By Josh Patterson
We caught up with Mountain Bike Review founder and general manager Francis Cebedo at Interbike. As one would expect, Francis was hard at work, hunched over his computer, keeping tabs on the website and uploading news and photos for the thousands of mountain bikers who visit the site each day. MTBR.com is many things to many riders: a valuable source of information, a place to connect with fellow riders, and sometimes, an inescapable black hole, robbing riders of time that could have been spent mountain biking.
How did MTBR come about?
I started riding in 1995. When I first saw the Internet in 1996 my first thought was “there needs to be a site for mountain biking.” The vision was about trust. I trust the people I meet on the trails more than magazines or advertisements. If I could build a site with users who trust each other it would be better for me. I was not looking to start a business; I was just looking for advice to help make me a better rider.
What was the initial reaction?
The idea of letting people publish their opinion was very radical. Now it’s an accepted part of the buying process. It was cool to see the progression, within a year Yahoo choose [MTBR.com] as a cool site. In the very early days about 95 percent of companies were against it, now maybe five are percent against it.
When did the site transition from a hobby to a full-time job?
In 1998 I had 15 unbuilt bike frames in my garage, because that’s how advertisers paid me. My wife, who was supporting me, wised up and said I better start making money. What motivated me to build a company was that the idea was not unique to mountain biking; it worked for many products, on a larger scale. There’s no patent to protect the idea, the only way to protect it was to be an early adopter, to build the company first.
You have many more competitors than you did 10 years ago. How does MTBR stay relevant?
I respect what other online outlets are doing and I try to learn from them, magazines as well. You can’t get over-confident. People come up with better stuff every day. There’s a real push to doing our core stuff better, reviews and forums. We are redesigning our user interface. We already have 1.5 million users on our old, crappy interface. We could probably have 2 million with a redesigned site.
Have your goals for the site changed over the past 15 years?
The goal hasn’t really changed. I think the goal of creating a great resource for sharing ideas has helped from day one to today. It’s really an information kiosk for everyone.
Which forum is the largest offender/troublemaker/source of headaches?
We had a political forum but it kinda went awry.
You get to ride a lot of bikes. What are your favorites?
I tend to ride singlespeed 29ers because the trails close to my house are relatively easy—singlespeeding makes them more challenging.
It seems like many people in the bike industry have a love/hate relationship with MTBR. Companies love it when their products get positive reviews from riders, but hate MTBR when pictures of their cracked frames are plastered all over the Internet.
I’ve been through some factory tours and the VP of marketing always has MTBR open. Companies have to be in-tune with the community. The winners are those companies that can communicate well with users to create excitement and solve problems. If the medium is used right, it can be a great way to communicate with customers and loyal fans. Customers are more likely to judge companies on how they deal with failure than success.
Do you think this shifts the balance of power from companies to consumers?
Definitely. In the old days, if a manufacturer dealt with a customer’s problem by telling them “You’re overweight.” or “You were riding it wrong.” that would have pretty much been the end of things. If a company does that today they are screwed. Today the customer is in much stronger place if they feel they are being mistreated.
Last Question: Can you quantify how many hours people waste viewing your site when they should be working?
[Laughs] We are a culprit of lost worker productivity. Once people are hooked on a forum, they’re really hooked. When our server goes down my email and Facebook page blow up. I get messages like, “I cannot go on with my day!” This is funny because people are addicted. It goes from CEO’s of bike companies to avid consumers, government workers and teachers; they’re all on the site.