Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How to succeed in business with really trying

Walking through the handmade bike show back in 2007 I was on a mission to see which of my fellow framebuilders were actual self-sustaining entities rather than part timers, spouse subsidized or hobbyists-not that builders of these categories are inferior-I just wanted to know who was making a fulltime living at the trade. I was pretty sad when out of around 80 or so exhibitors I found less than a dozen folks like myself. Did I feel special ? Did I feel like I had something figured out that most others were missing out on ? Truthfully, no. I felt like maybe I was beating my head against a wall trying to prove that frame building was a viable profession and that there were not many other folks willing to be so stupid as I.
             That was then and this is now, 2012. I have seen an economic downturn that really slowed my business but thankfully did not kill it. I always had work, just not as much. Things are really picking up now and though I never trust that my work is a reliable thing, it seems to be getting more so as of late. I guess it is time for me to give my observations on how my so-called profession has maintained viability after several decades. I'll give some rules to follow, although I must say that these are the things that worked for me and they might not be the prescription for all fools wanting to tread the same career path as I.

1. Learn to build frames with minimal'll need to get the feel of filing, sawing and all the metal working skills by hand. If you don't do this first , you'll forever be disconnected with the 'feel' of your materials and be too reliant on power tools. Only when you get the manual skills down  will you begin to figure out which machine tools will aid your ability to produce good work efficiently.

2. Don't 'create' an identity......just be yourself and your identity will grow from that. By identity , mine is 'Rock Lobster'.....makes one think of the B-52's , the Santa Cruz mountains......groups of riders that generally don't take themselves very seriously-at least, that's how it has manifested itself-a kind of  image of fun without much pretense.......a club that does not exclude. I can't say that I created this identity but I roll with it as I think it comes from an sincere place......I might have chosen the name but the identity created itself.

3. Don't spend money that you don't have. Low overhead is crucial as you are a frame builder, correct ? Figure that for the first few years you'll be giving away a lot of your work so income will be microscopic at best. I built about 300 frames in a one-car garage before I got brave enough to rent a 450 square foot shop. There are so many ways to get rid of money in the bike business.......try to not get too far into a financial hole.

4. Show up to work and bust ass. Yeah, this sounds so frigging obvious but over the years I have seen so many builders with idle shops and angry customers hearing all sorts of bullshit excuses why their frames are not done yet. Guys who don't make an effort to get the frames done on time are risking getting lampooned on the many bike chat forums-you don't want that.

5. Don't waste a lot of time on the computer (  As he writes....on a computer...) on forums. Spend the time answering your customer's emails first....then if you have time to kill , check out what folks are saying about the latest tubing, jigs or whatever. There is some good stuff out there to read but there's mostly a lot of useless shit storms amongst some really twisted, bitter folks. Frame building can bring out some dark shit in people.

6. Don't be afraid to share stuff you learn that really works. If you have a good trick that helps you with a building issue , share it with your fellow builders-believe me, the good will come back to you .  Don't share heresay that you read on the forums unless you have proof that whatever it is , it is absolute truth from someone who can prove it.

7. Fix your mistakes and give the customer the benefit of doubt. If you do your job well you will not have a lot of boo-boos to fix. And......If you have a lot of boo-boos , fixing them for free will be an excellent incentive to get your shit together.

8. Know when to say No. You will have to narrow down what you do in your shop to be efficient so don't take on jobs that are too unfamiliar . I have gotten myself involved in some serious time-wasting unsatisfying ( for myself and the customer ) pursuits over the years and knowing when it is best to refer the customer to someone else is a valuable thing for your survival.

9. Pay your bills. If someone gives you terms , be sure and get the bill paid well in advance. Being good to your suppliers will come back to you in ways that you will not know for quite some time. Nobody in any part of the bike business is making a ton of money so we all have to look out for one another and take care of each other-that is unless of course you are a shithead.

10. Don't be dismissive about stuff you have no experience with. Sure, I'm not a huge fan of stainless lugs but I have built a couple of frames with them to come to my opinion-it might not be your opinion ,but at least I have a little bit of experience to back up what I say....for what it's worth.

11. Ride your bike. Yeah, I know......we all ride our bikes. What I'm saying is really ride your bike-do a tour , do some racing, some group rides.....a big adventure....something that involves a group of folks . You will be more in touch with the craft the deeper you get into riding, as long as you can still find time to work.

12. Be truthful about what you can and cannot do. Don't tell your customers that you'll build them a frame in six weeks when you know that six months is the reality. You'll be ahead of more than half the builders if you just do this one thing. I'm not saying that most builders are liars.....they just have a habit of coming up short on time-related promises. We all do it at one time or is best to really try to avoid this.

13. Don't assume that if you fuck up, you'll be forgiven. Maybe a certain church bases a lot on being forgiven, but the reality for a frame builder is that you have to make good on what you are supposed to do......provide good service. You can forgive yourself after you make good on your promise.

14. Get folks on your bike who really ride the crap out of them. You'll get great promotion and some invaluable real-world testing on your work. I get a lot of cyclocross racers on my has always been a good thing for me-probably the best promotion and the most fun times are centered around the races I attend.

15. Be accessible. Answer your phone , return emails-be active on social media or whatever-don't hide from your customers unless you are so under the gun with work that you have no choice. Be sure to explain  politely to folks when you need to be undisturbed  to get things done. Most folks actually will understand.

16. I figure that I'll save the best for last : Know when to give a psycho a full refund. You cannot argue with a sick mind-or so it has been said. Hey, maybe the sick mind is you  and the customer needs to get hooked up with someone less pathological. Go ahead and do the right thing by giving the customer the chance to try the same drill with someone else. You never know.....sometimes the transaction is just not a good fit. You can't make everyone happy..........


  1. Thanks Paul,this is all great advice.

  2. great stuff Paul! I knew I liked you when I met you at the first San Diego show... :D

  3. Great piece- thank you Paul. Applies to all work.
    Thank you again.

  4. Ride your bike is a great piece of advise for everyone

  5. Paul -

    Thank you for this ^ especially tips one through sixteen atmo.


  6. great rules to start by

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