The Bull$&*t That is American Express's "Small Business Saturday"

We've all seen the commercials....sweet homespun music, people shopping in artisan twine shops, and the narrator telling us how American Express is rebuilding America through their support of small businesses. They then intone about their "Small Business Saturday" campaign like it's the most sacred thing a credit card company and consumer could do to "bring back Main Street".

"Small Business Saturday® is a day dedicated to celebrating the small businesses that create jobs, boost the economy, and preserve neighborhoods around the country" (American Express Web Copy)

Ever notice their Small Business event isn't on that (black) Friday?

It couldn't possibly be on that Friday as that's when they are hopeful that Americans will feed at the Big Box trough, ringing up huge purchases and exceptional credit card charges.

If American Express really cared about Small Businesses they would have their sham of an event on that Friday. And you want to know something....American Express is the card that most Small Businesses dont accept.

  • Bigger Fees (essentially 2x the fees compared to other cards)
  • The Merchants money is held onto longer that Visa or Mastercard (in some cases 1 week)
So when the commercial says "your money stays local".....some of it does, and it's going to be going away for awhile. Nothing on TV gets me more fired up....if only Yelp had TV commercials


1 Comment

Showrooming By One Of Our Own

I received a phone-call from a person who identified himself as a local bike mechanic. He wanted to do a a stand-over of a bike we had in stock, but that he would eventually order from his own shop. No one likes being show-roomed overtly, but this young man was up front with me and a part of our local community.

He showed up soon there-after, and stood over the bike he was interested in.  he then told me that he was going to install new Shimano 105 group-set he found online for $426 (MSRP $797...but that's an entirely different post).

He the started pumping me for info and idea about how he should set up brakes etc.  My mind just tuned off. First, I am busy with actual customers. Second, I have to endure the minor indignity of providing him with a bike to stand over, and now I have to listen while he describes his latest online conquest to me. I basically told him that purchasing things like that online hurts local shops (and his current employer and by direct relationship, his job).  He told me it was a deal he couldn't pass up.

I am not preachy about online purchases....we all buy things online. How am I supposed to "educate" customers whilst I buy pane tickets online and put local travel agents out of business.

I was just hoping one of our own would get it, I guess.

1 Comment


To Grow Your Business, Shut It Down

Last July, I found myself in a hotel banquet room in Utah, talking to Chris Kelly of Topanga Creek Bicycles. I was bemoaning how busy and exhausted I was in the shop. We just had too much work, and the shop was like a hurtling train.

Topanga Creek Bicycle Schedule
Chris proceeded to tell me about a magical place called Topanga Creek Bicycles...where they shut down and "UnPredict Their Wednesdays" every week.  Chris is the owner of this amazing shop that has the clarity to see that shutting down and stepping away might be the best thing for a busy shop.

Chris got into the details, but there weren't too many.  "If you shut on Wednesday and go riding, people will come back on Thursday...and if they're angry we just make them banana bread".  Basically, their Wednesday plan is to just go riding with employees, friend and families. By now, I had drank the Kool-Aid and washed down the banana bread.

When I returned back to Brooklyn, I explained the plan to my staff, and they loved it.  We have been "UnPredicting out Tuesdays" ever since (we couldn't do Wednesday because of my teaching schedule).

Closing the shop to go riding has had so many great advantages that the minor negatives have been washed away. Check out our collection of Shop Ride Films and Photos here

Creating a Narrative: Being able to talk to our customers abut rides, and them invite them along is a great way to connect. We look to connect with our customers in many more ways than retail transactions, and a shop adventure is a great way to do that.  Also, the stories told about riding this bike or that helmet upon return become more fleshed out and less sales-brochure-like.

Our customers respect that we close to go cements us as being committed to riding and our well-being.

Exercise: We could all use more exercise. Its sobering to discover that I had gotten in worse shape since diving head long into the health and fitness segment of retail. Devoting 1 day a week to exercise isn't a life-changer, but its a start.

Morale: Shop morale has always been good, but it gets downright giddy as Tuesday approaches.  Upon our return to the shop the day after, there are great laughs and stories to be had again and again. This connects us far more than a work relationship.

Taking a Break from the City: Taking a break, hitting the road with friends and seeing trees and ducks is a great thing.

Riding our products. We have great bikes and products from the best manufactures in the world. What better way to sell them than to take them out for a ride.  We get asked all the time, "what do you ride".  Building experience on many pieces of equipment in many locations makes what we do less like selling and more like giving a friend some advice.  At 718, we have no salespeople, so our ability to sell is directly derived from our experiences with these products.

Visiting other Shops. A key part of the trip is to visit other shops. This is great experience for all of us to see how other places are run.  I always ask the owner what advice they would have given themselves (essentially me) 20 years ago   Aside from most of them saying "Get out while you can!", there have been many great pieces of wisdom.  We joke that we either leave the shop feeling good about what we are doing, of leave the shop realizing how far we have to go.

Visiting Tasty Diners: Another mandatory piece of the trip is finding a diner.  Eating way to much BEFORE our ride has become another unfortunate tradition

Visiting Woodhaven, Queens:  Unless Tijon moves, we have to go to Woodhaven to pick him up

Access to key employees: The gang doesn't realize it (actually, I am sure they do), but having unfettered access to the employees who make 718 a reality is a great thing.  You cant get 2 bike shop people alone for 5 minutes without talking image 5 in a car for 90 minutes.

Sales are up: Sales are up 19% over the same point last last year since we started the rides

Creating a Market: Hidden down the list here...we are simply looking to "invent" a market for mountain-biking in NYC. Step 1 is to travel to these great venues and show our customers how easy it is to get there...step 2 involves the amazing bikes we have from Salsa, Surly, Kona and Yeti, to name a few

$$: We started these rides in early September, and are planning on going as long as we can into the winter. Everyone has put $20 in...last person riding gets it. So there's that. 

In conclusion, this approach seems so non-intuitive on paper.  Shutting down 1 day out of 7 surely wont grow a business. Surely, it does.

Somethings these endeavors become monsters, threatening to consume everything it its wake.  Shutting it down shows it who's boss.

Time away makes the heart grow fonder. Working in an ice cream store 7 days a week will cause you to hate ice cream, and no one wants that

Check out our collection of Shop Ride Films and Photos here



On Electric Bikes

On Electric Bikes

(Click to read entire post) There is no denying that there is huge industry pressure for bike shops to jump on the E-Bike bandwagon, lest we miss out of the "opportunity of a lifetime". 
The issues we face with e-bikes are as follows

  • Are they legal in NYC?
  • Are we encouraging people to get lazier?
  • Are we curmudgeons that think e-bikes are blasphemous?
  • Do we want to work on/sell these bikes?

Are They Legal in NYC?

I think so...

"...the issue is their treatment as motorcycles under New York State law, and motor scooters in New York City...
This means that in New York State, electric bicycles are generally considered unregistered motor vehicles and subject to the same laws and penalties as automobiles. In New York City, electric bicycles that do not have the ability to be operated solely by its motor (pedal-assist bicycles) are legal, but those that do have that ability (motor-assist bicycles) are subject to fines and impoundment"

"These classifications are especially problematic in light of the fact that electric bicycles are not permitted to have a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), meaning that they cannot be registered with the DMV and are thus inherently illegal for use on public roads throughout the state". (

Are We Encouraging People to Get Lazier?

One major selling point that gets put forth in the media is America's ageing population.  In addition, our growing weight as a population cannot be ignored.  This is a tough one, and I wouldn't want to sit here and claim that older and heavier people should just toughen up and ride a road bike. There are some amazing stories of people with weight issues changing their lives by riding "regular" bikes (check out the story of Ernest Gagnon). Age, however, is inevitable.  When I'm 70, will I be able to use a bike as I currently know it.  Would a bike with an electric assist keep me that much more active than sitting inside and playing checkers?

Are We Curmudgeons?

We might be...but I think bike shops in the 1920's and 30's had the same discussions about derailleurs. People like to identify with classic ideas. I think it makes them feel more "authentic" and "old school", and less likely to be dismissed as a hipster.  However, its these same hipsters that DONT use rotary dial phones and amber computer monitors for a reason.  Time marches forward. 

I don't think my personal definition of a bike should cause me to dislike variants of the machine that get more people riding.  This is about butts on bikes, right?

Do We Want To Work On/Sell E-Bikes?

I wasn't sure I wanted to work on bikes that had popcorn makers in the back, but here we are.

We have decided to test the waters working with Xtracycle and Bionx. Xtracycle is a leader in the cargo bike industry, and we figured that no one could use a little boost more than a mom climbing up Park Slope with kids.

So we have one Bionx-equipped Xtracycle Edgerunner in the shop, and its getting a good amount of attention.  There has never been a "plan"  for just continues to take us places.



So, Its Been About 1 Month

(Click to read full entry)

As some of you might know, I have left my profession of 20 years (over 30, if you cont that that I wanted to be an architect since I was younger than 10) to focus on the bike shop full time.  Its been about a month into this new pursuit, and here are some observations:

Being on your feet 10-12 hours a day is grueling.  I came home achy and all kinds of tired the first few weeks.  My body seems to have gotten used to it, and I am actually stating to feel less creaky than I had been feeling at my desk early this Summer.

When you are in an office, you are exposed to a very small slice of society...when you throw open your shop doors wide in Gowanus on a beautiful day, that slice "expands".

I  have gained an appreciation of the width and breath of the scenarios my crew handles on a daily basis. Coming in only in the evenings as I had been doing, I often received the abridged versions of the craziness of the day ("this guy says he knows you, he will be back tomorrow").  Now I get to experience it firsthand.
More to follow.



Industry Magazine Question: "Are there any particular genres or styles or cycling in which you’re seeing either unusual growth or contraction?"

Our "thing" has always been custom builds, ever since I started 718 Cyclery in my backyard 5 years ago. This segment of our business is growing in that I believe more and more people are finding that a collaboratively built custom bike works best for them.  In NYC, most folks usually don't have the space or budget for the 3 or 4 bikes that will do everything they need.  Consequently, we find ourselves at this intersection, helping people design and build the bike that will be a commuter, racer and kid hauler ("oh, and can it have a basket")

Working this way is certainly harder than whipping a bike of the rack for a retail transaction, but we feel the relationships we build during our collaborative build process creates customers that last a lifetime, and are not based on us competing with our neighbors for razor-thin retail bike margins.



Industry Magazine Question: What are your margins on bike sales?

Industry Magazine Question: What are your margins on bike sales?

We sell bikes mostly through our collaborative build process. The process entails an initial consultation, a fit session as well as building up the entire bike with our customers.  We have done over 400 of these, and its how I started the business in my backyard. This process allows us to charge MSRP on all components (for the most part) as well as a labor rate for the build.  It certainly takes a bit longer than pulling a bike off the rack, but we are all about developing a deeper connection with our customers, not a retail relationship.  Margin for the build (including labor thrown into the equation) is between 50-60%...and we get a customer for life.

Assembling bikes out of boxes for a 35% percent margin, and up-selling the transaction with accessories, doesn't interest me at all. This is what differentiates us from a vast majority of the 175+ bike shops in NYC.  Its harder to work this way, but far more rewarding.



Industry Magazine Question: What’s do you think of early-season product releases? Do they have a significant effect on your business?

Generally, early-season product releases don't effect us as we are not a commodity based shop that needs to have Shiny-Thing-X before the next guy or we'll lose customers. Our primary focus is on custom builds projects and service, and working collaboratively with our solid customer base.

We joke that we have lights and lock on the wall because those are the visual cues that people need to see when they walk into a bike shop. This probably flies in the face of most retail commandments, but accessory and after market sales don't really interest me. We don't have a sales department or designated salesmen. If I was interested in selling things off a shelf, I would have opened a Hallmark store.



Industry magazine you use outside reps?

Industry magazine you use outside reps?

We are small and naive enough to believe that we can do all of our ordering on our own.  So far, so good.  We are off the beaten path, small, and overshadowed by much larger shops in the area, so we don't get many visits. Being 50 yards from the Gowanus Canal Superfund site doesn't exactly draw 'em in like it used to either. We are sort of like the Yukon outpost that gets replenished twice a year.  When reps do visit, its like a mini-holiday. Greg gets all excited as we all gather 'round to see what the jolly rep pulls out of his pouch. Mini USB lights...ooooh. yet another helmet with a GoPro mount...ahhhhhh. We have a good time with our reps; Art Pellegrino from J&B, Chris Gebhardt from QBP; Herb Hart from Hawley and Mark Silverman who reps just about everything.



Sales Tax and the Local Economy

We are on a panel that replies to questions for a Bike Trade Magazine (Bicycle Retailer and Industry News).  Here is the latest question and our reply:

If legislation passes to make online consumers pay state sales tax, what effect do you think it could have on your business?

We are just about to dip our toe in the waters of online retailing through SmartEtailing, so our projection of what online sales tax would do to our business is unclear.

Regarding the whole sales tax thing, we do get a number of folks that come in and want a discount (code word, to not pay sales tax) by paying cash. "I don't like Uncle Sam to take a cut", they say.  Oh yeah?  Do you like it when the firetruck shows up when you house catches on fire? Do you like the garbage man, cops and schools that the city provides? We all have to pay our share if we want our local communities to flourish.

We also get alot of folks who want us to match prices they saw online...I am not preachy (as I would be foolish to believe that everyone in the world should buy bike parts form me).  I politely refuse, and suggest they consider the axiom "you get what you pay for".  Hey, we all buy things online.  When i book a flight online, I find the online customer service I receive adequate for my needs.

I tell folks they can buy online and save on tax....but I also tell them that the robot that puts their part in that shipping box doesn't care of you're selected the right part, nor will it be there if/when things go wrong.  yeah, things cost a little more in a  brick-and-mortar shop, but I have 10 employees and we are actively contributing to our local economy.  

We do very well charging straight MSRP, and adding to that the best customer service around. people don't mind the slight uptick in cost if they know they will be taken care of.



Bicycling Retailers and Industry News Panel Question

We are on a panel that replies to questions for a Bike Trade Magazine.  Here is the latest question and our reply

What products do you place near the register to spur impulse buys? How do you merchandise these items to maximize sales?

I know this probably violates the 1st Commandment of Retail, but we actually don't employ this tactic.  I think its a combination of being annoyed at the practice in other (not just bike) stores, and the fact that our mission is to develop long-term relationships with our customers. I feel this relationship transcends having them grab easily-available tire levers if they need them or not.

Taking that idea one step further, we have actively avoided using any traditional POS displays or racks.  We have a very open and inviting space, and it was purposely designed not to hit anyone over the head with retail.  We are a shop in an industrial part of town (Gowanus, Brooklyn), that relies less on walk-ins and more on being a destination for custom projects and collaborative builds.  To that end, we really didn't see the need to have massive Park Tool structures (although, I think they're cool!)



What Happens When We Get It Wrong

As H.I. McDunnough once said, "These are the salad days". Great projects rolling in, even in the dead of winter. Fantastic customers and a vibrant staff that has me constantly smiling on the inside.

When things go well, everyone is all smiles. However, the true measure of a company is how it reacts when things go bad. We recently had a situation where we were asked to do something specific. Through a series of miscommunications, this was not achieved, and a customer was less than thrilled. Our success rate is astronomical (reviews), but every once in awhile, one slips through the cracks. This is the story of Work Order 5528.

A customer brought in his prized 1993 Bridgestone MB-3. For those of you that think Bridgestone is just a tire company, please please please reconsider and have a look at this company's amazing bike lineage. Their 1993 Catalogis basically a work of art. These are the bikes that we as a shop crave to work on, and our reputation for these classics precedes us. We are the shop that handles these types of bikes, hands down.

We have a pretty established and choreographed process for taking bikes in to be worked on, and we pride our selves on our communication. This interaction has to be top-notch between mechanics and with the customer.

To generalize the story, the customer came in with a list of things he wanted to be checked out and repaired, and with the specific request for us to retain all of the original parts from his classic bike. The bike passed through a number fo hands, and eventually the main message had gotten lost, We replaced the brakes, but upon return of his bike, we had misplaced the originals.

We have procedures in place to ensure customer requests get passed along, and we return old parts as a matter of habit. In this situation, this fell apart, and in the end its my responsibility. I have learned that throwing employees "under the bus", especially in front of customers, is childish and short-sighted. Here is a Yelp example of this, written by a bike shop owner (bike shop to remain nameless):

"Hey, I'm sorry to hear about your bad experience. We just fired the very mechanic your (sic) talking about. I'm really upset to hear about his surly attitude. I'll warranty the repair 100%, schedule a time to bring the bike back and give us one more chance. At least that mechanic isn't here anymore, He was rude to a lot of people when I wasn't around. I'll comp you two more new tires and we can talk smack about him during installation. Email me at...and we'll set this up...."

This achieves nothing in terms of repairing the relationship with the customer and at the same time does nothing to constructively work on the scenario in the shop. We try to deal with those issues internally, but to the customer I take the hit in terms of the shop as a whole. We all failed, not just mechanic x, y and z.

So, how was this resolved? In addition to comping the work on this customer's bike, we ripped the shop apart looking for his brakes (Dia Compe 986 cantilevers). Once we determined they were nowhere to be found, I went on Ebay and found a NOS (new old stock) pair from 1993, still in the box. As you can imagine, they werent cheap.

The customer was upset but at the same time seemed to appreciate our honesty and commitment to fixing the situation. I contacted him every few days to update him, as opposed to hoping the situation would just go away.

Situations like this, where I need to get directly involved to make a situation better, happen infrequently, as I have the best staff in NYC. However, things happen and none of us are infallible. In these cases, hitting the situation honestly, swiftly and head-on in the best policy.

Anyone can smile through the good times; how a company handles adversity is what defines them.



A First Timer's Thoughts on Interbike

In the whole scheme of things, my shop (718 Cyclery) is quite young.  2 years in my backyard, 1 year in a small storefront and now a full year under our belt in a nice big space in Gowanus Brooklyn.  With so much going on just to get the shop running and sustainable, the thought of heading to Vegas for a ‘bike convention” had never crossed my mind.

Meeting Paul from Paul Components was a definite highlight

This year was a real turning point for the shop, and I was able to finally find time in my schedule and space in my brain to contemplate the potential benefits of traveling to Interbike 2012. With the shop, my day job (architect), my non-for-profit (inner-city lacrosse), my teaching gig (Pratt) and family (wife, kids, dogs, cats) on notice, I planned my trek to Vegas.

It was probably June when I decided to take the leap and sign up.  I found the registration site a bit confusing (was there a fee?...did I actually just register?).  I also found the connected hotel and travel web links a bit confusing.  In the end, I received a registration number that I would apparent have to present in order to gain admittance.

Soon thereafter, I began receiving a barrage of emails about this party and that event.  None of it really made it on my radar, but in hindsight, I should have paid a bit more attention to these calls to action.  My staff at the shop was concerned that I would sign us up for some inappropriate bike line, and cautioned me to think before I signed up for 2 dozen Chinese folding recumbents.  

With all of the things I was looking to avoid, I then took some time to think about what I would like to see. Like all of us, my time is valuable, so I began thinking about what was in it for me and my shop. This list may sound naive, but I purposely approached interbike without any preconceived notions.  
  1. I wanted to buy a spoke cutter from Phil Wood
  2. I wanted to meet some of the amazing companies that we do alot of business with (Paul Components, Phil Wood, White Industries, Thompson, Chris King)
  3. I wanted to look for some software that could help us develop our online presence in way consistent with who we are.
  4. I wanted to seek out a line of bikes that would work well in our shop.  I didn't know exactly what that meant, but I would know it when I saw it
  5. I wanted to locate a line of shoes that we could get into without a massive buy-in
  6. As we do alot of custom builds, I wanted to search for frame builders.
  7. I wanted to check in with the bike lines we do carry (Salsa, Surly, Public, Mission, State, Leader, Montague, Handsome, Lapierre, Torker, Devinci and Rocky Mountain)

With this list in my mind, I boarded a plane at Laguardia and assumed my center seat location. I had received and plan to heed the 2 bits of advice I had been given.  The first was no make NO appointments,and just wander unencumbered.  I was mostly successful, although I couldn't resist an informal meeting with Harry Schwarzmann at Bell/Giro.  The second piece of advice was to take a roller luggage bag to gather and collect the many catalogs I was sure to attract,

I arrived in Vegas and spent my only 10 minutes outside waiting for a taxi. I had planned on arriving on Tuesday evening and leaving late Thursday night. My uneventful taxi ride (the driver was from...where else? Brooklyn!) deposited me at the Venetian.  For some reason, I received an upgraded room.  Never was such an amazing room wasted on someone who would never use it to its potential.  It had a sunken living room, leather couches and many flat screen TV’s.  The bathroom even had an annex.

I spent Tuesday evening getting my bearings and playing text tag with a few NYC shop that I was trying to connect with.Being independent  small and relatively new, I don’t have the cadre of bike buddies that I hope to have in 10 years.  Consequently, my first evening was spent wandering around the casino floor, losing money in small batches.

After a great night sleep in my oversized suite, I awoke with a mission.  I hadn't picked up my registration tag, so my plan was to hit the registration area when it opened at 7am. Being a morning person,jumped back 3 hours in time-zones  I was up at like 5am (right when I am sure my more hardy brethren were turning in for the night),  I had breakfast, and made my way over to the sands Expo Center, when my worlds collided.  A few years back, I had attended an architecture/computer conference (please dont laugh) in the same exact location...same exhibit halls, same registration area.  It was a sign, but I am not sure of what.

Being first on the registration line, before the doors open, I made a few friends.  A PowerBar rep here, and journalist from Taiwan there.  Registration went smooth, and I had my first industry specific hanging name tag; I felt like such a player.   Dampening this flush feeling was the fact that I had assumed that the main hall opened at 8am, but in fact had to wait until 9am for the main opening.

The waiting area swelled with hundreds if not thousands of people as it approached 9am.  I tried making sense of the paper map, but I found it too unwieldy. I then downloaded the Interbike App, and actually found it quite useful. Many people in the holding area seemed poised to make a mad dash to various swag-laden booths when the doors flung open.  Mine was a more measured approach; I wanted to see a man about a spoke cutter.

As the smart phone chirped 9am, people walked briskly through the main hall doors.  It was the kind of quick walk you do as a kid when told not to run. Consulting my app, I calmly strolled up to the Phil Wood booth and purchased Spoke Cutter #1837 from Leroy. I arranged to pick up my new 32 pound bundle of joy later that day, and set out to explore the floor proper.

Being an architect (and having been in this “room” before), I decided on a systematic “up and down every aisle” approach not unlike a sonar-towing destroyer in World War 2. I forced my way to ignore booths on my way to my jump off point in the back corner as I didn't want to loose focus.  The system works I kept reminding myself.  
I arrived at my jumping off point, took a deep breath, and embarked. Up and down the rows I went, stopping at booths that looked interesting.  I made a point to stop at vendors who gave me a shot early on, as I wanted to make connections with the folks I had only talked to on the phone up until this point. I got to shake hands of idols such as Paul of Paul Components and Brian Thompson of Thompson.

What did strike me was how out of place I felt.  In walking by mega-manufacturers booths, where there were rows of desks and chairs, it reminded me that this is the place where
big pre-season deals are struck by massive stores.  Maybe we’ll be at the table someday, maybe that’s not what I want.

There were moments when I felt like a minor big the QBP and JB booths, I was instantly recognized for the film made about us a few moths ago (“The Inverted Bike Shop”) that was screened by both respective companies for their employees (who wouldn’t like hearing “you’re the guy from the movie”).  Yeah, I felt like Brad Pitt.

In checking off the items from my initial list as compared with the reality to what the show offered, I wasn't that successful in finding what I was looking for. By being relatively naive about the show going in, I think I set myself up for a little disappointment.  I cemented relationships IO already had with vendors that we deal with,but didn't really make any new ones.

Realizing that I represented such small potatoes to many of these vendors was sobering...but my biggest and most encouraging takeaway was the feeling that there aren't many shops out there doing it the way we do it. Will I go back next year? Its a resounding “maybe”



“You Can't Hammer a Nail Over the Internet”

The title of this post is directly derived from a quote from one of my favorite books, “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford.  In this book, Crawford decries the shift in our culture away from working with our hands.  High schools and other institutions are preparing the next generation of our society to be information workers, leaving the manufacturing and building to others generally outside of our borders.

I picked up this book about 1 year into my journey with bikes in 2009.  At the time, I didn’t know what drew me away from my well-paid job as an architect into the (less paid)  world of grease and ball bearings.  Although I have wanted to be an architect since I was very young, I found the modern interpretation of the profession somewhat tedious.  In graduate school, I had the good fortune to study at the premier “hands-on” architecture school in the country (The University of Kansas) under Professor Dan Rockhill. This program taught me how to weld, pour concrete and tie re-bar.  Upon graduation in 1996 , I was thrust into a world of CAD and stacks of papers that had to be reviewed.  Really?  Was this it?

In 2008, I had a bike stolen.  I had some great friends convince me to build my own replacement.  Initially,I had no real desire to do so.  I had been a bike messenger in NYC in the wild late-80’s, but was never really enamoured with the culture. Going through the process of researching and parts acquisition for my “new” bike set something off in me. Most architects have some sort of left brain/right brain reasons for becoming an architect.  My reasons were similar..enjoying math and technology as well as many artistic pursuits.  Whereas actual architecture took too long, I subconsciously found that working on bikes was everything I loved about architecture, in a smaller timeframe. There was the amazing beauty of these objects, as well as the technical specs of the various components.

I could work on a project and affect someone’s life in the span of hours, not years.  I was impacting people’s fitness, traffic, pollution in real-time.

Looking back on it now, I can see what was going on in my brain.  It wasn't an active rejection of architecture (heck, I am still employed as an architect)..  it was a search for something that resembled what I loved about architecture, but that made more sense to me. As an architect, essentially an information worker, my job could be outsourced to a cheaper information worker with a computer and a high-speed internet connection pretty easily.  In fact, thats whats been happening in architecture these last few years.  However, when you work with your hands, no one can ever take that away.  Crawford’s book argues that those who work with their hands have the most control over their destiny.  After living it firsthand, I tend to agree.

In the end, “Soulcraft” wasn’t life changing for me as much as it was life affirming.  I was able to finally understand what was drawing me into this world of Sheldon Brown (look him up now).  I was able to tell my wife,”here’s the reason there are bike parts strewn around the house”.  Unamused after 2 years of my backyard shop, we decided to open a storefront, which we quickly outgrew and moved into a bigger space. What “Soulcraft”  did teach me is that the value in the work that we do with our hands is priceless.  In my shop, we discount various items for various groups, etc.  However, I NEVER discount our labor rate.  Our labor is the reason we exist.  The internet sells parts cheaper than I do, but what the internet can’t do is hammer a nail.

My life now consists of being lucky enough to pursue the things I love.  In addition to a beautiful family, including 2 kids, I am employed at HOK as an architect, teach architecture at the Pratt Institute and recently founded a non-for-profit that brings the sport of lacrosse to the inner city kids of Brooklyn (Brooklyn Battery Lacrosse Club)



The Secret Life of a Work-order

What happens when you drop your bike off for a repair at 718 Cyclery?  I’d love to tell you it was a simple matter me someone working on it, and giving you a call when ready.  The reality is that there is a vast amount of choreography, communication and mechanical skill that takes place between the time you drop your bike with us, and the time you pick it up.

A customer walks into our shop with a bike in tow. She approaches our service desk and says that she thinks her bike “needs some work”.  (This is usually the time where customers might make funny sound effects to mimic the issue they might be having). We have learned that this brief interview and evaluation of the bike, called “Intake”,  is the most crucial step to making the entire Work-Order process run smoothly over the time that the customers bike is in our possession.

Similar to a hospital, if we can handle the repair or adjustment right then and there, before admitting the bike into our system, we will.  We call this ‘triage’ or “screening”, and on busy weekend days, we may even post a sentry out on the sidewalk with a set of tools, ready for on-the-spot repairs.  From a customer’s point of view, the quicker they can get their back back, the better.  From the shop’s point of view, admitting a bike into our system triggers a number of events dealing with administration, storage, ordering, staffing and communication.  This is the shop’s lifeblood, but if we can turn that bike around on the sidewalk, all the better.

Back to our female customer. Her bike is determined to need a Tune Up, as well as a few other part replacements.  We generally tell people that we will call them if we discover more issues. There’s nothing more frustrating than picking up a bike that is laden with $50 of extra charges that weren't authorized. The bike is then entered into MerchantOS, a cloud-based work-order, point-of-sale and inventory management tool. We have netbooks scattered around the shop, so this intake can happen in multiple places.  Within the work-order screen, the parts required are called up.  If we have these parts in stock, the employee is notified and the employee will zip-tie the parts to the bike.  If they need to be ordered, a checkbox is clicked and an cart is automatically set up with one of our parts distributors.  At the end of the day, these special order carts are converted to actual orders and sent along to our distributors.

The bike is also assigned a status code.  An “Open” bike has everything it needs to get worked on.  “Waiting” signifies parts are on order.  “Off-site” means the customer has set up an appointment in advance and will bring the bike in.  “Exam” and “Estimate” depict actions that need to be taken.  This allows the crew to scan the work on a given day and prioritize.

Again, intake is key.  The brand and color of the bike is logged, and a unique Work Order number is assigned to the bike. The person taking the bike in scans our upcoming work schedule and assigned a due day. We give the customer an invoice, and we then put a tag on that shows the Work Order number.

The bike then goes into our basement storage area.  This zone is carefully organized so that things can be found in a timely manner.  It is also kept very neat as we often go down there with customers to show them examples of our work.

When the day arrives to do the work, the bike is pulled from the basement, and the employee opens up the work-order and reads the notes.  In a shop like ours, the person who checks in the work generally isnt the person who will be doing the work, and will probably not be the person who gives the bike back to the customer. It is CRITICAL that everyone who touches this bike in the 3-4 days its in our shop records their interaction in the notes section of the work-order. When the customer calls to change the work slightly, notes are inputted right then and there. If we are waiting for a part, it is noted.

By the time a bike is pulled for work, all parts will have arrived to complete the work.  Parts that arrive for specific bikes are ordered in such a way that allows whomever opens that shipment box will see the part and see a note on the packing slip about what work-order the part is assigned to. Alot of this is a blind handoff, and has taken many of us a year of working together to hone.  It involves people with the expertise to know what part needs to be ordered, and the admin skills to make sure the order is notated properly to get routed to the right bike upon delivery.

The bike is now worked on...we have netbooks scattered around the shop, so mechanics usually have the work-order screen up while they are working on the bike.  This is a great juxtaposition; 19th and 21st century technology working together. Again, we use an elaborate journal system that attaches the mechanics notes and observations to the record of the work-order.

Once the bike is finished, a second mechanic looks over it for quality control. This is an imporant part of the process.  Once released, the bike’s status is changed to “Finished”, and a tag is printed and stapled to the bike. At this time, any old parts are attached to the bike with zip ties in case the customer wants to hang on to them.  The finished bike is taken to a specified part of the basement storage area,and the customer is called.

This process is the essence of our business, and is repeated 15-20 times a day.  I tell people the the person taking the bike in probably won't be the person who works on the bike, and will be different still from the person who fetches your bike when you come to pick it up. There is nothing more frustrating that picking up a bike, paying $85 and wondering what was even done. Using this integrated process, everyone who touches the bike along the way is informed and can speak intelligently about the work done with the customer.



Yelp and the Curious Case of "JC"

Every 2-3 months, I get all worked up over how much yelp (spelled with neither a capital "y" or an exclamation point for emphasis) aggravates me.

It's been 2-3 months.

Recently, the shop was fortunate enough to welcome into its service bays an owner of a high-end vintage Italian racing bike. We'll call him "JC". This owner was new to the world of what it takes to own one of these classics in terms of maintenance, etc. We jumped at the chance to work with him so that he became more self-sufficient in terms of care and maintenance. We also spent hours drooling over his bike, and making sure his overhaul tune-up was just right.

The initial session ended with a few NOS parts needing to be located, but I knew we had made a great connection with a new enthusiast.

JC then joined yelp and wrote an amazing review of many many words. In his own words, it took a few hours to complete. As soon as i saw it, i knew yelp would filter it. (see his review here)

We have 85 five-star reviews, yelp shows 11 (see my previous post on this subject here). They use an algorithm to determine if a review if fraudulent. Luckily, I have copied all of these reviews and have put them on the shops website.

What continuously annoys me is that since JC only has 1 review on yelp, yelp deems him to be a shill, and filters his review. How is his opinion of a place of business any less valuable than some snark-wad who reviews 4 restaurants a week. Do you think JC will invest another 1-2 hours on yelp, hoping that yelp deems his opinion worthy...probably not. Yelp is alienating its new users, and is destined for failure.

And then, they want me to advertise with them.



Designing a Creative, Industrial Workspace

My first shop space was a 10’ x 10’ metal shed in my backyard.  It was cold, leaked and it was powered by a 50’ extension cord snaked from the house, but it was home. After 2 years, an opportunity to lease a storefront around the corner presented itself.  It was less than 500 sf, had no heat, hot water or storage...but it was a real store!

The first shop
The first shop
2010-2011: 7th Ave, Brooklyn

I foolishly imagined that this new shop would be just like my backyard business; a studio-like environment to build bikes collaboratively with my clients.  Was i wrong.  As soon as we opened our doors in November 2011, we became a “bike shop”.  Its sort of like an animal shelter; you cant open your doors and then say “oh no, we don't fix those kinds of bikes”.  Now that we were a full fledged shop, our lack of storage became a HUGE issue (the lack of heat and hot water was a detriment also).  We had so many bikes in as projects and for repairs that I was storing bikes at my house down the street.  We joked that it was our “secure off-site storage warehouse”, but the joke was lost on my family that had to content with 50+ in the ground floor of our house. The logistics of sending a runner to pick up customer bikes was also tiresome and inefficient.   Add into this mix retail display and a bike showroom area, and you can imagine the compactness.  It was like opening a bike shop on a submarine.

With the relationship with our landlord on the wane, and with the prospect of needing to expand quickly, I stumbled upon a space in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Our first storefront on 7th Ave
Our first storefront on 7th Ave
2011-Present: 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn

The first glimpse I had our or prospective new space was a straight shot between a tower of antiques.  The 75’ depth essentially sold me before I stepped one foot in the door (the heat and hot water were a plus!).  The space was naturally divided subtly divided into 3 distinct spaces, front to back, and had a full basement and an additional rear storeroom.

The most important of this space was going to be the design of the work area.  Since our initial shop was so tight, I really wanted to create something that allowed space, access and circulation for our mechanics and clients. I designed an area that had 4 bays with a center island.  This allowed circulation past a bike in the rack, as well as provided a common area at the center for classes of general work.  each bay has its own sets of tools, with less-often-used tools being shared by 2 bays.  Our specialty tools (frame tool, reamers, facers) occupy their own area to the back of the work space. Our main work area also includes a shop sink, a mechanics compute station, spoke storage and small parts storage.

Just as important was designing a storage strategy.  I came up with a system that labeled our components and parts as a 1, 2 or 3.  1’s are things that are sued every day and are stored in the main workspace.  2’s are things that are used maybe every other day, and are stored in our back storeroom, adjacent to the work area. 3’s are things that are used less frequently,a nd are stored in the basement.  Every part gets a number, and is stored accordingly.  the best part is there are no bikes at my house!

Our basement is also organized properly.  This is to facilitate a smooth workflow of bike storage and retrieval, but also is kept very neat as we ofter have clients down there looking at examples of our work.

The same philosophy governs our back storeroom.  In addition, we built storage units for items that are traditionally hard to store (seatposts and tires).

The whole shop is on display, so its organization and upkeep is of utmost importance



3 Kinds of Clients

I have meet many hundreds of people who have gone through our interview process for our Collaborative Builds. Working this way, as opposed to selling a bike off of the wall, allows us to really get to know our clients.

In sitting across from so many folks, its inevitable that some patterns emerge. And, in sitting across from so many people on the couch, you do start to get a sense that you are a bit of a therapist, listening and helping a person work through something (even if its only a bike).

The diagram above illustrates the general spectrum where people place themselves. These definitions represent the extreme 3 points of this spectrum, as many people are a composite of 2 or 3 of these characteristics.
  • Gearhead: This is the person who knows just about every component that they want on their bike. This person is has done the research on the components, but may not have an overall understanding of how these components will work together as an assembly. In this situation, our role is to help the client understand the bigger picture, and how these components all relate to each other.
  • Aesthetic: This person will approach us with a picture and say "I want my bike to look like this". Many times, it's a composite from a number of bikes we've already done, and sometimes it's from an online gallery. The challenge here is to make this vision a reality in terms of function, budget and reality. Someone that wants to replicate a hot track bike, yet wants to commute 15 miles a day, might have to forgo a few things to make that riding situation a reality. All of our clients have an interest in aesthetics; some just have it sooner on the process than others.
  • Function: This is by far the most challenging/common situation we see. A client comes in and describes what he or she wants the bike to do. They arent concerned with colors or components just yet. They are concerned that they live in a 4 story walk-up, have little space and need this bike to fulfill 3 functions (commute, fitness and kid hauling, for instance). It's these situations where our process shines over a traditional bike store that will try to shoe-horn you into something hanging on the wall.
It's the great mix of these 3 characteristics that make our clients the best in the bike business. By the time they reach our couch, they are familiar with our process and ready to have someone listen without arrogance or attitude.



"The 2nd Ave Chute"

The commute from home to my day job is about 8-1/2 miles. It is filled with a few perilous moments, many of these are sort of predictable, like when you know some tricky turns are coming up on a bobsled course. You just prepare as best as you can. It's the unscripted events that can throw you, literally.

I gauge how dangerous my trip is by how many times I have to raise my voice to avoid being sideswiped, hit or otherwise killed. Generally, its 2 per trip.

One of the most dangerous parts of my return trip is what I like to call "The 2nd Avenue Chute". It's a bit of a white knuckle approach, similar to what pilots must experience when landing at a tough runway (except I don't have 180 people on board). The thing is, I know its coming, and I know the 2 ways it can play out. Even now, 6 hours or so away from my evening commute, I am visualizing it.

It starts out good enough...a great run in a bike lane down 2nd Ave. Many people use this bike lane to check their i-phones and make truck deliveries, but this is to be expected and is no better/worse than the rest of the bike lanes in Manhattan.

Essentially, 2nd Ave forks at Houston street, and if you want to take the left fork and continue south on Chrystie Street, you have to edge you way into traffic to get lined up in the bike lane that is in the middle of the street. The pictures below don't do it justice, as its usually choked with cars, trucks and busses.

How it can play out is this:
  1. If I hit a red light 3-4 blocks north of the fork, I can then move in front of the stopped traffic and position myself for a 2 block mad sprint to the finish line. 
  2.  If I am "lucky", and don't hit any red lights, I am forced to merge live across 3 lanes of angry traffic.
Complicating matters is that vehicles approaching this fork are generally beginning to realize that they need to get to the other fork than the one that they're in, causing lots of unannounced and skittish lane changes.  
Houston Street "Fork"
Houston Street "Fork"



Better Than the Internet

I hear and read the same complaint from so many of my bike shop peers. "The internet is kicking our ass". Trade magazines are full of articles about shops (not just bike shops) that have just run out of ideas.

I say we ("we" being small local businesses) need to be Better than the Internet. I know what you're saying..."Joe, whats better than ordering a part for 40% of MSRP and having it delivered in 3 business days?" You were saying that, weren't you? Well, if you werent even remotely thinking along those lines, here is how we have made our shop Better than the Internet
  1. Staff: We have the best staff in the business, as far as i am concerned. I tell people that the robot at the discount super-warehouse that picks your item and shoves it in a shipping box could care less about you and your choice. Does it know that maybe you need a mid-cage derailleur instead of a short-cage one? No, it doesn't. However, my staff will make sure its what you want before we order it, not after. It's the human interaction that sets a brick-and-mortar shop apart.
  2. Installation: I use this quote all the time, "You cant hammer a nail over the internet". Lets say you do order something online, and it shows up. Now what? Expert and safe installation by qualified mechanics is very important on a bike that you will be hurtling through traffic with. Many shops will not install parts bought elsewhere/online, but we will. This has become a major sticking point with bike shops. Hey, I shop online....I book an airline ticket based on price; its the way the world works. We are not smug enough to believe that you will buy everything from us...but we will help you install it.
  3. Price: We get this question every once in a while, 'Can you match this online price?". My answer is always no. If we start chasing online price slashing, where mega companies have razor-thin margins because they sell 2,000 of that item in a day, we'll be out of business shortly. We offer fair and competitive pricing. We pay our employees fairly and do everything by the books in terms of payroll and all of the assorted required taxes. It's an expensive way to do business, but its the right way.
  4. The Economy: Buying locally contributes to our shared local condition. Taxes are collected and presumably used appropriately. Not paying taxes on online goods has caused disconnect issues in our local economy too grave and numerous for this blog to list. Buying from a warehouse in the Upper Midwest certainly helps their economy, but really has none of the added benefit that buying locally does in terms of tax distribution. i am not an economist, so I'll leave it at that.
  5. The Experience: This is hard to quantify, as many people don't need an "experience" to purchase a durable good. If you are the kind of person who wants to be assured you're making the right choice, that it will be installed correctly, and that you can come on by with any questions/issues subsequently, then our shop is the place for you.