Some years back during an excruciating romantic entanglement the object of my endurance railed against coworkers who she sniped performed only the work they found easy. When I mentioned the nature of competency is to veer toward those acts we do well I suffered for it.
But that’s the nature of a career, in a nutshell. We find work that we do with competence, maybe later, mastery. Becoming good at something causes the brain to release reward chemicals so that our proficiency becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We do it over and over because it feels good to be good at something. And frankly, employers may sometimes want more, but they never want less.
The dream of the average frame builder is to be the torch set’s version of a one-man band. The fantasy most hold is one of days spent with the trade’s tools in hand. If not a torch, then a file. The reality is that what’s in hand is as often a phone, a pen or a mouse.
The pressure of being a sole proprietorship forces questions of profit and loss, fixed costs and production rate—details as unromantic as toilet paper, yet no less necessary. But even a mastery of the tasks necessary to run a successful business won’t it make.
Brand. For all the passion, technical wizardry and expert work I saw at NAHBS, the detail that united most of the builders there was a lack of branding.
Some years back a builder I was interviewing complained that his bikes didn’t get the same air time as those of Richard Sachs. My reply was less than sympathetic. I said, “Yeah.”
“Well how come.”
“I called you.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Richard calls me. Any time he calls me, he has something to show me.”
While I thought the message was clear, the builder’s profile rose not one stitch. I’ve never seen a T-shirt with his logo. His low output is at times the butt of jokes by other builders.
Sacha White has paid attention. He anted Sachs and then raised. Branding isn’t a cool logo. It’s not just your logo on T-shirts and tchotchkes. It’s more than a good graphic designer.
There’s no way to deconstruct how a pink grenade conveys speed, style and lust, but it does all of those things, and more. Further, my sense of what his brand stands for is just that: my sense. Because it’s my emotional connection to what he does, it doesn’t even matter if my perception is different from yours if both are favorable. Done well, most folks will get the same impression, even if not everyone ends up liking it. After all, no one gets loved by everyone.
I kept wandering by the Vanilla booth at NAHBS, partly because I just liked the booth, partly because it was near other stuff I liked (though the same could be said of every booth at NAHBS) and partly because it had a lively atmosphere with an ever-revolving cast of characters. In short, it was a good place to be. And though I’m not a coffee drinker, I know they were serving good stuff. I know this because of the coffee snobs who stopped by for a fix.
That Sachs and White both have waits that are measured not in months, but in years, has generated both gasps of respect and amazement as well as eye-rolling dismissal. As if all those customers were schmucks for their willingness to wait, when they could buy … well what would they be buying?
And that’s the thing. There were a great many beautiful bikes there. Strip the paint off all of them and the number of truly stellar bikes might surprise you. One of my very favorite builders there, a guy whose impact on road bikes can be felt in lug design and geometry—to this day—showed bikes of such ordinary appearance I don’t think I could buy one.
A bike should be stylish in my eyes. It should be something that unavoidably short-circuits my brain to associate its lines, its graphics with my sense of fun on the road. A glimpse of the fork should make me dream of descending some mountain. If, instead, I find myself thinking, “I should have sent it to someone else for paint,” then the joke is on me.
Say what you will, but a wait list is a bold-face confirmation of connection with admirers, admirers who became clients.
At the very least, most builders would benefit from the creation of an internal style guide. Any time I see a powder blue so light it looks like a faded duck egg, I know it’s a Speedvagen. And that hot pink? Well, since I stopped seeing Serottas in that color, Sacha has cornered the market. Even without a full-blown style guide, builders would do well to develop a signature color palette. The point isn’t to be hard-nosed about the appearance of their bikes; rather most would benefit from having a few colors that could announce the presence of their bike even when it’s moving too fast to read the decal.
Builders: Give us more to look at than just your bikes. Give us a window into your passions, your quirks, your whimsy. Give us a way to connect with you beyond just the frame. Be personal. Take a stand. Embrace risk.
Be yourself and we’ll love you even more.