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Thread: Strong Frames

  1. #1
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    Default Strong Frames

    I’m going to skip past the “why I got into Framebuilding”. I think it’s enough to say it was for the passion. I’ve raced since I can remember, wrenched since Jr. High, built things all my life and it was just what I was “suppose” to do. Frankly I’m not sure I even decided to get into Framebuilding, I think Framebuilding just got into me and I’m along for the ride. So with that said I thought I’d focus on what Framebuilding has taught me about myself. Fortunately for me, it taught me something that I didn’t know at the time and may never have learned otherwise.

    Like most people starting a business I’d been taught from an early age that “bigger is better”. The lessons were fed to me directly and indirectly by pop culture, my jobs, school and everywhere else in my life. So when I finally did start to build for money, it was pretty natural for me to want to grow my business. There seems to be some assumed business model that any ambitious framebuilder follows. We’re not taught it or told to do it, we just do it. I suppose it’s because we make a bunch of assumptions about all the companies we see around us. That model is to start small, promote, develop production, stock material, build a distribution network and scale. We all do it to one extent or another. How many shop pictures have you seen with 10 front triangles hanging above the bench, or boxes and boxes of tubes on the wall, or custom builders selling through retailers? I’m ambitious so I needed to put that energy somewhere and growth was the obvious place.

    In the early years of my professional Framebuilding career I had enough success growing my business that I slowly migrated from the bench to the desk. It started with a partner, than an employee and soon a couple employees and after a while over 10 employees. Loretta and I notice that as our company grew I had to pay more attention to the phone, interviews, evaluations, training, etc. and I missed being just a Framebuilder. In all fairness had we been wildly successful and making tons of money I may never have looked back. But the actuality of it was that we were always just scraping by.

    After the birth of his first child, my partner Tony just didn’t seem to love the business anymore. We all talked, he left, and it was amicable. That’s when we took a step back and looked at what we had built. It was really the first time we took a good hard look. What we saw was a business that we didn’t want. Loretta has always been a great supporter and been there for me “taking one for the team” but once that can of worms was opened she let me know she had no love for the business either. Thanks to her I finally figured it out. I didn’t want any of the things we had worked so hard to get and I had been heading down the wrong road for quite some time.

    Loretta and I like to joke we could have both paid for a Masters in Business for what it cost us to learn. While I enjoy business, value what I’ve learned and take my business very seriously where I’d rather be is at a bench not a desk and my ambition is for my craft in general and material in particular. So now Loretta runs the show and I focus on clients and building their frames.

    All us builders tend to find an area of the craft that turns our crank. For some it’s brazing or carving lugs, for others it may be fit, paint or integrating the perfect rack and lighting system. For me it’s material application. I’m best known for TIG and build with steel, titanium, aluminum and carbon. In a pinch I can build a lugged or fillet frame although I prefer to leave that up to the pros. I like clean simple designs with no adornment. I view the bike as a tool and focus on performance bikes. I like to tune the fit and geometry but most off all, like fitting the material to the rider and optimizing material attributes and the processes that provide them.

    I’m in this to build frames. To cut and burn my fingers, go to work clean and come home dirty. I like the smell and sound of the welder and I love the smell of new tires. Nothing beats pulling a newly assembled bike off the stand and checking out its shape and the way it sits on the ground. I love building frames and I feel lucky every day that Framebuilding found me.
    Last edited by Carl S; 05-10-2010 at 11:08 AM.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Thanks for the post.

    In your webisodes, you mention having the sign from your old bike shop, and how it hangs on your wall to remind you not to open a bike shop again. Could you go into some background on that venture? What made you decide to close that door and concentrate on custom frames?
    steve cortez

    FNG

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Carl,
    I'm excited to follow this thread! I was very impressed with your seminar at NAHBS 2007 and remember a lot of the pearls of wisdom that you dropped for me.

    I'm wondering where you think that "sweet spot" is for the size of a custom bike builder's business. After going through your growing pains, do you think if you tried to grow again that you could avoid the same pitfalls? Is a one man shop with (maybe) an apprentice as good as it gets? Or do you think running a production shop with 10-20 employees and higher efficiency a better way to make it?

    I'm thinking maybe it's somewhere in between, controlling costs (tubes, paint) and still being able to get dirty... But I don't have your experience under my belt.

    Thanks,
    Matt

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Carl, somehow I relate to what you have said most so far in smoked out because of the tig welding component. Right to the point, When you grew your company to 10 employees was that related to Ibis? I seem to remember lots of tools moving to Montana. If so where did the tooling go, what technical frame building skills did you learn during that time and are you planning on retirement? You are one of the most successful frame builders there are and it doesn't seem like you are week to week or month to month so what is your future? If you could change your career what would you do?
    cheers, Wade

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    excellent perspective and congrats on figuring out the direction that you wanted to go...
    and then getting there.
    very well done.

    honorary mba* for both of you.

    * masters of bicycle assembly
     

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by zetroc View Post
    Thanks for the post.

    In your webisodes, you mention having the sign from your old bike shop, and how it hangs on your wall to remind you not to open a bike shop again. Could you go into some background on that venture? What made you decide to close that door and concentrate on custom frames?
    Hi Steve, thanks for the question. I'll try to keep the answer short. I'd always wanted a bike shop. When Strong Frames was about 10 years old we built a building. The building is located a block off of main downtown so I thought it would be the perfect location to open that bike shop. the concept was like a brew pub in that the bike shop had a big window that look into the frame shop. I planned to be a Pro Shop with Strong Frames, high end parts and apparel and really great service. Then I figured I'd hire a manager and I could go about my framebuilding while the manager ran the bike shop. Looking back I can see that there is no way that I had the business's experience I needed to start a business from scratch and hand it over to a manager. It takes mature systems and organization and I hadn't built or developed those systems yet. I thought the right manager could do that. As it turned out the Bike shop was quite successful but it required a ton of babysitting on my part. I was already busy running Strong Frames and basically ended up with a second job. Neither business was getting the love that it deserved and I had to decide if I wanted to be a bike shop owner or framebuilder and chose to be a framebuilder.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by cardinal View Post
    Carl,
    I'm excited to follow this thread! I was very impressed with your seminar at NAHBS 2007 and remember a lot of the pearls of wisdom that you dropped for me.

    I'm wondering where you think that "sweet spot" is for the size of a custom bike builder's business. After going through your growing pains, do you think if you tried to grow again that you could avoid the same pitfalls? Is a one man shop with (maybe) an apprentice as good as it gets? Or do you think running a production shop with 10-20 employees and higher efficiency a better way to make it?

    I'm thinking maybe it's somewhere in between, controlling costs (tubes, paint) and still being able to get dirty... But I don't have your experience under my belt.

    Thanks,
    Matt
    Hi Matt, it's different for everyone. For me it's a mom and pop shop with an occassinal apprentice (when the right person comes along). Loretta is doing all the office and administrative duties so I'm free'd up to focus on clients and building. A lot has to do with your product and your personality. I think it's best to just boil it down to what you want to be doing all day. When my business was larger I talked on the phone and managed people all day, now that it's smaller I still talk on the phone but I'm also building rather than having others do it. .

    Also, I think a single person custom shop can proably create nearly the same income that they could running a larger business so in the end I don't think it's about money. One significant difference I will point out is that if you can create a brand and system that is strong enough you may not need to work as much in the long run and ultimatly may be able to sell the business but as a single person shop you have to work to make money which can be scary if you consider your income can dry up if you are sick or injured.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

  8. #8
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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by vulture View Post
    Carl, somehow I relate to what you have said most so far in smoked out because of the tig welding component. Right to the point, When you grew your company to 10 employees was that related to Ibis? I seem to remember lots of tools moving to Montana. If so where did the tooling go, what technical frame building skills did you learn during that time and are you planning on retirement? You are one of the most successful frame builders there are and it doesn't seem like you are week to week or month to month so what is your future? If you could change your career what would you do?
    cheers, Wade
    Hi Wade, thanks for asking. BTW I'm glad to see you back in the biz.

    When my company was at it's largest about half the frames I built were for Ibis, a quarter for Strong and the other quarter for other small private labels. We did move all the Ibis tooling up here and had a 7000 s/f shop where we did the building. Ultimately when Ibis went under TST had first position on the tools and so they split them with me 50/50 and I moved to my current shop. I still have a lot of them but a lot were junk and many were totally unnecessary and I slowly got rid of them over the years. I'm not sure I technically learned any major framebuilding lessons during that time but I got the repetition that you need at every aspect of the job. I think that time taught me more about business than it did framebuilding.

    As for retirement, I hope to never stop building although as I grow older I may continue to reduce my output. I'm also aware I won't be able to work forever so I do have a retirement plan and will be able to continue supporting myself once I stop building. As a self employed person it's very important to remember that you're going to have to depend on yourself for your golden years and you can't start early enough. That's why I get so worried seeing builders just scraping along their entire career. You have to be able to invest in your retirement on top of the overhead of life and other responsibilities like health insurance, etc.

    If I could change my career? hmmm...I'm not sure but I have a feeling it would be making something.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by SteveP View Post
    excellent perspective and congrats on figuring out the direction that you wanted to go...
    and then getting there.
    very well done.

    honorary mba* for both of you.

    * masters of bicycle assembly
    Thanks Steve!!
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Carl,

    Here's a loaded question.

    You give a seminar at NAHBS "the business of framebuilding" which focuses on the do's and dont's of being a professional framebuilder. Have you ever had any of the folks that have taken your seminar call or email you later and say "wow! my business has turned around since that seminar!" ? If so, did you get the feeling you were really helping develop and cultivate our niche of the industry?

    Frankly, I think its wonderful that you would offer all the info that you have learned while getting your MBA in framebuilding... Thanks for doing it!

    DW

  11. #11
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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by Slapshot View Post
    Carl,

    Here's a loaded question.

    You give a seminar at NAHBS "the business of framebuilding" which focuses on the do's and dont's of being a professional framebuilder. Have you ever had any of the folks that have taken your seminar call or email you later and say "wow! my business has turned around since that seminar!" ? If so, did you get the feeling you were really helping develop and cultivate our niche of the industry?

    Frankly, I think its wonderful that you would offer all the info that you have learned while getting your MBA in framebuilding... Thanks for doing it!

    DW
    Hi DW! I get calls and email from attendees all the time. I've also developed some great relationships that are ongoing and have started working with builders not just on their business but Framebuilding as well. I've even brought one builder in for a week and helped him with some time issues he was having and evaluated his financials and made recommendations. Both of which he has reported are helping him turn the corner. I hope to invite others to my shop for one on one workshops in the future.

    The reason I do the seminar is because Framebuilding as gotten the wrap that it cannot be a rewarding sustainable career. That bothers me because it's not true and I don't want promising builders to avoid the profession for fear that it won't work. It's also a tough nut to crack and in times of frustration and discouragement builders need to hear that they can make it through to the other side, it can work and they just need to stick with it. Having this unfounded idea that framebuilding can't earn you a living hanging over everyones head doesn't do the craft any good and I want to dispel the myth. Thanks for givining me the platform to work towards that end.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Hey Carl,
    Meeting you and Loretta at NAHBS was a real treat; you two are truly a class act. With so much of your time being based around bicycles (building, riding, racing, and talking about them) what do you do to escape from them? Are there ever days when you just can’t bear the thought of a conversation about proper TIG welding methods, or what geometry will give the perfect balance of “lateral stiffness and vertical compliance?”

    Thanks,
    Andy
    "I think I know what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers."

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by dcpdpayne View Post
    Hey Carl,
    Meeting you and Loretta at NAHBS was a real treat; you two are truly a class act. With so much of your time being based around bicycles (building, riding, racing, and talking about them) what do you do to escape from them? Are there ever days when you just can’t bear the thought of a conversation about proper TIG welding methods, or what geometry will give the perfect balance of “lateral stiffness and vertical compliance?”

    Thanks,
    Andy
    Hi Andy, we both treat it a little differently. As you can imagine working together can be hard on a marriage so we have to pay a lot of attention to our relationship and how it's affected by Strong Frames. While I'm a total geek and never get tired of talking about bikes, riding, and framebuilding she would prefer we left it at work. So we try not to talk shop at after working hours.

    To get away from work Loretta is an artist and pursues those interests and I enjoy woodworking and do a bunch of dirt bike riding as well. We also have a historic house that we spend a ton of time working on and a large yard that requires lots of work. Balance definitely helps keep things fun and interesting and I've learned a lot in the department from Loretta but when left to my own devices I've never been very good at it.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Hi Carl,

    Last summer I found myself in Bozeman for a wedding. Bozeman struck me as a really cool place with some good eateries and lots of beat hardtail mountain bikes locked up on main street.

    A buddy and I rented bikes from a shop (not Bangtail, the other one) and rode up to a reservoir to the west. Awesome.

    DSCF0003.jpg

    The weekend we were in town there was also a music festival in the park by our hotel. Walking past I spotted a grey Strong mountain bike - perhaps from the late 90s, it had v brakes - locked up to a fence along the road. I thought it was pretty neat to see one of your bikes on its home turf being used to get around town.

    Although Bozeman seemed really cool, I don't imagine you ended up there by accident. What brought you to town? Is there a relationship between your work and your place? If so, what do you think it is? How important is your local community?

    -Caleb
     

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by caleb View Post
    Hi Carl,

    Last summer I found myself in Bozeman for a wedding. Bozeman struck me as a really cool place,with some good eateries and lots of beat hardtail mountain bikes locked up on main street.

    A buddy and I rented bikes from a shop (not Bangtail, the other one) and rode up to a reservoir to the west. Awesome.

    DSCF0003.jpg

    The weekend we were in town there was also a music festival in the park by our hotel. Walking past I spotted a grey Strong mountain bike - perhaps from the late 90s, it had v brakes - locked up to a fence along the road. I thought it was pretty neat to see one of your bikes on its home turf being used to get around town.

    Although Bozeman seemed really cool, I don't imagine you ended up there by accident. What brought you to town? Is there a relationship between your work and your place? If so, what do you think it is? How important is your local community?

    -Caleb
    Hi Caleb, great picture. That's Hyalite Canyon, one of my favorite road rides, access to ton's of MTB rides and home to the infamous Crest Trail which was just closed to MTB's.

    The main reason I ended up in Bozeman is because I came to school at Montana State University and just never left. My mom was from here so that was the connection in the first place but after I spent a while here and learned to live the small town lifestyle I really came to like it and have never looked back.

    I don't think there is a connection between my work and my place. No matter where I could have ended up I'm sure bikes would be the center piece of my life and I would have followed the same path. One thing that Bozeman did do for me was force be to learn how to sell outside my community. I sell about 1% of my frames locally and as you can imagine if I depended on the local community for sales I'd starve. I think learning to sell globally (thanks to the w's) has really allowed me to maintain a strong consistent back-log of orders and to a certain degree insulated me from economics, weather and seasonal fluctuations.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    carl-

    three questions:

    1-you're one of the few who work with all the materials. we all know its not about the material but what the builder does with the material, but what is your personal preference when it comes to making frames? do you have a favorite material to work with? a favorite material to ride? a material you fucking hate in every way but the kids want it so you make it happen for'em?

    2- how does a dude like you get a lady like loretta?

    3- why do you have a naked man with a hammer as your logo? is this a dig at anvil tools?


    just kidding on the last two questions, thanks for playing!

    craig/jerk
     

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Hi Carl,
    You mentioned the importance of needing mature systems to ensuring that your bike shop could run smoothly without your supervision. As a high school math teacher I certainly understand the importance of creating systems and routines in the classroom so that things run as efficiently and effectively as possible. I also know that systems can be highly personal; what works for one style of teacher will not necessarily work for another. It is always very interesting to find out what other teachers are up to though. I was wondering if you could share what systems/routines have been the most valuable for you and/or your business? How did those systems change or not when you scaled down your production? Thanks much.

    -Jason

    P.S. I ask these questions as both a curious teacher and hobby framebuilder.
     

  18. #18
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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by jerk View Post
    carl-

    three questions:

    1-you're one of the few who work with all the materials. we all know its not about the material but what the builder does with the material, but what is your personal preference when it comes to making frames? do you have a favorite material to work with? a favorite material to ride? a material you fucking hate in every way but the kids want it so you make it happen for'em?

    2- how does a dude like you get a lady like loretta?

    3- why do you have a naked man with a hammer as your logo? is this a dig at anvil tools?


    just kidding on the last two questions, thanks for playing!

    craig/jerk
    Hey Craig!

    1. I really don't have a personal preference on material. I guess I like to build with whatever I haven't been building with lately except aluminum, I never like building with aluminum.

    For riding I think I also prefer whatever material I don't have a bike made with at the moment. Currently my cross bike is carbon and my road bike is steel. I'm going to make myself a titanium MTB shortly. Then once I've ridden each for a while I'll sell them off, probably to Terry B or Toomanybikes and build something new. I think all material is good in it's own way and you just need to know how each differs and adjust accordingly. I will say that they all have strengths and weaknesses when compared to each other that you cannot build around and that is how I guide my clients to the correct material for their needs and priorities.

    I can't say I hate any material but I'm no fan of building with aluminum. It's a fine choice for a frame but it's stinky, loud and hot and working with it is no fun for me.

    2. why does everyone keep asking that?

    3.That came to me when I was having a dream about Don Ferris.
    Carl Strong
    Strong Frames Inc.
    www.strongframes.com

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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    Quote Originally Posted by Carl S View Post
    Hey Craig!

    2. why does everyone keep asking that?
    if you don't know the answer to that dummy
    Loretta is going clobber you about the ears
    till you know/understand the answer!
    Cheers Dazza
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    Default Re: Strong Frames

    I took your seminar at NAHBS 2010, and it gave me quite a bit of confidence when it comes to actually going into business. I had always heard the myth about not making a living building frames, and I'd like to thank you for dispelling that.

    So I'm sure you have your process dialed in and about as efficient as it can be at this stage in your game.You've built a few thousand frames, right? Does it ever feel robotic or not so interesting at times? Does your attention ever wander to other projects or do you ever stray to tinker with something?
    I ask because I have issues with that. I'm still working out my procedures and tooling, and with only half a dozen friends/test riders waiting I have plenty of time to do such things. If I wander off from a frame and work on a fixture or some little tool, it's not a big deal. If I get to a point where I have a business and a few months of backlog, it'll be a problem. I'm wondering if you have control issues with your inner tinkerer, and if so, how you deal with that.
     

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