Should I get into the business of bicycle mechanics? While only you can answer that by and for yourself, here are my thoughts and experience (being at home with a flue, with nothing better to do, apparently 🙂 ).
I read a post on bikeforums.net, from a poster wanting to get into bicycle mechanics as a career. Read the discussion some 5 days after the original post. Some very good, interesting points. Some food for thought. Started typing a reply, but it got a bit long(winded) – as much of my writing often gets. Anyway, thought it would be more humane to leave it all on bikegremlin – at least people come warned and prepared here… well, mostly. 🙂
A short version of the answer:
TL/DR: how much are you (and most people you know) prepared to pay for bike service? That’s how much you can expect to charge. How fast can you work? With all the taxes, health insurance and savings deducted, can you make a decent living on those incomes with 170 hours per month on the job?
Loooong one is in the remainder of this post. NOTE: This is more along the lines of thinking out loud. Also, my experience comes from Europe – most from working in the poor (robbed and wrecked) country of Serbia (a part of the former Yugoslavia).
2. “Daytime job”
I have a few decades of IT-related work experience – love both computers and working with people, so a sys. admin. job with tech. support on call seems like a fine one.
- Downsides of that job? You spend most of your knowledge and energy getting things back to where they were (i.e. working again) – not creating anything new.
- Good things? Colleagues – a top-class team I’m personally friends with for decades now. Good clients. Nice, healthy working environment. Health insurance, pension and not too poorly paid. And, of course, it’s super when you occasionally manage to get something fixed, without ruining anything else, to everyone’s amazement & delight. 🙂
3. Bicycle mechanic’s job
Always loved figuring out how stuff works, dismantling appliances and machines – from early childhood. Pretty good at putting them back together – most of the time. Plus I love “the outdoors”: sports, hiking and cycling – LOVE cycling. Fixing flats and tuning things has never been a problem. For “bigger” jobs? Being a perfectionist (no, this is NOT a good thing, most of the time) I wasn’t happy with bike shop service so started doing everything on my own, getting the tools in the process.
Living in Novi Sad (you could call it “Serbian Amsterdam” as far as terrain and cycling culture are concerned) – in time, bikes of other people started coming in. After some years, I had decided to get a garage and start a small bicycle shop. No advertising, not even a label on the garage door. Word of mouth. People come in, ask politely if I can help them with their bike and I decide whether I’ll do it. I make sure to do a top-class job® with each bike. Doing it that way takes a bit more time than “just getting it done” (an example: measuring and “evening” spoke tension when finishing a wheel – most bike shops don’t even have a tension meter in my city). So, in spite of being the most expensive in the city by far, and getting all the insurance/pension from my “daytime IT job”, I still find it hard to make enough by the hour to say: “this job will allow for nice living”.
- Downsides of the job? In peak season, when the weather is nice, I spend most time wrenching, instead of riding (see the article on bicycle service overload for more details). It feels sad sometimes, for an avid cyclist. While the other option of turning people away also feels bad (for example there are some competitors that pay out of their pocket for me to do their wheels, even though they have the team support – confidence in one’s equipment is crucial for racing and people trust me apparently). Money is not good, not by a long shot. Some people take a lot of your time or come with bad vibes. I am very diplomatic, and exceptionally good with people (guess you’d have to take my word for it on that), but sometimes it’s hard to get any work done without risking being a bit rude (and 1 in a 1000 people who get offended, spread the word a lot faster&wider than the 999 happy ones).
- Peculiarity: love using analogies when explaining things (that’s the way I like things explained to me, so I also do it that way). Also, I love football. Bicycle mechanics are like goalkeepers (we’re all crazy 🙂 ). Having mostly played in the midfield, I know that any nice moves/passes you make get noticed and praised. However, make a mistake – intercepted pass, holding onto the ball for too long etc: it is often unnoticed that your “mistake” cost the team a conceded goal (or at the very least, prevented your team from scoring). With goalkeepers – it is completely the other way round. Only their slip-ups and mistakes get noticed. They can do a top job for 90 minutes, but make one slip (literally, it’s enough to slip) that makes them concede a goal – and it’s all on them. It’s similar with mechanics. Make checklists, and take your time (under pressure, when there’s loads of work, phone calls and people asking you all sorts of things). One loose bolt can get someone injured on the road. And 1000 properly torqued ones won’t make up for that – ever.
- Good points? I love it. Really. Love the “daytime” job as well, but this feels relaxing after sitting at a computer. Doing something with your hands, as in making/fixing, not just typing. Also, it often feels like you’re building something new (bike and wheel builds at least). You meet a lot of people, from all sorts of lines of work and hear their stories. So in time, you can also become a sort of an info-hub: need a good lawyer? Dentist? Motorcycle mechanic? You name it. Finding a way for it to pay, with things other than people’s goodwill/attitude – well, that’s a whole different matter. 🙂
Another aspect, equally important, related to that – and I understand it’s similar in the EU and the US:
I’ve worked with many shops, owners and mechanics over the years. The ones I like working with and would let them work on my bike usually fall into one of the following categories:
- Have their own shop, dealing mostly with sales, marketing etc, since wrenching doesn’t earn a lot of money by the hour (as explained above). Expanding, hiring more people to work for lower wage at their shop(s) – and boosting sales of all sorts of bike (un)related stuff.
- Work as top mechanics for another large shop owner – for relatively low, but secure pay. I wouldn’t be happy working for such pay, in terms of money.
- Aren’t making a living from bicycle mechanics – either left completely or just do a part-time job from time to time (like I do).
4. Bottom line 1
Bicycle mechanics is about making the customers happy. It’s not about fixing bikes! The faster you accept that, the easier/better. Some people like it to be cheap, some to be expensive, while some just need some time and/or advice. Most of the job is about figuring out what you’re really dealing with. Get it right and people will leave your shop happy, making you happy – it’s a sort of a “reverse-loop” process: people smile, you smile back, they smile even more, to put it bluntly and over-simplify. Works the same for the bad stuff.
So, people who want cheap, sub-par repairs, just to get things working, will feel ripped off if you do a top-class job (and charge even remotely accordingly). Likewise, people who want to pay a lot, and get a top-class job, might feel like you’ve “cut corners” if the repair is done “too quickly” and cheaply.
This all might seem a bit like acting/cheating to those who don’t fully understand it. But it is not, or at least it doesn’t have to be. In my example: refusing to do sub-par quality service, when I see a customer that is looking for that, I am happy to recommend another shop, close by, that will do a very good job compared to the low prices they charge. Doing anything else will leave either the customer unhappy or me unhappy for knowing I’ve done a less than a top-class job®. Sometimes, when I see the customer is troubled and another shop won’t work for them (kids, elderly, disabled etc.), I “eat defecation” (as I call it) and do the job for half the price – but that’s an exception, the “compensation” part coming from knowing I did what I believe was the right thing.
The same goes for shops doing enormous amounts of repairs at a “decent quality level”. If you see an OCD customer (like myself 🙂 ), that won’t be happy with that kind of job – by all means, either do a bit extra work (charging accordingly) or send them to someone who will.
One unhappy customer can’t be compensated by another thousand happy ones. It ends up badly, in the long run: both for the customer and for the shop. Again: the bicycle shop business, like most customer service businesses, is about making the customer happy. You can do it on your own terms, without making compromises (if you don’t want to, with all the consequences of that choice), but do it. And it is a two-way street: customers are doing you a service by bringing in both the work and the money, while you are doing them a service by making them happy (or sending them to someone who will). It is fairly simple, but I’ve seen countless shops and mechanics get that wrong.
5. Bottom line 2 – conclusion
If you do this job properly and honestly, you will be working for a minimum wage. I like to say: a way to get to a million dollars in the bicycle industry is to start with two millions. It is what it is. There are benefits of this line of work, but big bucks (or even decent pay) aren’t one of them. Not in my opinion and experience. In a separate post, I wrote about whether bicycle service prices are high, or low?
Don’t get me wrong: I take great pride in being a mechanic. The guy people approach with the words: “maestro” (Serbian colloquial name for a mechanic is a synonym for that word). Doing “the magic” of putting things together, making them work, fixing things that didn’t work. However: if you don’t charge for things that you don’t (really) do, if you don’t skimp on parts etc, it is a relatively poorly paid job. Wish it weren’t, but it is.
In a way it is like a circle:
- People won’t pay a lot for bicycle repairs/maintenance, “it’s just a bicycle”.
- Good mechanics won’t work for low pay, moving to other industries (cars, motorcycles, or out of mechanics line of work altogether).
- People are dissatisfied with the low quality of service they get from bike shops.
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