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.