Between last week’s Back To The Future Day and their presence in every rapper’s Instagram feed, interest in hoverboards is at an all-time high. While Lexus came closer than anyone to making one that actually hovers, the term “hoverboard” has become the commonly accepted way to describe devices that use accelerometers and gyroscopes to move people around. Because of its technology, the Onewheel is sometimes lumped into that category as well. But Onewheel founder Kyle Doerksen wants to do much more than provide a way for rappers to tool around their living rooms. While Onewheel is a device, Doerksen also sees it as an entirely new boardsport akin to surfboarding, skateboarding, and snowboarding—and he has found fans in some of those sports’ biggest stars, including surf champion Kelly Slater and former Olympic snowboarder Todd Richards.
The Onewheel launched on Kickstarter in January 2014 and took off immediately. Within two days it achieved its lofty $100,000 funding target; In the end, Onewheel raised $630,000 over three weeks. Doerksen, an engineer who had worked on everything from toys to furniture at the design firm IDEO, originally wasn’t sure if he wanted to commit fully to Onewheel. But after the success of the Kickstarter he was all in.
The idea for Onewheel was born out of Doerksen’s love of snowboarding. He was looking for a way to replicate the feeling of riding powder in a way that was less dependant on weather and location. A lot of obscure skateboard-like designs have attempted similar things over the years, but the Onewheel actually delivers.
We spoke with Doerksen—who first began tinkering with prototypes of what would eventually become the Onewheel in 2008—about developing the product, the reactions people have when they first set foot on it, and what he thinks about those, as he calls them, “silly two-wheel things.”
What made you want to create Onewheel?
There’s three main aspects to that. The first one is the emotional one. I grew up snowboarding in the Canadian Rockies, and snowboarding in powder is the gold standard for my boardsport experience. It introduces this whole 3D, floaty, Silver Surfer experience. I wanted to create a ride experience that was like that but didn’t need absolute perfect conditions to deliver. The brain level was about this fascination with new technology that was coming out. I got a bunch of early experience with motion sensor technology, accelerometers and then gyros, and also the control systems technology. I’m a big 1960s history buff—going to the moon and the Apollo program—and engineers being like, we are going to do these things that are hard and high risk but if we do them it’ll be awesome. The last aspect was more practical. I would take the train when I went to our San Francisco office at IDEO and it was half a mile from the station to the office. I was inevitably late for meetings, and I thought there has to be some better way to get from A to B.
What kind of things were you working on before Onewheel?
I worked on all kinds of stuff—smart furniture for Steelcase, amazing surgical equipment for Medtronics. I worked on a little toy plane that rides around on the ground and a kid controls by waving his arms like their flying. For me, this idea of creating, inventing, and designing, it comes from the heart. It’s not just here’s a business opportunity, but here’s how we can use technology to create a new experience for people that makes life better. That’s what guided my leap to build Onewheel. There was this internal North star that said if we can build this thing, people are going to really like it.
Were you surprised at how the Kickstarter campaign took off?
I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a totally crazy time for me and for the company, which at that point was just me and our first hire, Jack Mudd. We made a move to launch at [the tech tradeshow] CES and on Kickstarter on the same day. Like I said, I’m usually late. So I was late getting out the door to drive to Vegas for CES. I get to Barstow and was at a Starbucks and was like we have to click go on this Kickstarter. We gotta just do it. So I click go and order a venti drip coffee and hop back in the car. Meanwhile Jack is left to field all these inbound emails from the Kickstarter. We funded our $100,000 goal in two days and we just blew through it. I had studied Kickstarter campaigns and usually what you see is a big surge of interest on Day 1 and 2 and then it really levels out and there’s a lull in the middle and then there’s a big spike at the end. Our Kickstarter was totally different, it was super consistent through the whole thing. It just kept accelerating and in three weeks we raised $630,000, which was a totally life-changing experience for me. I was a little one foot in, one foot out. Once we were six times over-funded, I was like there’s no going back, there’s only going forward.
How many have you sold so far?
We don’t disclose those numbers but it’s several thousand.
What is so unique about the Onewheel experience?
It’s really the feeling of riding it. I talked about these three things—the riding, the technology and the transportation benefit—but the thing that has positively surprised me is that what has gotten the market really excited is the ride experience. Onewheel is similar to powder snowboarding, but it’s also its own ride experience. You have this ability to just ride over different terrain that you could never do on a skateboard, from dirt to grass to gravel. We don’t talk as much about the transportation and technology side of it. It’s really about if you love riding boards give this experience a try. The cool thing is we meet these high level board sports people, WSL surfers, Olympic snowboarders. We get them riding, and they’re like what’s cool about this thing is it’s not trying to be something it isn’t. It’s not trying to be a skateboard. It’s happy to be it’s own thing.
Who are some of the people from action sports who have tried it?
Tony Hawk rode it. He’s got a couple of them down at his place in SoCal. We got to meet Kelly Slater. He came by our office and rode an early prototype. The first prototypes were much harder to ride but Kelly was putting on a clinic, showing us how to do all these things we had no idea you could do. [Former pro snowboarder] Todd Richards is riding around a lot. He’s an addict, as is Dave England from Jackass. Surfer Jamie O’brien has a board. Twitch from the motocross world is riding around. The motocross guys are like if it has a motor, I want it.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve seen someone ride on a OneWheel?
We’ve seen videos of riders go all the way up Squaw Valley resort. They don’t even really have mountain bike trails. Riding on the beach has become a touchstone for people. Where the water comes up and is packing that sand, you can totally Onewheel on that surface. It’s just this magical, floating feeling. We recommend not crashing into ocean, but it’s definitely water resistant. One thing that people don’t understand is the uphill capabilities. The guy that got serial number one, we hand delivered it to him in San Francisco. The first day he rode it up Lombard Street just to see what this thing could do. We were at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail this summer and set up a Onewheel race track, with water features and berms and balance beams. You get the sense that there is going to be an element of this that is a competitive sport based around racing and tricks and judges and all that stuff. Sometimes we get lumped into this alternate transportation world. To us we feel like it’s a superficial comparison. What we’re building is a new boardsport. No one says so-and-so is a great Segway rider. On Onewheel there’s definitely great riders, good riders and newbie riders. The great riders can do stuff that you didn’t think anybody could do.
Are more people using it in urban environments or the outdoors?
It depends on where people live. We have riders in South Florida that live in an urban jungle but they’re finding fun stuff to ride. Then we’ve got Lake Tahoe and Moab, Utah- based riders that are mobbing trails all the time. It does crossover. The guy that rides a lot of trails also may ride into town to get his latte.
How do you feel about the two-wheel hoverboards that are on the market?
That trend came out of nowhere as far as we’re concerned. When we look at those products there are couple things that are key differences. One is the sport element. We call them ‘silly two-wheel things,’ I don’t know what they’re actually called. There’s not a lot of progression going on in silly two-wheel land. Guys are super stoned riding around their living room and I don’t know what else. You learn how to ride it, maybe it takes 5-10 minutes, and then you’re there. There’s not this nature of getting a little better. Onewheel is a burly machine designed to go into the world and have a hell of a lot of fun which is very different from what these other products are.
How many prototypes did you have to go through before landing on this design?
The production one is the seventh-generation design. The previous generations were things that I’d built in my garage. The first one the motor was not in the hub. The motor was hanging out of one end and there was a big chain like on a bike. The total weight was over 50 pounds. I really wanted to put the motor in the hub of the wheel and make it direct drive to simplify it and make it reliable. A lot of those prototypes used off-the-shelf motors and I really couldn’t find one that was going to do the trick. Once the Kickstarter success was apparent we engaged this motor company in Arizona to build motors using a very advanced motor technology. Even if you were a motor expert and you opened up the motor in a Onewheel you would be like what the hell is this. It doesn’t look anything like a conventional motor because we needed to get high amount of torque in a small diameter to fit inside our go-kart tire. The other big quest was getting software dialed in to create the ride experience. We’ve got this computer that 14,000 times a second is reading the motion of the board calculating how do I drive the motor in this instance. Part of the fun thing for me is sitting between these smart engineers and really good riders and trying to interpret things, as someone who speaks both those languages. The rider says, “I want it to be more carvy.” Then I think that means more proportional gain in the main balance loop. The engineers press some buttons and we’ve got a new firmware. Then they’ll ride that and let us know if it feels like a step in the right direction. The technology curves have intersected so that all kinds of amazing new vehicle form factors can be created. That was another motivation for me. Making an electric bike was cool but a bike is such a familiar thing. There’s evolution and then there’s revolution. We’ve got these new technologies how do we put them together in a new way not an old way?
It’s been a wild ride. Our team is about 12 people here in Santa Cruz and we’re expanding. We’ve been backordered since Day 1 so we’re working hard to increase the rate of production so that we can meet market demand. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on market demand, it’s like, oh no we need double or triple. It’s a good problem to have. Also at our advanced design studio we are working on future stuff which is exciting. I can’t say a lot about it. Just know that this is our first product but it’s definitely not our last.