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Strider Sports International Inc. founder and CEO Ryan McFarland credits the Internet, social media and an aggressive marketing campaign for his company's recent growth. PHOTO: STRIDER SPORTS INTERNATIONAL INC.

SD: No-pedal bike company hits its stride

The Black Hills, home to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and miles of scenic bicycle trails, is a great place for anything on two wheels. But it wasn't location that prompted Ryan McFarland to launch Rapid City, S.D.-based balance bike company Strider Sports International Inc. six years ago. Instead, he has his son to thank for the inspiration.

"I had a two-year-old and was an over-eager dad who wanted to share my passion for riding with him," McFarland says. An avid motorcycle racer and bike rider, McFarland says he filled his garage and house with every type of child's riding toy available, but soon realized that every ride-on toy on the market was simply too heavy, too big and too complex for the toddler set. Being an entrepreneur and inventor (he holds several U.S. patents), McFarland's tendency to tinker kicked in and led him to create the perfect bike for tykes -- a no-pedal bike that was light-weight enough for his toddler to handle and low enough to the ground for his little legs to move it. He had no intention of getting into the bike business, but steady inquiries from would-be customers who saw his son's bike soon changed his mind. "We realized that there was too much interest not to do something with it," he says.

McFarland launched Strider in 2007 and spent most of the year working nights and weekends to develop the prototypes and acquire financing while still working full-time at the mortgage company he owned. He received the first shipment of bikes from a manufacturer in China that November and sold a modest 6,000 bikes in 2008. Sales started taking off in 2009 as word spread about the product and the business grew at such a rate that McFarland sold his mortgage company in order to focus entirely on Strider. By 2010, the company had grown to include five employees and moved its operations into a large warehouse space in Rapid City to house its inventory. This year, the company expects to sell more than 300,000 bikes worldwide, amounting to $13 million in sales. Strider currently employs 30 people and will expand to an even larger facility this fall to accommodate the company's continuous growth.

McFarland credits the Internet, an aggressive marketing campaign and parents, who serve as Strider's "army of unpaid salesmen," for the company's growth.

"I would never even have started the company from Rapid City if the Internet didn't exist," he says, adding that exports account for about half of the company's sales. Social media has also played a prominent role in Strider's growth. The company sets up riding areas at events large and small around the world, including parades, home shows, the Indy 500 and Sturgis, attracting toddlers and skeptical parents who can't help but take photos of their children and share them via social media after seeing their tiny tots ride a bike. The viral marketing campaign extends to neighborhoods as well. "Every time a bike goes out into a neighborhood, it helps sell more bikes," he says.

No-pedal bikes are not a new invention, but parents who likely have envisioned a bike with training wheels as their child's first bicycle typically need a little convincing to give it a try, McFarland says. For this reason, it's often other parents who serve as Strider's most effective sales people. And Strider's bikes differ from competitor's products in that they are designed specifically for very small children, ages 18 months and up, offering kids the chance to begin riding as soon as they are able to walk, which parents often have difficulty believing until they see it, he says.

Strider plans to continue marketing its product around the world, including on its home turf. The company is planning to display its products at three locations during the Sturgis bike rally this year, setting up booths at the Buffalo Chip campground, the motorcycle museum on Main Street in Sturgis and at Black Hills Harley Davidson in Rapid City.

By October, McFarland hopes to be settled into the company's new building, giving everyone time to gear up for the end-of-the-year rush. "Christmas season is out of control here," he says. "That's our No. 1 season." PB

Kris Bevill

Editor, Prairie Business