Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Reluctant Tycoon

Blog wise, April has been a bust.  I had other and some would say, more important things to focus on.  My bike shop for instance.  All month I kept telling myself that when the shop settles down after the initial Spring rush, I will have more time to dedicate to blogging, hanging out with my blogging buds, and contemplating my naval.

Things have not settled down at the bike shop.  In late March, business went from 0 to 100mph almost over night.  It has not slowed down since.  Everything in my life has been put on hold to make room for the bike shop.  And that is as it should be I guess.  After all, making money is what keeps the damn doors open. 

 I was caught off guard.   The last 5 years of mediocre or less cash in the till made the memory fade of the normal flow of a bike shop that is waking up from the long winter.  This Spring reminds me of my seasons 10 years ago.  Living, breathing, and dreaming of nothing but the bike shop, 24/7.  I knew I was one toke over the line when a bad dream woke me up.  It involved me, my daughter, one of my vendors and some wheel parts I ordered that came through wrong and oh my god, how was my kid going to win that bike race now.  Whatever it was, the dream was about bikes, business, and an angry customer who was related to me.  There is no bigger pain in the ass than an angry customer who is related.  Of course, my sweet daughter would never be a pain in the ass - ;)  It was a dream.

Even though I am exhausted, beat up, and more than slightly ragged around my edges, I am one happy buckaroo at the moment.  I am once again sleeping the sleep of the dead ( the one dream aside).  The extra cash has enabled me to fill my shelves fuller than they have been in several years.  I seem to have successfully made the transition from my old business model to my new leaner and meaner operation.  I am actually considering looking for those rose colored glasses I seem to have misplaced.

Life is really good at the moment.  I plan on hanging on while I can.

Happy Trails.....................................................................................

Monday, April 25, 2011

This Company Does It Right

I am so tired of the word "Green" I could spit.  That somehow just attaching the word "green" before, after, or within the name of a product, service, or process, we are to believe whatever it is is kind and gentle to the environment.  Humans are not kind to the environment.  Just taking up space and breathing has an impact.  Besides the "environment" does care one way or the other.  It's physicality has precious little to do with what we attribute to it.

I think rather than pull at people's heartstrings by attempting to drum up worry over the plight of frogs, trees, or some obscure moss only found in a 3 acre parcel destined to become a shopping mall, we should focus our narrow minded population on what environment we are really talking about.  We should be making the point clear that if we continue to mine the planet of all the non renewable resources at the pace we are, soon "our environment" will be in sadder shape, maybe even unlivable shape.  Never mind the frogs or the snail darters.  Their demise or mutation is but a warning of what might be in the future for us.

Barring a planet wide human kill, our species absolutely needs to sharpen our management skills as it pertains to producing the basic human needs for 6 billion people.  Instead of exploiting our natural resources as fast as possible, we need to exploit with longevity and careful consideration in mind.  We should insist the life span of the products last longer, the packaging be re-usable, and demand food production with less chemicals.  And it all starts with the producers, growers, manufacturers.  Without them taking the lead, our cattle brained population will never fully be behind it.  We will continue to consume mindlessly.  That is what the herd does.  Smaller installments of reality now and in the near future has to be better than the obvious critical tipping point of reality we seem headed for.

One small company in Portland, Oregon has been actively trying to lessen their impact on our environment since they began back in 1976 while making the best products of their kind and being financially solvent and prosperous at the same time.  Chris King Precision Components makes high end bike parts.  Their products outlast anyone else's and are beautifully executed.  If you have any Chris King component on your bike, you make sure all your gnarly dude buds know about it if they don't notice when you first pull your ride off the roof rack.

Besides manufacturing everything, including their own bearings, Chris King has constantly looked for ways to lessen the impact of their machining on the local, national, world wide natural order of things.  Products that outlast their competitors is a great start.  They also take the time, effort, and investment to recycle and re-use thousands of gallons per year of cutting oil they need to machine their parts.  By squeezing out the cutting oil from the aluminum scrap before the recycler picks it up, they end up with a higher value scrap and get more money per pound for it.  Their work place is legend in the bike industry.  People love to work there.  The company is actively involved in local and national programs that focus on responsible stewardship of the planet.  And they make money to boot. 

Yes, their parts are expensive.  But I believe their example is one the rest of the manufacturing world should try to emulate.  Of course, we have to wean ourselves off the Walmartian mentality of  "cheaper is better" and the notion that consuming for consuming's sake is a good thing.  It will happen because at some point, even the cheap crap will eventually be too expensive to buy.


Images all poached from Chris King Site

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Small Piece of the New Economic Reality <~> Guilty Pleasures Lost & Found

If I saw this coming 25 years ago, I am guessing the folks with 6 inches of letters behind their name saw it too.  We just could not keep up this Ponzi Scheme economy forever.  And maybe the last rush of greed a few years back that pushed us over the edge was a result of the smart guys getting one last dip in the trough before the reality of economic shift hit main steam America. 

That most of American Business chose to profit from this shift instead of prepare for it with new strategies does not leave me feeling any confidence that our mover and shakers have the country's interests at heart.  American business has lived on short term policies to maximize profit now instead of long term planning that would have set them up to face the reality that the US is going to have to make room at the top.  Because of their ham fisted efforts and self centered greed, they have probably ensured we won't be just making room at the top, we are going to be pushed off.

It is what it is and certainly out of my hands.  All I can do is adjust to the new realities coming at me, or let them take me down. 

There are a myriad, no, thousands of small realities forming that will change the dynamic of what is the US economy in the next 10 years.  My reality is but one small part of it.  I represent the small retail store trying to make it's way among the muscle bound chain stores and Internet Hydra.  All my whinin, pissin and moanin is done.  Fairness has nothing to do with it.  I deal with it or I don't.
In retail, brick and mortar operations like mine had basic rules and goals that seemed to be shared across the board from one retailer to another. With the advent of the discount chain store and the rise of the Internet, all these rules have been tossed.  Classic profit margins designed to cover fixed costs, cost of goods, payroll, and leave the owners with some jingle to save or play with have been shot in the ass.  I used to aim for a store wide margin of 40%.  I only remember hitting it one year back in the 1990s, but we had many years of 38% or so.  Now I have to keep my doors open on 25% or less.  That leaves precious little other than some coffee money and maybe a new pair a pants every 6 months.

But again, it is what it is.  Rather than allow the Internet or the Chains low ball me out of existence, I am meeting them head on.  It finally dawned on me that holding my price and not being flexible was just driving customers into their arms.  10% profit is a damn site better than no profit. 

Okay, so I have finally come around.  But the rules change here in mid-stream has me floundering some at the moment.  I realize that in order to survive in the new economic reality, I have to have every phase of my operation under control.  The margin of error has narrowed dramatically.

Which brings up Guilty Pleasures.  Bear with me, there is a connection.  I just need to re-locate it.

All this recent entrepreneurial intensity of mine has created a writer's block.  It seems I have completely turned all the synapses still in existence to the chore of pulling my bike shop out of the hole.  I have none left for my creative writing.  As I write this now, I am experiencing serious guilt and remorse over the hour wasted not focusing on bike shop shit.

It was on the way to the bike shop yesterday that I realized how much I miss writing just for shits and giggles.  I don't care what I write about, I just truly enjoy the effort of putting words together that make sense.   That they sometimes do make sense is but icing on the cake.  It is the process of creativity I am missing, not so much the finished product.  Writing has become a substance abuse thing for me.  I am seriously jones-ing here.

Riding my bike used to be a guilty pleasure.  That seems to have changed over the last 20 years or so.  At some point, I do not know when, riding went from an escape mechanism to a requirement of my job.  Owning a bike shop and not riding is certainly possible.  Matter of fact, many bike shop owners do not ride.  But I felt obligated more and more to ride because of the business and less just for myself.

And now that gas is closing in hard on $4/gallon, I feel even more pressure to ride.  Commuting by bike just twice a week will save me $8.  Add in the health and fitness benefit and  to not commute by bike when possible would be stupid.  Unless of course my pockets suddenly got deeper.  And last time I checked, they seemed to have shrunk. 

Coming full circle here, I guess it just amuses me that no matter how priorities change, there is always that which you should do and that which you want to do.  The trick is finding the balance point.

Next post - Alcohol and why I stopped being a tee-totaler.  Or something else.  It's certainly a crap shoot.

Keep it 'tween the ditches................................................................

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stubborn Can Overcome Stupidity

I think it was 9/11 that started me on the downward spiral.  The year following that awful event left me and apparently the rest of the country in a funk.  Whatever happened, it was around then my business and my enthusiasm for it began to wane.  Each successive season found me struggling to create enough cash flow to stay out of hock. The old Bike Shop Business Model just was not cutting it.  The Internet, the economy, and my decreased interest in the business created serious roadblocks.

In a desperate move to keep things afloat, I used credit cards and loans to try and borrow my way out of the hole that seemed to grow larger no matter what I did.  And then the economy really tanked.  Thankfully, I had already decided on some bold cost cutting moves months earlier and when it did tank, I was in no worse shape than before.  I had not tied into any new debt for that year.  I did not order any new bikes on credit.  I made no huge Pre-season parts orders on credit.  I decided that if I could not pay for it, I would not buy it.  All this in an effort to try to pay down the old debt as much as I could and then close the shop.  That was 2008.

I was sure I would not be able to keep the doors open after September, 2008.  I was wrong.  September, 2008 came and went.  2009 came and went.  2010 came and went.  And here it is April, 2011 and I am still in business.  Far freakin out. 

Remembering where my head was at then and where it is now makes me grin.  I had been doing business a certain way for I guess almost 20 years, and suddenly I was throwing it out and adopting a new business model.  No new bikes on the floor.  Parts inventory kept slim and thin.  I adopted on time inventory, ordering many parts for repairs as I needed them.  And I dropped my help down to one full time employee (yours truly) and one part timer who was paid a percentage of each repair he did.  My gross income dropped dramatically, but my profitability on that gross increased.   And I have successfully nibbled away a large chunk of my old debt.  I am not out of the woods yet, but there is certainly a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  Enough of one that now I am looking for ways to create new business without taking on huge new debt. 

I would love to give myself full credit for this turn around.  Yeah, I was too stubborn to quit.  That certainly helped.  But what else was I going to do?  I had been my own boss for over 20 years and I was damned if I was going to go back to driving trucks.  All I saw and still see is if I am not at the bike shop, I am at Loew's, Home Depot, Walmart, or Mickey D's wearing some shitty uniform and making just above minimum wage.  Of course minimum wage would be a wage hike for me.  I haven't drawn more than three or four thousand dollars out of my shop in at least the last three years.

My tenacity was certainly the driving force for where I am now.  But without timely help from my landlord, my creditors, Bike Shop Jim,  and most of all, my loyal customers, I would not be here right now feeling so grateful.   Instead of seeing nothing but struggle and trouble when I open my doors everyday, I think of running the shop as a fun game.  A serious game, but that's all it is.  Me against the evil economic monsters who wait behind every spreadsheet waiting to take me down.  I have stepped up my game and learned even more than I thought I could about retail.  I have found creative ways to cut costs.  I have found money in old bikes and old parts.  But of all the things I have learned these past few years is that if I am comfortable or feeling full of myself, then I am in trouble.  If I am not trying to grow my business when I can and shrink it when it needs to be cut back, then my business will die.  I figure another two years of this and I will be back in the black or damn close.

Happy Trails......................................................

Monday, April 18, 2011

What is Hip

Even though I have been detached from the real world and lost in my own trip for the last month or so, I have been paying some attention to the events that swirl around me like all those tornadoes that recently touched down in North Carolina.  Some of the storms have abated, some are just heating up and others are about the same.  And I know that regardless of my feelings, mood, or inclinations, events beyond my control will always swirl around me. 

So for my own sanity, I have taken a vow of silence about things I may have opinions on.  Just the other day, a good friend who is in love with the Tea Party and what it represents told me he would vote for Sarah Palin if she ran for President.  My facial muscles twitched a couple of times.  I felt or was it heard a rush of sound building somewhere deep inside me.  But I literally gritted my teeth, turned away and said nothing.  I acted as if he had said nothing and shifted the conversation back to one of bike parts, Freds, and what was hip and what was not in our micro culture of Gnarly dude mountain biking.

I have been part and parcel of this cycling subculture for 24 years now.  I have also lived in many different parts of this country over the years.  One thing I learned is that what is hip is only marginally affected by national trends.  The national trend may get the fad rolling, but each area, region, neighborhood puts their own twist on it.  Each move to a new area I suffered as a kid, I was always faced with the problem of not fitting in based solely on the fashions I brought with me from my previous home turf.  I gave up early trying to fit in.  The result being I have always been either behind the fad, or in front of it.  Never solidly tuned in.

The perfect example is my titanium VooDoo "Zaka".  It represents this contradiction of my fashion sense perfectly.  It is both ahead of the curve, solidly into it, and woefully behind at the same time.  Mountain bikes have for years been graced with either silver components or black.  There was the "Ano Period" of the early 1990s, but that was just an aberration or short detour while mountain biking found and secured it's rightful place in the hierarchy of cycling.  White components popped up now and then, but never to the degree they are now.  I installed them on my bike 3 years ago, a good 2 years ahead of the curve.

Sadly, the frame of the "Zaka" is made of titanium.  Titanium is not hip.  Carbon fiber is the new hip frame material.  And if you can't afford it or fear it because it feels like plastic, then Scandium is the next hip material in line.  Regardless, titanium is old school.  So any points I may have garnered for being ahead of the curve are negated.   I have also gone retro with this bike and kept it rigid with no suspension of any kind.  Definitely not currently hip.  But the fact that it sports 29" wheels with white rims means I do have a clue of what is cool.

The bigger question I guess is do I even care?  Of course I don't care if I am hip, but I am a tad concerned I may not be un-Hip anymore.  After long ago embracing the notion I will never fit in, I have worked hard to make sure I did not.  I guess some pink components or maybe some obnoxious yellow ones will return me to the status I have come to know and love.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Owning My Past

Not sure what happened.  Some switch somewhere got flipped, some hidden button pushed,  or I entered an alternative Universe.  Whatever it was that touched it off, turned it off, I have been at a loss for words now since my grand meltdown of last post.  It hasn't helped that the bike shop has taken up 95 % of my waking hours.  We hit 100 mph right out of the gate.  No run up, slow climb, no chance to find our shop legs.  The fan has been hit with Spring shit and I know it will not ease up for at least another month.  Financially speaking, I hope it does not ease up until September. 

In the meantime I am hangin on, hangin in and hangin ten tryin to turn bike repairs around as fast as I can and keep the consuming cyclists' need for the latest bike bling sated.  I handle the early season cash flow like some circus juggler on a unicycle, hoping I look calmer than I feel.  Knock on wood.  So far so good.

Of course without the support of the folks who find me tolerable enough to help out, my story might not be so cheery.  As much as I would like to consider myself a loner, when I take the time to think past the gruff bravado, I realize that I need other people in my life.  Without their interference or support at specific points in my life, my journey would surely have gone down different paths and more than likely ended many years ago.

It would be logical to focus on those folks who surround me now.  But what about the interactions I had many years ago that altered my Life in ways I did not appreciate then but now I know had a major influence on where I ended up?  When I think about it, the negative incidents stand out now as positives.

For some reason my memory of getting busted for cocaine possession at the Pine Knob Music Theater in Oakland  County north of Detroit,  Michigan back in 1978 has been flash-backing in recent days.  I remember I was on tour with Genesis, but we had an unusual night off as our concert was not until the next night.  Fleetwood Mac was playing that night and the whole crew from our tour were invited to the show.  The night and my life may have turned out quite differently if I had just stayed back stage and partied with the rest of the crew.  I didn't stay back stage and well, my life was never the same after that.

I remember my usual over indulgence of Jack Daniels, many lines of toot, and then I decided I would go out among the crowd watching the concert to find some young lady to invite backstage.  I went out the door  from back stage  to a hallway that would eventually take me out to the public areas.  Not sure what I was thinking, but I decided that a fortifying snort of toot would be a good idea if I was going to even have a chance of talking sense and not mumbling nonsense.  I leaned up against a concrete pillar in the Lobby and pulled out my bag of toot.  Dipped my spoon in it and...........................two hands grabbed my hands that that were up til then busy getting a good spoonful of toot ready for deployment.  I looked up and yeah, I knew in an instant, I was busted.  Caught red handed, snagged being extremely stupid and probably in a world of trouble.  The two plainclothes cops had me in handcuffs and in the back of a squad car in no time.  I spent the next week sleeping on the floor of the intake cell at the local jail waiting for a bed to open up in the general population.

I had been out of control for more than a few years by this time in my life.  My family had grown weary of my stupidity and I knew calling my parents would mean serious recriminations.  I expected the sound and light company I drove for to help out, but they left me and moved on to the next show.  Can't blame them, but up to the point of my incarceration, they had always gotten their people out of jail.  I was the first victim of their new hard line policy regarding brushes with the law.

I called my parents.  They bailed me out.  I caught up with the tour, took back my truck from the temp driver  and finished that tour.  I went on two more tours, but it was never the same again.  My week in Holding not only dried me out, but gave me some serious previews of what I was headed for should I continue the path I was on.  I stopped the cocaine and laid off the binge drinking.  Some folks, and apparently I was one, cannot handle too much fun and stay out of trouble.

Now I know the cops who busted me, my fed up parents, and a lenient judge all conspired without the other's knowledge to straighten my sorry ass out and force me to face Life as an adult and not some overgrown angry teenager.  There are many signals in Life that warn of trouble ahead.  For us lucky ones, others help us see them in time.

Keep it 'tween the ditches.........................................

Image of Sammy Salamander who lives under our front porch.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Joy of Living

I cannot remember the exact year it happened.  Was it eight years ago?  It was at least six or seven.   Maybe even ten years ago.  I guess I am hazy about the exact dates because this brief period of my life I planted so deep I would not have to remember the dark depths I found inside.  I almost died.  No fooling.  Regardless, I now know this experience has changed my life forever.  And not for the better.   I already had a list of other negatives I lived with.  What is one more, more or less?

I seem to recollect it all started in the Fall when I attended a group meeting of Hepatitis patients over to the Southern Maine Medical Center.  We would be the first group in Maine to partake in a drug regimen of Interferon and some other drug that would rid us finally of the Hepatitis that coursed through our bodies day in, day out.  Over a hundred people sat crowded in a room at the hospital and listened to a fellow wearing a nice suit explain the process and how beautiful our lives would be once we had successfully finished the year of injecting poison into our bodies.  I assume it was just shy of chemotherapy.  Just shy enough that they trusted us to self medicate.

We filled out questionnaires.  We were handed release forms to read and sign.  We listened as the potential negative side effects were explained.  The injections would be painful.  We would probably lose energy and not be as active as we were used to being.  Lethargy and exhaustion would be daily experiences.  Our appetites would be affected.  We might become depressed.  But on the up side, all these negative side effects would begin to ease up the further into the regimen we journeyed.  Our bodies would adapt.  And after a year of it, 60% of us would be Hepatitis free.  The other 40%, oh well, at least we gave it a good shot.

Even though the "medical experts" already knew from the trials, what they did not explain was that 11% of us would most likely fall into such deep depression that we would consider suicide as our only way out.  I found out for myself, but only after I had fallen into such deep depression that I did in fact try to take my own life.  The only thing that saved me was my own stupidity about how to carry off a successful suicide.  Did you know that all the new anti pollution junk the government has insisted be installed in the newer cars create such a low amount of carbon dioxide that filling a van with it and hoping it will be enough is hard to pull off?  I didn't and for once my own stupidity saved my life.

But let's back up some.  Back down from the climax and fill in some gaps.

The first week of the therapy was indeed painful.  Very painful.  I assumed my reaction to it was normal and sucked it up.  The depression came as expected.  The second week , the same pain and what I thought was just more of the same depression.  I had been told I would eventually rise above it, so I continued to poison myself with their drugs for another 6 weeks or so, each week sliding a little further down the hill into the pit I did not see coming.

My memories of exactly what happened in that eighth week or so are fuzzy.  I remember being in so much pain, physically and mentally, I saw no way out but to kill myself.  I cannot explain why I kept this to myself and did not complain.  I was drug addled and apparently out of my mind.  My only focus was how worthless I was and that I knew the World would be better off with me not in it.  I grabbed a hose from the garage, stuffed it up the exhaust pipe of the red Dodge Caravan,  took the other end of the hose and climbed into the van.  I started the engine, laid down on the back seat that could be made into a bed and waited to die.

For some reason and again I cannot explain why, I had taken a small travel clock with me when I climbed into the van.  I am thinking I wanted to watch the last minutes of my life tick off like some countdown in reverse.  I laid there for twenty minutes.  I could smell the exhaust in the van, but it was nowhere close to being fatal and I knew it.  Hell, I was still alive ferchrisakes.  Still determined to see this through, I closed my eyed and gritted my teeth.  This was damn well going to be my last day on the planet.  If I ever knew something was a sure thing, my self inflicted death was it.

I may have dozed off.  I do not know.  I do know that at about 1 hour into it, my eyes popped open and all I could think of was, "I don't wanna die!"  I opened the sliding door of the van and rolled out of it.  I must have laid on the ground for many minutes hacking, coughing and thinking how close I had been to death and how stupid I was for thinking death was something to look forward to.  I climbed to my feet, stumbled back into the house and called my wife.   When she answered, the previous eight weeks of Hell on Earth came out as I sobbed and cried my way through my narrative.  My wife came home immediately and a couple of hours later, I was safely set up in a group suicide watch house in Saco.  For three days I was monitored, questioned, and talked to.  I walked out of there knowing two things.  The aftermath of an unsuccessful suicide is almost worse than what led up to it and that if I ever again made an attempt, it would be successful.  If for no other reason than to avoid the embarrassment and deep shame I felt for trying to take my own life in the first place.

This tale might have ended here with our hero successfully confronting his demons and making it out alive.  But there are always residual effects to something like this.  An incident of this nature in one's life leaves scars, deposits doubts, and as I am realizing now, damage to my brain chemistry I can only assume is what that Interferon poison did to me physically.  Because ever since my up close and personal interaction with Interferon I have become what I assume would be considered "clinically depressed".  Ever since then, I fall into periods of such deep depression, I become dysfunctional.  And thus, you now have an explanation of my last ten days of Hell.  An excuse offered up to explain my recent absence. 


I had hoped to return to this blog on an up note.  Write something that exuded joy and well being or maybe humorous as I tried to put up a cheery front.  But I guess what I needed to do overwhelmed what I wanted to do.  I have had this bullshit bottled up for more than a few years now and this recent dip into my dark currents pushed me over the edge.  I had to purge myself.  Speak the truth and see it in writing.  I wrote this more for myself than anyone else.  Hopefully though, my tale strikes a chord somewhere.  But more importantly, strikes a chord with me.

And please note that I have thus far resisted seeking help from the "greatest health care system in the World".  The regular failures they charged me money for when dealing with my own medical needs over the years has instilled an almost phobic fear of returning to them for any help.  I hold them responsible in a large part for what I deal with today.  If I want drugs, I will find my own.  I will either find the solution for myself, or I won't.  Doctors can take their pills and shove em deep up where the Sun don't shine.


Image poached from "Depression Cell" .