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Building a Bike Shop on Your Own Terms

How do you build a bike shop without going in debt while testing and building for your community’s needs? This is exactly what Four Star Family Cyclery is doing and we talk with Elsbeth Cool about how hard difficult it has been to break out of the "debt framework" that the bike industry demands.
Building a Bike Shop on Your Own Terms

by Arleigh Greenwald

July 05, 2018

This is our fifth episode of the Shift Up podcast micro-series, Bridging the Gap to achieve gender balance in cycling, sponsored by Quality Bicycle Products. On this week’s episode of the Shift Up podcast we’re answering the question “How do you build a bike shop without going in debt, but still focusing on your community’s needs?”, as we sit down with Elsbeth Cool from Four Star Family Cyclery in Chicago, to discuss how she’s building her bike shop on her own terms. Elsbeth highlights the tremendous success she’s recently had in her endeavors of opening up a shop in her local community while offering some personal insight into her motivation for doing it, the specific demographic she’s marketing to, the philosophies driving her vision & the support she’s had (or not had) along the way. A mom of 2 known for toting her kids around Chicago on her Urban Arrow, Elsbeth is paving her own path to building a family cyclery that’s aimed at meeting the growing needs she’s identifying in the market, rather than just following the status quo. Not identifying herself as a typical “cyclist”, Elsbeth grew up around bikes (as most people do), but eventually grew away from cycling. Interestingly it was only while looking for a practical solution to the problems of living in a big city that she stumbled back into bikes. Her mounting desire to get away from public transportation slowly developed into riding her bike almost everywhere, all the time. During this transition she surrounded herself with others in the cycling-parent community, hearing the same frustrating questions being asked without real, practical answers being given so she soon saw that she could be a voice to help answer the questions nobody else was answering; the impetus for opening up a shop of her own. The result has been a shop focused on helping to bring clarity to these practical questions surrounding cycling & urban life. As Elsbeth admits though, what she wants from her shop is less about selling lots of product & more to build a community-focused resource where demonstrations, rental opportunities & one-on-one appointments are the norm, rather than the prototypical approach of most other shops; a differentiator she sees tremendous value in. As this all sounds strangely different, Elsbeth explains that she is no stranger to making her own path. What began as a small, home-based model is now evolving into her first storefront that is intentionally appointment-only, allowing her to focus more strategically on marketing her business at fairs, community events & local schools. While this might seem strange to others in the industry, her commitment from day one has been a willingness to be creative & try new things, rather than being forced to adapt to a model that she sees as inefficient. Most shops start with dedicated showroom hours paired with high upfront expense to cover inventory, leases, & overhead, the cost often seems to inhibit success. Seeing this trend, Elsbeth committed to starting out of her home with a minimal investment & growing it organically. Her clientele is also somewhat unconventional as she is focused more on working with helping women see how cargo bikes can be a practical difference-maker in their life, a much different mentality from the average bike shop which often looks to sell high end categories of bikes to people already in the sport. The road has not always been smooth for Four Star as she has experienced more than her fair share of opposition from those around her. Accused of simply trying to “play shop” by manufacturers & shops owners, many see her unconventional approach as an insulting departure from the normal procedures that have been developed in the industry, making them somewhat uncomfortable. She has also had some tremendous support along the way from partners like Urban Arrow & Public Bikes who help get quality bikes to the people in her community, to QBP, UBI & SRAM who invested in scholarships for women like Elsbeth, to help diversify a male-dominated industry. There have also been a handful of other shops & supporters along the way who have helped her think through critical questions in a like-minded, creative way to ensure she is delivering an experience to her community that is unparalleled. Tune in to listen to this conversation and give your own feedback for "building a bike shop on your own terms"!

About our series sponsor

Quality Bicycle Products (QBP) is on a mission to increase gender balance & improve gender equality in the bike industry. They are a bicycle company that builds innovative, world-class brands and distributes bicycle products from the best vendors in the industry to over 5,000 bike shops. They aspire to make the world a better place and get more butts on bikes, and they’ve made good on that goal for over 30 years. Learn more about QBP:

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