Solé Bicycles: turning a passion into a million-dollar business

    By Barbara Quick | Small Business

    A few years ago, two undergrads at USC were walking home from class when they saw some kids riding fixies. Where’d they get them? the two friends wanted to know—and, more to the point, How much did they cost?

    The kids revealed that they’d made their bikes themselves, for what seemed like an astronomical sum (in the world of college students on a shoestring budget) of well over $1200 apiece.

    “This is really when the light bulb went off,” says 26-year-old Brian Ruben, who has the whimsical title of Chief Bicycle Officer, Partnership Marketing and Brand Ambassador for Solé Bicycles, now a multi-million-dollar company headquartered in Venice, California, L.A.’s capital of beachfront cool.

    Solé’s story—like the story of so many other successful entrepreneurial ventures—began with an envious desire. They wanted fixies of their own. And what better way, they figured, to get what they wanted than to make a whole bunch of those bikes, to make them even cooler and more beautiful-looking than the ones they first saw—and to make them pay for themselves?

    Family and Friends Investment

    Family and friends invested $10,000 in the boys’ bright idea: enough to finance the manufacture of 150 fixies like none the world had seen before. Within a month of receiving the finished bikes, they sold them—and Solé was able to pay back the loan. “Since then,” says Brian the CBO, “we've organically grown the company using the profits of our sales.”

    A short cruise around Solé’s website makes it clear that these dudes (as they prefer to call themselves) are much more than just bike jockeys: they’re canny and sophisticated marketers, too. The bicycles they make, in designer colors, are mouth-wateringly beautiful—and the people riding them look unmistakably like trendsetters. They seem not only to be having more fun than we are—they’re also seem to be communing with their environment, whether the Big City or the wonders of Nature, in a passionate and meaningful way. They are young and hip, and just as photogenic as their bikes (which feature rims that are often color-coordinated with the riders’ clothes and/or tattoos). The site showcases short films such as could only be produced for a reasonable cost in a town that has hundreds of talented filmmakers hungry for work. Looking at those films, it’s hard not to long for a Solé bicycle—or even two—in the same way that one might long for a pair of designer shoes or any other ultra-cool and expensive fashion accessory.

    I wondered if Solé sees itself, in fact, as part of the fashion industry—or, in the way of other bicycle companies, as part of the fitness/outdoor sports industry.

    “As our company grew and the market for ‘affordable’ fixed and single-speed bikes became more saturated,” Brian wrote in an email, “we wanted to separate ourselves from the competition by something other than just low cost.” (Solé prices most of its bicycles at just under $400.) “We noticed a void in the bike market that catered to the millennial generation.”

    A lifestyle brand

    The Solé team, all millennials themselves (Brian, at 26, calls himself the “grandpa” of the group), judged the buying experience at traditional bicycle retail outlets to be less than user friendly. Options are often both overwhelming and intimidating for anyone not already experienced and knowledgeable in the cycling world. Traditional bicycle brands are, by their lights, failing to meet the needs of a youthful, progressive, tech-savvy consumer.

    “So while our focus is on building a line of bicycles that are easy to own and operate, dependable and affordable,” says Brian, “we like to think of ourselves as a lifestyle brand. We aren’t just ‘bike guys.’”

    Inspiration for Solé’s marketing campaigns, new bike models, colors and designs is drawn from the worlds of surfing, snowboarding, outdoor camping and skateboarding—with roots in Southern California’s distinctive, body-hugging, sun-worshipping take on fashion. "We're trying to be the first bicycle company that's also a lifestyle brand," says Solé's Brand Ambassador, "to create an image beyond the bicycle that includes the rider, too."

    At first it annoyed me, as a parent, to notice that none of the riders depicted on the site is wearing a helmet while biking. No one is sweating, no one has helmet hair—riders go straight from whizzing picturesquely down city streets to dancing and drinking in stylish clubs. But after learning more about the company, I understood that this is part of the fantasy Solé is selling: bicycles = freedom = the sort of happiness that is the birthright of the young and cool.

    Brian and his mates want to be seen as responsible purveyors of bicycles. “While we don't sell our own helmets,” he told me, “we always guide the customer to the best way to go about purchasing one. All of our bicycles come with the necessary tools and safety instructions—and we remind our customers never to ride a bicycle without a helmet.”

    Fixies are notorious for sometimes being so stripped down that they don’t even have brakes—and many, out on the street, don’t have lights. “Every single one of our bikes,” Brian reassured me, “is sold with brakes and reflectors.”

    Business Basics

    According to a recent article in Bicycle Retailer, this is an unusually good time for small companies to get in on the bicycle market. But wasn’t it awfully difficult for a group of five kids under 23 to start a business that involves such big costs?

    Brian enumerated the biggest hurdles faced by Solé during its first year:

    • Sourcing a dependable manufacturer as well as quality materials overseas
    • Streamlining supply chain logistics
    • Funding inventory orders and growth
    • Developing their financial strategies, corporate policies and protocol

    “We all had a wide range of undergraduate backgrounds, from business to graphic design and communications,” Brian explained in response to a question about whether any of them came to Solé with corporate experience. Each of them except the present-day CBO—who spent a year at Merrill Lynch after college—was fresh out of school. But they were all, as Brian puts it, “trend and fashion junkies.”

    Brian also shared the three biggest mistakes that were made during Solé’s first year.

    “At one point, we joined the low-cost race with our competitors—and for the time that lasted, the quality of product reflected this. We tried to do too many things, forgetting to focus on our core values. And we failed at first to create a list of measurable short- and long-term goals that would help us hold ourselves accountable: there was too much ‘winging it’ at the start.”

    And the three smartest things they did when they first thought of making and marketing fixies?

    1. Forgoing the traditional job path post college, and taking the leap of faith to start this company
    1. Bootstrapping and self-funding the business
    1. Finding advisors to help in areas where we didn't have expertise

    Solé has its brick-and-mortar headquarters a few steps away from the palm-lined circus of the famous Venice Boardwalk with its scantily clad rollerbladers, ubiquitous artists, tourists and eccentrics of every stripe. The website itself serves as ambassador for Solé—and, to some extent, for Venice itself—to others in the world who don’t live near the beach and perhaps have never even seen the ocean.

    Solé’s website today is a hub of content relating to art, music and culture—as well as bicycles. It allows the potential buyer to enter into a multi-media fantasy world where everyone is beautiful and hip and the sun is always shining.

    It’s a very smart marketing strategy. “As an e-commerce, bike lifestyle company,” says Brian, “we want to drive direct-to-consumer purchases through our website.”

    Solé retains the services of a bi-coastal PR firm to help them craft their image and garner media attention. “Before we teamed up with our PR agency,” says Brian, “we retained an ‘SEO’ firm to help with our Google ranking, traffic, and so on. With recent changes to Google's SEO algorithm, we found the best and most effective way to build awareness, and direct traffic to our site, was through organic, reputable article mentions and editorials.”

    That was the point when Solé decided to dump the firm handling its SEO—and retain the services of a PR professional.

    Brian urges caution when making this step, in part because of the big investment involved. “The PR company has to understand your brand, your voice, your market and your consumer. They essentially have to be an extension of your company.”

    Since being founded in 2010, Solé Bicycles has sold over 15,000 bicycles through its website and other direct-to-consumer, third-party e-retailers without ever having had to raise outside capital (apart from that initial $10K loan). The company generated an impressive $1,500,000 in 2013 revenue, representing 100%+ growth over 2012. They expect to continue growing at this pace for the foreseeable future. More importantly, Solé has been profitable since inception, committed to reinvesting profits for future growth.

    “We've been lucky enough,” says Brian, “to be able to start a company that supports our lifestyle and call it a job. You can't sell a lifestyle unless you live it—it’s where our inspiration comes from, it’s where our passions breathe and our ideas come to life.”

    “Having our office on the boardwalk in Venice,” says Brian, ever the brand ambassador, “is a huge plus for pretty much all of us here at Solé. If you have a break in your schedule or workload, the surf is always up.”

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