Jim Gregory on Building a Sustainable Business

Jim Gregory is the owner of Bikes at Work in Ames, Iowa. The company manufactures heavy-duty cargo trailers for bicycles. That wasn’t always the case. I had the opportunity to speak with Jim about building a sustainable business that has evolved with the market over 25 years.



The Value of Adaptability

Jim Gregory

Jim Gregory, Founder of Bikes at Work

Time and time again, Jim has demonstrated his capacity to learn and adapt. He believes two factors are key to his company’s longevity:

  • Empathy with his customers – Jim asks, “How would I like to be treated in their shoes?”
  • Responding to customers’ needs flexibly – By focusing on customers’ problems rather than his ready-made solutions, Jim discovers new opportunities.

Jim had always loved bicycling and values the health and environmental benefits of riding bikes. After seeing his first bike messenger on a trip to St. Louis, Jim knew that he wanted to create a bicycle-based business. And so he has – although the form of the business has evolved considerably:

  • The business started as a grocery delivery service in 1991.
  • Although the demand for grocery delivery wasn’t sufficient, Jim and his company branched out into curbside recycling pick-up, bulk newspaper and periodical delivery, and a pedicab service. At one point, he had more than 20 employees making deliveries in Ames.
  • Because available bike trailers were not up to the task, Jim started making his own. Soon, he started selling heavy-duty bike trailers to others. To reach his market niche profitably, Bikes at Work began to sell direct-to-consumers using then nascent ecommerce technologies.
  • Today, making and selling bike trailers is the company’s primary business. It does maintain a limited roster of local delivery clients so Jim can walk in his customer’s shoes (or at least ride on their bike seat).
Move by Bike

Move by Bike, Malmo, Sweden

To be clear, Bikes at Work trailers aren’t just repurposed kiddie carriers. People move furniture with these things. The market might not be large, but it has very specific needs. Because he’s immersed in that world, Jim can develop innovations that truly respond to the unique needs of his customers.

The Evolution of Content Marketing

According to Google Trends, the phrase “content marketing” didn’t really take off until 2012. Nevertheless, Jim was engaged in content marketing back in 2000. That’s when he wrote his book, “Cycling for Profit: How to Make a Living with Your Bicycle.”

BUY CYCLING FOR PROFIT

By authoring the book, Jim sought to establish himself as a domain expert. He figured that some portion of his readers would launch a bike-based business, and some of those might want to purchase one of his trailers.

THE HISTORY OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Well before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Jim engaged with his community through the social media of the day: Usenet and the Bulletin Board System (BBS). Rather than push his product, Jim made a concerted, sustained effort to answer questions. He also told people about what he was doing and learning in his bicycle-based business. By providing genuinely useful information, Jim built a rapport and trust with potential customers. Some, undoubtedly, became customers over time. The tools are different today, but the tactics and techniques of 15 years ago are still recognizable today.

Making Your Own Product

Lots of human scale businesses outsource the manufacture of their products. That can make a lot of sense. Jim, however, is an advocate of making your own. He finds several advantages in being self-sufficient:

  • Customers like being able to speak with the person who actually makes their trailer.
  • Bikes at Work can create prototypes and customizations almost instantly.
  • Jim’s supply chain is very short, which reduces his inventory investment.
  • It’s very clear who is responsible and accountable for quality.

It’s safe to say, though, that there are also disadvantages of making your own product.

  • Bikes at Work doesn’t enjoy the economies of scale of the bike frame factories in Taiwan. Jim is simply not a low-cost producer. That creates pressure for him to be a particularly good marketer in order to sustain the prices he needs to charge to earn a sufficient profit.
  • Growth is constrained by his production capacity. That’s the flip side of the degree of intimacy Jim has with his customers. There are diseconomies of scale, too.

The Purpose of Business

Notwithstanding the challenges of running a human scale business for 25 years, Jim is clear about the purpose of his business and the benefits he derives from it:

  • The mission of facilitating healthy, environmentally benign services and activity is important.
  • The degree of freedom that Jim enjoys is exceptional. He works with the people with whom he wants to work creating products that he and they value.
  • Work offers a continuous stream of novelty and challenge. When work is interesting, it doesn’t feel as much a chore.

Bikes at Work isn’t likely to be featured in Forbes anytime soon. It’s neither high-tech nor flashy. Jim and his business, though, are representative of those we wish to serve here at Human Scale Business.

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