April 17, 2010

Random interview answers (warning: long, boring)

I (just this morning) got this email:

Walt,

I’m a journalism student, writing a feature article about globalization/outsourcing in the bike industry, as well as the renaisance in handbuilt frames over the last few years. I know you’re very busy; I have a few questions:

1. Why did you go into business designing and building frames? What do you like and dislike about it?

2. Unlike so many handbuilt frames these days, your frames don’t have much in the way of embelishments. Taiwanese frames are cheap and the quality is adequate. Why not design a bunch of stock frames that should fit most people? It’s probably less work and more profitable.

3. Knowing what you know now, would you do this again?

4. How long have you been in business and what are your goals with WaltWorks?

5. Any regrets?

6. Is there anything else that you would like me to know?

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

Cheers!

Here’s my response, for those who are interested:

Sure, I can give you some quick answers… it’s raining, so I’m not out riding.

1: I went into business as a framebuilder because A) I had lost my “real” job as a technical editor for the US DOE, and B) I already had the tools and (sort of) the expertise from doing hobby-level building for friends and myself. I figured I might as well see if anyone wanted to buy a bike from me – that was 2004. I’ve had a waitlist ever since.

I like and dislike lots of things about it, but without writing a book, I’ll say that the likes are flexible schedule and doing something I believe it, and the dislikes include lack of intellectual stimulation and some loneliness inherent in working for yourself.

2: I don’t feel that the goal of a custom frame is to be pretty or have “embellishments”. Rather, I’m concerned with precise fit and handling for a specific rider and terrain, along with high quality construction, parts picked intelligently for the needs and budget of the buyer, and a good warranty. These aren’t things you can easily find in mass produced bikes. So I see the service I provide as being something like a bicycle concierge – if you come to me, you’ll have a great fitting, great riding bike with good parts that should last a long time, guaranteed.

It is possible to accomplish this goal with production bikes, but in many cases the level of expertise and care on the part of the manufacturer and retailer is not up to the challenge. Of course, 99% or more of the bike riding public is on a mass-produced bike, so clearly mass production works fine for most folks. There is a fringe section of the market that wants custom work, and not all of those people want fleur-de-lis and every tube on the frame bent like spaghetti. Clearly there’s a market, I’ve never been able to keep up with demand.

There are lots of ways I could make more money (managing a hedge fund, for example) but I make a decent living doing what I do and I enjoy the work and free time – which to me is far more valuable than salary. The skills needed to run a small design/fab business like mine are not at all the same as the ones needed to run a mass-production/outsourcing company – and I also feel that the US (along with most of western Europe) has already outsourced more of it’s manufacturing than is probably economically healthy. I’d like my kids to have jobs here someday, which is why I try to buy products made by people who care about their work and enjoy it, rather than wage slaves in a dingy factory in Asia (or wherever).

3: Sure, why not? If I had to go out of business tomorrow (I’m not planning to, but hypothetically) I’d have no regrets. I’ve really enjoyed the 6 or 7 years that I’ve been a professional framebuilder – I’ve made money, made many new friends, learned cool skills, and had free time to ride my bike a decent amount. What’s not to like? I hope to keep doing this for a long time.

4: I think I already answered that, but around 6.5 years, and my only goal is to keep building good bikes for good people.

5: You already asked that.

6: Don’t think so!

Thanks!

-Walt