Bringing DIY to the Bike World – the London Bike Kitchen saga

spokeswomenI think it all started when I decided I wanted to build my own bike at the beginning of 2011. I already owned two bikes, a Lemond Etape (road bike) and Alpina Spranghina (granny bike) and thought my third should be my foray into the fixed world. Almost two years before, I had bought a beautiful vintage Claud Butler frame at a bike jumble. My two male friends with me also happened to be avid cyclists and upon inspecting the frame confirmed that it was in perfect condition and I’d be a fool to pass it up. It’s still sitting in my room.

I had been googling bike building courses in London but every lead led to a dead end. The closest I came to anything was offers from friends to help me – but I was stubborn. It’s not that my friends weren’t good enough, I just learn better in a classroom setting with a teacher. I happened to mention this to my new flatmate, a fellow Californian, who then asked, ‘Do you have a Bike Kitchen here?’ My interest was instantly piqued – What is this…Bike Kitchen? Tell me more!

Turns out there are several Bike Kitchens in California – Los Angeles Bicycle Kitchen and Bike Kitchen in San Francisco are the most prominent, but they are all over the state and are in other states, I suspect. The concept is simple: it’s a volunteer run space that uses recycled bicycle parts to supply DIY workshops where people work on their own bikes. I thought to myself, ‘Wait a second…I could do this, and even make it a viable business rather than volunteer-based. I’ve got contacts, some semblance of knowledge and bucketloads of passion…’

But first, let me get this straight – I’m not a business person at all. I’m not very good at maths, I’ve never written a grant application in my life, and I think bankers are the scum of the earth. But after working a couple years in the community recycling & reuse sector, I saw that there was a way to balance the social with the economic – a social enterprise. This was going to be a workplace that didn’t have shareholders to please, a place that invested in the wellbeing of its staff while simultaneously providing an awesome service to the public. But where to begin?

1) Talk to a few people about your idea: I started out by telling trusted friends and family about LBK, and the response was generally the same: “That’s a great idea!” “You should totally do that!” and “Why isn’t anyone doing it over here?” Good question. This led me to step two:

2) Do you research: Online desktop market research is a cheap but time-consuming way to determine what exists out there already, and what people are paying for it. I made my own google map of all the bike-related organisations in Hackney and surrounding boroughs, made a spreadsheet of what services they offer and what they charge. I also designed a survey and sent it out to as many trusted friends as possible (I was still keeping this on the hush hush, you see). I needed to find out people’s attitudes towards DIY bike repair and how much they valued it (in monetary terms).

3) Read up: I borrowed Business Plans for Dummies off of a friend. I still haven’t finished it, but it’s easy to follow and straightforward. And I was able to see where my weaknesses were, which led me to step four:

4) Take a class: Finances frighten me. Like, scare the living bejesus out of me. I’d rather have papercuts rubbed in lemon and salt than have to make a spreadsheet. That is when I know I must take a class. I don’t have the discipline to learn on my own, therefore I need an authority figure to tell me what to do. I took a finance for start-ups course and learned all sorts of neat-o things like what ‘Rates’ are and how to monitor my cashflow. I also discovered that I’ll probably need an accountant.

5) Lastly, get a team of people together that are smarter than you are: I rounded up a group of 6 friends that each had their own superpower: entrepreneurship, bicycle shop experience, small business knowledge, finances, good-at-understanding-the-fine-print, representative of my target market…your list will probably be different. We have met once already, and they are invaluable in keeping their ear to the ground and finger on the pulse because I am WAY TOO BUSY to do so.

Our fancy new logo!

Five months later and I’ve been awarded a grant from the London Cycling Campaign / Transport for London, have located a viable shopfront, recruited volunteers, am halfway through a business plan, sent out two newsletters, set up our facebook/twitter/website, am organising a maintenance course for Muslim women in September, and am about to take the great leap forward into investing my own personal finances in this business. Yep, it’s pretty terrifying, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Jenni Gwiazdowski is starting up the London Bike Kitchen, an open DIY workshop where you can fix your own bike instead of giving it to someone else. There will be a full tool library, mechanics on hand to help, and courses for you to take. Our next stall is at Camden Lock Market on Wednesday 31 August, 630pm and we will be holding our very first bike maintenance course in September – get in touch if you’re interested! We hopes to open our shop Autumn 2011, we does.

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