Ask any small business owner about their road to success and the answer will be almost unanimous: bumpy. The ups and downs that come with owning a business can be hard to navigate, but one thing that is universal among those who do is a passion and drive to succeed that is unlike any other.
“Our Spark customers often talk about their work as if it’s a labor of love,” says Buck Stinson, SVP, Small Business Card at Capital One. “Their work is their passion. For most of them, to succeed, it has to be. We know passion takes many forms. When things are going well, small business owners are creative, hardworking, and driven. When small business owners face challenges, they have to be unyieldingly resilient and use adversity to their advantage.”
They can also source help from the experiences of other small business owners, like Mike and Debbe Simmons, owners of Bicycle Warehouse. Now 25 years into owning their business, the couple has grown the company from a mere idea to seven stores and a virtual online emporium of bikes. But their journey has been far from smooth—from business setbacks to personal tragedy, they’ve harnessed their resilience and turned their challenges into opportunities for growth. Read on to learn more about how the couple brought their business back from the brink of failure and how they’re pivoting to tap into future potential.
Starting a business is a challenge, but when you’re a newlywed working a full-time job, making the jump to entrepreneurship can be even tougher to handle. For Debbe and Mike, it happened when their friend, Joe, moved in with them, just 30 days into their marriage.
Fortunately, the extra roommate proved to be advantageous in their push to start a business around their passion for biking. “That’s where the idea for our business started. It was the three of us,” says Debbe. “I’ll never forget it, we were at the dining room table and Mike said, ‘Oh, we’ll get a giant warehouse and we’ll create the biggest store in the nation.’ At the time we thought we could have a catalog business, because there was no internet then.” Regardless of the fact that all three had full-time jobs, the group found a warehouse and officially opened their store less than a year later.
For the next two years the trio would work seven days a week to make the business a success. But when some questionable transactions led Debbe to dig into their financials, she uncovered a business crisis that had unfolded beneath her and Mike: Poor financial management of marketing expenses and inventory losses had left the business $650,000 upside down.
“It was a total rookie mistake not keeping a closer eye on the financial health of the company,” says Mike. “We were so focused on the top end sales, which were growing dramatically, that we took our eye off the day to day financial and cash flow management.” They decided to part ways with their partner and buckle down on saving the company and nursing it back to health.
“At that time, we had two stores and 37 employees,” says Debbe. “Unfortunately, we had to let everyone but four people go. We just couldn’t afford the payroll.” On top of laying off their employees, the couple had to deal with the loss of trust with their vendors—no one would ship to them. “Everybody cut us off,” says Debbe.
In the face of near bankruptcy, the couple took the hard road: They leaned into their debt and began establishing a plan to pay it off. “We negotiated with the vendors—we went to them and said, ‘Look, take a note out. We’re going to turn this around. We’ll pay you interest and we’ll get this worked out.’” They also settled on a unique way to keep sales up. “We filled our two stores up with empty bike boxes,” says Debbe. “When guests would come in we would sell the floor model bike and ask them to come back to pick it up. We would then go to our competitor down the street at a prearranged discount and deliver it to our guest. It was a really hard way to do business but it was all we had,” says Debbe.
Their creativity paid off. It took about five years, but in the end, Mike and Debbe paid back every outstanding debt with interest and got the business turned around.
Like any mistake, the setback was a business lesson that the couple was loathe to repeat. But the experience laid the groundwork for a wall of resilience that would support Mike and Debbe time and again as they began to grow Bicycle Warehouse.
Switching to Second
As the couple gained back the trust of their vendors, their sales stream became steady and they started expanding their presence in the San Diego region, gradually opening more stores and eventually moving into the online space. But in the midst of their growth, tragedy hit, this time on a more personal level.
In August 2007, while on a bike ride, Mike was struck by a car at 50mph and dragged 132 feet. With a broken neck and numerous other injuries, he was taken to a nearby hospital where nurses phoned Debbe to tell her the news.
Mike remained in the hospital for a month. While he worked on surviving, Debbe took care of making sure the business kept running. “I would be in the ICU with my laptop and all of my papers until three or four in the morning,” she says. At the end of September, Mike came home and started on the long road of rehab. With a strong will and some tough love from Debbe, Mike was back working full time by March. More importantly, he was back riding.
“That was his mission,” says Debbe. “He said, ‘get me out of the hospital. I need to get back on my bike.’ He’s determined and stubborn.”
Through their passion and resilience, the couple was able to turn their personal trauma into a lasting life lesson. “We both say it’s traumatic, and the best experience of our lives,” says Debbe. “Now, when things happen, Mike and I say, ‘Eh. We’ve seen worse.’”
With both Mike and Debbe back and fully engaged in the business, the couple is making moves to create the next phase of Bicycle Warehouse: telling the story of their business through the experiences of their customers, their employees and even themselves. Through videos, photography and journalistic storytelling, Bicycle Warehouse has started to come to life in a contextual way that goes beyond selling bikes—it’s selling a way of life.
This digital media shift is already beginning to pay off, says Debbe. “It’s only been five months and I’ve already noticed a significant difference in sales and in engagement. People are asking more questions, sharing our posts and watching our videos. The numbers are growing.”
The couple has also taken a turn toward helping others halfway across the world through an initiative called the Africa Project that they started with their friend and owner of Mike’s Bikes, Ken Martin. Through the Africa Project, Debbe and Mike collect donated used bikes and ship them to Africa where villagers use them for transportation. Next year, Debbe says she plans to use her business credit card rewards to go to Africa herself to see how the project is going.
Debbe and Mike have also turned their attention to helping their own employees by establishing plans for succession of the business, including an Employee Stock Ownership Program. “We have the most amazing people who work for us,” says Debbe. “Some of our guys have been here for over 20 years. Mike and I don’t have kids, so we’re mentoring and grooming our team to carry on and prosper when we step aside.”
Considering their story, Debbe and Mike have a lot to teach. “I think it’s partly age and partly all the experiences you go through in life. We still make mistakes, but we just keep driving and grinding, and hustling, and getting better every day,” says Debbe.
The success that Bicycle Warehouse continues to enjoy is a clear reflection of the couple’s passion and determination.“It’s been 25 years,” says Debbe, “but I feel like we’re just getting started. We’re more excited today about our business than when we first started. The best is still yet to come.”
(this is a reprint of a Capital One Spark Business article by Katharine Rust)