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Getting to number one: Clever Cycles shows small businesses how to ride the right course

By Michael Goodwin | Small Business

 

In a town like Portland, with 70 bike shops, you had better have a unique business model if you plan to open bike shop # 71.

Portland's amazing Clever Cycles opened in 2007; five years later it was named Best Urban Bike Shop in the United States by Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. During the Recession Clever Cycles expanded its shop three times, ending up with 7000 square feet.

Clearly, this is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill bike shop.

In fact, Clever Cycles is Portland’s first and largest bicycle shop devoted entirely to bicycles as primary transportation. Unlike most bike shops, which aim at sports riders or weight-loss enthusiasts, Clever Cycles focuses on serving riders looking to avoid dependence on cars with practical, stylish bikes for everyday use. It sells commuting bikes, family transport, cargo, and folding bikes—all equipped for comfort, safety, and reliability.

 

They also rent hot tubs, but that's another story.

 

Not a Sacrifice Or a Statement

Clever Cycles started as a family business, and in many ways it still is. Initially, there were four business partners: Todd Fahrner, Dean Mullin, and their two wives. Over the years the wives withdrew from the business, and Eva Frazier took over Fahrner's ex-wife's share of the store. She'd been working at Clever Cycles for four years but only stepped up to owner status a few months ago.

The shop's mission statement, proudly posted on its web site, is a refreshing counter-balance to the evangelical self-help fervor of many bike-riding enthusiasts:

"We are not motivated by the rising costs of motoring," it declares, "ecological guilt, or a body-sculpting regimen. Bicycling is not a sacrifice or a statement. We ride instead of drive because it is pleasurable and convenient, simply the best way to get around Portland. We do not sell sporting goods or fitness equipment: fitness happens by riding your bike right past the gym in the course of your normal errands."

"I don't know how the city supports so many bike shops!" Frazier laughs. "But the more you see people biking the more you want to be biking, and it just continues to grow. Fortunately, we don't see other bike shops as competition, but more like friends and compatriots. The weather in Portland, especially in the summer, has something to do with it. It's not terribly hilly here. And the city is fairly compact which makes it easier to ride from one end to the other."

 

No Water Bottles. No Spandex.

What's the secret? How has Clever Cycles managed to survive and thrive in the midst of such widespread competition?

For one thing, the store sells a different breed of bicycle than a lot of other shops, Frazier explains. "We're not really into going fast, although going fast is fun. We're not into lightweight, although that can be advantageous. We're into bikes as practical transportation. We sell cargo bikes that weigh 60 pounds, so you can go to Costco and load up a week's worth of groceries and ride 'em home. We don't sell water bottles or spandex. We try to approach bicycling from a non-sporting standpoint."

Considering how successful Clever Cycles turned out to be, its first ride was surprisingly bumpy. Getting a new name established in a town full of bike shops was no cakewalk. At first it didn't even have a storefront. The partners scraped together just enough money to bring in a cargo container of Bakfiets cargo bikes from Holland, and Mullin started assembling them in his basement.

 

"We didn't have a lot of stock," says Frazier, who wasn't actually a part of the start-up but has heard all the war stories. "And we didn't have a lot of established customers. Having something different was the best way we found to get our foot in the door. Those Bakfiets were very unique bicycles, very iconic, steel frame and wooden box, and you can put your kids in the front and ride around and just have a lovely time. We were the only people selling that bike on the west coast. We started getting phone calls from all over."

These days, Clever Cycles' biggest problem is hiring great store personnel. "Staffing is one of the hardest things for us," Frazier admits. "Your salespeople are your main interactions with customers, and finding really great, passionate people to deal with your customers, and keeping them on staff, is a real struggle. We tend to keep people a lot longer than many retail stores. We pay a little more than other places, and we try to be honest and friendly and give people the schedules they want."

Rentals are responsible for a healthy percentage of Clever Bikes' cash flow. The rental fleet comprises about 20 bikes, and during the summer most of them are out all day, every day. In addition, the store sells an average of four bikes every day. Some of the more exotic cargo bikes cost between $5000 and $6000, but for the most part prices range from from $450 to $2500.

It Fills Up a Whole Lane Of Traffic

Then there are the traveling hot tubs.

This curious sideline started when Clever Cycles had a cargo container coming from Holland with just a little extra room—so they decided to fill the space with two wood-fired Dutch hot tubs. Then they thought: Hey, maybe we should rent them—delivered by bike.

Clever Cycles charges $400 for a three-day, four-night hot tub rental, including delivery. "It's not a huge money-maker," Frazier admits, "but it's great marketing."

Frazier has done several deliveries herself. "The tubs are fairly lightweight, and they're not terribly large, so we had a steel fabricator build us a trailer specifically designed to hold a hot tub and attach to a cargo bicycle with an electric assist. Now we just fill up the bike with wood, and ride off with the hot tub attached to the back in a trailer. It fills up a whole lane of traffic! It's a lot of fun to be riding down the street with everyone waving and pointing and wondering what you're up to."

We asked Frazier to look back, and try to identify Clever Cycle's greatest moment of triumph.

"Opening a bicycle shop in Portland and surviving is triumphant in and of itself," she laughed.

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