I stared out the shop window and once again the sun shone. “They lied,” I said to myself. “It’s nearly March and we’ve been here a few months and the weather has been fantastic.” Such was our first year shaping up in Ireland.
Okay, to be fair the weather probably wasn’t perfect, but I was staring out with a large tint of rosiness affecting my vision, as the shop window I speak of was on the main street in a village called Cloughjordan and it was the small bike shop I had just opened in January. Some people thought it foolhardy opening a shop in a village of just over 400 people in the hinterland of Ireland, I disagreed.
It all began shortly after we moved there to be part of the budding eco-village project. I immediately searched out one of the few empty premises, and in the true spirit of local community struck up a deal with a handshake; three months free and an affordable monthly rent there afterwards. I treated some local kids to lunch in exchange for help with painting. Most of the interior furniture was recycled from the convenience store down the street which was in the process of remodeling.
I lent on the old meat counter which had now found new life holding derailleurs, chains, brake levers, shifters and all things cycling, my elbow nudging against the used cash register I just purchased. Looking across at the old wooden cigarette stand which was now housing tubes of all sizes brought a smile to my face. What a juxtaposition. The structure for the lung destroying sticks that literally take your breath away was now displaying a product helping those who bought them to keep rolling along enhancing their lung capacity no end.
Luckily my wife and friend Enrico had much better artistic flare than myself so hand-painted signs boasted my small logo of three C’s looking like a cyclist. A website another friend and I put together was my first step into the world wide web.
As my wife and Enrico painted the shop signs dangling from ladders or squatting in front of the door for hours in the cold February wind the locals watched at a respectful distance. Meanwhile I hauled things up and down the street that were destined for the junk heap. I knew exactly what I wanted – and didn’t want – for my first business venture. I had collected bicycle-specific tools over the years and had enough bikes in our personal fleet to fill half the tiny premises for opening day.
I decided on a four-day work week. My logic being that it was four days more than the last bike shop was opened. I didn’t know any suppliers in Ireland, but a glance through the yellow pages gave me a local merchant in Limerick who stocked many of the basics I would need to get started.
I decided to call the shop Cloughjordan Cycle Co-op. It wasn’t a true co-op, but my vision was to make it one when it got off the ground. I printed fidelity cards for customers to keep track of their purchases and accrue a sum of money in shop vouchers. I was making things up as I went along, but more importantly I was enjoying the whole process.
So far all was going smoothly. I would hold off on buying too much else because I had no idea where any of this was going to lead. On opening day there was more food on the counter than anything else. I sold two bikes, a front basket, a bell, some tubes, and had lots of enquiries about repairs.
My shop quickly grabbed the attention of the surrounding area. With minimal advertising in the form of leaflets the word spread that a bicycle shop selling good quality bikes was open for business. Even my strange four-day work week seemed to be accepted.
To stand in my shop knowing it was built with the help of the community outside the window supporting my efforts, felt simply correct. The all-invasive banks did not have a say in my growth, and any interest was the interest of the local clientèle wondering why my shelves weren’t bursting with product on the day of the “Grand Opening.” As I told my bemused potential customers, “I don’t want to fill the walls with stock I want you to buy. I’d rather my shop be a reflection of the community’s desires.” Of course I was the professional, and being in the industry was aware of products and services that were important to the world of the cyclist and that’s what I brought to the table; passion, knowledge, tools, space, and some cycle-specific products that were not known to many of the locals. Some of the kids in the village viewed the shop more like a museum of cool bike stuff, but it definitely stirred interest and helped encourage the two-wheeled world of transport.
My suppliers grew quickly, and my stock nearly tripled in four months. The beginning was a bit hit or miss, but since I had no banks calling in monthly payments, I had some well-needed autonomy to survive the first lean winter months.
Remarkably I had customers coming from as far as Dublin and Galway. I wanted to be a local shop, but the eco-village had a wide pull, and people were being supportive of the wacky New Yorker who successfully opened his shop on a whim.
I refused to buy low-budget bikes. I felt it wasn’t good long-term economic sense. I had a conversation with one of my reps. He was telling me I should stock the lower-end bikes. He guaranteed I would sell quite a few, and make a great mark-up. I explained to him that was exactly what I didn’t want to do because not everything can be judged in terms of mark-up, or profit. I loved seeing people ride by my window on their bicycles knowing that their children were not pedaling bikes that weighed six times their body weight. He then said to me emphatically, “Can’t you see, this is where the industry is going!” I smiled at that remark and countered with the words, “We are the Industry, if we refuse to sell inferior products which inevitably turn people off to cycling we can change where it is heading.” Nearly on cue a woman walked in the door and asked if I had any of those pannier things Helen bought because now she wanted to start doing some shopping on her new hybrid bike. She never knew cycling could be so much fun.
My rep looked at me as he took his “Specials” sheet of sub one hundred euro bikes and hastily put the list in his briefcase and said he’d see me next month mumbling something about there being no money in selling panniers.
I sold quite a few road bikes, and a small riding club formed on Sunday mornings, which spiraled into evening rides in the long summer nights. I made lots of friends and the cycling community grew quickly. It actually had a knock on affect that farmers and other road users were now used to bicycles being on the road, and drove with more caution. The school run in the morning nearly doubled in its bicycle use, so much so I sold a bike rack to one of the local schools. Trailers became popular, and I was known for supplying high-quality imports from Germany, not flimsy Chinese products.
Christmas arrived quickly finishing up my first season. I knew that without selling the cheap bikes I would not be as busy as other shops, but I had a successful year on all accounts and wasn’t worried. After the holidays the principal of the local school let me know how he appreciated me being there, and was glad he spent the extra money on his own children’s bikes. It stopped him buying a few other items on his kid’s Christmas list, but the kids were loving their bikes.
The first year was proof positive that it was possible to be creative in business. I could not have done it without the help of the locals, even the business rates man came in when I first opened and said he’d leave me alone my first year, “No use doing all the calculations if you might not even be here next year. I’ll let you establish yourself first.” It was a human side to business which was getting lost. Ireland had not lost it yet, but with the ‘Celtic Tiger’ in full stride, it felt as if we were on a slippery slope to business first, human relationships second. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ was the term given to the Irish economy in the latter part of the nineties and early 2000’s. They had followed the role model of overspending and creating huge financial debt for the country on the promise of exponential growth.
Meanwhile my second year of business got off to a strange start. The space my shop was in needed to be refurbished, and I had to move everything out and put it in storage. I planned on closing down in January for two weeks, but it turned into over a month. Being a new business, I was too aware it looked very much like I was one of the many shops not surviving their first year. So come mid-February I re-opened quickly letting all my customers know I was back and still in business. People were supportive and still came in to thank me for opening.
The next few months were an emotional roller coaster ride for us. The eco-village was faltering and we were financially forced to leave the project. Friends who had stayed part of the project were obsessed, and rightly so, with keeping it going. Conversations with them were becoming nearly impossible to talk about anything else. We felt bad for our friends, but now we weren’t part of the project and felt a bit out of the loop. Many other friends had left and we were at a loose end because the project was our primary reason for being in Cloughjordan.
What to do? Ireland had joined the craziness of the world now. Prices were soaring for land. Communities were suffering the same fate of many suburbs world-wide; expensive cost of living, the necessity for a car to merely survive, and lack of cohesion. The eco-village project was trying to reverse many of these things, but survival was of more importance at the moment. It would have been too easy a decision if my shop was going under, but it just wasn’t happening. My experiment was doing too well. If only I had incurred some debt and been on a slippery slope out of business.
We decided to have a rethink and take a bicycle trip to France. I had a friend who was willing to keep the doors open and just a week before we booked our ferry journey to Normandy, in walked an Englishman named Ian. He had run one of the largest bicycle shops in Dublin for the past three years and was burnt out on the long hours, high stress, and dog eat dog world of the bicycle business in Ireland’s capital city. There was no stress in my shop, and although I wasn’t getting rich, I was earning a living for me and my family, and that was pretty good going.
Ian had just come to the countryside to start a gardening business and spend more time enjoying the bicycle for its better merits, not as a business. I made him the offer of running my small shop for two weeks. He was reluctant at first but said he’d go home and discuss it with his girlfriend. Before he left I thought better about my offer and added, “Ian, you’d better make that a month, ferries are expensive from Ireland, might as well make it worth it.” He smiled back at me shaking his head as he left. The next day I handed him the shop keys, went over the basics and booked a ferry for a month-long family cycling holiday in France.
I loved my small shop and was hoping Ian enjoyed working there as well. He liked the products I was selling and was surprised the people in the village wanted panniers, high quality bikes, and trailers. I told him of the experiment and how I opened up with just two suppliers at first. The four-day work week was right up his alley – time for gardening, and bike riding.
Our bike trip from Normandy to Brittany was a success; we reconnected with friends, and realized we missed the continent. The decision was made to move back to France. The Irish experiment was just not working out on a few other levels. Ireland’s business plan didn’t seem right, the bigger is better approach was something I willingly left behind. I managed to keep out of debt my whole life, and now we were living in a country that saw debt as a good thing. It smelled of disaster to me, and if Ireland were a small business, I don’t think the most creative accountant in the world could have saved it from the inevitable.
On our return to Cloughjordan I asked Ian what he thought of the shop. He enjoyed the fact that people just stopped by for a chat and liked the quality of all the products. The smaller shop looked full with a lot less stock, and any special orders arrived quickly. I then asked him if he would like to own the shop. I think that threw him for a loop.
I put together a very fair offer. The shop had a good customer base and although still in its embryonic stages had much promise. Ian thought about it briefly and decided to purchase half the shop.
The debt-free business plan had worked. The bicycle shop moved into a slightly bigger premise the following year for nearly the same rent and some well-needed work space. Unfortunately that space was the local hardware store that opened shortly after I did. His business plan resembled the overspending get in debt model. I had a few talks with him when he was just opening, but he was well-strapped on to the back of the Tiger and thought I was a bit weird in my thinking.
Ian finally bought the other half and still owns it now with a business partner. The shop made it through two financial melt downs in Ireland where many other more well-established businesses folded. The bicycle shop proved that to be creative is what will ensure we continue living in some sort of a symbiotic relationship with each other and our planet. The bigger is better plan does not always work. Success comes in other shapes and forms and there is nothing wrong with sustaining a good business, not always looking to constantly grow it.
When our boat left in November 2007 Ireland and much of the world’s two big financial crashes were yet to come. Ian who was retiring from the stress of the constant growth model of business still runs the original Cloughjordan Cycle Co-op under a changed name.
In 2010 I helped open another bicycle shop in England with two friends based on the same business plan. The debt-free bare bones model once again held its own, and three years later that too survives. I no longer own any part of that shop either, but in two small island countries in Europe my vision of a debt-free business opened creatively with little financial resources has proved to be a winner. Looking around and reading what is happening world-wide, it seems others are thinking in much the same way. Bravo, and to the future of small debt-free businesses!