How Do I Start My Own Mobile Bike Shop?
If you’re interested in taking the independent mobile bike shop route, it’s been successfully done by many. For a great example of a guy who made it work, look no farther than Erik Fetch. He operated a prosperous mobile bike shop in northern California for some 30 years. What’s more, he wrote a tell-all book that’s worth its weight in gold: The Bike Doctor’s Mobile Bicycle Repair Manual: How to Start and Run A Mobile Bicycle Repair Shop. That used to be the best $34 you could spend on Amazon. It’s unfortunately no longer available (unless you’d like to pay more than $800, last time I checked). If you can find a used copy, anywhere, at a reasonable price, grab it. Incidentally, there’s no relation to Erik’s “Bike Doctor” mobile bike shop in California and the “Bike Doctor Mobile” franchise business in Maryland.
A big disclosure, all of the thoughts that follow worked for us at Ashburn Bicycle Repair. This may or may not work for you. The final goal for most shop owners is to run a profitable business that makes you happy. There are an infinite number of ways to arrive at that destination. How you get there will of course be based on you. Results will vary.
Wholesale accounts? It took us a while, it was a major pain in the butt, some accounts took years to establish, but we did it. You can, too. To date, Ashburn Bicycle Repair has more than 20 wholesale accounts with a variety of large and small distributors. Quality Bicycle Products?! Almost. The QBP ship has been slow to turn, but they seem to be adjusting their respective policies with regard to independent mobile bike shop operators. From a hard-no not very long ago, to a we’ll-see approach. We suppose that counts as progress. Our most recent application (2018) was declined as we don’t have a “commercial address.” Gaining such an address is doable through a storage unit that accepts deliveries. That cost, about $1,000 a year in our area, remains unappealing. If we had to, we would. But we don’t. We’ve cultivated relationships with a number of different wholesale distributors, including Bicycle Technologies International, Chris King, Cyclone, Dahon, HLC, JBI, Lezyne, PaceLine, Provelo, Phil Wood, Sapim, Shimano, United Bicycle Supply, and Wheels Manufacturing, to name a few. There wasn’t much we couldn’t get from the others that we could only get from QBP. Undoubtedly, some parts and accessories are exclusive to QBP, but some seven years later, we’ve learned to live and thrive on the distributors who love us. And by golly, we love them right back!
The Van? We purchased a new Nissan HD 3500 short roof cargo van in 2015. SHORT ROOF?! Yep. Our mechanic likes to sit while he works. If you love to stand while you work and you’ll die if you bonk your head, don’t get a short roof. For us, the benefits out-weighed the disadvantages. A short roof means we can squeeze the van into a residential garage. Beyond the security of keeping your van garaged at home, if you’ve got a pesky Home Owner’s Association that doesn’t allow commercial vehicles in the neighborhood, that means you don’t have to find an off-site location to park your van. In our area, that may cost $50 to $100 a month. EVERY MONTH. Other than the added parking cost, there’s also the matter of efficiency. When we work, we like to get up and go. Not get up and drive to where the van is parked, then drive to our customers, then drive back to park the van, then drive home. If you’re in an area where it’s OK to park at home, and your wife and kids aren’t embarrassed about your cool van in the driveway, more power to you.
“But your van is too small!” Keep things organized and you should be just fine. We’re currently able to keep more than 2,000 parts and accessories on-board, including larger items like wheels, floor pumps, and about 40 different-sized tires. If you pack well, there’s space. As Chris Guillemet, founder of Velofix, correctly proclaimed: “chains are small.”
How much? Many new cargo vans will quickly surpass $30,000. By the time we were done outfitting ours, which included a build-out of Ranger Design shelves, cabinets, a nice bench-top, and a solid floor, the total price was a bit north of $40,000. We’ll be the first to admit, you don’t have to do that. A good, reliable used cargo van can be had for as little as $5,000 to $10,000. You also don’t need Ranger Design cabinets and shelves. If you’re handy, you can build-out a terrific van, yourself, for the cost of the supplies and a bolted-down tool chest from Home Depot or Lowes.
What’s the best way to make your mobile bike shop van say “CALL ME TO FIX YOUR BIKE”? Custom paint job, a full-on wrap, great big custom magnets? Ready for this? How about nothing? We do have a set of large custom magnets that completely cover our side panels and rear doors. They undoubtedly help. It feels great to get a call from someone who says, “Hey, I’m right beside you at this stop light, when can you fix my bike?!” Depending upon how busy we are, those big magnets go on and off on an as-needed basis. Much of the time, however, they stay off. We’ve been getting too busy. We’ve had more than a few instances where passers-by stop and say hello, and “That’s such a great idea! Tell me more!” when we’re engrossed in the first of 8 jobs for the day ahead. We love to talk, and talk, and talk. But not while the clock’s ticking. We run a tight ship and 10 minutes of chit-chat here and there can kill the daily schedule. Going stealth has worked well for us. What’s more, as many cargo-van-based contractors will attest, a wrapped van also advertises the following: “Attention Bad Guys, Lots of Expensive Tools, Inventory, and Bikes RIGHT INSIDE HERE!” On a related note, taking your own bike on a rare day off to a local trail for a ride is almost impossible when you park and everyone comes running-up for help, “this will only take a second!”
Advertising and Marketing? If we drive around in an unmarked short-roof cargo van, we must spend a ton on Google and Facebook ads, right? Nope. Our advertising budget is a whopping zero-point-zero dollars. Several years ago, we used to spend a hundred or so dollars a month in online ads. For us, that didn’t seem to translate to a lot of work. What did work? Referrals and repeat customers. How does that work? Be humble, be grateful, be polite, be flexible, show up when you say you will, leave when you say you will. Most importantly, go back if there’s any kind of an issue, which includes “I’m missing one of those black caps that covers the place where the air goes into the tire.” And when you make that 20-mile round trip to install a missing Schrader valve cap, do it with a great big smile and apologize, profusely, for the oversight. No ad will sell your services more. Like many consumers, most of our customers pay a lot of attention to Facebook, Google, and Yelp. Good social media reviews are nothing short of gold. Any other advertising or marketing tips? Spend money on a good web developer. We think we have the best (“Chris,” who’s been doing web-development and small business consulting since the early days of the World Wide Web). A good website might cost $8,000 to $10,000, but it’s worth every penny. What about spending $300 a month on Yelp? We love Yelp, but my goodness their salespeople are aggressive. And, no, we don’t advertise with Yelp, either.
Point Of Sale systems? What’s that? In layman’s terms, a super-charged cash register that helps with inventory management, customer tracking, margin information, and more. If it can be bar-scanned, most POS systems can generate some really interesting reports. For much of the bicycle retain industry, Litespeed is the clear favorite, as they say themselves on their website, “One out of two bike stores choose Litespeed.” Other POS options include Shopify, CashierLive, MicroBiz. Just about every POS systems is based on a subscription fee, most of which start at, or eventually rise to, about $100 per month. The information that a good POS system can offer a mobile bike shop can be amazingly helpful. If it’s used wisely, the subscription fee can pay for itself.
Which POS system do we use? None Of The Above. Although we technically have thousands of items in stock and available for sale, as a service-oriented business, we may only sell 20-ish items a day. Our cutting-edge inventory management method? We tear off a part of the packaging of an item sold, then stack those in our special torn-packaging-pile spot. At the end of the day, we grab the stack and add those respectively sold items to our JBI or Hawley or BTI shopping carts. Once we’ve reached the free-shipping threshold for a respective wholesaler, usually about $500, an inventory replenishment order is placed.
Old fashioned? Sure. Horribly inefficient? Maybe. If we were more of a traditional retailer, or if we had five vans and 12 mechanics, our preferred caveman system wouldn’t work. But that’s not us. We’re still the very small business we started as some many years ago. Between Excel and PayPal Here, which we use to process credit card transactions, we can still generate plenty of customer reports, sales information, State tax information, margin reports, repeat-customer reports, customer lists, and a whole bunch more. As a small business, not spending $1200 a year on a POS system is a choice that’s worked for us. Could that change? Sure. After several years of business and thousands of transactions, so far, so good.
Pop-Up Bike Shop?
We still envision our mobile bike shop as just that, a mobile shop. We visit our customers at their homes, businesses, movie theaters, grocery stores, and so forth.
BUT, if you can arrange for your customers to bring their bikes to you, that’s huge. Why would they do that as opposed to bringing their bike to a brick and mortar bike shop? Because the customer gets their bike back a whole lot faster. Hanging out at a local college or corporate setting for a day might be super busy, with the goal of same-day-service. It’ll save a bunch of money on gas, wear-and-tear on your van, and your daily earnings will be boosted, perhaps significantly. There’s little to no downtime driving to the next appointment.
Can Brick and Mortar Bike Shops compete with Mobile Bike Shops? Of course. Essentially with one ‘easy’ step: While You Wait Service. Will they do this? Easier said than done. As old-world brick and mortar shops continue to close and new-world service-oriented brick and mortar shops open, it’s possible. At least for now, that’s not a threat to most mobile bike shop operators.
Lastly, if you’re still in need of counsel, and you’d like to splurge for some personalized consulting, we’re here to help. For $89 an hour, we can assist with wholesale-account guidance, choosing the best business arrangement (C-corporation, S-Corporation, LLC?), applying for a Federal Employment Identification Number, registering your new business with your local taxing authority, selecting the most appropriate liability insurance, thoughts on which vehicle is best-suited to your needs, cargo-van build-out plans, advertising and marketing suggestions, appointment scheduling, inventory management, purchasing our website (everything you see here, but a warning, that’s more than $89) that’s customized to your town or city, reviews and recommendations of bicycle mechanic certification schools (Barnett Bicycle Institute, Chris King, DT Swiss, Park Tool, Shimano, United Bicycle Institute), and more.
It’s no accident that the franchise agreement you’ll need to sign with Bike Doctor Mobile or Velofix is about 200 pages in length. By law, those franchise agreements are required to be extensive. If the euphoria of owning your own mobile bike shop franchise purchase fizzles at some later date, short of declaring bankruptcy, that’s going to be a challenging financial matter to unwind.
At the end of the day, a franchised mobile bike shop ‘mortgage’ is not inexpensive:
- Monthly van payment.
- Monthly loan payment related to the buy-in of the franchise.
- Monthly ‘technology’ fees charged by each franchise, from $100 to $175 per month (not for Bike Doctor Mobile).
- Monthly commercial-space lease payment with Velofix or 5% to 15% surcharge fees with Beeline inventory (not for Bike Doctor Mobile).
- 10% of gross sales to Velofix and Beeline; 8% to Bike Doctor Mobile.
- Franchise renewal fee, in the neighborhood of $5,000 every five years.
For some markets, those aforementioned costs may approach the overhead rates associated with a brick and mortar shop, which goes against one of the fundamental advantages of a mobile-oriented business: lower overhead. When it’s all said and done, the franchisee is paying quite a bit of money, in our humble opinion, for appointment scheduling, inventory management, T-shirts, and marketing brochures.
Caveat emptor – buyer beware.
To the contrary, if you’re not happy with us, that’s an $89 one-hour investment, which by the way we’ll refund if you think we’re terrible.
Either way, good luck. Owning and operating your own mobile bike shop will be, if nothing less, an exciting adventure!