Small businesses can do big things. In this new series of videos, we will look into small businesses in Australia—their humble beginnings, their growth story, and the lessons that we can learn from them.
Today, we will look into the story of Mountain Bikes Direct and it’s unique business model that allows employees to work while pursuing their shared passion for mountain biking.
Mountain Bikes Direct is an Australian-based online business selling mountain bikes and related products, such as parts, accessories, and clothing. It considers itself as a pure play company or a company focusing merely on a specific niche—in this case, products related to mountain bikes.
However, while this 8-year-old small business caters to a specific niche in the sporting goods market, it turned over AU$10 million in annual revenue in 2018.
This is impressive considering that this online-only company operates with only 14 employees—4 of which were only added in the last year. They pride themselves with their topnotch customer service. They are not only able to supply the largest range of mountain bike parts, clothing, and accessories in Australia, but they also provide expert knowledge to their customers.
If that’s not impressive enough, consider this little tidbit: this small team rarely even sees each other. That’s because Mountain Bikes Direct does not have a central hub or office—they all work remotely, but communicate and collaborate regularly through platforms like Slack and Asana. The team resides all over Australia: the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Melbourne, Mount Beauty, Canberra, and even Colorado, USA.
Every single member of the Mountain Bikes Direct team is a mountain bike expert who continues to passionately pursue their love for mountain biking, thanks to their unique culture and work set-up. They are all required to be online and at work at a pre-determined set of hours—but beyond these hours, team members are free to pursue their hobbies and interests. They are not even required to respond to queries sent outside of their work hours.
Each team member works remotely from home and provides customer support through chat. And because they are scattered all over Australia and with one team member based out in Colorado, the team is able to provide almost round-the-clock customer service support.
What we can learn
- Build a business model that supports your business and life goals.
Before setting up Mountain Bikes Direct, the four founders owned and ran a brick-and-mortar mountain bike shop. They realised the limitations and challenges of operating a physical store, and so they decided to sell the physical store and focus their attention online.
While an e-commerce business provided a different set of problems and challenges, they felt that this business model allowed them to pursue their business and personal goals. For example, being a purely online store meant that they could provide a wider range of parts to customers because they do not face the challenges of keeping inventory in a limited space of a physical store.
They also don’t need to deal with overhead costs associated with running a business in a physical space. This is certainly an advantage particularly because the cycling retail industry is a highly competitive industry, as large international competitors are increasingly slashing retail prices to earn market share.
The other obvious advantage of going online-only is that it eliminated the time restrictions of running a physical store. They didn’t need to show up in a bike shop day-in, day-out to run the operations during store hours—or stay after hours to check inventory and do back office operations. They instead used the time to pursue their hobbies and passions, and it provided them with more time to be with their family.
Jen Geale, one of the co-founders, said, “Over time we realised that we wanted to focus on e-commerce for reasons both business and personal, so Michael and I took the lead on creating a new brand, Mountain Bikes Direct, that was online-only.”
- Provide the right infrastructure to support your business model
One of the challenges of having an online-only business is the lack of face-to-face interaction with customers. In the early days of their operations, people would call their hotline just to see if there were people behind the website and to check whether they were a legitimate operation. The team quickly realised that the best way to handle these issues was through better communication.
They re-designed the website to include many trust signals and answers to frequently asked questions. They eventually took out their hotline and replaced it with live chat that allowed the team to provide a personalised and real-time response to customer queries. Best of all, they are able to serve more customers. And thanks to the different locations of their team members, there is always someone you can have a live chat with at the Mountain Bikes Direct website 17 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Geale strongly believes that their structure truly supports the business goals they are trying to achieve. She says, “Being online-only means we can offer a more comprehensive service time-wise. We can help more customers. We can help customers simultaneously. We can provide expertise between six a.m. and eleven p.m. seven nights a week.”
- Hire based on goals, and keep them motivated
To make sure that they could grow the business sustainably, the founders realised that this meant they had to build a lean team of mountain bike experts who are passionate about nurturing a mountain bike community. This means that anyone working with Mountain Bikes Direct, including its founders, should have the time to pursue their shared passion, which is exploring the great outdoors on their mountain bikes.
How can you remain an expert in mountain biking if you don’t pursue a mountain biking lifestyle? It only made sense to create and nurture a team that works in a flexible environment: a team that “gets to work hours that suit their lives.”
This unique working environment is responsible for a staff retention rate of 100% in the last couple of years. Because Mountain Bikes Direct provides a flexible working arrangement with clear guidelines on what is expected of them, team members are motivated to work.
In my video, How to motivate employees the right way, I shared how providing employees with a reasonable amount of autonomy can lead to highly motivated employees. As team members are able to pursue their passion for mountain bikes, team members are able to provide expert advice to their customers. This creates a virtuous cycle that benefits customers, motivates employees, and enables the growth of Mountain Bikes Direct.
If you are interested to know more about what a business has to go through when facing exponential growth, you can download the first chapter of the book, ”$20K to $20 Million in 2 Years” absolutely free here. The chapter talks about the differences between a good and a great business and puts out questions that make you consider how you can turn your business from good to great.