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VOL. 129 | NO. 98 | Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Letting it Ride

Jim Steffen bets on new mobile retail truck The Bikesmith

By Andy Meek

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The bicycles aren’t the only thing with wheels in Jim Steffen’s new shop.

His business itself, The Bikesmith, sits on wheels and operates as a mobile bike retail and repair venture.

Bikesmith owner/operator Jim Steffen takes his mobile bicycle repair shop on the road in his new truck as part of the MEMMobile business program. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

His motivation to start a bike-focused enterprise was the passion and commitment he and his wife share for the hobby. If doing what you love is a first-order rule for an entrepreneur, Steffen checked that box from the outset, since, he explains, he and his wife want to be around bicyclists, promote cyclists and get more people in the city riding their own set of wheels.

Steffen didn’t want to just open a brick-and-mortar presence, though. He decided to take the entrepreneurial road less traveled and participate in MEMMobile, a mobile retail-oriented business model promoted and organized by a partnership between the city of Memphis, alt.Consulting and the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team.

“It’s a full-service bike shop in the truck, so I can deliver repairs and maintenance service to where your bike is,” Steffen said. “I can do pickup and drop-off, which I do a lot of. I can come to your work, if you bike to work, and do repairs on site. I also go to events and out to Shelby Farms on the weekend to help customers there.”

MEMMobile, the program in which he’s participating, is a complementary project to similar efforts from the innovation delivery team, such as MEMShop and MEMFix, that all explore creative approaches to invigorating neighborhoods and businesses. MEMMobile has five retail trucks, four of which are so-called fashion trucks – basically, apparel and accessory shops on wheels.

The Bikesmith is the only one of the bunch that doesn’t have anything to do with clothes.

The business can trace its specific origin to when Steffen met his wife. One of the first things they did as a couple, he said, is visit the Revolutions Bicycle Co-Op in Cooper-Young’s First Congregational Church.

“You go in and volunteer hours, and after a certain number of hours and you pay a minimal fee, then you’re a member of the co-op and can use the facility to repair your bike,” Steffen said. “They also have an ‘earn a bike’ program.

“My wife had been going to Revolutions and volunteering and got to the point where she could build a bike. That was right when we started dating. She asked me to go along and help her build a bike. We spent weeks there building this bike and had a blast doing it.”

Fast forward a few years, and the couple by that time were talking about opening a bike shop of their own. Not necessarily being a nonprofit, but their thinking was along the lines of helping promote cycling and also helping people who didn’t necessarily have access to a bike shop.

Bikesmith owner/operator Jim Steffen makes a brakepad adjustment.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Steffen saw it as a long-term goal. Eventually, he got to the point where he was doing what his wife called a “bike doctors without borders” effort. He would take his tools, go to a community center and offer to work on peoples’ bikes for free.

“We had that in mind, and we were kind of toying with that in a way that wasn’t necessarily giving away a free service, because I think research shows that when you give something away, it doesn’t have as much value to someone,” Steffen said. “So we wanted to put at least a minimum value on it and keep it sustainable.

“One day my wife and I were volunteering at the Broad Avenue Art Walk and bumped into Tommy Pacello and mentioned the possibility of opening a bike shop. He asked us if we’d ever thought about doing mobile retail out of a truck, and it piqued our interest.”

It also did more than that. Mobile retail seemed like a logical step to incorporate everything Steffen and his wife had talked about doing, which is why they decided to apply for the MEMMobile program.

“A lot of what I do – I’ve got six bikes on the truck now that I picked up to do tune-ups on,” Steffen said. “These are from people who maybe had their bikes put up for winter or maybe hadn’t used them for a few years. They want me to adjust the brakes or make sure the wheels are aired up or make sure they’re otherwise safe to ride. I can pick them up or do repairs on site.

“I sell accessories as well. I’ll use social media to announce when I’m not at a regular location. All in all, I’m really excited about the business.”

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