See part one of our interview.
James Wolf started one of his companies, The Bike Shop — which is located in the expat hub of Thao Dien in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — after pressure from friends pointing out that it was a much-needed business for the neighborhood. But he’s not in it for the cash. Ultimately, he told me, it’s more about meeting a neighborhood need and not so much about making any real money.
“There’s virtually no profit in the business,” Wolf chuckles. “If you just pay everyone salaries, keep people employed, and keep the neighborhood rolling along, you have to consider that successful. You can’t expect to take home money as a bike shop owner. It’s kind of the standard — there’s no money in the industry. But as far as keeping the neighborhood rolling along and keeping people happy and fixing people’s bikes, and getting new people on bikes? It’s successful.”
Wolf was a furniture designer in a previous life and it was his work in that industry that brought him to Vietnam twenty years ago — and turned him to bamboo as a sustainable design solution. While his original work was done through local factories and plantations, today, his bamboo operation is completely vertically-integrated, from seed to sectional couch. (Or furniture or playground or anything other home and garden decor people can imagine in bamboo.) He controls everything from how the bamboo is grown to how it’s harvested to which wood is used to the final product that gets shipped back to businesses in the States. The only part of the process that Wolf doesn’t have a hand in is selling directly to the customer — and keeping it B2B is a conscious choice.
I feel sometimes with my three business that none of the businesses or none of my partners get a fair share of me.
“I know what I’m good at and I know what I’m not interested in,” Wolf says. “And what I have no interest in is an integral part of business, so you have to partner with people if you want it to be something. Otherwise, you’re just an artist who could be struggling. Associations with other people allow for a creative channel to become something and allow for people to buy your thing.”
In the factory, those people are his wife and the businesses they partner with. In The Bike Shop, Wolf has a team of in-house staff as well as two partners who ensure that the roof stays over their heads, the bikes keep selling, and the customers are satisfied. And with his third company, Boo Bicycles, his team is international and includes his pro-racer business partner, a PR guy, and some recent investors.
Boo is a high end bike company unlike any you’ve seen before. While bamboo often has the reputation of being a cheap material, Wolf explained to me that there’s actually more than 2,000 types of bamboo in the world and that the one they grow is the strongest in existence. So strong, in fact, that tests have shown it to be stronger in weight than steel. Wolf started messing around with bamboo bike designs when he realized that his love of bikes could be combined with his love of bamboo, but it wasn’t until his business partner, pro-racer Nick Frey, won the 2009 Vuelta Miami on a Boo that he realized it was time to get serious.
“That was my first big kick in the ass to say: Focus,” he said. “Because I have a lot of things burning, so when Nick won first place in a pro US road race on one of my prototypes, I realized, ‘Wow, these are really good. Let’s take some of these pots off the burners and put a little focus on this dish.’”
Since then, Boo bicycles have become the steed of choice for multiple pro-race winners. Wolf credits the “highly vibration damping” nature of the material, which provides a higher level of comfort for those long, tough races. When he talks about Boo, it’s immediately evident that of the three businesses, this one is his baby.
Let’s take some of these pots off the burners and put a little focus on this dish.
Most Boo bikes are custom made for serious bikers, which means they come with a hefty price tag. However, once their brand started picking up steam, Wolf and his partners heard from more and more folks who loved the stability and high quality of a Boo, but just couldn’t shell out the big bucks. They listened to those voices and launched a sub-brand, Aluboo, via a successful Kickstarter campaign. Aluboo bikes have the same bamboo frames as Boo bikes but are produced in batches of small, medium, and large instead of being custom made. The ability to produce a few hundred at a time rather than making each individual bike to each individual rider’s specifications means that Aloo Boo comes in at a significantly lower price point than a custom Boo bike.
Wolf was worried at first that the non-custom bikes would lower the value of the Boo brand, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. In fact, Aluboo was so successful that Wolf and his team actually took on investors to help them expand — and this year they’re on track to be profitable.
Running three businesses.
“I feel sometimes with my three business that none of the businesses or none of my partners get a fair share of me,” Wolf admitted. “In all of my businesses, my partners want me to contribute more. I feel that if I dropped one of them, I could give that much energy to the other two but there’s not clearly one of them that needs to be dropped more than the other two. They all have equal potential. They’re all startups; they’re all young.”
So Wolf is keeping all of those pots on all of the burners, for the time being at least.
Emma McGowan is a full time blogger and digital nomad has been writing about startups, living with startup people, and basically breathing startups for the past five years. Emma is a regular contributor to Bustle, Startups.co, KillerStartups, and MiKandi. Her byline can also be found on Mashable, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, The Bold Italic, as well as a number of startup blogs.
Follow her on Twitter @MissEmmaMcG.