Keep this story going! Share below!
The Old Spokes Home in Burlington, Vermont was up for sale. A local non-profit had the innovation to change the non-profit model by buying an existing, long standing for profit business and leverage the additional income and different clientele to do more good.
Everything the two businesses now do is to further the mission of creating positive social change and being good to do more good.
Employees are empowered, clients feel every dollar they spend is helping local residents and local low income residents are given the tools for mobility and the vehicle to a better life.
In 2014, the owner of Old Spokes Home, a local bike shop in Burlington, Vermont decided to sell the business after 15 years. The store was one of the most loved bike shops in Burlington (or Vermont), and the owner did not just want to sell it to anybody. He wanted someone who would love it the same way and continue his vision “to see the bicycle as a utilitarian tool for everyday transportation, a gateway to wondrous adventures in the outdoors, and a cultural object with a colorful history deserving of study and celebration“.
Current employees at the nearby Bike Recycle Vermont (BRV) couldn't bear to see it sold to possibly a chain bike store or close for good, so they did something remarkable: they decided to buy it. What is remarkable about that? BRV was a non-profit entity with the mission “to create access to bikes and the opportunities they provide for our whole community”, having almost no funding themselves and only a few employees with many unpaid volunteers. They saw this as a rare opportunity, to provide a new source of revenue which ultimately meant that they could do even more good for the community.
These two twenty-somethings with a crazy idea went out and crowdsourced donations as well as secured a number of small private loans from individuals (not banks) to source close to $500,000. Why were people so willing to help two bike shops to merge? One big reason was the innovative model. Some donors/lenders were more interested in supporting the project because of the unconventional structure and the idea that it would be a more sustainable organization, more so than the fact that it was bicycle-related. That said, they also saw the value that the simple bicycle could bring to almost every facet of life from social equity to poverty, race, gender equality, health, and well-being. Transportation meant access to employment with reduced geographic barriers and a more sustainable city.
“People want to see good things happen”.
They were inspired by a small handful of bike shops around the country that support a social mission. Examples such as Bikes Not Bombs in Boston and Community Cycling Center in Portland have a component of social justice and give back. A non-profit organization that has retail components.
There were no examples they could find in the country of a well established non-profit buying another well established for-profit business with the intention of not making more money, but doing more good. Every extra dollar the retail store can generate means extra funding of social service programming to get more bikes in the hands of those that need mobility. Non-profits have created revenue streams, but to buy an existing business was not something they had heard of before.
This innovation changes the non-profit model from those where employees typically “crucify themselves for the mission” and get burnt out. This model allows employees to be paid well and can include things like bonuses without the feeling that they are putting more in than they are getting out. It also provides a very professional look to the program instead of your typical mission based bike shop that are always scraping along.
Most nonprofits are in a back office somewhere (or in Bike Recycle Vermont's case, the basement of a car mechanic garage) but having a retail shop that carries items that people want or need provides exposure for the mission and is far easier to have those discussions with people who may not need the social service but may be able to be educated and to ultimately be involved. It also makes those that shop at the retail component feel good that not only are they supporting a local business but that they are directly impacting peoples lives who need transportation the most.
This innovation brings with it many benefits and positive impacts on society. They saw the value that these businesses working together and the simple bicycle could bring to almost every facet of life from social equity to poverty, race, gender equality, health and well-being. Having access to transportation meant access to employment with reduced geographic barriers.
In terms of the impact this innovation has on the greater environment, the more people that can be on bikes, the more sustainable your city will become in terms of pollution, congestion, self reliance, and energy. Bikes are some of the most sustainable forms of transport and if you can help residents achieve mobility without them having to own a private motor vehicle, the greater the benefit to the environment.
This innovation had an immediate short term effect of helping to spread the word of these programs to a much wider segment of society. With people visiting the shop that may have not been exposed to the power of the social service programs that Bike Recycle Vermont was undertaking, it opened the doors for more possible volunteers and supporters of the overall social mission. As this business model is only 2 years old, the long term effects are still in the making. Burlington has one of the highest rates of bicycle commuters in the country, at 6% of commutes. This mode share is growing and the more that it is bolstered by grassroots, local shops that have the mission of getting people on bikes, the more this will grow.
One of the great benefits to the business is enlightened employees. These are not your typical bike mechanics that are happy to just fix bikes all day...they are social change agents. They have been empowered to not just fix bikes but to help those that are less fortunate to thrive. They spend just as much time helping humans navigate life as they do helping to fix their machines.
The other benefit to the business is a constant pool of talent for bike mechanics. Those that are just getting into it, may work in the Bike Recycle Vermont side of the shop as a volunteer and work their way up through the organization. Having the professional shop component that gets exposure to a higher class bracket of wages helps to get exposure for the social work component of the business. This makes customers happy that they are supporting something that has a mission to do good for the community and as such are typically customers for life and will promote to anyone who will listen.
With businesses like Old Spokes Home in town, everybody wins. You have a quality professional bike shop that sells new and used bikes that cater to a huge array of people but which supports an amazing social cause of getting more people on bikes, helping to lift up those that are less fortunate with a reliable means of transportation and the knowledge to keep that machine operating. Bikes are good and help people to do good, for good people.
Get stories of positive business innovations from around the world delivered right to your inbox.
Christine Hill, Programs and Outreach Director