April 18, 2009

How to seduce a framebuilder

Well, I’m taken. I hear Steve G likes to loll about on satin cushions with his extensive harem, though, so maybe there’s an opening there.

In all seriousness, today I got an email from a prospective customer. And I fairly bluntly turned down his business. I’m going to explain why in just a moment, and hopefully give you some useful tips for working with a custom bike builder, should you choose to do so.

First off, I turn down a decent number of people. It’s not because I think I’m better than them, or that I think what they want is stupid, or that I’m just too snobby and elitist to build bikes for any but members of the upper crust. Far from it. In fact, many of the folks I build bikes for could be best described as eccentric freaks with personal hygiene challenges (I’m looking at you, Fuentes).

No, I turn people down because in some cases, for various reasons, I can tell that neither I nor the customer will end up happy. Today’s missive contained several of the classic signs of future problems. To summarize:

1. Introductory email or phone call shows lack of knowledge about me, my building philosophy, or bikes in general.

It’s easy to read through some of the basic information on the extensive Waltworks website. Asking how much a bike costs, or what the wait time is, or if I build only steel bikes is a sure sign that you haven’t put even a cursory effort into researching your potential purchase. Will I answer these basic questions? Sure. It’s certainly not enough to make me turn someone down. But it’s often strike 1.

So tip one for dealing with framebuilders – do some basic research first. 5 minutes is probably enough time to find out what things cost and what I do. I don’t get paid for my time on the phone or email – it’s why I have a website with an FAQ.

2. Customer is obviously impatient.

Complaining about wait times, asking repeatedly if a bike can be built by a certain date, or trying to insinuate (or make plain in variety of unsubtle ways) that the sale depends on getting your bike done ahead of others who are already in line is another warning sign. This is supposed to be a project you’re willing to spend time and money on, something unique for you to keep riding for many years. If you want instant gratification, go to your local bike shop and bring your wallet.

I have no problem with deadlines, but asking about this in the right way is important. Trying to put pressure on the builder is a dumb idea – instead simply ask for an estimate of when the frame will be done. If the wait time is too long, take your business elsewhere. My waitlist gives a pretty good idea of when you’ll have your bike – not only can you see who’s ahead of you in line, you can see when each person put down their deposit and was shipped their frame/fork/bike to judge my track record.

3. After reading numerous threads on MTBR, customer decides that they want to incorporate lots of odd features, many of which defeat the purposes of other features.

Imagine that I came into your place of work and bombarded you with ideas for a new product configuration after reading about the product in chatrooms online. Seriously. Imagine it.

I’d probably be totally wrong about how a lot of things would work out – after all, I know very little about tax law, or car repair, or payroll software, at least compared to a professional, right? Wouldn’t my best bet be to describe what I want to *accomplish*, and then let you make suggestions? Or at most, ask for your opinion about the new features I want to incorporate?

New ideas are cool, and you can find a lot of crazy stuff online. But if I’m not convinced that A) I can do it safely and professionally, and B) It’ll accomplish the purpose you want it to, I won’t do it.

4. Customer is an obvious cheapskate.

Custom bikes are not cheap. They just are not. If you’re not sure if you can afford something, just say “look, I have $X to spend, and I want to do Z – do you think we can do that?”

It’s a (semi) luxury item. If you want something cheap and functional, there are lots of mass-produced bikes out there. Pick one out and buy it. I’ve argued before that I think my bikes have long-term value that a lot of production ones don’t, but there’s plenty of room to disagree there. Bottom line is that while you don’t have to be Daddy Warbucks, if you’re really scraping to afford just a basic custom frame, you might want to save your money for another year and ride what you’ve already got in the stable, rather than trying to nickel-and-dime the builder.

5. Customer seems obsessive and has a detailed design and/or CAD drawings.

I’m not interested in building your honors thesis engineering project/bike. Nor am I interested in building from a CAD document or spec sheet unless I have some information that leads me to believe the designer knew what they were doing. Because the bottom line is that I don’t want my name on something that you don’t enjoy riding.

In some cases, my design will largely agree with what you think you need. In others, it won’t. But approaching me as if I’m a tube-welding robot isn’t a good way to start the conversation.

6. Customer has mass-emailed multiple builders.

I spent almost a decade as a copy editor and technical writer, so I can tell when I get something impersonal. I generally don’t even answer these emails – especially since they are often combined with error #1. Once again, if you don’t want to put any effort in, run down to your LBS and buy whatever the shop guy tells you to. If, on the other hand, you want to be involved with the design and building process, and want something that is uniquely yours, be ready to spend time as well as cash.

Those are the most common signs, for me, that I don’t want to work with someone. Avoiding them doesn’t guarantee that I’ll want to build what you want to ride, of course, but it’s a good start.

Also, bringing/sending me beer is a good way to bribe me.