The market is so often driven by myth. For example, mass production in automated factories is assumed to be the cheapest way to make things. Often true but so often not, we need to challenge such myths. Let’s consider this and three others that interfere with the independent wheel builder (IWB).
No 1 – Mass production is always better value than hand crafted. Whooee, this myth serves someone’s agenda because our world is drenched in it. Mass production and now automation, can be blessings. But treating them as demigods goes too far. By the 21st century, this premise deserves questioning. People are waking up and you can leverage the trend.
IWB’s serve customer needs with personal interaction, fine tuning component selection, quick delivery, and better long term support. These, appropriately delivered, define value. Here are some mass production costs:
a. Factories must be centrally located, serving broad regions, necessarily remote from the customer. Riders and conditions vary widely.
b. To enjoy the efficiency of volume, variations must be limited. As an IWB, you can choose from many rims, colors, spoke gauges, and a zillion other options that would gag a mass producer. Literally millions of combinations are within reach.
c. Centralized production and far-flung distribution is a wasteful model for planetary health. Don’t be preachy, but remember your local labor is related to many strong and growing trends of local sourcing, especially food. You’re not alone, it’s a movement.
No 2 – Brainy guys in special coats know more than local builders.
“Only big companies can push technology and performance.” How often that is untrue. The most exciting and vigorous ideas shaping our world continue to come from think-different individuals in small startups. Your customers are aware of this. Keep in mind:
a. You are part of a 150 year tradition of bespoke wheel building. The racing, exploring, and record-setting greats of cycling ALL depend on personal wheel builders and special selections for their exploits. It’s well documented and uninterrupted today.
b. Do not worry if you are early in your IWB career. If you become injured a young doctor gets your complete trust because he/she does not act alone. Professionals use experienced colleagues for input so their solutions are optimal. Work this way, too! The Guild of Wheel Builders is amorphous but don’t be deterred. Build and work your network.
No 3 – Customers are cheap, they won’t pay what you need to charge.
Brand managers know value must be declared before customers embrace. Look at ads by Lauren, Prada, or Gucci. There is no attempt to convey cheapness. Consider:
a. Back in the ’70’s, a big star in the Bay Area mechanics scene was Steve Aldridge. Direct from the British National Team, he worked a few shops, wrenched for the US Olympic Team, and later opened his own stores. He once said, “each time I raise my wheel building rate, the backlog grows.” For one, there has to be skill behind such a claim. Your riders want to trust you. You give them permission with your tools, calmness, understatement, confidence, and pricing.
b. Does anyone order a haircut from a catalog? We feel personal about appearance and rely on real people for haircuts. We’ll trust a total stranger “stylist” to perceive our uniqueness. As an IWB, fully half of your fee is design. Figure your hourly rate, multiply by the time to build the wheel, and double it. Don’t behave like you’re just assembling bikes. You are a wheel stylist and designer. That’s worth money.
c. Regularly deconstruct mass-produced wheels. Sort the costs, be informed. Surprises await that can be part of your act. Many wheels are drastically higher price than the components suggest. A hub or rim in a different shape is not necessarily more expensive to make. This is NOT to say branded wheels are bad value. Only that many are pretenders, and their examples strengthen your case.
No 4 – Overstatement is the way to sell wheels.
You’d believe it to read the ads, tests, and web reviews. Don’t waste time fighting back, too many people love it. Steer clear and watch how fast your reputation rises. Be generous with compliments, suppress your brand biases (be kind even to the exaggerators), and riders will begin to treat you like a guru. I guarantee you will have moments of guilt as this cloak of “wisdom” and “impartiality” surrounds you. Try it. You can entertain with opinion or dominate with competence. Your choice.
Beware of negativism. In my day the enemy was the “machine made wheel.” Hand-made vs. Machine-made. Lots of time wasted on over-simplified labels. It’s a question of quality and flexibility, something at which the IWB excels. It is not a question of machines or brands. You’ll go nowhere trash talking major brands. Say “so and so is great and fashionable, but look what I can do for you…” We live in an era of wild overstatement in most areas of society. While we’re largely numb to these claims, those who speak less aggressively stand out. Quiet, responsive confidence is a tonic. An IWB has a huge advantage here. Let others confuse your customer. Watch how your calm suggestions are welcomed.
Apologies for any implied insults to wheel brands. These companies are hard as hell to build and maintain. All are passionate and nearly no one gets rich. What I’m not sorry about is badly wanting IWB’s to have plenty of confidence and ammo to support the craft. IWB’s are winners and so are our customers!