It’s been a long time between blog posts. 2021 is almost done. I’m glad to have made in though another year. Next year will be a special year for me as it will be the 10th Anniversary of Melody Wheels from our earliest days in Sydney. 10 years is not necessarily a long period time to be doing this but neither is it an insignificant passage of time. My favourite component manufacturer releases a special commemorative anniversary edition of their groupsets every decade… another 2 years and it’ll be their 90th. I won’t get ahead of myself, but thinking in decades is something to aspire to in an industry that is often driven by fads, fashion, and short-term focus.
The Good Stuff
One highlight this year was starting a secondary/sister business, Bicycle Spokes Australia, with my real life partner Pia. While I can’t say we’ll be giving Jeff Bezos anything to worry about, I’ve been happy with how our little online shop has progressed. Many aspects of wheel building require a detailed understanding of component choice, compatibility, and tool use. In this respect we’ve tried really hard to join the dots to make it easier for customers (professional and enthusiast) to get the best information on wheel building components and tools. We’ve also worked hard to make available a number of uncommon components and wheel building tools in Australia. There’s more to come here so watch this space.
It might sound silly but another happy thing this year has just been just enjoying riding my bike. Finding the balance between work, family, and bike is never easy, but essential (for me) to keep me on track. I know that all the cool kids are bike packing and riding gravel these days… but I’m an unrepentant roadie. I like waking up stupid early and getting a good ride in because the rest of my life is work and family. It works for me. I had a pretty rocky start to the year with some ongoing back issues, but eventually things corrected themselves. I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of cyclocross racing, the Tour of Margaret River, and my regular group rides with the South Perth Rouleurs and Spartan Cycling Club. These are the bookends of my week.
The no so Good Stuff
A common cliché is that you “learn from your mistakes”… and I’ve made plenty over the years. However there are only so many mistakes that you can afford to keep making. In 2021 I changed my approach to work scheduling with 1 month rolling calendar and a detailed “time block plan” for every day and week. This has generally gone well. Moving into 2022 I will be reviewing my labour pricing to better accommodate some of the work that I do. In theory wheels should be simple but the reality of what’s often involved in many jobs is more complex. I increasingly get referrals from many shops for wheel repairs because I guess the jobs are not very desirable jobs. I don’t mind taking on difficult jobs but there are only so many “jobs from hell” you can sustain and be financially viable. There is a risk/return wager with every job. You’d be amazed how quickly half a day can disappear on what was “just a little job”. My pricing structures need to accommodate more of the risks I take on with repair work. In my experience wheels are often neglected in regular maintenance, so by the time I get to see them, the problems have really escalated.
Following on from this issue, one decision I’ve made is that will no longer offer to fully rebuild proprietary wheels. By this I mean, systems wheels such as your Mavic, Fulcrum, Shimano etc. which require proprietary rims, spokes etc. that cannot be substituted with regular spokes and nipples. Very rarely do these jobs work out for me without a large number of headaches, costs, and complications in sourcing the right components and/or technical documents. Quoting on such jobs has been an exercise in perverse optimism bias and I’m just going to say ‘no’ from now on.
A second issue is tubular wheels and tyres. Most of the tubular tyres I come across in the workshop are not glued on to a standard that I would consider safe or desirable. The process of gluing a tyre doesn’t phase me like it did when I started out. I’ve become pretty good it. However the incredible amount time it takes to clean a rim back to the bare carbon or aluminum is time that I just cannot value properly. I need customers to meet me half way if they want to ride tubular wheels. I’ll happily glue your tyres on but I want you to clean the rims first. If you want to do the whole job yourself, then I’ll tell you every trick and so-called secret I know about getting the best results.
December and Beyond
Every year I take time off over the Christmas to New Year’s period and the first week of January. As things stand I’m currently booked out until 22nd of December for wheel builds. This means that there are just a few slots I have available for wheels that I can build this year. Once these slots are taken I’ll be booking jobs in for the second week of January. With wheel repairs I can still do relatively fast turnarounds within a 1-2 week timeframe (depending on the nature of the repair). I know everyone is riding more at this time of year, so I’ll do my best to keep customers rolling through to Christmas and beyond.
One last thing that I wanted to mention is that I am hosting an event next week on Friday 10 December. This will be with long-term collaborator Mooro Cycles who is a brilliant Perth-based custom frame builder. The theme is custom-made bicycles as a collaborative process. They’ll be plenty of drinks, nibbles, beautiful bikes, and conversations. If you’re free that night, I’d love to see you there. The event flyer is below.
Over the last two weeks I did something glorious. I took time off during the school holidays to be with my family. While this may not sound like a big deal, it was something I failed to do in other years. When you are self-employed there is no 4 weeks annual leave, no sick leave, no RDOs, no entitlements … etc. etc. I wouldn’t have it any other way. However my disposition to be a workaholic is high. ‘I’ve got things to do’; ‘people are counting on me’, ‘just one more’…. At the end of first quarter of 2021 I started to feel something I haven’t felt in my job before: burnt out. I am still wildly enthusiastic about my work. However, the pandemic bike boom has been a blessing and a curse. Taking stock of my daily life, I’ve realised that I need to make some changes if I want keep doing this work.
Most bicycle businesses operate within the model of small team retail shop: one or two people for sales or customer service; some mechanics to work on bikes, a manager, and some casual staff for the weekends. I see my business as a professional service provider with a focus on one aspect of bicycle technology: wheels. I am more aligned with an independent and service-focused bicycle mechanic than a traditional retail-focused shop. However as I’ve grown, a lot of people have come to see the business as a shop or retailer. I get phone calls and emails from all over Australia and overseas: ‘Do you have this?’, How much for this?’, ‘I’m looking…, ‘what are your thoughts on.…’, ‘I’d like a quote for …’ It doesn’t matter how often I write in bold capital letters I WORK EXCLUSIVELY WITH CUSTOMERS IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA, the enquires keep coming. I try to be respectful in answering them. However, at some point it became clear to me that the balance of my daily workflow had tipped from being on-the-tools to dealing with a constant flow of work related communications. Emails that beget emails,… and more and more phone calls. ‘If you’re so busy, why don’t you get an apprentice?’ my friends retort. I wish it were that simple. I have a communications problem and it hasn’t been sustainable.
For last 6 years I’ve been busy. There are of course degrees of busyness from ‘busy’, ‘very busy’, to ‘stupid busy’, and ‘don’t ask me about it’ busy. The workflow has often had seasonal element to it. Busy-busy from spring to autumn, crazy busy in summer… and just busy over the wet winter months. In the last 12 months there has been no seasonality … just stupid busy. My work ranges from building top-of-the-line custom wheels to the small things like helping a customer correctly adjust the preload on Chris King hub. All of these jobs need to be scheduled. Over the last year, I’ve ‘time blocked’ three days a week to focus exclusively on building wheels (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), then scheduled wheel repairs and customer consultations on Mondays mornings and Thursday evenings. Friday has been my catch up day for any outstanding wheel builds or repairs that might have taken longer than expected. This system has worked for me, but there is no spare time. Often I have to work nights to stay on track. Practically speaking, every week I’m met with urgent requests: “hey, are you busy”… “can just do”… “I need …” I’ve become comfortable with saying “No”, but it can be difficult, especially when you have long-term customers who need your help. I’ve had some success in keeping loaner wheels available for customers so they can keep riding their bikes while I’m repairing their wheels. However often I’ll fall into a ‘hero’ mindset of ‘squeezing it in’. There is some satisfaction in knowing that a wheel I’ve built as a matter of urgency was raced at the Mtb Nationals a week later (with a rider on the podium). Everyone wants to be the hero who saves the day, however scheduling is something that I struggle with. Every time I take on an urgent request, I’m delaying someone else who has been waiting patiently. Little jobs can turn into big messes, and I can find myself a day behind and scurrying to keep promises. With the pandemic related shortage of bicycle components, some jobs have simply blown out in terms of timeline horizons. Thankfully, most of my custom-wheel customers are very understanding. No one likes saying to a potential customer that I can do it in a month… or maybe two months… if I can get the parts… I’ve had a scheduling problem.
Growing and Refining
There is a natural temptation to think that one should “scale”, “innovate”, “build capacity” and “take risks” when there is an opportunity for growth in a marketplace. These are the buzzwords of entrepreneur-speak. Almost one decade ago, we hit a moment that might be called “peak-road” with a boom of road cycling following the Cadel Evans victory in the Tour de France. Road bike sales were booming… so how could anyone loose money? In my home-town of Sydney I saw one bike shop grow rapidly from one shop to three shops, to then becoming insolvent within three years. The bike industry is a fickle beast… and booms come with busts. I see wheel building as a craft based practice and craft doesn’t scale well. Growing for the sake of growing doesn’t really align with my values or what I seek to achieve in my work. A craftspersons mindset is not about building a bigger factory, employing more people, just for the sake of ‘biggering my biggering…’
As a wheel builder, growing is about growing in skills and understanding. I have an inherent bias for processes over outcomes; quality over quantity. As a small business owner, growing is about having a clearer view of where to focus my attention, learning from mistakes, and discovering how I can do better. Looking back at the last few months, I have realised that I need to improve many aspects of my business with regards to customer communications and in scheduling work. I’ve also realised, that need permission to take leave, turn the phone off, and not feel overwhelmed by what’s on my plate. Booms come and go… I want to be doing this work with even more enthusiasm in another decade from now.
I remember seeing the sunrise over Point Walter on 1 Jan 2020 and thinking how great this year would be. All the clichés about 2020 being the year of focus and clear vision were buzzing around in my head. 2019 had been a fantastic year for me in which I’d made a few big changes in my life. It’s nice to dream big. The year kicked off with a wheel building course in early January. I’ve been running this course every year since 2014 and gain a lot from the practice of teaching. I’d hope to run a lot more courses this year, but it wasn’t to be. January and February marked the peak of the summer cycling season as enthusiasm of the Tour Down Under spilled over into the local bunches. There were plenty of wheels to be built and repaired. The year was tracking along well.
And then there was March. COVID19. A global pandemic that disrupted everything in its path and will no doubt will be talked about for many years to come. For the first time in my life I saw shops running out of tinned food, pasta, flour, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. Panic had erupted. Within a few weeks we went from having closed borders to closed schools. ‘Unprecedented’ was the word. As a small business I really didn’t know how things would play out. I put in all the protection measures to allow me to continue trading. I was extremely fortunate to have a lot of space in the workshop and I was able to manage customer interactions at a distance. On the custom wheel building side of things there was a noticeable downturn, however my repair work seemed to be just enough to keep me afloat.
As we came to winter I kept busy focusing on the work that was still coming in. I changed my hours so I could get home earlier to be with the kids. This was a positive change and I’ve kept these hours. During the lockdown, there were a lot of changes in habits and behaviours. Consumer products from kids’ bikes to home trainers were suddenly sold out, as people worked out how best to stay sane and healthy during this time. I kept riding my bike (solo) on weekends and came to really enjoy this, taking some more adventurous rides in the Perth Hills. In mid-winter I was interviewed on a Canadian cycling podcast about my work and my thoughts on the bike industry. Lockdown was connecting people from disparate parts of the world.
By June, many of the lockdown restrictions had been rolled back in Western Australia. By a miracle, luck or good planning, we seemed to have escaped the virus (for now) however the wider social and economic contagion had spread. It was around this time that I noticed consumer confidence had come back. It wasn’t just kids bikes and home trainers. People were buying new bikes again and even custom bicycle wheels. By July, I was booked in advance for a couple of weeks and this continued to be the story of the second half of the year. It was a great problem to have, but even in this unprecedented ‘bike boom’ I was still having a lot of problems. For one thing, my business was never really designed to scale up, and my focus on precision workmanship was never about taking short cuts. I could only really work longer hours as a way of managing demand. I developed a (bad) habit of running a double shift, working a regular day then going back to work for a second shift after the kids were in bed for another 3-4 hours. I did this sometimes 5 nights a week. Another challenge was managing so many inquires. Do you have this? can you fix this,? how much? If I had 20 phone calls and 10 emails a day, it could be guaranteed that I’d only spend half my day on the tools doing ‘the work’. It felt like I was stuck in a negative growth spiral.
The benefits…. Having been fortunate enough to have had a positive turn around in my industry, I was able to target some big ticket items that had been on the agenda for some long time but un-budgeted. In September I received my second Morizumi Spoke Cutting and Threading machine which now allows me to cover all gauges of bicycle spokes, including 12g and 13g spokes that are commonly used on electric bicycles wheels. In Spring my partner Pia also came to help on two days week. I was struggling as a one-man-band and I am massively grateful for all her help and support.
The final few months of 2020 disappeared in a flash. What became apparent quickly was that the flip-side of the new bike boom was that demand had outstripped capacity. Product shortages had become the norm across a wide range of product categories. The time spent chasing stock was exhausting. A number of products that had been successful for me over many years were no longer available. We were all drinking from the same well. In a game of musical chairs many suppliers and retailers were going to be left out. The Covid bike boom was a global phenomena.
Coming into Christmas I am exhausted. The entire bike industry is exhausted. Adrenal fatigue. I’ve taken a break from social media because it feels like a bit of an unhealthy addiction and a poor substitute for ‘living’. I feel very fortunate to be living in Australia and to be working in an industry that has boomed during this time of hardship. If there was one lesson from 2020 it was that when shit hits the fan, people still cared about cycling, as an incredible way to feel alive and connected with so many people and places. I hope that this lesson is remembered for years to come.
I am hugely grateful to all the customers and industry partners who’ve supported Melody Wheels in 2020. It’s been a bitter-sweet kind of year. We’ll see what 2021 brings.