Just as with all great inventions, the SmartAss is a simple product in its purest form. In the true definition of minimalism, this product is boldly stripped from all unnecessary tingle and tangle, and left with only the barest essentials. Hence, the smart words of famous French thinker Antoine de Saint-Exupery are most relevant here: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.
Coinciding with the landslide victory in the Product of 2012 category in Bikeminimalism Awards, we got a little eager to find out a little more about Ass-Savers, the tiny Swedish company that invented the SmartAss. So we took the head ass-saver, the Gothenburg-based companys’ co-founder and Chief Eternal Optimist Staffan Weigel for a covert interrogation behind the bike shed. And here is the outcome:
A Smart-Ass, pictured last night
Firstly, congratulations guys for winning the Product of 2012 -category in this year’s awards!
I understand Ass-Savers began as a story of a bunch of cyclists and friends from Gothenburg, Sweden. Who are you guys and what are your backgrounds?
Well, the short version is that we are five designers/engineers/entrepreneurs/friends who share a common passion for bikes and clean, simple solutions. Add a bit of unsophisticated and immature sense of humour to the mix and strange things happens.
What first possessed you to come up with the idea for Smart-Ass?
I was going home from work one day only to find it was pouring down outside. In an act of creative desperation I grabbed a piece of cardboard and showed it underneath the saddle to at least get home reasonably dry. To my surprise it worked. I don’t think I was the first one who used this method to save my ass but being a designer I saw potential. That’s when I called the others and said I might have come up with something useful for once and luckily they believed me.
Staffan, the Chief Eternal Optimist of AssSavers
What were the beginnings like?
Awesome. We didn’t really take it super serious in the start and we thought that we might convince some of our friends to buy one or two. After many hand cut prototypes we made the first hundred by a hand driven die-cutter and our local bike shop said they could give it a try. We found it a bit difficult to explain to people what we’ve done so we made a very simple video and put it on Vimeo. That’s when things really started to go crazy. The video spread on internet like wildfire and was at some point embedded in over 180 blogs worldwide. People started mailing us and wanted to transfer money to purchase the Ass Saver so we had to build a web shop in two hours to handle all the requests. I must say that it’s with a very special pride that I can say that my ass in the video has been viewed almost 200 000 times so far!
An early prototype.
One of the clever things about your product is the material you use. Tell us about that.
It’s made out of PP or polypropylene which is one of the nicer polymers in our opinion. It’s toxic free and very easy to recycle. The first batches were made from ”hacked” production where we used waste material from the printing industry. This soon became unviable when the demand increased rapidly and we had to source material elsewhere. We now use recycled PP in about 60-70% of our total production and we are hoping to increase that even more in the future.
I remember seeing a video online about your manufacturing process. Do you still manufacture the products yourselves?
Ah, you mean the squeaky die-cutting prototype machine? To be honest, after the first hundred we got pretty exhausted and we found a local manufacturer in Gothenburg who could produce them for us in larger numbers. This worked fine for a while but when our orders grew, they couldn’t really deliver and we had to make the tough decision to move production to the far east. We discovered that 60 km was enough and now we have a super modern manufacturer in the town of Borås that can keep up with us.
You claim to bring the environmental aspects throughout the whole life cycle of the product. What does that involve?
It includes a number of considerations. To start, it is made out of PP which is one of the good guys in plastic, even though it’s oil based. A SmartAss is very light and uses about 1/10th of the raw material needed to make a normal beavertail fender. This also dramatically reduces the impact from transportation of the product. But maybe the most important factor is that it’s designed to be fully recycled. It consists of only one material so there is no disassembly after it’s life is over. The PP is a very common packaging material and therefore it fits easily into existing recycling systems all over the world. Speaking of packaging, we decided to skip it as the product needs no protection and we can ship extremely dense that way. There’s a whole list of other stuff that we also considered in the process and these things are at the core of what we do. We try to challenge “business as usual” as much as we can.
You received nearly a fifth of all the votes in your category. How many Smart-Asses are there around the world and which countries do you currently export to?
I don’t have an exact answer to that but I think we have shipped about 60 000 units by now. Currently we have distributors in the whole of EU, Scandinavia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, South Africa, China (yes, we produce a simple plastic piece in Sweden and export it to China), Philippines and Singapore. We are still looking for a good partner in the US though.
It seems like you’re in the right place at the right time. Cycling is booming globally at the moment. Why do you think it’s growing so much right now?
I’m not sure but I think a lot of it has to do with a growing eco awareness around the world and maybe especially from the trendsetting creative industry. Hopefully it will stay as the trend moves on. Personally I’m stoked about the bicycle as an invention. It is ridiculously efficient and the joy I get from riding it makes me never want to own a car.
It seems that many metropolitan areas and municipalities around the world are determined to increase cycling through political decision making. Buzzwords like copenhagenization are dropped in all corners of the world. Where do you think it’s going?
There are MASSIVE savings to be made in all aspects of society by shifting over to bicycle oriented transportation. Cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam has proven that if you build the infrastructure, people will bike. I think that’s the key to maintain the high level of biking once the trend has worn off. Hopefully decision makers understand this and take action while the interest among voters are high.
What’s the cycling like in you home town?
Gothenburg is a fairly hilly city so riding fixed is fairly tough on your legs. Combine that with tram tracks and poor street surfacing and it can be quite challenging. Bike lanes are being built so the city is moving in the right direction and there are some really nice rides along the coast line. We also have excellent mountainbike areas within the city limits that deserves a mentioning.
Do you have any plans for new products in the pipeline?
As a matter of fact, we have just released our new model for Brooks saddles called BrookShield. It’s been a long process with this one and we know that many riders have been veeery patient with us. We think it was worth it and hopefully they will finally be happy dry asses.
The aptly-named BrookShield for Brooks saddles.
Any shoutouts or thanks?
We like to thank every one who have given us amazing feedback along the way. Johan at Childstore our mothershop, Feya and the guys at Brick Lane Bikes for great support, our competitor Olaf at FendorBendor for being so open and collaborative, Federico Gardin at Selle San Marco magic guerrilla marketing, our girlfriends for financial support in the beginning. And last but not least every single one of our customers who enabled us to do this for a living. Unbelievable. Thank you.