A great business idea fills a niche in the market, creating something that solves a problem no one had previously been able to solve. That is what Shelly Walker, owner of Fairmount Bicycles in Philly did—and it paid off. Her business is more than a business. It’s a place people want to be, according to this week’s Yelp reviewer.
On the Yelp Blog: Hear Shelly’s non-traditional path to entrepreneurship and learn how to build a niche business from the ground up.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it. This week as we celebrate Pride month, we’ll hear how founder Shelly Walker turned a side hustle into a successful business, Fairmount Bicycles—a queer-owned bicycle shop in Philadelphia.
Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
AELITA: I had a really old bike that someone gave to me and I remember my sister brought it in for me at some point. One of the guys who worked there, Chris, had mentioned, “Oh, this bike looks like it’s been hit by a car or something.” So I ended up going in soon to buy a bike with them.
It feels like a cool space in part because there’s just cool people who work there. It’s a warm space too. It’s small, but there’s hamburger bells on the wall, chocolate bars on the counter, and there’s a ton of bikes. There’s usually someone there who’s getting help. Everyone’s really friendly. It was a place that I enjoy going to, just to fill my air tires and to go in and ask some questions, which I used to do. I live in New York now, but I used to go quite often. It was just a comfortable space that I think people enjoy being in. I think that’s a part of why people continue to go there in addition, obviously to good service.
EMILY: That’s Aelita, who stumbled upon Fairmount Bicycles and soon became a regular. As the only bike shop in the area, Fairmount is well-known among the community for offering excellent services that fit your budget. They’ve since expanded to a second location and also host guided bike tours of the city. Let’s hear Aelita’s review.
AELITA: I went to Fairmount Bikes yesterday, and also last week, to fix my slowly falling apart bike and was really happy with the service I got there. Everyone who works at the shop is really knowledgeable and helpful, and they were able to fix my bike the same day both times.
They fixed my sloping handlebars for free; and for a new wheel, a fixed left brake, and all of the work that went into it, I paid only $70. Will definitely be back for all of my ailing bike’s needs!
EMILY: We love a short and sweet review that’s also clearly indicative of a great experience at a local business. Let’s hear owner Shelly talk about how Fairmount Bicycles came to be.
SHELLY: I had a really good friend that was into fixing up bikes and they would just fix up bikes, tune them up, sell them on Craigslist for beer and rent money. So I suggested to them that I could help and we could scale up this project together, and they were like that sounds all well and good but I don’t really like talking to people so I don’t really want to do too much more of that. And I said, “I like talking to people, so how about I do all the talking to people and you do all the bike fixing and we’ll just work together and make this happen.” And they were like, “Okay, I’m on board.”
We got a warehouse space across town and put ads in the newspaper. “Bicycles wanted, clear some garage space, we take cash.” We would go to the suburbs, get bikes, bring them back to the city, fix them up in the warehouse, then put them on Craigslist. I’d be answering the phone all day. We’re right close to a subway stop, so people would take the subway, and try out the bikes.
I was living in West Philly and the warehouse space is in Kensington, and I was finding different ways to bike there and eventually routed myself towards the art museum through this neighborhood called Fairmount. I would stop there and have coffee with friends and just fell in love with the neighborhood and started asking people where the bike shop was. Because I was like, “Oh man, this is such a cute neighborhood. Where do you go to fix your bike?” Nobody had a consistent answer. It was just like, oh, I got to go all the way to the center city. I had to go all the way to West Philly all the way here.” And I just got it in my head that Fairmont needed a bike shop and I wanted to make it happen.
I went to Temple for film and I spent a long time playing music and working in restaurants. I was like, where do I even start if I want to open a bike shop? So I found this course through a friend at Entrepreneur Works is what the organization’s called. They do a ten week business course, and it’s really geared towards starting businesses in Philly. It was amazing. I took this crash course in how to start a business. I worked on my business plan. I spent time saving money, asking friends, asking family who wanted to invest, and who could I get on board with this idea?
We were able to expand in 2014. We opened up a location in BreweryTown. We also started doing bike tours in 2013, which was something I wanted to do from the get-go, but oh my gosh, there’s so much that needs to happen to run a business.
EMILY: Starting and operating a business isn’t a simple task and isn’t something you just know how to do. Yet many people make full 180 degree career changes to become entrepreneurs, just like Shelly. They do this by taking a crash course, finding a mentor, or reading a book to teach themselves how to navigate these uncharted waters.
Understanding your customer is another key component. And one of the reasons that Fairmount Bicycles is so successful is that Shelly understands her customer’s needs, lifestyles, and budgets. In turn, she tailored her bike selection to contain a plethora of affordable options.
SHELLY: It’s always been very important to me to just be who we are. I guess I can speak to me, who I am, but also who the shop has attracted and who we’ve become as a community of staff which is that we’re all pretty down to earth and we all ride bikes that, maybe we’ll get a little fancy here and there, but for the most part, at least we all started on bikes that are not top of the line bikes.
I think almost everyone got into bikes as a form of transportation. So that’s looking at bikes in a different way. I’m just thinking of them as this utilitarian mode of transport. That is who we’ve attracted as a shop. So what are you looking for when you want a bike that you’re riding to work? Something affordable, something that you don’t want to think about, but if it did get stolen, you wouldn’t be too upset I guess. Something reliable, something that functions well, that you’re not going to have to get tuned up and service all the time because it’s falling apart. So I think all that kind of stuff just factors into what we stock, what we sell, and the advice we give when people come in with bikes that are busted up, that we’d be like, all right, like totally, we can charge you to replace three spokes that are broken on this wheel, but let’s not do that. Let’s have you invest in a better wheel. It’s important to meet people where they’re at. I actually struggled on the other end of it where people come in ready to spend $2,000.
You can’t be everything as a small shop, we can’t be everything to everybody. I think what we do really well is have that middle of the road, like quality stuff that’s gonna last a while and isn’t going to break the bank.
EMILY: Price was also important to Aelita and a reason why she shared the business.
AELITA: I want people to go to a business and have a good experience and I think positive reviews definitely help that business get a better experience and also tell people what’s great about this place. I think for Fairmount Bikes, talking about how much things cost is great, because people who are price sensitive understand that this is a business that they can go to and it’s not going to cost them that much. And I think that’s good information to know. It saves people time and it just gives people peace of mind.
EMILY: Before 2020, most customers might have used their bikes solely as a means of transportation to work. Yet when the pandemic hit, many people adopted biking into their new lifestyles as a way to practice social distancing. Let’s hear how Fairmount Bicycles navigated the increased demand this past year.
SHELLY: In the macro sense and in the micro sense, it’s a little overwhelming, but I’ve learned so much more about the biking industry than I knew before. The owner of Brooklyn Bicycle Company, one of the brands that we stock, was able to share a little bit of how we got to this point, which was in 2018, our former administration imposed a tariff on Chinese imports and that affected the bike industry. The production in China had already slowed down, starting in 2018.
And then everything was shut down and demand surged. And when I say demand surge for bicycles is worldwide, everywhere, because it was just like, okay, you have a combination of people that are stuck at home. And they’re like, oh, what can I do that’s safe. I can ride a bike. Oh, my kids are stuck at home. What can they do that’s safe? Oh, they can ride a bike. I have to go to work but I don’t want to take public transit. How do I get there? A bike. All of these things came together.
Demand at least doubled or tripled and supply was dwindling. From March to May, we sold about twice as many bikes as we normally do. And then by June, we were pretty much out of bikes and there were none to be ordered. In between that time, we sold used bikes. When the pandemic first hit Philly, we had a meeting and we’re like, what does everyone feel comfortable with? And I have a kid, so I was like, I have to stay home, because daycare is closing. So I was like, I can’t go in, I’m prepared to close the shop unless anybody wants to go in. What are you guys feeling? We had enough people at both shops that were comfortable working alone and said they would do that.
Ultimately what that meant with one person working at a time and having double or triple the demands is that we did a lot of stuff through email and through phone. And then Tyler, Chris, George, and I were all working from home, responding to emails furiously, answering phone calls, making phone calls, doing bike sales over the phone. 99% of the bikes we sold last year were all over the phone or through email. We did not do any test rides. It was buy the bike, come by, if you don’t like it we’ll refund you, but that way it was just no contact. We were like, we’ll set the bike outside for you. If you like it, ride away, you don’t like it, bring it back, we’ll sanitize it. And that worked. But we had to scale back our service.
EMILY: Let’s talk about reviews. Having worked in the hospitality and service industry, Shelly has mixed feelings when it comes to reviews. As a business owner, she makes sure to acknowledge the feedback but at the same time, doesn’t let negative reviews influence the team’s morale.
SHELLY: Before having the bike shop I was mostly working in restaurants. That laid the foundation for my understanding of how review sites work. And I will definitely be honest and tell you that I absolutely hated them. Especially in restaurants, so many reviews give off the vibe of “I am a food expert and this place sucks,” and that always rubbed me the wrong way. Then there’s the reality of, I’m also a consumer and I check reviews when I want to go somewhere, and I leave reviews when I do have a great experience.
I am torn because I find reviews to be very helpful. I also find them to be a bit stressful. We don’t actively seek them out. When we first opened in 2010, for the first few years we got tons of reviews, like every month, There would just be lots of reviews rolling in. It was interesting, especially as a new business, we did factor in oh wow this person said they had a good experience, but would have bought XYZ if we had it. And I’m like, oh, maybe we should go to XYZ.
When somebody does have a crappy experience, just acknowledging that this person had a frustrating time because they asked for a product and we gave them the wrong thing. But in reality, it was a simple mistake, and we all make mistakes. I always side with my staff. That’s the most important thing to me is to be a united front together and to know that I always have their back and vice versa. So if somebody says, I went in, Chris, George did this thing. I wouldn’t be like, “Chris, George, why did you do this thing?” I would be like, “Hey, I saw this review. What happened? How did this person leave with this impression?” And then we talk about it and that’s how we use reviews
EMILY: Shelly understands reviews can be a double-edged sword and tackles the feedback in a way that’s educational for the whole team rather than let it get in the way. As for Aelita, it’s the staff at Fairmount Bicycles that made her become a fan and motivated her to leave a review.
AELITA: I think it’s hard to find a place that you really love. I tried out a few different people and I think with something like a bike shop, a lot of what I liked wasn’t just a service. It was also the people. There’s sometimes this belief people have at customer service or people who are customer facing must be really over the top and almost like bubbly in their friendliness. And I think there’s a way to be fantastic and just be who you are. And that’s what a lot of people at Fairmount are.
And that’s what you really hope your business becomes, a place that people aren’t just doing business, but also just spending time because they enjoy you, and they enjoy this atmosphere you’ve created. And Fairmount Bikes really did create that.
SHELLY: I think that bike shops have this reputation for being holier than thou— the condescending bike mechanic. I have had a couple experiences like that just as a customer. I have friends that have had crappy experiences at bike shops. So it was always something that was super important to me. I would mention to anyone I ever interviewed, “Hey, really important to me that we are a friendly shop, and that we’re welcoming.”
There’s this condescending bike shop stereotype and I want to make sure we’re not doing that. No matter what line of work I have been in or would be in, that’s something that’s just crucial to me is to treat people as humans. In the bike shop setting, we’re fighting against that stereotype a little bit. So I think oftentimes people are coming in expecting a bad experience. We’re not just taking them from neutral and making it positive. We have to take them from coming with negative expectations and elevating it from there.
I am very comfortable talking to customers and Chris is first of all, he’s an awesome mechanic. He also has an amazing personality, but it is not the type of personality that’s going to be what’s going on. He’s just like, how can I help you? And then he is super helpful. So I think there’s that aspect. And then also this other kind of we are all humans and we don’t, even though I like to say oh, I love being this person and helping people, whatever, I’m going to have my moments where you walk in and I’m right in the middle of something super frustrating. I’m not going to be my best self. So on the off chance that’s when you walk in, that’s your first experience with me. And then you’re already amped up for this to maybe be a negative experience, then that would suck for you as your first experience. So the next time you come in, hopefully you do come in again. We’re fighting against multiple layers of experiences that you’ve had.
EMILY: Fairmount Bicycles’ dedication to creating a comfortable, friendly space and delivering great customer service has indeed made them one of the neighborhood’s go-to businesses. Recently, Shelly further wanted to engage the entire community through a new initiative. On Behind the Review we’ve heard countless stories of entrepreneurs using their community power to help others. Shelly and her team have done the same in setting up a community fridge. To close us out, I wanted Shelly to share how the fridge came to be and what collaboration to support her community means to her and the entire Fairmount team.
SHELLY: We just got a community fridge put outside of our location and that’s something I really wanted to make sure the neighborhood knew about.
I was inspired by all the community fridges that popped up over the last year. Especially, there’s one in West Philly, it’s just blown up. It’s huge and really well stocked and well used. And I was just like, man, Fairmount needs this. And I started looking around to see where one was in Fairmount and there wasn’t one.
In the bike world, we see all types of people. We have the people that come in that want their $2,000 bike. We also have people that come in that their bike is their only possession. That’s the intersection where I see a community fridge working well to where I was like, okay, we have people that would definitely benefit from having access to a community fridge and people that would want to contribute.
So I reached out to a couple of people and then found a Mama-Tea Fridge there, this organization that has 18, we were their 18th community fridge in Philly. I contacted them. Hey, how do I go about doing this? Is this a neighborhood you would want to have a fridge? They came out and checked it out and were like, “That seems great, let’s do it.” They have an awesome model because they actually teamed up with misfits markets. They’d have ugly fruit and veggies and they just ship us a box of food every week to make sure that the fridge is stocked, which is awesome. And right now we got to make sure it’s relatively new. It’s been maybe a month. We did it on earth day, so we have to get the word out to people that need the food. That’s what I’m working on now. Let’s find more organizations to just get the word out.