JW Zhang has tinkered with bikes since it was his main means of transportation as a boy growing up in China, where he built his own. He also depended on a bicycle to get around after he moved to California to attend college. And after he graduated and began reselling Chinese-made goods in the U.S. via e-commerce to support himself, Zhang pivoted into cobbling together customized bicycles for a relatively small community of customers that was networked online.
Fast forward: Just eight years after formally starting Aventon Bikes, Zhang presides over a $100-million enterprise whose sales have tripled in the last year, owns a plant in China, employs about 350 in his native country and about 70 in America, and plans to construct a manufacturing plant that would move Aventon bicycle production to the United States by 2025.
What has provided the explosive fuel behind Aventon’s growth? Zhang managed to transition from making traditional bicycles into the electric-bike craze at precisely the right time, and now his company has become one of the main providers of the vehicles that have helped democratize “micromobility” at the same time that generations of Americans are re-examining their transportation options more closely than ever.
“Bicycles have been around for more than 100 years, but they are both close to and far from people,” the 33-year-old Zhang told Chief Executive. “Everyone knows what a bicycle is, but many of them haven’t really touched a bike for a long time. They think of bicycling as traditional and boring. And road and mountain bikers have gotten snobby and intimidating to the average rider—not inclusive.”
The assist that e-bikes give average riders, Zhang said, is akin to “when you go to the gym: One trainer tells you to go hot and kill yourself, while another one tries to get you to schedule consistency and encourages you to emphasize that. E-bikes encourage people to be more consistent in their bike-riding.”
Zhang attached battery-operated motors to his bicycles so that riders who weren’t really in shape, had trouble riding uphill, were elderly, had bad knees—or who wanted the flexibility of toggling between providing their own power and borrowing electric propulsion—could access bicycling. Aventon and other e-bikes allow riders to pedal on their own, rely fully on the battery, or operate in a hybrid mode, and of course riding methods and terrain affect a bike’s typical range of up to 100 miles on a charge.
Zhang learned about the format from early imported models from Europe and began to develop his own e-bikes in 2017, leveraging about $100,000 in capital that he garnered from his small bike business. “I not only had knowledge from the traditional bike industry,” he explained, “but I also knew about manufacturing because I was born in an industrial place. I understood plastic injection, stamping, diecast, forging—that was my advantage.”
Aventon brought its first e-bikes to market in 2019, and sales took off almost immediately as Americans were looking for more micromobility options for urban commutes, in an era that also favored scooters. Then Covid—by forcing more people to look for outdoor-recreation options—supercharged the e-bike phenomenon, and last year Aventon notched about $32 million in sales.
Now, Aventon has a line of e-bike models that range from about $1,100 to about $2,000, with thin or fat tires, step-through or not, foldable or not. The company has about 200 retail dealers across the nation, including in Alaska and Hawaii, which mostly are independent bicycle shops, and of course does a thriving business via e-commerce.
Aventon’s plant 200 miles southeast of Shanghai has been able to keep up with soaring demand so far, but Zhang’s next step, he said, is to build a highly automated factory in the United States that could compete with a Chinese facility considering landed costs and today’s increasing supply-chain complexities.
“Automation also would enable us to shorten the time of delivery to the consumer,” he said. “Today, from sourcing raw materials to building a complete bike and getting it to the customer takes two to three months. We want to be able to provide a much better experience, more customization and shorter delivery times—within a month. With pre-assembled bikes, for most customers we might be able to deliver within a day.”