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Interview with Daniel Idzkowski from SkunkLock

Last Updated on August 20, 2022 0 Comments

SkunkLock are a relatively new company with a totally new concept in bike security.

Because if a thief attacks the SkunkLock bike lock, they're in for a nasty surprise...

If pierced, the shackle emits a noxious, vomit inducing gas towards the thief's face!

I caught up with Daniel to find out more...

In this interview Daniel gives some interesting insight into the genesis of the SkunkLock. And a tiny glimpse of what they've got planned next! 

Thanks for speaking to me today Daniel. I’ve heard that the idea for the SkunkLock was born when one of your friends had his bike stolen. Can you tell me more about that?

[DI] Yeah, absolutely. I remember that day vividly, and the reason I remember specifically why I had such a reaction to it was because, one, our friend had been saving for this bike. It was a very expensive electric bike. He’d been saving for it for a long time.

And two, because he was using the best locks on the market, the most expensive ones you can buy basically. I think it was the Abus 59 Granit Extreme, something like that. I'm sure you're familiar with it. I think most people use it for motorcycles.

And that was really the part that was shocking. The fact that it got stolen was not shocking because I’ve had six bikes stolen by now. My co-founder and lead engineer has had bikes stolen on average every 18 months. What was shocking was the fact that he actually splurged and spent three hundred dollars on the lock and it was still stolen.

And then we got thinking about why that happened. So we asked around if anybody saw what happened. And one really nice lady was like “I'm sorry I couldn't do anything. I was just scared. He had a very loud power tool”.

But she took pictures. And we took them to the police and that's when we figured out that angle grinders are the number one tool used to steal bikes.

Bike thieves do not mess around with other tools any more. They're just too small, too compact, too efficient. They're pretty quiet now with the brushless motors and all that.

And that was really a eureka moment. We're like, we're being duped by all these companies that are selling these bike locks.

And then shortly after I was pretty angry about it, because I saw how depressed he had become losing his bike and not having it insured. I mean, there's no way he could have afforded another one of those bikes and the lock.

And basically, I was angry and I blurted out, “why didn't it blow his balls off?!” And that got me thinking the rest of the night. I'm like, you know, that would definitely be illegal! Blowing up with explosives! But maybe there's an alternative to that. Maybe there's something in between.

A lock needs to do something in order to prevent a theft, especially if you want to stay compact. That's why we called it the SkunkLock. It was because a skunk is feared by animals in the wild like crazy. By bears, by elk. Dogs are terrified of skunks. And it's not because a skunk is particularly strong or can fight or anything like that. It's because of the chemicals and that kind of reaction. So that's kind of where that idea came from.

Inspired by skunks!

And we started working on that and figuring out can this be legal? Can this be effective? And that part of the process took a very long time. We were purely an R&D company for a very long time, with this deep seeded mission to not just prevent bike theft, but to change the industry.

Frankly, we were kind of pissed off that we've been lied to by all these other companies for so many years. For example the “theft insurance policies” they have, in the fine print, it says if power tools were used, then it's void!

So that was really the kind of culmination of the idea. And it took us quite a few years to really answer the three big questions that we had...

One: can it be effective to use chemicals to deter theft? Would that be effective enough?

Two: is it going to be legal? Can we be compliant with this? As it turns out, we can if we follow the rules.

And the third one was: is it scalable? That was the hardest one. Actually, we figured out the first two within a year, and then the scalability one was a tough one because making this thing is really, really hard.

That's really our trade secret. When people ask us, “Oh, is it the chemicals? Is it the pressure?”. No, it's really how we produce this thing that’s our closely guarded secret and why there hasn't been anybody that's been able to produce it, aside from our company.

When you say scalable, you mean whether it's economically viable? 

Well, less so economically, because we found people are willing to pay close to anything for this lock because there's no solution on the market. We’re the closest thing to the solution.

It's not a guarantee, but we had people that had twenty thousand dollar carbon fibre bikes and they store it in their garage and they're like, “I've had one stolen from my home in the middle of the night. Someone broke in”. And to them, you know, paying a thousand dollars is worth it.

But that's not our mission. We're trying to make this a sustainable company and we're trying to make it as cheap as possible because we want everybody to have access to it.

We're not there yet in terms of scalability. But what I meant specifically about scalability is if it takes us more than a minute to make a lock, we can't produce enough to get market share.

So initially, it took us ten minutes to make one because we didn't figure out all of the little fixtures that we needed in the process and so on. Because someone would have to go in and adjust it as the propellant was cooling and the pressure was increasing inside the lock.

There's a lot going on inside the shackle!

It was a very active process. And it took ten minutes per lock. But we figured out how to get past that. And now we're comfortable with being able to both lower the cost eventually and make enough units to meet demand as well.

What's demand been like?

Demand has been huge. Our biggest challenge has been really making enough of them. We kind of underestimated the velocity of sales. So we had periods where we were just completely sold out. And then our production cycle was so long, it was like six months to get a new batch of units.

So we could have done a lot better in terms of how we managed our supply chain and sales cycles. But the good news is the demand is there and our product doesn't need to be sold. We just need to educate people about the problem.

And once they understand what the problem is, they find the solution themselves and they're like, “oh, so a lock needs to do something, basically”. You can't make a bigger, stronger, fatter lock. There's no such thing as a stronger steel like Abus kind of claims. It all cuts through like butter. And we figured that out very quickly.

After that experience happened with our friend, that had his bike stolen, one of the first things we did was the next day we went out and bought a bunch of locks and an angle grinder and we went at it. We probably cut twenty locks. Just out of curiosity, we're like, “let's figure this out”.

And there’s not much difference between them. It's amazing. The difference between a lock that we got at a local Target for twenty two dollars and the one hundred fifty dollars lock was about six seconds of cutting time.

So it's pretty insignificant. And we're like, wow, this is crazy that it's basically marketing fluff, that all these companies are able to charge a lot of money and really aren't solving the problem.

And how is the lock made? Is it put together entirety in one factory in China, or are there different factories, with one factory making the lock and then another putting in the gas?

We utilize multiple different factories. Most of the components are from separate factories that just make those components very well. So they actually have no idea what the final product is.

We only have one factory that does the final assembly and the pressurisation and all that, so that's one way that we protect our IP and make sure that it can't be copied, easily at least.

"Permanent gastrointestinal tract damage!"

But that being said, I don't think they have interest in copying what we're doing because we have a stronghold in the markets that would actually want to use our products, the people that have more expensive bikes and so on. So primarily the UK, EU and Europe and the United States, North America, Canada as well.

Which are the countries where the demand is greatest and are you able to ship to all those countries?

Yeah, that was really important to us. So we hired pretty much the best legal teams we could to make sure we're compliant. And the demand right now is still the greatest in the US. And I think that's because it's not just the cyclists here, the people that are passionate about cycling. It's people that like the novelty.

America, you know! Things that blow up! A lot of people are buying this for their significant others as novelty gifts and Christmas presents, that kind of stuff.

Whereas we found our European counterparts are in dire need of a solution too. Mostly they're like, “we just need a lock that actually works”. They're less interested in the chemicals being a cool idea or novelty or something like that. So we still get that novelty bump in the US, I would say.

So if I had to rank them, it's probably the US and then probably the UK and then Germany and then France, Netherlands and so on.

And regarding the legal stuff, were there any countries where you weren’t able to sell it?

There were states in the US (and some countries) where we were required to modify our formula, in particular not to include capsaicin, which is mostly highly regulated, because it's used in pepper spray. So it was just too much compliance risk having something too similar to pepper spray.

But once we worked around that, there hasn't been any countries [where we couldn’t sell]. I would say the UK is the most restrictive. So once we figured out the UK, it kind of opened doors to everything else.

And it also helped us that it was mostly a grey zone. There wasn't a whole lot of existing laws that regulated products like ours. There are laws that regulated other products that could potentially be similar. But the key factor in most countries was that we do not have a release mechanism.

So pepper spray, stink bombs, all these things, they're designed to release the chemicals. While we’re designed to keep the chemicals in no matter what, like as much as possible.

You need to take out a very expensive and powerful power tool to get them out. And we've dropped this thing off buildings [without the gas being released]. And that has been really the differentiator.

So not only do we have the warnings to avoid booby trap laws, we also have food grade chemicals. So we've been able to use chemicals that are maybe a higher concentration in some places. But they're mostly food grade and safe and definitely non lethal in any way.

And and we figured out a way of of ensuring that these chemicals are only going to be released if somebody takes an angle grinder to it.

OK. And there's been no attempt at litigation yet from thieves that have been spayed with the chemicals?

No. And I don't know if you're familiar, but we’ve held what we called the “bike bounty program” for the last year, where we were paying people a thousand dollars to send us footage if they got a thief.

Out in the street

We also have employees that park their bike outside our office and we have a 4K camera outside our office (just to see who's coming in and out)...

At this point, we have footage of over 50 thieves and attempted thefts. It's amazing and hilarious. To date, we've only had one bike stolen using a SkunkLock and they ended up cutting the bike rack!

And our customer emailed us and said, “thank you, guys, my bike was stolen, but thank you, I ordered three more”. And that was because the thieves were so afraid of it, they did take the bike (and it was a very, very expensive bike and the fella was bummed about that). But he was like, “this says something about your product, where the thief cut through a bike rack this thick, instead of cutting through the SkunkLock”.

Of the attempted thefts that were thwarted. How many of those resulted in the release of the gas?

So I'm including attempted thefts that were a little pitiful as well. Coming in with a crowbar or a hammer, things that any lock worth its salt, anything over one hundred bucks will resist easily. Not an angle grinder.

And a lot of these may have been drug addicts and people that are just looking for a quick high and trying to get a bike and get rid of it. But I'd say maybe fourteen or fifteen of those resulted in a cut.

We've had one customer come back to us and say, “hey, they cut my Kryptonite chain, but your SkunkLock stayed on”. But I'd say maybe a third of those were angle grinder attempts.

And again, when you leave a bike in a bad neighbourhood, you're going to get a higher distribution of different kinds of attacks. The pros are only using angle grinders. But there's opportunists out there, too, if you leave your bike out there.

So you said you might be releasing these videos?

Yeah, that's definitely in the plan. We're just waiting on more inventory. We're running a little short and we know what's going to happen when we release these videos. It's going to go viral.

I mean this is the faces of real people, real thieves in 4K with their face being exposed. So it's going to get a lot of attention, is what we're expecting.

And we want to be prepared for that because we don't want to have to turn people away and say, hey, we're waiting another month for more inventory.

But it's definitely a part of the education part of our business, where we want to also show people this is really what happens to your bike when you leave out there for a few hours.

They've tried everything. Crowbars, metal bars, bottle jacks, hammers, angle grinders. They've tried unscrewing street posts, Jumping on the bike. For some reason, they thought that a damaged bike would be a good thing!

And the worst part is, you know, sometimes they'll even take anything that isn't locked with the SkunkLock. They take the front wheel, they take the pedals. It’s crazy.

And that's why we're working on another product that we think is also going to be a big deal in late 2021.

We'd like to be able to protect the entire bike. Right now, we figured a SkunkLock or two is good enough, but we'd like something that's kind of a full solution because a single SkunkLock is good but we wouldn’t provide a money back guarantee. Unless you also protected your front wheel and your frame.

There's no plans to do a smaller version? The current version might be a bit bulky for some people and they might not need all that locking space...

Yeah, we've gotten a lot of requests for both smaller and bigger versions. Some people have larger motorcycles, for example. Others want to use a smaller one. The only downside to the smaller one is we can fit less of the formula in it.

Equally bulky, but much lighter than similarly sized locks

It is bulky [the current version]. However, it's not heavy. And I think you can make up for it somewhat, with the right method of carrying it. 

But yeah, we haven't quite figured out if we can lower the amount of formula that we use and if it will still be effective. Right now, we know that the amount we have is very effective. But the smaller the lock, the smaller (probably) the effectiveness.

On the SkunkLock website you talk about releasing newer models with improved technology...

Yeah, so, every product has vulnerabilities, once you go into the testing process. So over the last year, we've already figured out some of those vulnerabilities.

Of course, my co-founder and I are probably the only two people in the world that know any of them. But that gives us two or three years to identify those and make sure that they're not exploited.

So at the core of our model, we don't think that you can solve the bike theft problem by just selling one bike lock and everybody buys it. The reality is thieves adapt. They get smarter. They figure things out.

And that's why we believe that with the right models, every couple of years, we're going to improve and identify these vulnerabilities.

And a big part of how we were able to figure them out is the bike bounty program: this footage that we got and how thieves were attacking it. And we attacked the lock all the time as well.

[Talking about the next version] there have been substantial improvements to the crossbar. So the majority of improvements have been made on usability, making sure the key goes in more smoothly. I know some of our customers are not used to disc locks. So they weren't used to having to put [the key] all the way into the lock.

Some customers complained about debris going in there or losing smoothness over time if there is a lot of rain or dirt and stuff like that.

So mostly minor improvements, refinements in the formula and overall improvements on the durability of the lock as well.

But those are coming in V3, which is going to be launching in the next six to eight months. And it won't necessarily look substantially different, but it's going to have a lot of improvements under the hood, I guess you could say.

So I guess the V1 was the skinny one I’ve seen in photos?

Yeah and the skinny one is fine, but it just wasn't as intimidating. It actually worked pretty well as it turns out. And you can adjust the pressure enough to make it effective in a lot of embodiments.

But we found that by looking bigger and stronger, there is impact. Like on camera, we have thieves coming in with a tool, looking at the lock, reading the warnings and all that and being scared of it and walking away.

And that's really the best case scenario, we found.

Yes that's for sure! Thanks for your time Daniel. Good luck with the SkunkLock and I look forward to hearing more about the complete bike solution!

About the author 

Carl Ellis

I've had bikes stolen in London, New York and Barcelona. Yep, I was a serial, international, bike theft victim. In 2015 I decided to stop the rot. And not a single bike's been stolen since! Brakes, yes. Bells, yes. But they're another story. Everything I learn, I document on this website. More about my story. Contact me. LinkedIn.

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