Shifting Gears: A Conversation with Sean Simpson

Sean Simpson is living the dream. The 27-year-old Troy resident had spent too many years of his life wearing the shirt and tie uniform of an engineer, filling out TPS reports, and rolling his eyes at the Lumbergs who infested his office. Today he is running an innovative start-up, AutoBike, pursuing his MBA at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, and working in jeans as he pleases and when he pleases.

"I hate having to come in at an exact certain time, super scheduled," Simpson says. "Life doesn't seem to work that way -- forcing people into that makes them less efficient. If I think a certain way is the best way to do something, I want to do it that way. I don't want to have to work within certain confines."

That doesn't mean the path Simpson travels is a smooth one. He's working twice as many hours by building up AutoBike during the day, and then taking business classes at night and on the weekends. He does have help, however, from the company's three other co-founders and a handful of independent contractors.

Together they are working to develop AutoBike's highly innovative, automatic shifter. The idea is to create a mechanism that eliminates the guesswork of which bicycle gear makes pedaling the easiest for amateur cyclists. The company is in the final stages of developing its Beta version now and plans to begin selling it later this year.

AutoBike's co-founders didn't know they wanted to create this technology at first. The four friends from a variety of backgrounds (engineering, product development, private equity, etc.) held bi-weekly meetings in early 2010 to figure out the best idea to base their start-up ambitions around. About 18 months ago, one of the co-founders had a chance encounter with novice bicyclists pushing their bikes up a hill. It lit up the CFL above his head.

"They said it was too hard to pedal up this hill," Simpson says. "He said they were totally in the wrong gear and asked them why didn't they just shift. They said they had just bought these things and were just starting to get into biking. He was taken aback by that. He thought there must be something we can do that will make this easy so people can just get on and ride the bike."

"We wanted to pick an idea that wasn't so grandiose that you needed 10 years to figure out if it would work or not or was super capital intensive," Simpson says. "Something we could prove out with a concept fairly cheaply. The bike idea was a good one because there aren't a lot of regulations or barriers to entry."

Last fall that entrepreneurial seed had grown to the point where Simpson could leave his full-time job and focus on AutoBike, a dream his co-founders also aspire to. Simpson recently sat down with Metromode's Jon Zemke to talk about bicycling, live/work/school balance and why business plan competitions should be more standardized.

You're still in the early stages of your business. Is being an entrepreneur everything you envisioned it would be?

It's 90 percent unlike what I thought it would be and 10 percent what I thought it would be. The challenges are completely different. I thought I would be nose to the grind stone working on the technology stuff. You know, what I am good at. Instead I spend a lot of my time working on stuff I am not qualified for, like finding and recruiting the right people. I didn't think I would have to learn how to become a public speaker. But we have done a couple of pitch events where I had to put a few presentations together.

So have the rose-colored glasses come off yet?

For sure. It's not build the bike and everyone will line up at the door.

You're working to earn your MBA from U-M, which is not an inexpensive venture. It's also why many MBAs decide to work for big companies instead of start-ups. How are you able to pay for your education, work on AutoBike, and pay your bills at the same time?

Carefully. When I went to undergrad at LTU I had a full ride. The first year and a half that I worked at GM I lived at home because we were supposed to move plants. I saved a bunch of money along the way. I build race cars, and I sold one I built in school. [I] pretty much minimized expenses.

So your life parallels the lean start-up model of your company?

Yeah. I paid off my car before I left my job and I have a roommate so my cost of living isn't that high. I knew I wanted to start a company, so I was purposely not going on vacations and stuff like that.

I have heard a lot of entrepreneurs downplay the importance of MBAs these days. What's your take on the necessity of a business school education to run a business?

Where I think an MBA really helps out is minimizing costs of going from a start-up to an established business with revenues. An MBA teaches you how to run big companies and the point of a start-up is to grow it into a big company. A lot of the MBA stuff comes in when the start-up phase is done.

Autobike has received funding from the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund. Describe what that seed capital has meant to building your start-up?

It has kept us from making sacrifices that would make us uncomfortable. It has given us an extended runway so we can focus on the product and the business, not on what are we going to do for money. It has taken us from our second prototype to significant progress toward our production bicycle. It's been huge.

They also give you money before anyone else will give you money so they are vetting your idea in the process. The fact that we got that loan means people will consider investing in us that wouldn't have done it otherwise. There are some smart people who manage that loan and they see some value in that idea. Maybe it's a good thing for us to look into. Showing the progress you can make with small sums of money is the biggest value.

The business plan circuit is becoming a well-traveled path for local, student-run start-ups looking for seed capital. Sometimes it seems like there are too many of these competitions. What's your take as a new entrepreneur?

I don't think there is ever too many. If they could standardize the requirements it would make the lives of the entrepreneurs much easier.

AutoBike's technology, an automatic gear shifter, seems like an obvious idea. Has anyone else tried to create such technology and if so what sets AutoBike's technology apart?

There have been two big players that took a crack at it. Shimano did it in 2007 with a three-gear system. Landrider did it 2003 with a mechanical based system. We're using an embedded controller that can understand the exact riding conditions for the ride. We can understand not only how fast the bike is going but whether you're going uphill or downhill.

Metro Detroit is far better known for its car culture than bicycle culture. How close is the region to being truly bicycle friendly?

With all the plans I have seen for bike paths and rail to trails, I would say Detroit is trending better than just about any other city I have seen in the country. Within the next couple of years you will see a big shift of people riding more, especially if they can connect the suburbs to downtown.

Jon Zemke is the Job News Editor of Metromode and the Managing Editor of He conducted and condensed this interview over coffee with Simpson at Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood. His last feature was Being A Mompreneur: A Conversation with Lynne Golodner
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