By Mike Garrison
Welcome to LiveRC's weekly column, "Talk-It-Up Tuesday!" Here we spend a little time talking with industry icons including racers, manufacturers, team managers, developers, promoters, and everyone in between! Sit back, relax, and go behind the scenes as we interview them all!
For this week's Talk It Up Tuesday, we sat down with AMain Hobbies CEO and Co-Founder, Kendall Bennett, to discuss where it all began, what it has become, the R/C industry highs and lows, and the recent AMain Cycling acquisition of Dan's Comp.
LiveRC: Welcome Kendall to this week’s Talk It Up Tuesday! For those who may not know you, let’s start at the beginning. Who, what, when, where, how, and why did you get involved in R/C cars in the first place?
Kendall: Well it goes back a long way for me, as I got my first RC car in about 1985 in Australia, which was a Mugen Bulldog 4wd electric buggy. With a stick radio! My buddy and I both got them at the same time and spent quite a bit of time playing with them in the neighborhood. Alas there was not a lot of RC racing going on near me at the time so the few times I hit a track it was just me and my mate.
I had also been flying RC planes back then as I got my first RC plane in 1980 for my 10th birthday, so after losing interest in the RC cars I mostly flew planes. Then I stopped all of it as I finished high school and went to college. After starting my software company (SciTech Software) in 1993 in Australia, I moved to the Chico, California in December 1995 to grow the software company. Around the time I arrived I needed a hobby so the first thing I got was actually an RC 10GT truck, which was my first nitro. I could not figure out the nitro thing as my engine was always failing (because the air filter fell off – haha!), so I ended up focusing mostly on RC planes again.
Around 1999 or so I decided to get another RC car and got the RC10 T3 electric truck (because nitro was stupid right!) and brought it into work. One of my programmer buddies at work also had an RC car and told me they had a race track up in Paradise with jumps on it, like a BMX track. I was like ‘Say what!?’. Got in the car and headed up there to race on the track and was there every weekend for like the next 5 years. I was hooked.
I also discovered along the way once I hit the track that a bunch of folks had nitro 1/10 scale trucks and theirs kept running, so I ended up getting a Losi NXT gas truck and not long after that a 1/8 scale buggy. Pretty soon I was travelling to race and I think my first Dirt Nitro Challenge was around in 2001, I think.
(Kendall wrenching during the 2013 ROAR Nationals)
LiveRC: When, where, how, and why did AMain Hobbies come about?
Kendall: By 2003 I was pretty much addicted to racing and at the time I was racing the Kyosho MP 7.5 Kanai II buggy. I think it was the 2002 or 2003 ROAR Nationals in Oklahoma where a buddy of mine Nick Angelides told me about parting out kits on eBay, so I thought that was a great idea and started doing that and keeping all the 7.5 parts I needed for myself. Pretty quickly there was 1000 folks doing the same thing and it was a waste of time so I gave up but the concept of selling RC parts struck a chord with me as I was always having a devil of a time trying to get the stuff I needed to race 1/8 scale cars as the local hobby shops never had what I needed, and I had to order from 3-4 different online places and stuff was always out of stock after I ordered it.
About the same time, I was looking to do something different for our software company, so decided I wanted to learn about eCommerce and write software for eCommerce web sites. So, we started AMain Hobbies in May 2004 mostly as an incubator project for the software company to learn how to write an eCommerce web site by consuming our own dog food. One of the most important factors to me was live inventory, so if we said we had something in stock, we actually had it! That used to drive me bonkers as a consumer, and I suspect is one of the reasons our web site grew so quickly.
A year later I was working full time for AMain Hobbies and it had become my primary business. I shut down the software company in late 2007.
(Kendall and his wife Kelly - the founders of AMain Hobbies)
LiveRC: Did you ever expect AMain to become the industry giant that it has become today?
Kendall: No, not at all. At the time I was mostly trying to do something different with my software company and solve the problems that bugged me the most shopping on other web sites. Clearly, we did some stuff right and the rest is history.
LiveRC: Explain to us the different “divisions” of AMain, and how they came to be. (R/C, cycling, distribution, etc.)
Kendall: R/C has been the primary focus of us since inception, and cycling came about much later. We pretty much had our own line of products since the start, initially with bearings, nuts and bolts and then Lithium Polymer batteries for planes probably in 2006 or so. Initially we sold them all as AMain Hobbies brand but decided to change the brand to ProTek RC pretty quickly for our batteries and bearings. Distribution has always been a small part of our business, but it is growing and we really like helping out the RC hobby shops.
We have had our own hobby shop in Chico since 2007, so we understand both the brick and mortar side of the business and the struggles the hobby shops have, along with the eCommerce online side.
LiveRC: When, where, and why did you decide to create AMain Cycling?
Kendall: I ended up having to have back surgery in 2011 due to a skiing injury I had in 2002. One of the things I decided to do before I had surgery was to ride an indoor bike to lose some weight and try to get fit before I went under the knife. After surgery as I recovered, I ended up getting a bike to ride outside and really loved it, so in 2014 as we looked around for other products we could sell, it was clear there is a lot of similarities with the bike industry and the RC hobby industry, so we jumped in with both feet and purchased a local bike shop in Chico and eventually rebranded it as AMain Cycling. I have been actively riding bikes myself now since late 2011.
LiveRC: AMain Cycling recently acquired Dan’s Comp. Talk to us a bit about that purchase, how it came about, and what the future has in store with it.
Kendall: Yes, we are super excited to have the opportunity to rebuild this iconic BMX bike business. Kevin Kiser was into BMX himself for a while and his kids rode BMX locally here in Chico, so we were familiar with the business.
So, we had been watching them more closely over the last couple of years as a potential acquisition. A BMX coach, whose team we sponsor, let us know of some changes going on with Dan’s team riders so we believed the opportunity would present itself at some point. Several months ago, we checked up on them and reached out to one of their owners to gauge their interest. You could tell based on their site and some of the things being said on social media that there were some challenges. Shortly thereafter, one of our partners in the cycling business reached out and asked us if we would be interested in the web property if it became available. Since we were ready to make the move, we were able to make contact with the remaining owners and come to an agreement fairly quickly. We offered to purchase all of the assets of the company, and most importantly, made a gentleman’s agreement with the owners that we would take care of the customers who had experienced issues over the last year or so. They love the sport, they love their business and their brand and really wanted to see the legacy of Dan’s Comp carry-on into the foreseeable future. The technology that we have built has really enabled us to make some of these moves, to be able to buy legacy brands and revive them with our efficiency, marketing, and customer service. Doing business on the Internet has become more challenging in the last few years with regulation, sales tax, privacy, pricing and now the tariffs, but our tech keeps us competitive and fairy nimble.
Given our extensive expertise in eCommerce plus our knowledge of the bike industry as both the brick and mortar and eCommerce levels, we feel we know what is needed to reboot this brand and re-establish it as one of the premiere online eCommerce companies in the BMX market.
(AMain Hobbies CFO Kevin Kiser (Left), and CEO Kendall Bennett (Right) - Photo by BMXNews.com)
CLICK HERE to read and listen to the recent BMXNews.com Podcast with Kendall, discussing more about the acquisition of Dan's Comp!
LiveRC: Which hobby are you most actively involved in these days in your free time – R/C or cycling?
Kendall: Pretty evenly split to be honest. I usually try to ride my bike 2-3 times a week, and in the summer months race in the local Chico Criterium on Tuesday nights out at the airport. If I am not riding outside on the weekend or during the week, I try to get some training sessions in on my indoor bike using Zwift.
Then on the weekends I usually race at Silver Dollar on our new carpet track and dirt oval. I am not doing a whole lot of 1/8 scale these days, so it’s mostly 2wd carpet buggy, 2wd dirt oval sprint cars and the occasional 1/8 e-Buggy, 4wd carpet buggy and 2wd dirt late model thrown in. I probably only race nitro 1/8 scale about 1-2 times a year now.
LiveRC: Let’s talk R/C. Some believe the R/C car racing industry is “down” a bit right now. Would you agree, and why or why not?
Kendall: I think it has been down, sure. Clearly some big changes happened when Hobbico went bankrupt and Horizon Hobby took over, but I actually think things are looking at for the industry at the moment as the hobby shops appear to be doing better and I think Horizon is getting a handle on things post acquisition of Hobbico. So I really think 2020 will be a good year for the RC industry in general.
LiveRC: One form of R/C racing that has become increasingly popular over the past few years is dirt oval racing. Why do you feel there has been such a sudden increase in this genre?
Kendall: That’s a good question. I think oval is one of those classes that when you first hear or see about it, you think ‘Bah, that can’t be fun! Who wants to drive in circles!’. But if you actually try it out, you discover pretty quickly that just like other forms of RC racing it can be super competitive, and you can have some really fun, tight racing on the oval track. It’s one of my favorite classes right now and has both aspects that make it simple and easy to get into yet complicated enough that to go fast you need to know how to set up your cars and drive clean. So new racers can easily throw a stock 2wd slash on the track and have fun.
LiveRC: What is AMain’s most popular selling genre of R/C, and why?
Kendall: 2wd buggy is by far the most popular genre at the moment. I suspect it has a lot to do with the transition to high bit clay dirt tracks and high bite carpet tracks. We recently changed over to carpet on our outdoor electric track, and prior to that had astro turf for two seasons. That’s what got me back into racing electric again, as I am able to spend a lot more time actually driving and working on setup than cleaning and wrenching on my cars. Just charge you batteries and go drive. I love it!
LiveRC: The tariffs on products manufactured in China have affected pricing and production for some companies in the industry, have and/or will they effect AMain or ProTek?
Kendall: Yes, the tariffs have been hitting us pretty hard. We’re experiencing price increases from our vendors, and on our proprietary products both R/C and cycling. On the consumer side we’ve managed to absorb those costs, but it’s a lot more difficult for our distributed brands where the margins are much shorter. Still we’ve made the decision to absorb them up to this point and hoping for some resolution soon. There have been several brands, mainly in drones and FPV, where we have stopped importing as vendors in China have been unwilling to work with us on a solution.
LiveRC: AMain has a variety of proprietary brands now, including ProTek RC. Many of these are available to local hobby shops and dealers to carry through AMain’s distribution program – correct?
Kendall: Yes that’s correct, We have a few proprietary brands and ProTek R/C and EcoPower and a number of exclusive brands that are available through AMain Distributing.
Our goal with our brands is to be able to offer margins that retailers need to be healthy. We only sell them to retailers with a physical store front or track, we enforce MAP pricing, and we do not allow sales on Amazon. Beyond that the products perform at the highest level, and our top selling batteries and servos took the top spots at the ROAR Nationals and the 2wd Buggy world title at the IFMAR worlds this year.
(The new EcoPower Sling Shot SLV 17.5 Brushless Motor)
LiveRC: How can local shops become an AMain dealer?
Kendall: Anyone with a local hobby shop or track store can go to AMainDistributing.com to find our dealer application form.
LiveRC: What do you feel is the best thing about the R/C industry, and why?
Kendall: What compelled me to get involved back in 2004 and what keeps us involved today, is that the R/C industry is about having fun. Whether you are flying R/C planes or helicopters, bashing in the street with your mates or racing at the R/C track, we do it because it’s fun. I also believe we like to do it more when we experience it with other people, so it’s also about sharing that fun with your friends and family which brings us together and provides enjoyment in our lives. Much like riding a bike.
LiveRC: What do you feel is one thing that needs to change within the R/C industry, and why?
Kendall: I feel a lot of the changes to make the industry healthy have actually been happening already, at least from the retail side. From the competition and racing side I think the biggest thing that hurts the entire industry is bro deal sponsorships although that has been happening ever since I first started racing. We try to sponsor only top-level drivers and no longer have a large rep team, because we feel there is a clear need for top level sponsored drives to show case the industries best products, but also help develop and tune the products for the normal consumer. I am not really sure that having tons and tons of 50% sponsored drivers is good for the industry as a whole, but I do understand for many brands it’s how they are able to get their products out there. So, it’s quite the catch-22 really.
LiveRC: What advice can you give to entrepreneurs, like yourself, trying to build a successful hobby shop, track, company, and/or brand within the R/C industry?
Kendall: I think the most important thing is to focus on the customer and try to understand what their needs are and what their pain points are. If you can better understand why a customer may (or may not) be shopping with you can change how you do business and get better results.
I think another really important thing for any entrepreneur running their own business, whether a large business or a brick and mortar shop, is to understand that markets are always changing. Always. You need to be ready to adapt to those changes and be ready to realize when they are happing.
LiveRC: One thing most people don’t know about Kendall Bennett?
Kendall: Well most people probably know I am 6’7” tall and come from Australia. I can juggle! I used to be able to juggle up to seven items, but these days can probably only manage three.
LiveRC: Kendall, we know you are a busy guy and we sincerely appreciate you taking some time out with us today. It’s always good to catch up! Is there anything you would like to add before we go?
Kendall: Nope, I hope your readers have a great time with their R/C cars and see you at the track!