Sunday, January 26, 2014

Highlighting Successful Program Models

This is a topic I plan to return to regularly because there is nothing like a visit to a successful model to show how a program element can work. Social bike businesses rely on sustainable business practices in order to serve disadvantaged people with bicycles for the long term. Today I’ve chosen two program elements important to this principle—normal business hours and bicycle careers—along with programs that are doing a particularly good job with each.


Normal business hours establish a social bike business as reputable in their community. While many bike programs survive with hours convenient only to their volunteers, those that commit to opening at least six days a week during the day like most bike shops will draw customers and significant income beyond their small circle of friends and enthusiasts.

This requires hiring employees, because volunteers should never be expected to perform duties that are critical to the success of the program. This would put undue stress on volunteers who are justified in prioritizing personal problems over the bike program’s needs. On the other hand, an employee is expected to solve personal problems outside of work hours if they expect to keep their job. Once normal business hours are set, employees will have to open and close the shop on time to build trust in the community.

Today, I would like to highlight Bikes Not Bombs in Boston as a nice example of a social bike program that has found that balance of good works through bicycles while maintaining a professional and reliable bike shop.


Comprehensive social bike programs always include career training, job opportunities and guidance for disadvantaged people who want to open their own business using bicycles.

Today I want to highlight Bicycling Empowerment Network Namibia for doing all of that and more. BENN works with partners all over the world to bring bikes and parts into Namibia that become the start up capital for Namibians to launch their own bike shop. To date BENN has helped these local business folks open and succeed with 32 bike shops throughout the country.

They also work with the unique dreams of each entrepreneur. Some prefer to open other sorts of businesses that can be transported with a bicycle, perhaps a mobile fruit vendor or even a farmer desiring to transport harvests to farther, better markets. BENN also offers ongoing bicycle mechanic training so that graduates can either open their own bike shop, become a mobile mechanic or find a job in an established bike shop. All of these program elements combine to lift BENN to the top of the success stories we’ve learned about, especially regarding career training and support of new bike businesses.
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Have you benefited from the program services of either of these or similar programs? Do you know of other programs that I should consider highlighting in later posts? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prescott Teen Center Sheds Light on Starting a Social Bike Business Program

Last week I met with Courtney, one of the founders of The Launch Pad, a new teen center here in Prescott, Arizona. Barbara, a One Street volunteer who suggested the meeting, joined us. The three of us sat in the back corner of the center’s small low-ceilinged room in soft, homey chairs around a warm lamp centered on a kid-sized table. More comfy chairs, a few game tables and a kitchenette filled the rest of the space.

Bikes need a lot of space!
As I had steered my bicycle onto the back street and spotted the tiny bright orange building of the teen center, my heart had sunk with the realization that there was no room for any sort of bicycle program there. But as Courtney described their upcoming plans, my hope returned. She showed how their current location, while affordable was not serving the needs of even the dozen or so teens that attended each afternoon. Their mission revolves around creating a place where young people collaborate to create career opportunities and projects that benefit the community. Courtney noted that Social Bike Business fits perfectly. But in order to reach that high, they have to draw dozens if not hundreds of teens to engage in the center’s activities. Their tiny, bright orange building is just a stepping stone to much grander plans.

Courtney explained that all the partners they had approached so far, from school districts to business owners to city officials had expressed even more support than they had expected. These partners blurted out grand dreams of a massive building where multiple projects and classes could take place simultaneously. While Courtney and her fellow board members have been careful to take reasonable steps toward success, their partners seem ready to charge ahead full steam.

This brink between the frustrating first steps of starting an organization and its first leap into successful results can be a tantalizing yet dangerous mirage that swirls and shifts just out of reach. After a year of these partner discussions, the teen center has not received any significant funding or any commitment from a building owner yet. Without that larger space, they cannot approach any more schools and bring in the young folks they need to drive their programs, including bike programs.

Over the past six years since One Street launched our Social Bike Business program I have answered countless calls and emails from bike program leaders at this same frustrating stage of launching their program. The guidance I give is to not be dazzled by promises that do not include commitments and to only take the steps ahead that are certain. This doesn’t mean avoiding risks. Even the steps that seem certain bring risk. Rather, the leadership team’s job is to assess the sincerity of every offer, whether it be a donated building, a contribution of funding or an endorsement from city officials before focusing their limited time or resources in that direction.

With such a deluge of support as this new teen center is receiving there will certainly be substantive offers among the many vaporous offers to help. Courtney and her team are sorting them out and focusing their energy on developing relationships with those partners who are truly ready to help lift their vision into reality. The tough part will be showing appreciation to and keeping those other excited yet uncommitted folks under their wing so they can help later on. I hope to highlight some big leaps forward from Courtney and her team in later blog posts.

Are you at this frustrating stage of starting a bike program that provides appropriate bikes and careers to disadvantaged people? If so or if you’ve experienced similar frustration, please leave a comment with further tips for readers to get through it and onto the fun of results.