Mission: Impossible

“Why didn’t I see you at Seattle Bike Expo?”
This time of year, customers often ask if they’ll see us at Bike Expo, NAHBS or some other exposition show that other custom bike companies attend. So many customers have asked me that over the last 9 years that I thought maybe they were due an explanation. We do not exhibit at these shows any longer. Although that would have seemed like a crazy decision to me just 10 years ago, business models change to suit the needs of their customers. After more than 4 decades in business, we’ve learned a thing or 2 about what our customers want from us. We’re not crazy (at least I don’t think so)….read on and find out why.

Mission: Impossible
The story of a customer focused business trying to operate in a conventional way

Imagine trying to put together a bicycle display that will compete with Specialized, Trek, Cervelo, and all of the other national and international bicycle companies. Sounds like a big task right? Well, let’s keep going. Now, imagine trying to put that display together while at the same time running a full scale bicycle shop. You have to keep fitting customers for new bikes, selling new bikes, answering the phones, answering your email, and working the sales floor just like any other day. Sounds a little harder right? Well, that’s not all. In your shop, you have to keep welding, painting, and assembling the bikes that are already sold. Now, you also have to keep the ordering going full time so that parts are here for those sold bikes, and don’t forget, you have to run a full service bike repair shop too.

If all of this weren’t enough, assume that you’ve developed a large parts manufacturing business throughout the last decade. You have to do all of the previous stuff while at the same time manufacturing thousands of parts that have already been promised to overseas customers. After machining, these parts will have to be anodized, fully assembled, boxed and shipped to the customers.

The Hard Part:
Now here’s the hard part (I bet you thought you’d already heard the hard part). You have to do all of this on a small business budget with the same 15 staff members that work at your shop all year long. Looking back on it, it doesn’t sound hard as much as it sounds crazy. The truth is, we couldn’t do all of what we do well, and do an expo display well too. If you want to read more about what the last expo we attended was like, read on…
…the inner workings of preparing for an expo:

Going to an exposition sets us back about 3 weeks. There’s no way to do an expo without putting orders (parts and bikes) already placed onto the back burner. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s how it is.

Here’s a quick timeline of how an expo worked for us:

After several planning meetings, various departments were assigned to do things to prepare for the show. These meetings were expensive, and so was the booth at the show ($4,000 the last time we attended) so it was important to make a big impression….at least it seemed important at the time.

Ignoring what’s really important:
First of all, we started preparing for an expo a few months ahead of time, by making room in the build queue for some special ‘show bikes’. By ‘making room’ I mean putting customer’s bikes on the back burner. Then, about 10 days before the show, we did nothing in the paint shop except paint show bikes. Again, customer’s bikes would have to wait. The repair shop was kept busy assembling bikes for the show, and helping me build whatever booth fixtures we had designed. Before you knew it, we were backed up in the repair shop too (even repair customers had to wait).

On Thursday before the event, we would need to pick up the rental truck to haul all of the show bikes and custom displays that we had built. Most of the staff spent Thursday and Friday carefully wrapping the bikes and loading the truck, only to unload it again at the event a few hours later. Customer repairs and fitting appointments were not allowed from Thursday until the next Tuesday. This was because our trained staff would all be at the show trying to make a good impression on all of the show attendees. The actual store would be staffed with temporary volunteer ‘friends’ until we returned on Tuesday.

The show:
Now, we’d been working non-stop 10 ~ 12 hour days the week before the show, and now we would work 3 more 12 hour days in a row. Saturday would start early and would be a 12 hour day of standing on concrete floors and shaking hands. It’s really great to see the customers, but it was also a little embarrassing when someone with a bike on order would ask “How’s my bike coming?” Obviously, they had a bike that was put on the ‘back burner’ while we prepared for the show.

Sunday (usually a day off for everyone here) would be another 10 hours on the concrete floor, and then a long night. After the show closed, we carefully wrapped the bikes and loaded all of them and displays back onto the truck. We then drove back to the shop, and hastily unloaded everything. I usually took the staff out for pizza at this point before we all went home and collapsed in our beds.

Monday (usually our other day off for everyone) was spent putting everything back in order on the sales floor, returning the rental truck and any other rented items, and trying to assess the state of the bikes and parts on order (How far behind were we? Who do we need to call to tell them their bike will be late?).

Doing an exposition means that most of the staff loses their 2 days off that week, and we start the next week in a stupor. All of this, while putting our customers on the ‘back burner’ just didn’t make sense anymore.

What are we doing?
If you’re still reading, then you’ve just read a brief synopsis of our last expo (back in Feb. 2008). Imagine going through all of that effort to discover at the last minute that your booth would not be in the prime location that you reserved several months in advance, but rather in the back of the event. In short, you got ‘bumped’ for a larger company. This is what happened to us time after time, and it really lead us to examine what our mission was as a company. Our mission is to ‘exceed our customer’s expectations for service’, but were we doing that?. After analyzing the amount of effort put into that show, we couldn’t get away from the fact that we were being drawn away from our mission when taking part in these expo type events. How were our customers being served by being ‘bumped’ for ‘show stopper’ bikes?

While it was disappointing to be ‘bumped’ to the back of the room, it was no different than what we were doing to our customers 🙁

Redirection Required:
It was after our last Bike Expo in 2008 that we decided to do something very different, and the Bike and Pike was born. The Bike and Pike Event is our way of celebrating Seattle, cycling, and the customers who make our business possible. We can do this in a way that doesn’t disrupt our daily work, and in fact, we build bikes all the way through the show. No staff member misses their days off, so we continue on fresh the next week. Attendees have a great time, enjoy some incredible Seattle brews, bikes and more. No special bikes have to be built, as ‘the show’ is watching us build the bikes that are in process already. That’s more fun anyway, right?

Supporting the Seattle community:
The Bike and Pike offers two important things for Seattle

1.) A low cost way for new Seattle businesses to show their stuff. Seattle small businesses that are friends of the shop like Willie Weir, Pike Brewing, Pagliacci Pizza, T’s Leatherworks, Jenise’s Jammers, and others get to display their products to attendees and we don’t charge them a dime for the booth. We see it as a way to help them get their businesses off the ground.

2.) Giving back to the community. Before the first Bike and Pike, Charlie and Rose Ann of Pike Place Brewing Company and I got together and discussed what type of event we would like to have. It was great to have an inexpensive way for small Seattle businesses to get the word out, but we also thought we should find a way to raise money for a local charity. Food Lifeline has been a great resource here in the Northwest for local food banks, so we decided to put 100% of any money raised on the event to them.

It’s a keeper!
The success of Bike and Pike was sensational! After 9 years, we’ve decided that Bike and Pike really fits our mission, and has allowed us to present our true product to attendees. That product? Dedication to service and to those customers who put their trust in us as their manufacturer, bike shop, and friend. Thank you all for choosing us, and here’s to 44 more great years in Seattle!

Thanks for reading – Dan