Interview at Fuji Otaku

(property of Fuji Okatu)Building Dreams In Brooklyn - Joe Nocella and 718 Cyclery, Inc

Joe Nocella at 718 Cyclery HQ

We have a special treat today for us amateur wrenches who sometimes fantasize that their occasional bike sale, admiration of friends, and burgeoning parts bins will blossom into a real business. Joe Nocella is making this a reality for himself as the founder of rapidly growing 718 Cyclery, Inc in Brooklyn, New York.

 and I met via this blog, and, after a few exchanges, I asked if he'd be open for an interview. With that, away we go...

Fuji Otaku: Well Joe, welcome! Maybe you can kick this off with a little bit about your background and how you got into professionally renovating and customizing bicycles.

Joe Nocella: Like most of us, I have been around bikes most of my life. While in college in the late 80's, I took a bike messenger job in Manhattan. This was in the days before mountain bikes and cell phones took over, so there were lots of dudes scurrying around on 10-speeds. Coincidentally, I rode a Fuji (it was blue, but forget the model)my career ended when I got hit at 23rd and Broadway.

Flash forward a number of years. Working as an architect has always been a dream of mine, but over the years of staring at a computer monitor, my hands grew restless. My education was a program that was very hands on, and I felt that a part of me was being lost by being an office worker.

About 3 years ago I had a bike stolen out of my front yard (it wasn'tlocked, I live in Brooklyn, the results are predictable). In deciding what I was going to do, former associates who were now in SF (Team Lope) convinced me to build my own. So, I built my first (it was a 1988 Schwinn World Conversion). I got so into the process of hunting for parts and fitting components that I built a second, which I promptly sold.

I was now hooked, but my business underwent 1 final refinement.Initially, I was just building bikes and selling them. I then hit on the idea to involve the client in the build process, and things have just taken off.

We have collaboratively built 53 bikes in 2009, and are off to a great start this year with another 22 to date in 2010. I run the business in my free time one night a week and weekends. Its certainly a busy life, as I have a day job as an architect at SOM, teach at Pratt and coach my kids youth sports teams.

It also feeds into my interests of web design, graphic design and I handle all of that at 718 Cyclery.

Fuji Otaku: Hey, that's great, you rode a Fuji before they were cool; evidently you're a man of taste and refinement...

Something I want to get on the table up front before getting into things like the client build process – you're walking into the lion's den here. Looking at 718c, I see lots, actually mostly, fixies. We seem to attract mostly a C&V (classic and vintage) crowd here and the animus that many C&V'ers have towards the fixie scene is no secret.

What are your thoughts on this debate? Is it even a debate about which the typical fixie rider is even aware? And, from a C&V standpoint, heck, who is the typical fixie rider? Do they fit the profile? My first awareness of this was 10 years ago when it all seemed like an odd Sheldon Brown idiosyncrasy. Then, suddenly, everywhere you look, swarms of them.

For my part, I'm not a C&V purist, I'm quite willing to do my own interpretation on a vintage bike and I don't have a particularly reverential attitude about the holy purity of vintage steel, but still.. Fixies are one of the biggest trends in cycling since mountain bikes & I'm not getting why slogging around in a single gear is any fun. That disturbs me, so could you help me out a little?

Joe Nocella: First, I do want to mention that all of the work we do is non-destructive (except for the first 2 bikes I did...but they were Schwinns and I had an itchy grinder finger!). In that, we don't grind off derailler hangers or cable bosses or anything. I spend hours restoring headsets, stems aligning dropouts, tapping BB shells and chasing fork threads.

I have 2 reasons for this:
1. I am very respectful of these classic frames and feel it is my job to get them back on the road again, not to castrate them
2. I tell my clients that someday, your kid will find this bike in the basement and want to "convert" it BACK to a 10-speed.

I think that fixed gear/singlespeed bikes allow an urban rider to commute to work on a simple bike. There is all kinds of crap written about the "zen" of being connected to a fixed drive train, however I am more down to earth about it. I have many clients who bring in old road bikes and say things like "I am riding to work, and never changing the gears anyway" addition, bouncing all over our city streets and brides can wreck havoc on components. For me, its not about looking/being cool (I am a 40 year old father of 2...the opposite of cool), its about urban practicality and the reuse of great frames.

As far as debates regarding "hipness" within the fixed gear community, I am totally on the sidelines. I do what I do because I love working with bikes. Period. Early on I sought the attention of the fixie forum crowd, but soon found it brought alot of attitude and just got in the way of the happiness my work brought to me. I don't need anyone's approval.

We have begun to do more and more restoration work, which is also very enjoyable. Either way, getting butts on bikes and cars off the city streets is a good thing.

Regarding the animosity that the C&V'ers may have towards others, I really don't think that my typical client gives it much thought. I mean, these are only pieces of metal, plastic and rubber, right...why is there so much nastiness? We should be using our debating skills on issues of the day that are far more important,. Are we really getting that worked up over bicycles?

My clients tend to be mature folks who are looking for the simplicity of a fixed gear/singlespeed, without the ironic baggage and youtube trickery that goes with it. I have observed this so far; if you are truly hip and cool and a connoisseur of spoke cards, you are having your buddies in Williamsburg build you a bike. For everyone else, I seem to be the main option. My shop is set up like an inverted bike shop. Normally, you bring your bike in to the shop, it gets taken to the back, and 3 days later it reappears with an $85 bill on it.

We try to demystify the build process, and involve clients in our hands-on collaborative builds. I think that many people feel intimidated walking into a bike shop and feeling insecure in their command of actual bike knowledge and its jargon. Our business model is the inverse of that, and its quite successful. We collaboratively built 53 bikes last year from April to December, and are already on a pace to top that this year.... people just want to know how things go together.

"You can't hammer a nail over the Internet. Learning a trade is not limiting but, rather, liberating. If you are in possession of a skill that cannot be exported overseas, done with an algorithm, or downloaded, you will always stand a decent chance of finding work. Even rarer, you will probably be a master of your own domain, something the thousands of employed but bored people in the service industries can only dream of" (Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford)

I am a Sheldon Brown disciple, I am finding new information on his site every day...he must be writing from the grave!

Fuji Otaku: Since the fixies are appealing because of simplicity, rugged reliability, and classic styling, maybe these folks really are kindred spirits of C&V'ers and BOBish types. We are all on the same team in that we want stuff that is shiny, silver, simple, not much plastic, sorta retro looking, repairable with normal hand tools, or even just repairable at all.

And actually, I like a lot of the flashy stuff from the fixie scene. Back in the late 80's, I was tooling around Hawaii on my 1985 Trek 770, hot pink with white saddle and bar wrap. You can imagine what I was wearing. And I didn't even stick out, since everybody was doing similar things. That sort of whimsy got in short supply in the intervening years and the fixie scene seems to be bringing it back. I just have to figure out on which bike some tangerine Deep V's would work.

Can you lead us through the client build process?

Joe Nocella: Initially, when I started this, I was just building bikes and selling them. I am no salesman, and it was uncomfortable trying to sell on CraigsList. Soon thereafter, I hit upon the idea of sharing my enjoyment of building with clients...and at that point things took off. No one is this area is doing this, so I have a sort of monopoly on folks looking to build a bike in an environment devoid of arrogance or attitude.

I find that developing a relationship with some over the course of a few weeks is far more rewarding that hitting on a retail transaction.

The process is simple. People go to my website and sign up for a free 1 on 1 consultation here at the shop. The time schedule software (Time Center) that my wife convinced me to use is a godsend. It is so much better than getting calls and trying to schedule. This is automatic, and gives off a professional vibe.

So, people come by and we talk about what they are looking for, what their budget is and how they ride. I mock up different frames we have in the shop for sizing. Once a frame is selected, I then use Google Docs to develop and online/shared estimate. I have accounts with 3 of the 4 major bike component distributor in the country, so I am buying at wholesale and able to keep my costs down. Getting wholesale accounts was difficult, as I had to incorporate, get insurance and a sales tax certificate. But, one I got the first , the others came clamoring to my door so as not to lose out to their competitors.

The Google Docs spreadsheet allows my client and I to work on a fluid document together, and every cost for every part is laid out and explained. I usually include options and links to images to help clients make decisions. Parts are the ordered and we set a 2 hour build date for the next weekend. I generally build my wheels a few days before build date, and I also mock the whole bike up before the client arrives to see if we will have any conflicts...(the biggest issue always seems to be the brake drop at the fork...too much or too little as these bikes were designed for 27" wheels,and we are installing 700mm wheels.).

The client arrives, and we spend 2 hours buildng and explaining each part and tool required. Some people like to just watch, some like to take pictures, and some like to get real dirty. Upon completion, we run it through its paces in terms of fit, I take a nice picture, I get paid and the client rides away. I offer lifetime service on all of my bikes, and the ability to purchase accessories (helmets/locks, etc) at wholesale costs.

Fuji Otaku: I sporadically sell on Craigslist, but I can't imagine it being part of the foundation of a meaningful going concern. In addition to scams, no-shows, etc., everybody expects a steal. For example, here in DC, it is almost impossible to sell an 80's Japanese road bike for more than $250 even if it has been completely rebuilt & upgraded. People assume that it is similar to the mass of garage sale bikes that form the preponderance of sales because CL tends to attract people looking for and selling garage sale stuff.

So one of your major value added propositions, is demystifying the process and engaging the customer in a manner consistent with their standing as an intelligent adult. At face value, it sounds like something that all cycle shops should do, but we all know what the reality all to commonly is.

Where do you get your frames, parts, and so forth? Does a client bike always start with a frame you have in stock? I'm assuming you end up with lots of takeoff parts from donor frames - what happens to those parts? And in the "far more rewarding" department, into what sort of price range are these builds falling.

Joe Nocella: There are 2 types of people who come to 718 type is the person dragging an old bike down the street, looking to breath some new life into it. The other is starting from scratch with no frame. Of the people that start with no frames, there are 2 avenues; vintage frames or a new frame. Again, in dealing with major distributors, I can get new frames for great prices, and some people come to me wanting a "new" bike. Mostly, our work involves working with vintage frames.

Acquiring vintage frames is probably the most "painful" part of the process. I usually have 8-10 in the shop, but I am always on the lookout. I avoid Craigslist here in NYC as people want way too much. So, I hit up ebay. My perfect find is someone in Iowa who is cleaning out grandpa's barn and comes across a bike...not being a city slicker and not knowing what the market is like here usually means they sell at reasonable prices.

As far as components, I primarily use new named-brand stuff (Nitto, Tektro, SRAM, Shimano, Velocity, etc)...there is a quality level I will not dip below, and for those of my clients that are looking for a cheap conversion, I usually refer them to places that cater to that quality level.

There are many many factors involved in pricing, but our builds generally start in the $550/$600 range, and can certainly go up from there. I don't charge any mark-up for frames or for wheels (which I hand build myself). For components, I keep my prices between wholesale and retail. In addition, I generally charge $50/hr for labor (builds are always 2 hours). And, since I am an incorporated legal business, I charge sales tax, which gets reported every quarter.

Regarding the parts that come off frames, I save most of it and work on cleaning/salvaging as I want to grow the restoration side of my business.

Fuji Otaku: Speaking of growing your business, where do you see this going? Are we going to see a 718 Cyclery headbadge or do you want to continue focus on service/builds? Given complete freedom, what kind(s) of bikes would you like to build? Any tips for staying on top of margins? And finally, what are the best and worst parts of this experience?

Joe Nocella: I have been kicking the idea of frame building around for a bit, but for now I'm gonna stick with the vintage steel. Given complete freedom, I like the projects where the client has a classic frame, and lets me have a long leash with ideas about components and modernization.

As far as the business side of it goes, I do make sure that I include a labor fee on all builds; this way I ensure that I am getting paid for the efforts. The margins on the components helps, but I keep that markup pretty low (like 25-35%). In the end, I tell people 3 things about the money they will spend with us.

1. If they took that same $600 into a shop, they would certainly get "less" of a bike, part for part
2. They are learning how to build and maintain a bike, which is worth something in terms of skipped trips to the shop
3. Their bike will be totally unique

I am no salesman, and the fact that this isn't my day job lets me be relaxed and low-key about the process. My work and reviews speak for themselves. The people that seek me out seem to get it, and realize that this isn't going to take 20 minutes. The best part is the people I meet, the worst is all the paperwork (business taxes, sales tax, incorporation, insurance, dealer accounts, etc).

Not sure where this will go to in 5 years; I often fantasize about opening a storefront and doing this full time.

Fuji Otaku: The architect in you is showing - collaborative design/build with full client engagement.

In terms of new production, things are much better than even 2 or 3 years ago for those who prefer classic bikes. Framebuilders are popping up like mushrooms at dawn, places like Velo Orange are turning into real success stories. So what sorts of things do you like in vintage steel & components that you would like to see brought back. Me, I'm a sucker for chromed forks/stays & high flange wheels. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw the new Electra Ticino Road Hubs - I immediately ordered a set, just to be a first kid on the block.

Also, which bike/project are you most proud of - any pics?

Joe Nocella: My favorite is my current ride, a 1968 Bottecchia...and, regarding Velo Orange, I just got a dealer/wholesale account, which is exciting.

Fuji Otaku: Joe, I want to wish you good luck, thank you for coming by, and invite you to keep in touch. Before you go, I'll just throw it open for anything you'd like to add, especially for any would-be wrenches yearning to slip the surly bonds of cubicle-land.

Joe Nocella: I would say that I am fortunate to have a family that has supported me, and fortunate enough to find a passion that finally makes me understand what a full day's work really means. This isn't rocket science; there are no carburetors, computers, engines or electricity involved; what we love is just metal, rubber and some plastic, moving around parts that in some cases reached the pinnacle of design efficiency 100 years ago.

Thanks so much for taking an interest in what I do, Mr. Otaku.