What if we just give the bikes away?

by | Feb 19, 2014

Recyclistas is a bike shop that takes donated bikes and salvages them into cheap commuters. It’s located at the junction of three major cycling routes and has an open-plan workshop where people come for classes and shop time. It was originally instituted as a co-op, but as many of the founding members have dropped away, it’s now simply a bike shop with a recycling focus. However, this past winter the techs have been very busy, and have almost filled a huge steel box with bikes in preparation for the upcoming summer. This is big, because last year in September we were down to about 11 bikes and couldn’t keep up with the demand. This year we will meet demand and maybe even increase it.What if we just gave the bikes away?

A start: get a grant for $1000, enough for 4 bikes. Advertise that if you need a bike to get around and you can’t afford one, you can have one with a catch. You have to take a maintenance course after getting the bike. We take down their number and bug them about it. Get them to sign up. The maintenance course is free as well. We have a non-profit, the Bike Lab Society, that could be used to get grants.

It’s important to note that currently, our maintenance courses are packed every session, 3 times a week, even in the dead of winter.

If it works, repeat.

What could happen?

  1. They go about their lives, waste the bike, we never hear from them or make a dime. 
  2. They treat the bike well, appreciate it, it makes them healthier and wealthier so they come back for parts, a new bike when they outgrow the first one, shop time… 
  3. They tell their friends to come. Not much use if the friends just take another bike and don’t give us any money. But good if they like what we’re doing and buy something while they’re in. 
  4. We get government grants to cover everything. 
  5. We get away with paying basically no taxes at all and save a bit of cash that way.
  6. We increase our focus on classes and shop time, instead of on sales, double/triple the number of class hours and hire more teachers.

I’m betting kind of a lot that people will save (bus/car) money by riding a bike, therefore spend it on us. Maybe I’m wrong.The long range vision is for EVERYONE in Victoria to be riding bikes. Fill the city up so completely with bikers that they take over the roads from cars. Everyone saves money, our customer base expands. Our customers aren’t the spandex roadies, just commuters. Hundreds of them use the path everyday, rain or not. The crowd I see is distinctly upperclass – MEC rain gear, De Vinci hybrids, 9-5. Poor folks ought to be riding as well. They are, but they don’t seem as visible (maybe it’s just that I’m on the path at 8:30 and 5pm, show me data). I personally believe that hard work and a bicycle can turn a poor person into a rich one. But anyway, there are usually more poor people than rich ones, so it’s usually possible to make money by making their lives better, if you don’t mind a low profit margin. We currently are not the cheapest shop in town for repairs or parts, it’s just that we happen to have a lot of generic and used stuff so if you’re smart you can do well. I don’t think it’s a good idea to undercut the cost of bicycle repairs in Vic, because that could hurt other shops. We could instead include a really good warranty with each bike we sell, which will justify the used-ness of them.

This idea comes from Paul Graham’s essay Be Good. He has noticed that a lot of successful startups’ business plans resemble charities when they start out. Free webmail without spam (gmail), free classified ads (craigslist), like that. So they’ve got this big user base, traction, authority, good engineers and a loud voice, that they can use as they will. Revenue becomes a downhill battle, with stability being the bigger prize.

There are some factors that aren’t fully formed and there are some parts that aren’t quite correct, but please don’t waste your time and mine by saying it’s a dumb idea. Put more thought into your criticism. It has to look dumb from here or someone would have done it already, but I have faith that there’s a good idea in it.

Has anyone heard of something like this? I know there’s a way to make it work without undercutting the core philosophy of it, which is 1) do no harm 2) do only good 3) make money. How can it work?