Alta Motors has ceased operations after a decade of innovation, work, and some success. But is the apparent failure of this electric motorcycle company just the story of another startup that couldn’t cross the chasm, or is there something more going on?
Alta has been around at least as a glimmer in its designers’ eyes since 2007. Derek Dorresteyn and Jeff Sand loved the smooth torque curve of electric motors, and with their combined decades of engineering, fabrication, and design experience, decided to take on dirt bikes at their own game.
And in 2017, they reached their pinnacle, it seems, with their bike reaching victory in the Geneva Supercross. An almost stock Alta Redshift winning an international supercross race made it seem as if victory was within reach.
But as has been reported many times before, the motorcycle market has radically shifted over the past decade. It fell off a cliff in North America and Europe due to the 2008 recession, and has never recovered. Part of that is that the Baby Boomer generation embraced huge motorcycles in a quest for bragging rights about having the biggest… engine. Ludicrous displacements of up to 2,294 cc were found on two-wheelers. When motorcycles regularly had larger engines than many family cars, it was obvious that something odd was happening.
Harley-Davidson is the most obvious victim of expanding girth. As its North American sales fall, it’s chastised from the biggest bully pulpit in the world for shifting production to markets where it actually has hopes to expand and it tries to shift to electric drive trains, something it has only a faint hope of succeeding at.
And Harley-Davidson’s electrification plans play into the story of Alta Motors. In hindsight, it’s obvious that when Alta Motors’ funding hope was Harley-Davidson, there was a problem at Alta. The two brands are far, far apart. Alta is a San Francisco startup, a maker of silent race machines and looking forward to an electric future. Harley-Davidson is a lethargic, backward-looking dinosaur of a company, trying to survive while nimble mammals eat its eggs. They were always a poor fit, and HD funding Alta was at best odd. And it didn’t last.
So is that it? Was Alta just too early in its quest to succeed? Is it just another failed startup that couldn’t get funding for the next round of growth?
Let’s start by looking at use cases for motorized two-wheelers across multiple types of bikes. Alta Motors was making a pure dirt bike. While it could be converted in many places to a street legal bike by the addition of various bits, they didn’t sell it that way. The included chart reflects their purity or narrowness of purpose, depending on how you look at it. Like straight dirt bikes, they are optimized for offroad fun. Dual-sport bikes score highest in this ranking simply because they support the most use cases, even though they don’t support many of them as well as more specialized offerings.
So far, so reductive. You don’t buy a dirt bike to do extended road touring, and you don’t buy a Honda Goldwing if you want to spend time in the dirt. But what about the electric mountain bike category? It has a lot more utility in different areas, is almost as fun in the dirt as a straight dirt bike, and is a lot cheaper. And it’s street legal out of the box without add-ons.
Why is this important? Alta Motors wasn’t competing with mountain biking, after all. It was building pure offroad racing machines.
It’s simple. In order for Alta Motors to scale, it had to sell a lot of bikes. It had to sell motorcycles to weekend riders. It had to sell motorcycles to casual riders. There just aren’t that many motorcycle racers in the world.
But as soon as it steps outside of racing, it’s competing with broader competition. More casual offroad riders are going to value bang for the buck, and both gas dirtbikes and electric mountain bikes offer that. Alta Motors made headlines when its prices made it down to $12,000 USD for its cheapest bike. The other two can be had for under $5K for the most part, although there are more expensive options as well.
If your differentiator is electrons or silence, electric mountain bikes offer those as well. And the 800-lb gorilla in the electric motorcycle market, Zero, sells its fun FX and FXS dirt bikes in street legal form out of the box at around the same price point as the Alta Motors bikes.
In the USA alone, there were about 40 million people who mountain biked in the mid-2000s. Mountain bikes sell by the millions annually in America, while dirt bikes might hit 100,000 units. Which is the more attractive market for an innovative product? Extending the utility and fun of something which is sold by the millions for a bit of extra money, or trying to displace the best product of tiny market?
When framed like that, it’s clear that Alta Motors faced an uphill battle. Its reported 300 back-ordered units is pretty good for the market they were going after, but terrible from the perspective of investors.
Electric bicycles are disrupting the bottom end of the motorcycle marketplace. They have much lower barriers to entry for most people, have higher utility for our increasingly urban lifestyles and increasingly offer equivalent amounts of fun at a fraction of the price. We can see what will happen to much of the rest of the market when we look at other innovation spaces that have been addressed in other areas. Christensen and Raynor’s Innovator’s Dilemma demonstrates with case study after case study the impact on market leaders when entrants come into established markets with simpler products which offer different utility at a lower price point.
Alta Motors is a victim of focusing too narrowly for effective entrepreneurialism. Its vision is to be admired. Its aspiration to compete directly with specialized gas offroad bikes was fulfilled. But unlike Tesla, it wasn’t going after a big enough market for investors to care. And the market is radically altering under its feet.