Exposing Dispatch

The Backstory

Dispatch Custom Cycling Components is about 3 years old this January.  It started from a simple idea to add some branded merchandise to an existing bicycle frame company I owned at the time called Siren Bicycles.  As it was a small bicycle frame manufacturer, we had to survive on our branded items to make a profit.  (It's near impossible to make a decent living, let alone build a sustainable business on bicycle frames in the United States due to extremely thin margins, limited market and huge liability insurance costs...I digress...) 

So we added pint glasses and hats and t-shirts and posters.  All the stuff people like to buy when they either have your core product or want to in some way associate with it but can't/don't have your core product. Think Porsche or Ferrari.  I feel reasonably confident there are more hats, shoes, mugs, etc sold in a single year than there are Ferrari's ever made.  Those items are being bought by folks that want to associate with the brand.  No problem. 

We had a cool logo, a great backstory and a loyal following of willing buyers.  If we made it and put our logo on it, it was probably going to sell very well.

One of the items I added to the catalog was a simple headset cap with our logo on it.  That sold out immediately.  Then we added some designs that weren't Siren logos, sourced headset caps and partnered with a local laser engraving company for batch production.  Those sold out immediately.  Every new design sold quickly.  So suddenly we're starting to be known as this bicycle headset cap company instead of a bicycle frame manufacturer.   Great problem to have, but a problem that needed to be solved before it ate into the already poor business of frame production.

So I split it off from Siren and named the company Visibilia Headset Caps.  Holy awful names!  Visibilia was fine(ish) but narrowing in on headset caps in the name of the company was lesson number one.  Why would I box myself in like that.  Add to that, the perhaps non-obvious issue of reading "i" and "l" in a URL and then having to explain the name regularly, and it was time to get to something simpler.  DISPATCH

FLASHBACK

One of the lessons I learned with SIREN when I acquired the business was taking too long to release a commerce site in the name of releasing it when it was perfect cost me about 18 months of revenue.  By the time I got the site released and transactions were coming through, nearly a year and a half of potential sales had passed by.  So with Visibilia, I was determined to not squander time...and swung too far to the other end of the pendulum.  

I released the site with poor product photography, zero understanding of what it took to actually get someone from attention to completed purchase and a fulfillment process that was sorely lacking.  But it worked!  So we were off to the races.

Cost of goods sold was extremely low at that time, but the logistics of having to produce in batches (and anticipate what would sell best) was suboptimal.  So I bought a laser engraver.  An Epilog Mini CO2 laser that cost about $13,000.  Doing the math at $10/headset cap (at the time), it was going to be a little while before that laser could pay for itself, but I figured amortizing its life expectancy and the fact that a laser is a lot like a pickup truck--when you have one you find a lot of things it can do that you never thought of before having one.

We had shop space at the time.  We were splitting with Josh Crane at The Coffee Ride.  Josh was a great business roommate, a friend and it was a symbiotic arrangement. 

So here we are, cranking away on headset caps, SIREN has its own marketing stream and there's no more headset caps in the store for sale, so no more confusion about what we do.  VISIBILIA  is doing its thing and the ramp is coming along.  Mostly on the back of SIREN's popularity and spreading the word to that audience about SIREN's "sister" company VISIBILIA.

Things get better on the economic front and as a family, we decide to move out of our apartment and buy a home.  But to do this and make the numbers work, I have to give up my shop space and my storage spaces to work the cost of the mortgage into less than what we're paying for rent.  Bonus: The shop can move into the unfinished basement of the new home.  Done!

LEAVING BOULDER

Leaving Josh and The Coffee Ride behind was hard.  Not only for the friendship and camaraderie of two hustling business owners getting to rap on the topic while working, but also because I felt SIREN never did better than when we had a physical presence where people could come and visit.  It's an odd thing in a virtual world, but I believe potential customers and investors are more likely to take a product-based company seriously when they can visit a physical location.  Contrast this with, say, a software company or a freelance coder where it's almost expected that you would not have office space. I was wrestling with this as I loaded out of the shop.

Turned out I was right in many ways.  The day we left Boulder to Longmont and moved SIREN into the basement was essentially the beginning of the end of that business.  It could have been any number of other factors, so I'm slow to say it was solely the lack of an open storefront/shop, but I feel confident saying it didn't help things.

But by that point I wasn't particularly enamored with SIREN any longer.  It had proved to be unlikely to scale to a size that would sustain itself, a massive number of independent builders had come online and it was just more work than it was worth.  Especially when looking at it through the lens of a business person's expectations for return on investment.

NEW BEGINNINGS - 2017

SIREN essentially behind me, I turned to applying what I learned with SIREN to VISIBILIA.  Merchandising, high quality design, logo, brand image/voice.  First up, the name: It's gotta go.

I went through months of exercises to get to the new name: DISPATCH.  DISPATCH CUSTOM CYCLING COMPONENTS.  I dug it.  Grabbed dispatch.bike and essentially ported all the horrible product photos, descriptions, etc over to a new shopify instance and got to work on rebranding.

As this is happening, business is slowly ramping up still.  And by slowly, I mean slooooowly...but it has legs and I rationalize it as likely to have an opportunity to grow into something meaningful.  Not retire rich, but hey, make some people happy with some cool bling for their bikes, hang out with the cool kids on the trail or at the coffee stop during a road ride and have a nice little income.

I should note my professional background is in management consulting and enterprise software.  These are not industries that pay poorly, so the bicycle business was always going to be something that I hoped could offset the cost of our mortgage on the house or pay for a car or something.  Plus, I felt (at the time) that I needed to leave physical proof that I was on this earth at some point. Something that my hands touched and that was then placed into someone else's hands.  Software and "best practice" consulting don't exactly meet that requirement.  It's the former that probably drove my blindness about the likelihood of any of these businesses being anything more than that.  I felt like a couple thousand a month would be the first waypoint to five figures and then maybe six at some point in the future.   I've come to believe this is misguided and sets up risks that are unnecessary. 

But I liked the hustle.  With no children and business being a hobby I really enjoy, I had no problems with putting in a full day of work (or more) and then heading to the basement to make headset caps, pack the orders and make a midnight run to the post office before heading to bed.  Some people watch TV at night.  I watched traffic on the store dashboard.  Some people play with their children, I played with Illustrator.  Worked fine for me.

Plus I had cash from my job to use to fund the growth of the business.  I've also come to believe this is a mistake.  It breeds inefficiency (because you're taking money earned elsewhere and easily supplementing an anemic business) and it allows a business operator to rationalize way too much that would not be acceptable under harsher financial constraints.  In retrospect, I'd have set aside some fixed amount of money, demanded proof of return on that money and then made a decision about additional funding.  This is what any reasonable investor would do and as a solo entrepreneur, I believe it's what I should have done--and will do going forward.

NEW BRAND - WHO DIS? 2018 - 2019

In the winter of 2018, I came across a group by the name of Forefathers Group.  They had some amazing work up on instagram for other brands and I felt like their work very much matched the brand image I wanted to embrace at DISPATCH.  I hired them for logo work and they produced pretty much everything you see today from DISPATCH.  Great work from them.

I followed that engagement up with a rebranding of the web site.  It was awful for so long and they also delivered what you see here today.

In conjunction, I worked with Professional Product Photography to get our caps reshot, create mock up ready images, so we could be more responsive to new ideas and turn around in minutes instead of weeks.  Grant at Professional Product Photography was a critical partner in getting us to where we are today.

In the Fall of 2019, I engaged with a proven (cannot emphasize how important that word is when it comes to this stuff...lots of snake oil salespeople out there. Check their work!) social media advertising contractor and that's been the gasoline on our fire this year.

Of course it all has been a series of building blocks.  Had I advertised to the social media world and been unable to transact or had poor imagery or cruddy fulfillment systems and I wouldn't have gotten too far.  So 2019 is without a doubt the most ready we've been at the business to get our lift.  It's also been our best year to date.

Envisioning ourselves as more than headset caps, but rather purveyors of fine cycling gear, we expanded our offerings, adding shirts, mugs, glassware, wallets, saddles, bar-end plugs and other items.  

One other item of note for 2019: I made a major upgrade to our laser engraving capabilities and moved our Epilog to a new owner and upgraded to a massive Trotec Speedy 360 which gave us a lot more physical space, upgraded capabilities and the ability to use the laser for other business that isn't just DISPATCH.

Now What?

So that's the backstory.  Probably could be told better, but that's the stream as I recall it at the keyboard currently.

It's important material as I lead into my next post about where we are, some tough decisions I've had to wrestle with lately and my decision on the most interesting way to handle them.

Most importantly, I've made the decision to learn and follow an Open Startup level of exposure for DISPATCH.  I'm committing to sharing anything that makes sense.  If there are specifics you have an interest in seeing, please feel free to let me know.

On the list for regular reporting will be sales, expenses and social media metrics.  In addition, I'll spend some time as often as possible talking trough decisions, challenges and our future.

That's up next week.

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