Here’s a link to a little portrait of our family business in the East Bay Times!
OAKLAND – The 21st century has seen the world move away from business models built around brick-and-mortar locations.
That’s mostly because of the internet, but there are other reasons many front doors and street addresses have become passé.
Take Monica Hamlett and Omar Sison. They’ve coupled a strategically remodeled cargo bike with Sison’s passion for bicycle maintenance into a mobile bike repair business in West Oakland called Color Wheel. The name came from an idea for painting bikes, but the game plan has been rewritten.
What had been an idea for doing bike mechanics the old-fashioned way morphed into what could be called wheels on wheels. They head out on their bikes each morning, Monday through Friday, to their customers, mostly setting up in front of Kilovolt Coffee in West Oakland.
Sison built a workbench that could be hauled around behind his cargo bike with enough tools to do rudimentary repair work, and the two of them with their newborn daughter set out to go where the bicycles were.
“The day we actually rolled up to Kilovolt, we were planning to be at 20th and Mandela Parkway on the corner,” Sison said. “We had been entertaining the idea of working out of one of the two train cars that are there. The people in charge were taking quite a while in getting back to us; they’re busy. In the meanwhile, we’re thinking what will it take without waiting on anyone to get this going?
“We wanted to get some coffee and some breakfast at Kilovolt. Monica walked in and told them we were out there.”
The use of their sidewalk to set up a floating bike repair service got an immediate positive response.
“They said feel free to pop up in front of Kilovolt,” Hamlett said. “They seemed excited about it. It seemed like a better spot for us, because people were actually stopping there.
As Sison pointed out, “There was nobody stopping in front of the random train car down the street.”
There is a downside, Sison said, because not everybody gets what’s being offered from the bench and the cargo bike.
“I feel like the people who come by sort of get it,” he said. “And we’re happy for the people who do. On the other hand, some people think we are selling coffee.”
What started as a one-day lark turned out to be the test run for a service to which locals began to gravitate. Not that there wasn’t a bit of luck involved. Sison and Hamlett didn’t fix one bike that first day, July 11, but they made one influential connection.
“It was Day 1 that someone from Bike East Bay saw us and suggested we come to Pedalfest,” Hamlett said of the July 22 celebration of all things bicycle at Jack London Square. “So even though we fixed zero bikes that first day, we felt like it was a success, because Bike East Bay recognized us and wanted to support us.”
The couple made enough connections at the seventh annual Pedalfest to get the word out about their business. And since they usually set up shop from 7 to 11 a.m., they have time to pedal elsewhere in town.
“I think what we’ve found what we think can make this work is that we can move around to specific places,” Hamlett said. “We can show up at people’s worksites. In addition to being at Kilovolt, there are offices around town with people who might need work done on their bikes. We can go there and do a few jobs on commuters’ bikes all at once. We come over, and they have a new buttery bike to ride home on.”
In recent weeks, the trusty cargo bike has been altered so it can carry a couple of extra bikes. That means they can hand over loaner bikes while doing repairs. And if someone needs more than routine work to be done, that bike can be packed up and taken off for some extra fixing.
“Not everything can be done where we go out and set up,” Sison said. “We’ve actually come up with a little shop off 17th and Wood, where I can do more extensive repairs. We can pedal as far north as Berkeley with the shop and all the tools we need, but there are some tools that just can’t be easily moved.”
But it’s the mobile bike shop that is getting traction because for a little money and time, a rider can get his ride back, refreshed, usually in a matter of hours.
Repairing a flat tire costs $12, plus $8 if a new tube is needed. A new chain goes for $15, with installation an extra $10. And, yes, bike painting is still on the menu, starting at about $120.
Just don’t expect to see Hamlett or Sison in the Tour de France. When they get their mobile shop on the road, there’s some slow going.
“We definitely get attention. People are craning their necks, saying `What is going on?’ ” Hamlett said. “To me, it seems like we’re canoeing down a lazy river.”
That’s a phrase you won’t hear coming from most startups.