Three Wheels to Glory Can its promoters make Trikke THE NEXT BICYCLE, or will it become another quickly forgotten fad?
By Bill Barol

(FORTUNE Small Business) – The first time John Simpson laid eyes on a Trikke, it wasn't exactly one of those "eureka" moments. Coming out of a Santa Monica sushi bar, he saw a man standing on some sort of preposterous three-wheeled scooter. The contraption looked so ungainly, Simpson says, "I swear to God I was embarrassed for him." Then the guy--Gildo Beleski, the Trikke's Brazilian inventor--pushed off down Ocean Avenue. Seeing Beleski in motion, Simpson says, "I had a complete 180-degree reassessment of what he was on." Simpson did what any entrepreneur would do: He ran after Beleski, yelling for him to stop. Simpson, 41, laughs at the memory.

It's three years later, and Simpson is now the president of Trikke Tech, based in a funky new warehouse space in Marina Del Rey, Calif., and on the brink, he claims, of $50 million in annual sales. It's hard to believe he can make the projection with a straight face, with sales of $10 million in 2003 and less than $1 million in 2002. After all, you can roll only so far on buzz and a celebrity clientele (Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt are Trikke fans). Simpson knows that better than most; he's spent much of the past decade peddling fads, from Tamigochi pets to Pogs disc-flipping games. This time his aim is to build a brand for the long run, a goal that may be as elusive as a clear path through Santa Monica traffic on a sunny Saturday.

A big part of the problem is that execs at Trikke, whose product is best described in Hollywood terms--the Razor scooter meets the tricycle meets in-line skates!--believe it has almost universal appeal. For a new product, appealing to everyone often means appealing to no one. And Simpson has chosen to focus on what appears to be the most difficult promotional route: He wants to establish Trikke as the platform for a new competitive sport. The company has hired Ulf Kappler, a German who was instrumental in setting up in-line downhill slalom skating as a competitive event in Europe, to prepare a plan for Trikke. Simpson is looking for someone to play a similar role in the U.S. His hope is to stage the first Trikkathlons this summer, around the time of the Ispo sporting goods show in Munich. Lee Diercks, a sporting goods industry veteran and a managing director of retail consultant Clear Thinking Group in Hillsborough, N.J., thinks Simpson's plan is a long shot, but good strategy. "Snowboarding, in-line skating--a lot of this stuff started out in nontraditional ways," he says.

Behind Simpson's desire to create a competitive Trikke culture is the understanding that his journey from mocking the "cambering vehicle" (as it's known on its two U.S. patents) to wanting one is the common experience. No one is going to plunk down $139 to $199 for a Trikke without seeing it in action. "We jumped the gun through one of our licensees and went into Wal-Mart, which was premature," says Simpson. "You have no salespeople in Wal-Mart to explain the product." Although Trikke needs both specialty retailers and mass merchandisers to sell its product, it is adopting a guerrilla approach to spur sales. The company will dispatch demonstration teams around the U.S.--first in California and Florida, then Texas, and, by early summer, the Northeast. To capitalize on the "What's that?" factor, the demo riders will hand out cards that direct interested observers to local retailers.

Of course, those curiosity seekers will need to become evangelistic riders, and that may be Trikke's hardest sell. Delicately balanced on two independent foot platforms and with unexpected physics, the vehicle tends to keep moving without much conscious propulsion by the rider. That takes some getting used to. "It's both cool and tedious," says Taylor Elmore, a Los Angeles television writer, trying out a Trikke for the first time.

Simpson, despite having seen both boom and bust in the leisure trade, is convinced that the world is about to get three-wheeled religion. When he talks about Trikke, he uses words such as "joy" and "innovation." He says, "If we could do 5% of the bicycle's sales, that'd be great." It sure would: He's talking about a quarter-billion dollars a year.

Simpson's storklike baby may never take wing and fly. It may only fill a niche in the great American leisure market, or take its place next to Tamigochis. Either way, it won't be because its parents aimed low.