America’s No. 1 Custom-Bike Frame Maker Uses Its Web Site to Personalize Service, Speed Production, and Reach More Cyclists With Just a Small Staff
Former bicycle racer Rob Vandermark, 32, figures he has won the race to bring an old-style, low-tech business into the Information Age. In the two years since co-founding Seven Cycles Inc. (www.sevencycles.com), Vandermark’s company — so named because seven is a lucky number in many cultures — has sped to first place among the 250 or so custom bicycle-frame builders in the U.S. The Internet, he says, has been the key.
How so? Labor-intensive, mom-and-pop shops still dominate the custom bike market, and people seeking state-of-the-art frames often have a tough time finding craftsmen to make exactly what they want. But thanks to the Net, that has become a lot easier. Seven uses its Web site to let customers get deeply involved in the frame-building process, enabling them to design their own high-end bike frames and track their development all the way through the process. And the Web lets Vandermark reach — and service — more customers than rivals can, and with more of a personal touch than ever before. Mom-and-pop shops are able to make only 20 to 30 frames a year. Seven makes 1,000 frames annually.
Here’s how it works: Seven’s frames are sold through a network of 125 dealers in the U.S. and distributors in 15 other countries. Dealers help fill in Seven’s four-page questionnaire asking for 50 or so details of the customer’s size and riding habits. That information is fed into a spreadsheet, and Vandermark uses the specifications to design the custom bike. The specs also are kept in a database, making it easier to develop future bicycles. “This database is part of what has allowed us to build custom bikes with such a small staff,” Vandermark says.
Before a single tube is cut for a bike, Vandermark and co-founder Matt O’Keefe call each customer and review their order, within 24 hours of receiving it. It then takes about 28 hours to build the frame. It can take six weeks or more to get the bike, partly because of Seven’s order backlog and partly because of customs delays on international deliveries.
One customer checked the status of his bike up to six times a day on Seven’s “Where’s My Frame” page.
What makes someone pay $6,000 for a bike they will not get to road-test first? Web-driven personalization can make all the difference, Seven dealers and customers say. Just ask Mike Tierney, 51, a Canadian fireman and cyclist who rides more than 100 miles a week. Tierney took to the Net to search for his dream bike, one that is high-performance, light, and custom-built to his own measurements and riding habits. He settled on Seven’s “Sola” — a $2,500 titanium frame. After buying the frame, Tierney had to add another $2,500 worth of hand-picked components such as hubs, spokes, and handlebars to complete the bike.
The cost was offset, though, by the attention Tierney got from Vandermark and his 19 employees. Tierney corresponded regularly by E-mail with Vandermark about his frame as it was being built. Tierney also checked — up to six times a day — on Seven’s “Where’s My Frame?” Web page, where customers can track the status of their bike as it goes through production, find out what’s being done with it in each phase, and learn who’s working on it. Tierney was so pleased with his finished Seven that he posted a photograph of it on his personal Web site.
He’s not the only one high on the customization. Many of Seven’s customers have sent Vandermark disposable cameras to get a picture of their frame as it goes through each production step. And some customers are so keen to get their bike that they show up, in person, at Seven’s Watertown (Mass.) factory — a World War II-era structure formerly occupied by the Goddess Bra Co., which made 52 styles of bras. Seven’s bike frames come in 200 sizes or can be customized at no extra charge.
Letting customers tune in throughout the process is the kind of hand-holding that can come with Net service, Vandermark says. That isn’t lost on Seven’s dealers. “When the customer sends an E-mail, they get an answer from the bike’s designer. If you go to other major bike makers’ sites, all you get is some high-school kid reading out of a catalog,” says Scott Fader, a sales executive at Belmont Wheel Works, Seven’s largest dealer. The Boston-area bike shop sells more than 60,000 bikes a year, 100 of them Sevens.
Customers can reaffirm their decisions at each visit, and that helps Seven dealers sell more frames.
Seven’s Web site is one of its big selling points. Bill Revard, a Seven dealer at the Bike Line Inc. shop in Indianapolis, says Seven’s site is set up so customers can reaffirm their decision every time they log onto it, and that has helped him sell more Seven frames. The site gets more than 7,000 hits a day and more than 200 E-mail messages a week, which are answered within 24 hours by Vandermark, O’Keefe, and other Seven staff. The site also includes photographs of Seven’s staff and bike models, plus technical articles and reviews comparing Seven bikes with the competition’s. Says Vandermark: “Part of our success is that we are tied to a business model that includes the Internet.”
So far, so good. Last year, revenues hit $1.27 million, and the company posted $50,600 in profits — an uptick that came earlier than expected. With revenues expected to reach $1.9 million this year, Vandermark turned down a second round of venture financing.
But how much can the bike-frame maker grow and still stay No. 1 in personalization? “Our business can only get so large, and not larger,” says Vandermark. But he’s not worried about it, and neither are dealers like Fader of Belmont Wheel Works. “What’s special about Seven is the way everyone works together,” he says. For Vandermark, seven is proving to be a lucky number.