Jessica Schiller has been a CEO, a co-founder, a law student and an executive coach but didn’t think she would one day add product creator and manufacturer to that list. The journey to get there started in 2013 when she was on a boat tour under the new San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and was discussing with a friend how cool it would be to bike on the water from Oakland to S.F. They laughed about the concept.
But Schiller couldn’t get the idea out of her mind and started looking to see if anyone had developed a water bike. Aside from some cool old photos of technology imagined around the turn of the 20th century, all she found was an Italian inventor who made a kit that enabled a bike to float on water. “And I started fixating on that, okay, someone’s done this. It’s not that crazy of an idea,” Schiller says. “I don’t even know what to call it. A hydro cycle?”
She purchased the kit (and eventually an Italian bike because it was the only kind that would work with it). Right away Schiller noticed that the kit was very hard to assemble, but once she got the retrofitted bike on the water — and after recovering from an embarrassing tumble over the handlebars — she noticed something else. “People were stopping and were taking photos, women and kids were pointing. So, it was like, wow, that’s fascinating,” she says. “I just really enjoyed it the very first moment that I got it on the water. It was such a peaceful, freeing experience.”
It wasn’t too much longer after that that Schiller became the first person to bike across the water from Oakland to San Francisco — it took only 40 minutes, and an idea for a company was born. In 2014, she got together with a few German designers who had worked at the global design company IDEO, put out the whiteboard and asked, “What does the world’s coolest water bike actually look like?” Schiller financed the effort herself and spent many cold Sausalito afternoons testing designs on the water. A prototype was soon ready — and with first customers like the Crown Prince of Dubai and architect Norman Foster, and an article in Forbes, the bike was getting attention. But there was a problem: it was too heavy to ship around the world.
“It became apparent that I had to throw half a million dollars’ worth of funds that I personally put into the business down the toilet and start from scratch,” she says. But with the help of one “very clever” designer on the team and a couple of guys from Oracle Team USA, the predecessor of the Schiller Bike was born. The bike, which costs just under $5,000, is light and easily assembled and has a top speed of 10 to 11 mph, became a sensation — selling in more than 100 countries (it is especially popular in the Netherlands), and it even inspired an annual race in the waters off Monaco hosted by Princess Charlene of Monaco. Schiller says a great way to try the bikes closer to home, and to experience the cardio benefits they bring, is to rent one from SpinOut Fitness on Pier 40 in San Francisco.
But for Schiller, who is transgender and just got engaged, the bikes bring another kind of freedom. “I came out publicly in spring of 2018 after many years of ‘knowing,’ really since childhood,” she says. “Being on the water bikes and out on Richardson Bay definitely gave me the clarity of mind and space to reflect on a huge life decision and finally overcome my fears — to live as my true self.”