There are some annual events that make sense to hold annually: birthdays, first day of summer, and carving pumpkins. Other annual events are held annually just so we remember to do them, because otherwise we’d simply never get around to it. Changing batteries in smoke alarms comes to mind. I believe most business conferences fall into this category as well. They happen once a year, they’re (hopefully) a benefit to the people who go, and if we waited until we needed them, we’d probably never actually get around to actually doing it. A few days ago, I made the annual trip to Sea Otter, a lovely bicycle race known for its unpredictable weather and swarm of springtime-fed cycling enthusiasm. Attached to the two days leading up to it was the annual (there’s that word again!) Bicycle Leadership Conference. This is a post not of just notes, but of key nuggets mixed in with things I thought about because of what I heard. This was an admittedly brilliant cross section of our industry’s leadership talk about topics from macroeconomics, to doping, to technology. It was pretty damn cool to be there. For even more perspective on the event, check out Matt Haughey’s write up on bikehugger.com.
The first panel discussion was focused on the Federal investment in cycling, and trying to determine how (if at all) it has paid off. This panel was simply OWNED by Jim Oberstar, a recently unseated politician who spent 35 years on Capitol Hill, much of that time advocating for cycling and cyclists. I’ve rarely heard someone so empassioned and compelling speak about cycling, particularly in a way that makes it sound like we’re in a state of crisis, and yet we’re all simultaneously being fooled into thinking that things are fine and no action is needed. Be clear on one thing: action is needed. Yours. And the person sitting beside you. Get on it. In Minnesota, Oberstar’s home state, they have 12ft wide road shoulders. “They’re needed so snowplows can put the snow somewhere!” he advocated, knowing that in the summer, a lack of snow would result in a bike lane that could support a Cat 3 road race. Clever, that guy. And to those who say bike lane infrastructure is too expensive: an urban mile of bike lane costs about $80K to $120K. An urban mile of light rail costs $26M to $40M. And a mile of roadway? $70M to $120M. So anyone who says they can’t afford to keep bike lanes in their budget is making (relatively) meaningless cuts to win political favor, or simply doesn’t understand what things cost. Or both.
Related, from a bureaucrat perspective, Washington is mostly asked to care about cycling as a sport or a healthy pursuit. But they need to think about cycling as a business: one that employs a lot of people, contributes to GDP, and fuels economic growth. Unfortunately, at the moment, congress currently views cycling in a dangerous “middle category” – one that has a high enough perceived value to be a “difficult but necessary spending cut”, just above the “too small to matter” category (ie Gov’t spending on envelopes), but well below the “untouchable” categories like social security and military spending. Cycling is seen as spending, not as investment. That’s a perception that needs to change, and one that will only happen by making cycling to be seen as an “industry”, like cars or textiles. One that employs people, and generates spending.
An interesting anecdote from Oberstar: in 1956, the first interstate highway bill was introduced, costing $127B, funded 90% by the feds and 10% by states. Eisenhower paid for this with bonds, and then repaid the bonds by instituting a “use tax” of 3 cents per gallon of gas. in 1958, they raised the tax from 3 cents to 4 cents per gallon. This 1 cent increase was passed in a voice vote in congress, because in 1958, Oberstar feels, government was taking a much longer view of the situation than they currently do.
It was about this time when I realized that we don’t think about sidewalks (a public good, and a car alternative) in the same way that we think about bike lanes, at least from a public policy perspective. At some point, sidewalks became “necessary” and roads aren’t often built without them, particularly in urban areas. Bike lanes have not yet earned this level of perceived necessity. Why do you think that is?
The second panel discussion was centered around a 5 year forecast of the cycling customer base: not “who are they?”, but rather “who will they be?”. This was a discussion that almost got irreparably lost in meaningless aggregate statistics and macro global population figures. But then, at the last minute, they had a point, and it came to the rescue: 30% of the core cycling market are buying used bikes. Omfg, right? You are reading this on a blog, so this is not news to you at all. You know about ebay, and craigslist, and forums. The fact that people buy bikes used is about as surprising as the fact that people wear shirts. But to this crowd of self-described “older white men”, this was a tsunami: surprising, violent, and probably not going to end well. The interesting thing wasn’t the observation; the interesting thing was that the observation was some sort of surprise to the audience. As bikes improve, and thus hold their value better (and longer), and as mechanisms to sell them on secondary markets improve (ebay, craigslist, forums), it’s not at all surprising that used bike sales are increasing. I wonder if the automobile market in, say, the post-war 1940′s, faced similar issues.
At one point in this discussion, the panel tried to make the case that the surveys the were referencing showed that the the lower income customers *want* to buy at independent bicycle dealers, but don’t. To this, I couldn’t help but think that sure, lots of car buyers *want* to buy their next car at a Porsche dealership, but don’t. Intent rarely lines up perfectly with actual action.
A clever guy named Robin Thurston, one of the founders of MapMyFitness, made one great comment that stuck with me: the gym business model is one where, for the business, non-use is better than use: they want lots of people to sign up, but few people to actually go to the gym. Cycling is different: use is better than non use, because the more that people ride, the more often they wear out their tires, chains, bike shorts, gloves, and who knows what else. Pretty interesting, given how people might naturally assume the business models of these businesses might be closer to each other, rather than total opposites. Takeaway here is to stop assuming that every athletic industry operates on the same principles. If we’re looking 5 years into the future, we better make sure our initial assumptions are solid.
After lunch, the discussion turned to kids, and how to get a younger generation back on bikes. The title alone presupposed the problem: that youth have stopped riding. Turns out, this is pretty accurate. Pretty common & predictable preamble: kids ride less, as TV/Xbox/Facebook take more of their time, and their parents increasingly worry about their safety. Not much new in this information. So let’s accept that the world is changing, and try to figure out how to live in a changed world. Cycling won’t defeat Facebook, and it doesn’t need to. This isn’t a logical conclusion. Instead, how can the changed world that kids face include cycling? Trying to fight video games isn’t the way forward, cuz I promise, we’ll lose that one.
One of the coolest things I saw at the conference was this: www.projectbiketrip.org – seriously, check this out. It’s a system that puts a bike shop into a high school, just like they might have a wood shop, or a machine shop. Classes on bike maintenance and repair. Volunteers and guest speakers from nearby bike companies. If I’d had this in school, I suspect I would have *far* more positive memories about my high school experience. Instead, high school was mostly wasted time as I aced classes but learned little. Instead, I found this same style of education at the local bike shop, under the leadership of a guy named Vince who ultimately was the reason I got into the bike industry in the first place, and from whom I learned a hell of a lot, bikes and otherwise. Education like this makes more difference than you think. This is more than a good idea. It’s the kind of thing that can change a life.
In the stories about getting kids into and onto bikes, one theme resurfaced several times: that inspiration doesn’t have to come from a pro rider. it only needs to be someone who can provide inspiration. This means it could be you. Yes, you.
One parting thought that came to mind several times during the kids discussion: in one of my favorite books, the author noted how when he talked to school groups, and asked the question “who here is an artist?”, the first graders all raised their hands. As the grade levels increased, the number of hands decreased. By middle school, no hands went up. This offers a potential learning point for bikes: we need to ensure they are not “socially risky” in the eyes of kids. Young riders need the reassurance that riding a bike is at least neutral, and at best cool. As soon as it’s a potential source of being ostracized, then we have a much bigger hurdle to leap over than the competition from Xbox and the safety concerns of overly cautious parents. That’s where the inspiration from actual riders, mechanics, and advocates can make all the difference. Kids need a reason to want to grow up to be like you. What can you do to make that happen? Go do that. Because advocacy is not the same as giving; it’s advocating for something, in a way that convinces someone else that something you care about is important.
The day finished out with a discussion about “The 90% we don’t reach” and trying to identify what keeps them away. This seemed to be the weakest discussion of the day, possibly because it was last and the audience wasn’t as vibrantly engaged, but I think more probably because they kept talking about the same lack of infrastructure, and the perceived need in changes to personal behavior. Said more plainly: people don’t have enough places to ride, and they don’t want to anyways. Cyclists complaining about lack of infrastructure and motivation isn’t going to fix the infrastructure or the motivation: we can lobby for it, want it, justify it, but we can’t create it in the same way we create bikes. Yet we talk about it like it’s another category of bikes we can add to the catalog. I simply don’t think the right people were in the room to have this discussion.
On day two, we kicked things off with a macro economic perspective of the bike industry: an economy that was allegedly in free fall, and a lot of bike companies that were simply sold out of product to sell. Was the bike industry a bright spot in an otherwise dour economy? An interesting question, but I don’t feel like we ever actually addressed it. instead, the panel discussed (but could not agree on) the topic of an excise tax for cycling to support infrastructure projects, as both milk and fishing had done to some success. One panelist kept mentioning the Tea Party in what seemed to be random non-sequitors, while Stan Day (panelist and president of SRAM) spoke clearly and plainly, as his typical style, and in a single shot dismissed the excise tax option because the government couldn’t be reasonably trusted to spend the money on cycling. I can’t help but agree with him. Stan also introduced a term that I liked: he referred to bikes as “lifestyle equipment”. This suits so many applications, and makes plain the relationship that many people have to the bikes in their garage. It’s not a new concept, but it’s a neat and tidy way to label it. Thanks Stan.
The only other standout statement for me from this panel was the revelation that our industry is still getting older and whiter. Given the shifts and trends in global demographics, this should be nearly impossible. Yet we’re somehow doing it. Let this be a warning to us all, because this trend is not aligning our industry with the foundations for future growth and success.
Second in the morning session was a discussion of the internet, and a related industry-specific SWOT analysis. This was the discussion that seemed to offer the clearest evidence that our industry needs more youth within its leadership. A peppering of nearly random internet usage statistics that may (but probably don’t) apply to the cycling audiences, mixed with a bunch of mutual reassurance that the cycling industry still needs retailers and that online sales are dangerous and worth fighting against. When I led the supergo.com website from 1999 to 2003, it was clear then, 10 flipping’ years ago, where we were headed – we sold thousands of bikes online, no problem, and our retail stores across the west coast were simultaneously thriving. The internet and the local bike shop can and will co-exist, just as local car dealerships co-exist with ebay (the world’s largest car dealership, btw). But the discussion is more than simply ecommerce. The Internet connects users across time and geography, allowing anyone to connect with the culture and events of the cycling world from anywhere, in real time. I followed live tweets of Liege-Baston-Liege this past Sunday morning from my bed, on my phone, as Gilbert swatted away both Schleck brothers to take the victory. That capability simply didn’t exist only a few years ago. Think about that for a second, and ask whether the internet is a benefit for cycling. Of course it is.
The interesting thing that I think came out of this discussion, but wasn’t said overtly, was that sites like ebay, combined with improved product quality and longer product life, plus a measured increase in used bike sales, all equals more acceptance of online sales in general. Taken one step further, customers won’t see much difference between buying used online, and buying new online – despite the audience’s apparent desires to the contrary. And so, by looking forward and reasoning back, we need to find a way to fulfill that customer expectation in a way that utilizes the existing network of independent bike shops. Because we’re nowhere without them. There isn’t a single car company I can think of that could survive without dealerships. Or consider that Apple grew *because* of it’s retail stores, complementing their ecommerce. The evidence is plain, and obvious, and everywhere.
After lunch, we were treated to our Social Media panel, which had a refreshing array of non-industry experts to guide the discussion. I’ve got a lot of opinions here, more than I think I’ll share openly. My friend (and admitted co-conspirator via the Specialized Trail Crew) Heidi Swift was pretty much the unquestionable rockstar diva of the panel, and she made a strong point early: Social media is more social than media: you actually have to *do stuff*. Gasps from the crowd. “Oh shit,” they collectively thought, “that sounds like work. I thought this was just free and easy.” No chance.
Think about social media this way: if you, personally, organize a party, will anyone show up? Why or why not? The same things that make people show up to your Saturday BBQ are the same things that will make social media work (or not work) for you. It’s intensely personal, and public, and your fans will only show up if they’re willing to be seen with you in public. Scared? Good. That’s the first step in admitting that you have a problem.
One sidebar discussion (it’s inevitable in these social media panels) was around tracking ROI. To this, I ask you: do you measure the ROI of your friends? or even the ROI of personally supporting a brand or project you believe in? No, you don’t. You know who your friends are, and who you avoid, but you don’t have a dollar figure you attach to each friend so you can cut friends in times of social budget crunch. Cycling is something people care deeply about, so social media simply works for the bike industry. Measure the results, sure, but don’t let metrics get in the way of starting to develop your social presence.
Heidi also made a great and important point regarding Twitter as an engine for PR and communication with journalists: there is no cc: function in twitter like there is in email. A press release received via email is deleted, while a thoughtful @reply took individual effort and consideration, and is far more likely to elicit a return inquiry. It works *because* it’s personal. That’s awesome. But what’s not so awesome is the fact that this fact was so surprising to so many people in the room.
This was the big takeaway from the social discussion: seriously, how long do we need to keep saying the same things to the same people for this to stop being news: be honest, be authentic, listen to your audience, engage your critics, accept your faults, and use social to broadcast your successes quickly to your fans. This should not be news to anyone, yet it remains the same as it was when I was giving a similar talk two years ago at this same conference alongside Rich Kelly. Are we not learning anything? What will it take for this to sink in: Social media is here to stay; if you’re not already deep into it, there’s simply no other way to say this: it’s time to get off your ass and get to work.
The final discussion of the day was a doozy: Doping. I’m not going to recount the vitriol or the platitudes, there were plenty of both. The most interesting and relevant point of this discussion was that the cycling media discusses doping as a sport problem, not an athlete problem. This is a total PR failure on the part of cycling: in every other sport, the athlete is vilified. In cycling, the entire sport comes down. Event organizers, testing agencies, riders, and sponsors all have competing interests, so the messaging around doping are fragmented and uncontrolled. Perhaps the worst part is that our own cycling media perpetuates this problem, as cycling magazines have done and continue to do in recent articles. It’s no wonder that publications like Sports Illustrated and NYT follow in our own examples. Doping will never stop, because athletes will always have an incentive to cheat, or try to. What can stop is how we react to it. This discussion was a GREAT one, perhaps it should have been first discussion of the first day to gain maximum audience and vigor.
Overall, a great couple of days of thoughtful discussion and interesting insights. It’s hard to take the time away from the office, from the iPhone, from the chirps of incessant meeting requests. But now it’s done, and I’m back into the routine, and I’m hoping next year will be just as good, maybe better. If you’ve never been, it’s worth your consideration.