a throttle lock with a full-wrap hand guard. There were many similar compatibility projects.
Twisted Throttle also encouraged fitment for bikes the suppliers hadn’t considered. For instance, the KLR650 was not sold in Europe, so SW-MOTECH did not make accessories for it. Twisted Throttle bought one, designed their own accessories, and had SW-MOTECH produce them.
From there Twisted Throttle moved into making their own hard parts, and since 2011 have added Twisted Throttle Hard Parts (mounts and racks), Denali Adventure Electronics (auxiliary lighting), and Dry Spec Luggage (100% waterproof and submersible luggage). And, they continue to develop more as problem solving opportunities arise.
“I try to instill in our staff the idea of wowing our customers—to listen to their feedback, and build gear so that they only have to buy it once,” says Erik. “We also provide good advice so that they get the gear that’s right for their use and budget the first time. We figure that if we build that kind of trust, folks will come back and seek our advice again and again.” According to Mr. Twisted, that attitude is the backbone of their 10-year run to an “overnight success.”
In 2010 Twisted Throttle purchased a 27,000-square foot building in Exeter, Rhode Island, and adapted it to meet their needs. The new layout allows for quicker and more efficient operations, completing the feedback loop from customers to engineering. There’s a service center across from the prototyping and sewing departments, as well as a photo and video studio. There’s a 4,500 square foot store; a service center for maintenance, installations and tire changes; and areas for outdoor seating, camping and training (with a 12-foot movie screen). They now host workshops and guest speakers—actively seeking out useful and fun reasons for customers to come by. This spring they’re opening a customer café, completing Stephens’ vision of Twisted Throttle as a motorcycle destination for those traveling the east coast.
While Twisted Throttle is a serious business supporting an efficient warehouse, fast shipping, and a massive catalog, Erik still manages to keep it fun. His “Meat Wednesday” (free employee lunch that’s evolved into a contest of food props and outrageous costumes), party lights in the conference room, and the annual Open House, all bring levity to the serious business of shipping motorcycle parts. “It keeps our people committed to each other and on the same team as we grow,” Stephens says. “That’s important.”
Most folks who come to work at the company are already motorcycle enthusiasts. They have three track day instructors, an MSF dirt bike school instructor, three MSF street instructors, and most of the other employees either commute on bikes or have been on long distance motorcycle adventures. “We also have a ton of riders who ride all year round in both sport and adventure styles. They’re constantly rolling into the shop and running into our design director’s work area with ideas on how to make something better,” says Erik. “It’s something that brings us all together. Everyone that picks up the phone here has a motorcycle license, rides, and has probably installed the products many times the customers are calling about.”
Even though Stephens is an extremely busy guy, he still takes a few weeks annually to go to some faraway place to ride—and break stuff. “I’ve broken motorcycles on six out of seven continents so far,” chuckles Stephens. “Partly it’s for fun, but it’s also to make sure that what we design stands up to the punishment riders experience out there, every day, day after day.” Most of the employees have also been given time to go on extensive rides or epic trips.
“The best product is the one you don’t have to struggle to install, worry about whether it works, and it’s not bothering you because something isn’t quite right,” says Erik. Doing track days, going on adventures, exhibiting at trade shows, and using the gear they sell—are the main ways that Stephens figures they can best serve their customers. It’s also just fun to twist the throttle.
This story first appeared in the May/June 2014 edition of Adventure Motorcycle Magazine.