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Designing for the select few. Just not you.

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Walking away from the bicycle industry after being there most of my life, is, as Richard Sachs comments, “a tough row to hoe”.  But there are bits of it that are really easy to walk away from, and even easier to walk away from as you learn more about DA.

The custom bicycle industry is a strange one, full of great people, some of whom are immensely talented artists and craftspeople, and also some whom exist from my experience purely because the market in North America is so big that as long as you’re ‘different’, you can somehow eek out a living.

Craftspeople by their very nature are an interesting bunch, and it would be fascinating to conduct a study, or read an existing one on they types of people that are attracted to the crafts.  Without the luxury of academia but the fortune of having dealt with dozens during my tenure in the custom bike industry, I’d say the stereotype at least would be thus.

  • Anti-establishment – Prefers to work alone or with select few.
  • Creative – Yet also technical.
  • Individualist – Pays little heed to what the pack is doing.
  • Insular – Protective of self and industry, xenophobic
  • Conservative – Generally likes things the way they are, more backward looking than forward looking.  There’s only one way to do things. Rejection of technology.

Richard Sachs is one of the ‘old guard’ of custom framebuilding in the US.  People engage with his sermons with increasing frequency and candour in his twilight (I duck as I say that, he’s only in his 50’s – apologies Richard!) years, as he shifts his attention from the bench to the keyboard.  Richard is witty and colourful in a way that probably only Americans and specifically those from the North-East can fully ‘get’.

However, one of the issues with the custom bicycle industry is it’s insularity, it’s inward-looking nature.  Because of the personalities it attracts, it’s not as diverse as it probably could or should be, and it’s to the industries detriment.  Case-in-point.

Richard Sachs in a recent blog entry “The N Word is the New Black”, aims at turning a negative into a trend – a trend the custom bike industry doesn’t need – or at the very least, it’s a trend that the industry sorely needs professional help with – the art of saying ‘no’.

Of course, it’s the height of irony in an industry that relies so heavily on the user experience that you have companies in similar fields such as MMW that makes custom skateboard trucks have a ‘rejection letter’ that says –

“MMW is a very small business. As such we have the tremendous luxury of choosing with whom we wish to conduct business. It’s become evident that you cannot be numbered in this group. Please accept this refund for time, materials and shipping, and we wish you the best of luck in your races”

Yes, we have the luxury of choice, and we choose not to choose you! “Take THAT, you fifth grader!”  Customer service with a Capital F and U.

There’s an art to saying no, but Richards doesn’t really address this in his blog entry.  In his article, he indirectly advocates that the user experience – and anyone else for that matter – as a minor concern when compared to individual, American-style self-determination.

More than anything, we want do exactly what we want to do, on our own terms, and without being second guessed. It’s near impossible to carry this out when others are trying to be part of the process.

Essentially what Sachs is saying in his article, is that the thing that sells, the thing that sets you apart as a custom framebuilder, is ‘you being you’.  I don’t think anyone truly is a fan of not being yourself.  I mean, unless you’re schitzophrenic, who else can you be?  The art therein, is keeping that self-worth and self-identity, whilst keeping yourself open to new ideas and new experiences.  And I mean that in a very broad sense, not in that “I coped this tube with this file instead of this file” kind of meaningless micro-management kind of way.

Being yourself is great, but there’s a fine line – especially if ‘being yourself’ means being closed off to new ideas, xenophobic, isolationist, and not customer/user focussed.  You can only be yourself, only ‘do what you do’ because of other people.

Sachs is also talking from the very privileged position of having a business where he’s now more designer/wholesaler than builder, where he had a waiting list to the point where he decided not to take on any new customers.  If I was a new craftsman/fabricator, I’d be more interested what people who have been in the industry 3-5 years have to say, whilst still looking towards the Statesman for more long-term, sagely advise.  It’s awesome being you, but when you’ve just sold a handful of bikes and you’ve opened up shop and now have bills and mouths to feed, sometimes ‘being you’ is going to be, say, welding things other than bikes, or making the odd bike that you don’t find that interesting.  It may also involve you being flexible, where you find yourself drawn to other types of bikes, other materials.

I think in some ways ‘you will always be you’, it’s more a question of how you respond to the experience that’s more important than whether the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Sure say ‘no’, but also say ‘yes’ more often, too.

Link to Facebook dialogue can be found HERE.


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