Bump into Josh Kissner out on the trails and one thing is certain: you’ll never find him without his backpack, laden with test parts and tools. That makes more sense when you learn that Josh is product manager at Santa Cruz and plays a significant role in the development of their bikes. We joined him for a ride in Squamish to chat about Santa Cruz, his role in the company and the future of the sport.
It’s a sunny day in August when we meet Josh for a ride on his home trails in Squamish. At first glance he looks like a regular mountain biker – unsurprising given the region we’re in – and really, that is all he is. But when you learn what his job involves and you also realise there’s a lot more going on. He helps shape key developments in the bikes we ride and he does it all in the name of fun for us. For Josh, every ride is about testing and improving the experience, hence the backpack with spare parts for on-the-fly experiments or part swaps.
Josh and Santa Cruz go back a long way. When he first started as a bike mechanic for the brand 16 years ago, it had only 25 employees. His role evolved over time and he went into technical support for the marketing before spending the past decade in product management. A year ago he moved from California to Squamish for a variety of reasons, including his wife’s Canadian heritage and, of course, the many, many great trails here.
A common misconception about product managers is that they spend each day testing brand new parts. Josh is quick to refute this: you’ll find him for a few hours at his computer each morning, followed by video calls with colleagues and suppliers. Once the paperwork is done, the legwork begins which means venturing into his garage where a legion of prototypes are waiting to be tested.
During his long stint at Santa Cruz, Josh has been more than just a witness to its development. He’s partially responsible for it. There’s little doubt that the brand is on the up and our most recent reader survey confirms it. To the question, “Who builds the best bikes?” the response swung heavily in favour of Santa Cruz who snapped up 20.7% of the vote. The next closest brand only got a 9.4% share. So what’s behind the company’s upward tangent?
When Josh first started at Santa Cruz, the brand had a very straightforward process which meant that work wouldn’t begin on a new model until the one before had been launched. These days there’s a more complex rhythm to manage, with anything up to four new launches per year of either new or revised bikes. There’s a slew of models to explore on the website and while most brands tend to have clearly defined categories of XC, trail or enduro bikes, there’s a bit more crossover at Santa Cruz. As an interested customer, you could easily be weighing up the choice between a Tallboy, 5010, Bronson, Megatower or Nomad.
When a bike is two years old – we are often sick of it and want to create something new!
But with such variety and rapid product cycles, it makes you wonder whether all these new models are even worth buying? And we aren’t just talking about value for customers. After all, developing a new model has many inherent development and production costs. Josh, however, isn’t concerned with this question (at least, not at first). By the time a bike turns two or three years old, Josh and his colleagues are wary of its relevance. Sure, it’s expensive to develop new bikes, he admits. However, they are driven to always create the best product possible and as soon as they learn something new whilst developing a model, they want to apply that learning to every bike. In the end, the new models sell better, as the cycling sector is constantly pursuing new and more exciting products.
Santa Cruz was acquired by Pon Holdings in 2015 and while that’s opened up additional resources to the brand, it hasn’t made it as big as many of the industry’s major players. As a fairly small brand in comparison, it makes it even more remarkable that Santa Cruz is able to keep the pace with launches, trends and developments. “Instead of trying to chase after whatever purported innovations are around, we do what we are good at.” explains Josh. In concrete terms, this means Santa Cruz won’t even consider the idea of their own, fully integrated dropper post or their own suspension fork. These are things that are outside their expertise and they choose to work closely with suppliers instead. “When developing a bike our focus is on the kinematics, geometry, the layup of the frame and all the other details. We make bars and rims as well, but those are carbon parts where we can invest a lot of our know-how,” he continues, adding that just because they make rims doesn’t mean they would make hubs. It would be a poor investment of time and they prefer to rely on tried-and-tested specialists. High quality products are the priority for Santa Cruz, regardless of where they’re sourced from.
Santa Cruz is riding the wave of success now and some have complained that it’s on the verge of being mass-market and losing its exclusivity. It’s a situation that the brand acknowledges and Josh explains how they’re trying to make sure clients don’t feel that the brand is being devalued by keeping a sense of tribe and community with its riders. He isn’t overly concerned though: quality always wins through and exclusive isn’t synonymous with high-end. He throws an example as us. “Look at a Porsche 911 – it’s not super exclusive, but every 911 is synonymous with high performance and quality.” His own perspective of Santa Cruz is that even though it’s high-end and seriously high performance, it shouldn’t just be the reserve of a small and elite clientele.
This view is reflected in the brand’s commitment to offering a lifelong warranty on both frames and bearings. “We’ve had catastrophic bearings in the past,” admits Josh, “but that’s no longer the case, so why shouldn’t we promise such a thing when a customer is buying an expensive product and therefore won’t have to worry? It adds up for us and making sure that our clients are happy is worth every cent.”
Josh might be Santa Cruz’s Product Manager, but first and foremost he’s a mountain biker that wants to make the best bikes possible
The more we chat, the clearer it becomes that whoever takes on the role of product manager needs a thick skin. “There’s always someone with a reason to complain,” says Josh, whether it’s at a bike launch with the media, in online forums, or even amongst colleagues while the bike is still in development. Maybe the tires are too heavy, the seat angle too slack, or the chainstays too short. Or maybe it needs more travel, or a few millimetres extra reach. “You can’t please everyone, so the key thing is to make sure that every decision is grounded in considered decision-making.” The team at Santa Cruz spend a lot of time discussing new projects democratically and everyone has the opportunity to contribute their thoughts. But ultimately there’s one person responsible for the decisions – it doesn’t come down to a cooperative vote. “This process helps you to constantly second-question yourself and defend your own position on things,” explains Josh.
Our conversation ends with the question of what Josh would like to see from the bike industry. He doesn’t need to think for long. “I’d like to see simpler aesthetics in general. I see so much over-designing to make things look more technologically advanced than they are. Other industries are capable of uniting a sophisticated, high-end image with a clean design. Of course, this is a matter of personal taste. I’m not an industrial designer but I prefer straightforward designs that are clean and functional.”
After a loop around Squamish’s trails, we feel like we’ve hit the core of what counts for Josh. Discussions and meetings are important but ultimately a great bike is all about how well it rides. And it’s up to Josh and the contents of his backpack to interpret that for Santa Cruz. For him, performance is his focus!
Of course we’ve tested the current Santa Cruz Nomad CC (Click for review), Santa Cruz Megatower CC (Click for review) and the Santa Cruz Bronson CC (Click for review) to see how the MTBs from Santa Cruz compare against the competition.
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Words & Photos: Christoph Bayer