How It Really Is To Manage a Bike Rental Shop (And Why I Quit)

 

Managing a bike rental shop isn’t a whole lot different from managing anything else. It has its successes and shortfalls, it has tough customers and curious tourists, and there are always going to be good employees and bad employees. All in all it is pretty simple.

As a manager I am basically given a budget that allots certain funds to certain aspects of the business. I can spend so much on parts and on retail items. I can spend other money on employees or shop functions so in this regard it is really just a color by number. Don’t run out of colors and your picture looks just fine.

The majority of your money will be spent on paying for your space and employees. Second most will be spent on replacement parts including tubes and tires because no matter what it seems that things are always breaking.

Startup costs for tools and a fleet of bicycles are relatively high. I think it cost $175,000 to open the place I work at and we managed to pay that off over the course of 3 years so now whatever we take in comes directly back to us.

Biking on a bicycle lane

Tourists/Guests

Rental shops across the world are after one market, tourists. All local people already have their own bikes so we go about competing for all the new business that comes into the city. Luckily I live and work in one of the most bike friendly cities in America so tourists are already interested when they get here.

We budget for marketing opportunities but really with how the economy is right now we haven’t had to use them. We have a great location and I send one of the employees around to all the local hotels with flyers and they pass them on to the guests. All the hotels love to accommodate their guests with fun ideas on how to spend their time so it is of mutual benefit with the only cost falling on us to keep them stocked with flyers; better than spending $2000 for a local paper ad.

Getting past the language barriers and customs is pretty easy albeit the interactions aren’t very long. Making sure to lay out the ground rules and explain the liability waiver is really important. If something were to go wrong it is of the utmost importance to cover your assets.

Replacement costs are not cheap and to be honest customers can definitely be negligent. We often have people who come back trying to explain that their bike is no longer working and they don’t know why.

The bike worked fine when they left so now I have to put the bike in the stand and try to determine what happened and what I can charge them for. It is really important not to be shy about these things or else the guests will run over you. I’m not saying all guests are this way but the tendency is to not want to pay extra.

It is important to also provide a good experience for future guests. The only way you can do this is by either bearing the brunt of the cost yourself or understanding what negligence looks like and charging the party responsible.

City skyline

Specific Knowledge about Your City

Now, not all customer interactions are like this. Most often I get people who want to really experience the city I call home. They want to dine at all the local spots and shop and see the sights. I am more than happy to oblige because after all they are my business and once upon a time I moved here because I thought it was a great place to be.

I worked out a deal with the city to provide us with bike specific maps and as a cyclist myself I know all the easiest and best ways to see the things people like.

I point them to the parks and shops. For the more enthusiastic riders I keep a book of long rides handy so I can explain and show some of our premier road routes. I like talking to new and interesting people. I like that brief exchange when the business part is over and I find out why they are here and what they are interested in. As a rental shop we are bringing one of the main comforts of home travel directly to new people in a new place.

People often express their gratitude when they return the bikes and we get to find out how they spent their time. It is really amazing to see what they liked or what wasn’t worth the hype so we can build a mental catalogue of where to send the next group.

Bike spare parts

Bikes and Repairs

One of the most important things is making sure you actually have a working bike fleet to rent out. This means being a strong mechanic or at least a strong enough mechanic to work on your shop bikes. I have noticed that I am not necessarily up to speed on the latest and greatest but I definitely know how to fix the bikes we rent at the shop. All kinds of repairs come in and you need to have the tools and knowledge to fix them.

First I suggest setting up a dealer account with the tool and bike distributors in your area. Getting parts and tools wholesale will be very important in keeping costs low. Another good place to get tools is estate or garage sales.

It is important to keep parts stocked before they break so you don’t have to wait for the turnaround from your distributor. Part delivery can often take a week and in that time you have bike that is just sitting around not making money for you. Be sure to have some sort of repair system where you diagnose and complete repairs in an orderly and timely fashion.

In my shop we use tickets where we write initial diagnosis down right away in case we can’t get to it that day. Then we go back and do a further inspection and make the repair. We then remove the ticket and put the bike back on the floor when we are done. Ideal turnaround for a repair is 2 days max. I can understand if employees get busy or if we are waiting on parts but I cannot tolerate repairs that are piling up.

It is in your best interest to check the bikes each morning before they go out so you know you are giving the guest a quality experience. However, repairs become pretty easy after a while because they seem to happen so frequently. If you are worried about not being able to do certain repairs there are plenty of online and print resources available.

I also recommend Sutherland’s 7th edition catalogue to look up compatibility issues with components.

Famouns phrase on a paper

Employees

Perhaps one of the harder things but more rewarding things is teaching the people I work with. Because most rental shops are seasonal they often get a certain type of person looking to work them. People only looking for seasonal work are often younger, and less experienced. In a weird way they also have a lot of power over their situation.

I need employees to cover hours and the later in the season it gets, the harder it is to find people who want to work because they would only be working 2 months or so. So employees become progressively lazier I have found and I have to work harder to maintain a happy level of stasis. Working with inexperienced people isn’t always like this and some people do take great pride in their work.

I do my best to hire people who have some knowledge with bikes and hospitality and then I end up having to teach them the rest myself. It is important for me to be the strongest and at times the most creative mechanic because I am the manager. To lose any faith the employees have in my knowledge or ability to run the shop could undermine how things work in the future.

It is important to understand that people are going to make mistakes no matter how high or low your expectations are of them. I had an employee leave bikes out overnight and of course they got stolen. I don’t think the error was malicious or disrespectful but it did make me angry.

After calming down, I had to realize that perhaps this was an error in management rather than with the employee. I had previously posted the shut down procedures but I went back over them to reiterate how I wanted things done and I started doing nightly check-ins with my closing crew to make sure nothing was amiss.

Aside from all the budget items or mechanical problems, what I really do is manage 9 young people who in turn provide humor, a relaxed work environment, and for the most part a smoothly running shop.

Deformed bicycle after accident

Damage Control

Let’s be honest for a second. Things go wrong. In no matter what business or walk of life, things go wrong. It is important to be able to deal with the monotony of the same thing day in and day out but it is as equally as important to handle the bad situations with a cool head.

This year I had a reservation for a group that wanted to come in at 9pm and keep bikes out until 10:30pm. That is pretty late considering we close at 8pm. I had opened that day at 7am and I was going to stay later to cover for a girl who had called in sick (which just happens sometimes).

I had totally forgotten about the reservation and when I saw the paperwork I assumed that 9pm actually meant 9am and that they had just decided not to come. I was definitely wrong. They called at 7pm after I had already worked 12 hours saying that they would be there on time for their reservation.

At this point I am pretty tired and it is only me and one of my really good employees left working. I don’t like making people stay later for my mistakes, but he thinks it will be a pretty easy job and he’d rather get paid for waiting for them to come back than just sitting at home doing nothing.

In this case everything worked out alright but just imagine if they had not called and would have just shown up after we were supposed to be closed. They would have had to cancel their event and we would have lost their business not to mention put them in a really tough spot with their clients. I really try not to add stress to other people’s lives and sometimes I have to admit that I have made mistakes.

Other times life requires us to step outside the boundaries of our job and be human. I have had to lay aside all the rules and regulations to help people and co workers and in turn they have helped me. We have used 4 person surreys to shuttle older folks back to their cars. We have given out water on particularly hot days because the area our shop is in does not have many water fountains and it also has a fair amount of vagrants.

Patrons have crashed our bikes and we have had to go pick them up. One girl broke her ankle last year after a manufacturer defect caused the fork of her bike to sheer in two. We had to first, get her taken to the hospital and then put her touch with the manufacturer of some of our specialty bikes to get her bills taken care of.

It was awful that this happened and I would have loved to have prevented it but sometimes life requires a little bit more.

Man with a fixie bike in park

Why I Quit

So I haven’t actually quit yet. Kind of deceiving I know, but I don’t imagine the reasoning will have changed much once I actually do. I like my job. I’m not some disgruntled employee who isn’t happy with the pay or benefits or lack of resources from the front office. I enjoy being outside and talking bikes and working with bikes and people who like bikes. That is what I truly love and this job allows me to do all of that.

I think when I quit it will be because I am ready for something new, something more challenging. I am hoping that the same company I work for will work with me so that I can simultaneously run the rental shop and start a bike share to benefit the kids and employees under the care of the nonprofit I work for.

It is important for me to be able to give back and I can’t think of a better way than helping to provide bikes to kids to who don’t have them or are constantly breaking them from riding too hard. I was that age once too.

Sometimes we just outgrow our position, and the circumstances in our lives change. Maybe what is so amazing and alluring now, won’t be in a few years. Maybe I’ll start a family or go traveling. I think if you are in a position to open a bike rental company, you should try it. Startup costs are pretty high but if you have a passion for being able to provide people with bikes then it definitely isn’t a bad gig.

10 replies on “How It Really Is To Manage a Bike Rental Shop (And Why I Quit)

  • Leta Bez-Wogen

    But what about the insurance? It looks like we have the opportunity to take over some bicycle rentals our little shop has been handling for our city for several years. That would be awesome but we are in MN and as you probably know that means a very short season. Where should we get our insurance from? What do you do?

    Reply
    • Ryan Ross

      The larger non profit I worked for had an extensive insurance network provided already and I was lucky in that our facilities and accounting department handled all of those top line decisions.

      Reply
    • Phat Tire Mager Bike rentals

      Snow bikes are big know, I know that some are willing to rent rather then purchase just because of the expense of the bikes. I know in Michigan they have a huge following, so the helps with the changing of the seasons.

      Reply
    • Ryan Ross

      I would recommend anything that can be easily maintained. Internally geared hubs like the shimano nexus are low maintenance and last a long time. Depending on how hilly it is where you are, they make 3 spd. 5 spd, and 8 spd versions. Steel frames and beefy tires are my next concern, but this really depends on your market and what people are using your bikes for. There are other shops in my area that rent high end mountain and road bikes so I know I will never be able to compete with them so I don’t offer those bikes.

      Reply
  • hillary bingham

    Do you have a copy of your policies or general rules? Did you use gps in an effort to locate lost or stolen bikes?

    Reply
  • Chris Winters

    I can definitely see why bike rentals would be extremely popular for tourists. My wife and I have been planning on taking a long trip on the East coast. I definitely think that we should rent some bikes that could help us to get around and remain healthy.

    Reply
  • Mark

    I really liked your article very much. Kept me reading! Question. I would like to possibly get in the business but think that the automated credit card kiosks are taking over. Many major cities have this service. Hop on a bike and return it anywhere there is a kiosk. What are your thoughts about this?

    Reply
    • Ryan Ross

      So we actually have the bike share kiosks where I live and operate my rental shops. In general I am not a fan of the bike share for a few reasons. 1: they are super impersonal, riders don’t get a feel for the city by talking to someone who has an intimate knowledge of it. 2: Bike share bikes do not come with helmets. 3: Without sponsorship bike share programs are typically not profitable because in order to remain popular they rent at a much lower rate than privately owned rental shops. 4: they basically kill privately owned small business rental shops. Most rental shops in my area have lost around 30% annual revenue once these bike share kiosks got put in place. My ideal type of bike share would be a city or state sponsored fleet that would be housed at various privately owned rental shops throughout a city. This would drive traffic back to businesses within the community instead of spreading out payment to large 3rd party corporations to operate and maintain a fleet.

      Reply

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