Nick Drombosky's business idea stemmed from a simple principle: He wanted to make bicycle safety a little more stylish.
"If you look at the stock photo on any website of a cyclist, they have on a dorky helmet and a giant reflective vest," he said. "It's a deterrent to a lot of people. You shouldn't have to look like that to be safe."
He started Fiks:Reflective in 2011 with $10,000 in Kickstarter funding, making reflective stickers that affix to wheel rims and range from $15 to $17 for a set of two. The company also makes stickers for helmets and bike frames that come in several colors and start at $4.
Unlike some products for bicycles, these stickers are made with 3M Scotchlite reflective film and are made to be easily removed.
"My thought was to make something simple and elegant that we could produce in Pittsburgh," he said. The name comes from his initial idea to use graphic artists to create varied designs for the stickers, which he scaled back to the current simple single-color design. "Fiks" was an approximation of "graphics."
Mr. Drombosky admits to a stumble out of the gate when he was getting the East Liberty business up and running.
"I was approached by a distributor that was an importer for a bunch of big European box stores, like 700 stores," he recalled. "They came to me even before the Kickstarter was done and said, 'Hey, we want to carry this in our stores.'"
He knew it was a big opportunity. Still, he regrets the amount of time he spent working on that one deal at at time when there was a lot of buzz about the fledgling company. Especially since that deal didn't go as planned.
"We kept running into problems and the distributor was taking too long to communicate with stores," Mr. Drombosky said. "I ignored all the smaller stores and didn't get our stuff into little stores while the blogs were still talking about the company."
But after the initial snafu, he kept interest alive with the use of social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.
Fiks:Reflective products are now sold in 41 countries, online, and in several Pittsburgh-area bike shops. In 2012, he expanded the line to include reflective T-shirts, hoodies and caps after a second successful Kickstarter that raised $14,000.
Mr. Drombosky still hasn't hired any full-time employees, and while he had one investor who gave him some initial seed money, he did not rely on venture funding to get the company up and running. The crowdsourced Kickstarter funding has given him independence and flexibility, if not limitless resources. He brings in domestically-sourced materials and makes the stickers at his location in East Liberty.
"It's just me for now," he said. He does bring in part-time temporary workers when he gets hit with a big order. "I can work 8 hours a day to 20 hours a day, and have just been trying to grow the company organically."
He added that he expected the company to be in the black by end of this year. It would have reached profitability in April but his original Point Breeze building was sold, forcing an unexpected move.
Any money that comes in goes right back into Fiks:Reflective. To say he lives frugally is an understatement: "I end up living off apples and saltine crackers," he said with a chuckle.
Mr. Drombosky has been an active member of Pittsburgh's cycling community for several years, reviving the Ghost Bikes memorial project locally in 2010. He's aware of the dangers on the road, saying he was hit by a truck while riding his bike — during the daytime — in Oakland in 2012.
Scott Bricker, executive director of nonprofit bike safety advocacy organization Bike Pittsburgh, called him a "tireless advocate," and said the products he makes have gone a long way to improve the visibility of cyclists in Pittsburgh. Bike Pittsburgh includes a set of the stickers in its membership welcome packet, stickers that Mr. Drombosky gives the group at a discount.
"We know that some of the highest concentrations [of cyclists] riding without lights at night happen in college neighborhoods," Mr. Bricker said. "It may be that they don't know about the laws that govern bikes on city streets."
Getting these riders to wear safety gear can be a tough sell, Mr. Bricker said, who agreed with Mr. Drombosky's assessment of the majority of safety gear as "dorky."
Mr. Bricker said Fiks:Reflective's simple, sleek designs play an important role in helping these younger riders stay a little safer at night. "He figured out a way to make reflectivity cool."
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly