Here on Design Milk, we feature a lot of independent designers, brands and retailers from around the world. As of late, we’ve noticed an exploding bike industry around the United States, and in particular, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thanks to universities and big tech companies, young people are finding their way to Pittsburgh. And, more recently, they’ve been finding their way around town on two wheels. With this new explosion of cycling, there is so much to talk about in terms of new and innovative bike-related products. To find out more about advances in bike design and small business growth, we’ve teamed up with American Express to talk to a few small Pittsburgh bicycle shops that embody the spirit of Shop Small® in their small businesses.
We stopped into Pittsburgh-based Banker Supply Co. and Fiks Reflective to talk to owner Nick Drombosky. Born in South Korea, but pretty much a Pittsburgh native, Drombosky launched Fiks:Reflective through a Kickstarter campaign back in 2011, which focuses on reflective and safety gear for cyclists. He’d wanted to create cooler, more modern gear for himself and riders due to a lack of stylish products on the market. As Fiks:Reflective grew, he stumbled on a retail space for his reflective bike products and other brands he had wanted to help support. He later discovered that in the early 1900s the retail space had been labeled as Banker Bros. Auto Co. Thus, Banker Supply Co. was born. We talked to Nick about Pittsburgh and the national bike culture, modern innovations in cycling and how he feels about being a small business owner in PGH.
What were some of the challenges of designing the Fiks:Reflective products and bringing them to market?
The design was the easy part. The hard part is getting product into people’s hands. The bike industry is dominated by just a few companies. It’s really hard to get attention when you’re up against big international companies that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the industry’s attention for just a few minutes at a trade show you can barely afford to get into. Our first trade show I couldn’t afford to fly everything and everyone out, so I bought a used van from a church for $1,000, painted it black, threw some reflective graphics on it, and drove it straight to Vegas a week later [it broke down in Moab, but we replaced two wheel bearings in a parking lot and got to Vegas the next day].
The design was the easy part. The hard part is getting product into people’s hands.
Tell me a little bit about the history of Banker Supply Co. and its name?
I stumbled upon a 1910 map of the area that labeled the building that I had moved Fiks:Reflective into as “Banker Bros. Auto Co.” After that, I did a little digging into the Banker Brothers Company and learned that George Banker was an elite professional cyclist in Europe in the 1890s and ran a bicycle shop that his father started and ran for several decades that was located just two blocks away.
After returning from Europe with significant winnings, he ventured into the automotive industry, which at the time was on the cusp of the first boom.
This resonated with me because prior to Fiks:Reflective, I was a partner in a company that ran a few specialty retail stores in the automotive industry. I felt a kinship with George Banker—he got his start in bicycles and then wanted to bring the newest stuff to Pittsburgh. Now the cycle was restarting and I was taking my background in retail from the automotive industry to open a store with the goal of bringing the newest and coolest stuff from the bike industry into Pittsburgh.
Why did you settle on this particular space for your store?
I found a space that had an odd little retail front and I thought it might be fun to open a store to feature some of the small brands I had come across while doing shows and expos for Fiks:Reflective. Rumors were floating around about some significant development down the street [Ace Hotel]. I felt like the area was on a quick upward trajectory and that would be the only time I could afford to take a big risk on something like Banker Supply Co. with a super small budget.
What is the bike culture like in Pittsburgh? What’s your perspective on the current bike industry/culture in general?
Bike culture in Pittsburgh is pretty unique. We are a city of only 300,000 people and we have quite possibly the worst terrain, geography, and infrastructure for cycling—the city is divided by three rivers and neighborhoods are segmented by some of the steepest streets in the world—yet we have two [three up until recently] widely known bicycle magazines based here, one of the biggest indoor mountain bike parks, world famous BMX trails, two bike-themed bars, 17+ bike shops, a huge bicycle museum, one of the nation’s best bicycle advocacy organizations, an award winning bike map, and a ton of other stuff that catches most people by surprise who are unfamiliar with the city.
I’ve been riding in the city for about 10 years and the changes I’ve seen in the past few years have been absolutely remarkable. We went from being a place where if you rode a bike around the city and you saw someone else ride by, the chances of you knowing them were almost 100% to a city with four new bike shops opening in the past year and ridership multiplied.
I see a lot of signs that we will continue to see rapid growth along with some big changes in how we ride, how cycling is perceived, and how we sell and buy bikes. Along with this, I think we will see a lot more mainstream acceptance of cycling which we have started to see over the past few years.
Who is doing innovative stuff in the bike industry right now?
So many people. You have some huge jumps in things like bike locks from companies like TiGr Lock, LiteLok, and SkyLock. We see changes in how we buy bikes and the types of bikes we buy from brands like Linus, State Bicycle, and more recently, Brilliant Bicycles. There are changes in how consumers handle bike servicing from Amazon Services, and on a much smaller scale, my other company Saylé Service. And then there’s a lot of cool stuff coming from ebike wheels—it ranges from crazy like Stealth Electric Bike products to practical like The Copenhagen Wheel and the FlyKly wheel.
You could also look at innovation in a simpler form; at how big brands like Levi’s and Chrome, and smaller brands like Mission Workshop, DZ-R Shoes, and Swrve are using materials and design to make and market fashionable performance garments at a large scale. Most people wouldn’t consider this innovative, but I consider it a big change in normalization of cycling and making it more attractive.
Then you have changes in how people gain access to bikes as transportation with companies like Alta and NextBike, which run the majority of the world’s bike share programs.
What kind of innovations would you like to see in the cycling industry in the future?
Its rains a ton here in Pittsburgh, so a hydrophobic coating that is transparent, flexible, breathable, washable, and long lasting would be life changing.
A simple and inexpensive way to monitor tire pressure would also make huge strides in making cycling easier for a lot of people. A lightweight and comfortable run-flat tire would be even better.
Do you have any advice to other small business owners and startups?
No matter where the money comes from, spend it like you spent you whole life saving it. I see a lot of businesses go down because they get a little purchase-happy on non-vital purchases or don’t watch their spending closely after getting funding from VCs, angels, or crowdfunding platforms.
No work is beneath you. You should be familiar with every aspect of your business and you need to appropriately understand the work that goes into every part.
Admit your failures. Remember that even if you are a one person operation, you didn’t do it all by yourself. Without the support from the people around you, your fans, and your customers, you wouldn’t be where you are.
Don’t be afraid to take chances to chase after what you want, but don’t forget how lucky you are to simply be able to take those chances.
This post is promoted by American Express – committed to connecting small merchants to more customers through the Shop Small® movement. Are you a small business owner? Learn about the value of accepting American Express® Cards here.
Photos by Quelcy Kogel.