Rivendell Online: Retro-Tech

Grant Petersen, owner of Rivendell Bicycle Works, used to be the marketing director for Bridgestone USA, the Japanese bicycle company's US division legendary for its quality products and its unpretentiousness marketing. When Bridgestone's low-key, urbane marketing style was trampled by the adolescent mountain biking juggernaut on it's hasty ascent to the top of the cycling food chain, the Japanese parent closed its US operations in 1993, leaving employees wondering what to do next.

Soon after, Grant started Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, California, with the idea of tapping into the small, yet significant market that Bridgestone had successfully served. Since then, Rivendell has made a specialty of selling parts and accessories that are simple, durable and (ironically) no longer in production. In fact, much of Rivendell's catalog features discontinued stock acquired from distributors eager to unload yesterday's (or yesteryear's) now unfashionable designs. They also make and sell a few of their own accessories and components, some of which Grant happily admits are simply variations on products no longer available. In addition, Rivendell designs its own line of beautifully-detailed frames and lugs which have received raves from the cycling press.

As if that weren't enough, Grant also edits the thirty-odd page Rivendell Reader, an iconoclastic mix of cycling essays, stories and other sundry musings by professional and amateur writers alike. Topics have included such arcana as a dissertation on correct stem angle, a brief history of the Brooks Saddle Company or the excellent essay "The Feel of Wood" (which, to be accurate, first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly). The Reader is the perfect complement to Rivendell's merchandise catalog as both extol the virtues of simplicity and quality in product design and everyday living while demonstrating that too often one has to cull the past to find them.

Interview

bikesite: Your company's reputation for selling and reselling
quality rather than faddish products almost seems at odds with
the voguish and over-hyped Internet. And yet you've had an
extensive web site up for over two years. What inspired you to
establish the site in the first place and what did you hope to
accomplish with it? 

Grant Petersen: The truth is, I don't even know how to access my
web site. I've tried at least 3 times for a total of 4 hours in the past
couple of weeks, and I can't get on. All I do is write stuff and send it to
Steven (Sheffield, a friend), and he does the rest. I saw a page of it
once, on a friend's computer. I know it must be easy, but it's not
working for me. It was Steven's idea in the first place, but I'm all for it -
it seems to be a cheap way to get exposure, and we sure get lots of
catalog requests and so forth from it. I have to learn how to do it. I
know I like the idea that it's paperless publicity, and non-invasive. And
people tell me we have a nice web-something, so I'm appreciative of
Steven's work. I hear it's mostly text and not glitzy, and I like that.

Well then, interview over I guess. (Just kidding, of course.) Even with Steven doing it for you, have you had to invest any time and money in your site?

Steven does it. I've given him deals on stuff, and will continue to. I can't say enough about him, and the thing is, I've only seen him three times. He's great. He doesn't send me bills, and if it costs him anything, he's never mentioned that, either. I hope it's not costing him much, because he's a starving student-kind of guy.

So gas the site generated a significant amount of business for you - that is, have the people who have discovered Rivendell online done more than ordered a free catalog or Reader?

Sure it has. It's where lots of people learn about Rivendell, so in that way it's sort of like a catalog or Reader. We get about 50 requests for a catalog every week, but up till now we haven't had a stand-alone catalog, so we send out a recent Reader and some general information about Rivendell, what we're up to, how to join, and why we want and need people to join. I think maybe we've sold about 10 frames that way, but we don't think of them as internet frames.

I imagine being so accessible is a double-edged sword. Is there anything you dislike about having a web presence or being online in general?

I am lucky that people care enough to ask, to look into this thing, and I don't forget that. If I went a week without any email, well, I'd be worried, and I'd rather be overwhelmed than worried. But put yourself in my place: First, I'm a husband and father, and my family time is the best part of my life, and the stuff that I don't get to do enough.  If, when I come home from work, I hop onto the Mac and do email while Kate and Anna want to play, then I must be nuts.

They're a much stronger force than a bulging electronic mailbox, no matter how much I'm grateful that people want to know more about Rivendell. Also, at work I don't have any time. I'm either on the phone, working on the Reader or catalog, entering an order, or trying to put together a bike to try something out. You know what it's like on a computer; something that ought to take five minutes takes fifty, and as it is, there aren't enough hours in the day. On the other hand, email is so much easier to answer than paper mail, and it's a lot faster. I love that part of it, and I need that part of it.

Who's your favorite employee? Least favorite? ;-)

My favorite employee is Mary. She pays our bills so I don't have to, and is my wife and mother of our two girls.  (Kate is 8, Anna is 2.) But she works very part-time, about 15 hours a week. Tied for second place would be Spencer Chan, a 23-year old full-timer, who's been here since day seven, and Gary Boulanger, who's going on about a year now. Gary's full-time, too. He's production coordinator, factory guy at Waterford, where the frames are built. Oh - I can't forget Peter. In fact, he's my number one because he works 2 days a week for free, the idea being that if we do well, we'll hire him, and we will. Both, I hope.

Would you like to be able to accept orders online? It's got to be quicker and easier than processing checks or taking down credit card details over the phone.

YES, absolutely. When the catalog comes out we'll be in a good position to do that. I'll send the files to Steven and he'll put it all up there, I hope. It would be great, and that's me the practicalist, not the capitalist speaking. Absolutely. But the phone stuff is good, too. Lots of times a simple order isn't all that simple. A guy orders a stem, the conversation reveals that he's ordering probably the wrong stem, so we steer him to the right one, or suggest that maybe the stem isn't the problem in the first place. I don't know how that would work electronically.  The interactivity is sometimes a good thing.

Rivendell is unusual in that your company manufactures products that are also sold (along with those made by others) directly to the customer via mail order. Do you see the advent of secure internet transactions increasing your sales and profit margins? Could this tempt other manufacturers to bypass the traditional channels of distribution and end-sellers and go straight to the customer? 

It may affect our sales and profits, but not our margins. I don't know how others will react to it, whether they'll go direct more. We have to go direct. Can you imagine us trying to sell non-aero brake levers and frictions shifters through dealers? Most of them want no part of it, which is good, because they don't know how to sell it. They don't believe in this stuff, or they've given up on it, or it brings back bad memories, whatever. I think most dealers are more interested in high-tech add-on sales and accessories than they are in something like Brooks leather saddles or Carradice waxed cotton saddlebags. I'm just guessing, of course.

I appreciate the internet, but it's still such a mystery to me, all that http:// - stuff. Some company sent me a free CD-Rom thing, and after I figured out where to put it and clicked a few buttons, some terrible things happened. I am not comfortable with the internet, not yet. I know it's important and has such potential, but it's not part of what I think about.

What I'm getting at is: if a big company could someday target a large customer base directly and
cheaply via the Internet, would the temptation for them to cut out the middleman, i.e the distributors, dealers, mail order companies, etc., override their adherence to the current channel of distribution?  After all , I see small companies increasingly selling direct nowadays (perhaps because retailers are loathe to set aside valuable floor space to new and untested products by unknown companies) and it would seem logical that this trend would eventually attract larger companies, particularly if the costs of attracting those customers were relatively cheap.

Value, at least in the retail world, is defined as some sort of ratio between quality and price. Most of a product's price is the markups it gets as it moves from country to country, from maker to exporter to trading company to importer to distributor to dealer and finally to user. I can sell Rivendell framesets for $1,050 only because we DON'T have dealers in there. There are about thirty dealers I'd love to have selling our frames, but if I make a livable margin and the dealer does the same, the price goes up a couple hundred right there. So it's not easy.

Big guys who have to sell a lot have to sell though channels, because it's easier to have ten customers (say, distributors) who buy 500 of something at a whack, than it is to sell the same 5000 widgets to 5000 people. I'm not anti-distributor at all, or anti-dealer. But for what we're doing now, it wouldn't make sense.

Moving on to the Reader, how much of each issue is posted to the site? Do you think it's a significant draw?

I don't know if it's a draw. I think it is. People tell me they like it. I think what they like about it is that it has no outside ads and is not championing the cause of futuristic bike parts, the way some other magazines have to do. Either that, or they just like its difference, whatever they see that as being.

Will there be a time where the Rivendell Reader and the Rivendell catalog are published solely online with no hardcopy counterpart?

No chance. How could I do that? There are advantages, green and otherwise, to electronic media, and it has benefited Rivendell like mad, I'm sure. But a paper rag you can take with you anywhere, read it in a lobby, on a train, in bed at night, at the dinner table. It's friendly, you can hold it, write notes in it. I've always loved hand-sized catalogs and books and magazines, and I don't think that's a retro-grouchy thing. I think it's normal.

What about for other publications?

Screens mesmerize you, which is why they show movies in science classes, which is why the television is the old reliable baby sitter (I'm not advocating that). But it's a crappy way to learn, so passive, just looking at something. It's a bad habit, and it hooks you early. I like--I mean--I personally prefer something more active, like actually holding a book and actually turning pages. If the message is weak, maybe the only way to mez people is with a screen, but if you have something to say and know how to say it, a book is the way to go. That's what I
think, anyway.

Has your Web site become a significant enough source of new customers that you would pay to maintain it , keep it going?

I'd pay $75 a month to keep this up. If I had more control over it myself, I'd pay more. As I said, I don't even know what the site looks like. In a couple of weeks the whole catalogue will be up there, I hope. Then maybe it'll be worth even more per month to me.

If you had the time and the money (and interest) to design the site you want, what sorts of things would you have on it?

Eventually I will learn how to do it, and I hope I don't create garbage. I think there's a huge potential for glitzy garbage. It's sort of like people who get their hands on electronic fonts for the first time. Things start to LOOK like this and people think it's art, or clever, or good, or professional. When I was doing the ads for B'stone, I kept one layout the whole, entire time. It was photo on top, then headline, then body copy. Never any type over a photo, always some serif font for the copy--Times, Palatino, Caslon--old, traditional, normal, boring fonts. I see so many ads and magazines these days that look as though they were laid out by people who just
learned Freehand or PageMaker and are going crazy with it. I should probably not come off too strong here, because for the first time now we're bringing the Reader design in-house (literally; into my house), and neither Mary nor I knows Quark well. So it may look like garbage for issues #7 through #9 or so, but at least we'll know it, and it won't be intentional.

Do you have time to surf the Internet? 

No time to surf. I work 14 hours a day just taking care of stuff. I try to answer my e-mail, and I always check for catalog requests and send them out, but that's it.

Do you even remember what your wife and kids look like at this point? 

I've been lucky. For the first 14 months I worked out of the house, in the back of a garage that my brother-in-law Bruce converted to an office. Kate and Anna were always around, and if you called between 7 and 9 most mornings, chances are good they'd be on my lap, or threatening to trip on something nearby. I won't sacrifice my time with them for anything.

Finally I had to move the office to a real office--which meant the real garage didn't have to be jampacked with bike stuff any more. You couldn't even walk through it, and it was lit with a single dim light bulb. People'd come by to "check out Rivendell" and they'd walk through the living room, which always made them feel kind of awkward, and into a messy bike dungeon of an office, which usually elicited a nervous laugh. We have a frumpy place still, but it's more spacious and organized. I see my children and wife a lot, and I recognize them as the most beautiful girls in the world.

How's business?

As you can read in RR6, we did $360K in sales last year, which, I think, is pretty good for a bike business. We still lost $11K, and I'm in personal debt up to the telephone pole--I can't even think about it, or I'll go crazy. Our bank account averages $3K; slightly more on a payroll week if we've had a good week before that. Last May we were in a real slump--that's what happens when you're a mail order business and don't send out flyers or catalogs often enough. I thought "this is it, it's over."

Then we sent out a flyer and encouraged people to renew their subscriptions/memberships for $15, and the response was overwhelming. We did $65K in June, paid a bunch of big bills, came out alive. July was pretty slow, but that's what we get for being a mail order company without a catalog, which is what we are now. Our catalog is at the printer now, and that'll help.

I just got our first quarter financial statement back, and we lost more money than we did all of last year, so I'm trying to figure out what's up. It would help if I knew how to read a financial statement. Anyway, we don't owe too many people too much money, and we're able to pay everybody on time, so something's going right. We just have no money in the bank, it seems. We're skimming through the year on a low average bank balance. It's pretty nervous-making, and now (two days ago) someone smashed the front window of the door.

And there are other things that take up my time, as well. A local couple started a 2-year world tour in Seattle last month and is now in this area. They somehow found out about Rivendell and stopped by to chat, and the chat lead to bikes, and HIS bike was custom made for this tour, and it's at least five inches too small. His saddle height is 80cm above the bb, and his bars are 9 inches BELOW that. The fork can't even accept a rack. The guy's hands are going numb, and he's leaving Tuesday for the rest of his trip. We're trying to fix him up, but so many things are so far off.

I've heard it said by many in this business that the more involved you are in the bike industry, the less time you have to ride. Does this just about sum up your life at this point?

Until Rivendell, I hadn't been passed on a ride in 25 years. I always rode hard (I raced for 6 years), and for 20 years my main rides were my commutes - from 16 to 29 miles, always hilly, mixed road and trail. I'd get up early, lollygag too long in the morning, and bust my hump trying to get to work on time. I went from that to working, as I said, at home, and not having time to get out of my pajamas until 1 p.m.

I ride on weekends now, with Jeff mostly, and once or twice during the week I go out for a hilly 45 minute (not mile!) ride. People pass me, I don't care. I know all my old splits, and sometimes I clock myself to see how much slower I am, but it's okay. I've never loved riding more than I do now. Tom Ritchey still rides 10, 000 miles a year and does five times what I do. But he's superman--and a good father and husband, too. Nobody knows how he does it.

Which bike companies do you most admire and why?

Mmmmmmmmm, that's a hard one. If you mean BIG companies, Trek would be up there, as would Specialized.  Trek builds great bikes, and tons of them, right here in the US, and it's pretty hard not to admire that. Also, I like Dick Burke (the President). He's been nice to me (in the Bstone days) and once, in an industry big shot meeting in which I was the smallest shot, I was speaking out against the prevailing opinion, and when everyone started ganging up on me, he (who was the biggest shot in the room) told them all they were full of poop, that he agreed
with me. Specialized is kind of neat, too. I don't speak a lot to Mike Sinyard, because we don't cross paths much anymore, but he's always gone out of his way for me.

Rivendell may seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum from these guys, but I admire people, not products.  When you're that big, you have to build bikes that appeal to millions. It's no less pure than what I'm trying to do, and it's probably harder. I have an easy job-I just sell what I personally like and hope there are enough other people with similar tastes to keep us going.

For a small company, lots--Waterford, Richard Sachs cycles. Peter Weigle, Glenn Erickson. I do wish some of the bigger companies would step up to the plate and do some of the things I'd like to do but can't afford to do, though. I'm dying for someone to make a fat, light, high performance road clincher tire--700c x an actual 28 to 30 mm, about 260 to 280g, road tread. There are lots of things I'd like to do, some good ideas, but no cash. It's okay. I try to focus on what we can do, anyway.

If you could have any - but only one - bike to ride for the rest of your life, which would it be?

"One bike" wouldn't be a hardship, and the answer comes easy. It would be a Rivendell All-Rounder, with a Brooks B.17 saddle, Ritchey Crossbite 1.1 tires, a Ritchey double with 48 x36 rings and a 13 x 28 6-speed cluster, SunTour bar end shifters, any derailleurs (I don't care), a Phil bb---it's pretty much a bike we sell, and that's why we sell it.

And finally....If Eddy Mercyx and Miguel Indurain were able to race each other in their prime, if they were to ride technologically identical bikes, if they each had the exact same amount of rest, each had abstained from sex for a full week before the race and each had their friends, family and countrymen there to cheer them on, who would get the most flats?

Indurain, but they'd be pinch flats.