How many frames before you sold your first?

For those of you who are professional or semi-professional builders who are selling bikes, how many frames did you make before your first full price sale? What was that experience like? How do you feel about that first frame looking back on it now? I know a lot of us get started making bikes for ourselves and buddies for maybe the cost of parts, and I’m just curious about the paths that those of you who do this for money took.

I know I have a good amount of building to do before I would feel comfortable taking real money for a frame. I love the idea of the things you make being a record of your skills and ability over time and I wanna know how you feel about that part of your framebuilding careers

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I built 6ish frames before selling my first. By frame 3 I knew that I wanted to pursue this as more than just a hobby so I started dropping hints to folks I thought might be interested. My first customer was Emory who is a very sweet internet bike friend living across the country. It was nice having someone sympathetic to me working out my own process as I figured out what information I needed to get started. The build process was for sure messy - learning how to communicate is sometimes harder than welding - but by then end I had a much better grasp of how I wanted future customer interactions to go.

I think an important thing to know is that part of progress is looking back on your earlier work and seeing all the improvement it needs. But if your fabrication skills are sound, most folks are thrilled to have a beautiful, rideable bike and won’t be as critical as your trained eyes. Also, you are putting in “real labor” so you deserve “real money” if you want it! A lot of people are stoked to get in at the ground floor of a new builder’s career.

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I also built six or seven before offering frames at a discounted price to close friends, with the understanding that I was still learning and if anything went wrong, I would take care of it. Mind you, that was 30 years ago, in the era of lugged steel and fairly simple road or touring frames.

I’m amazed at the complexity of builds that are showing up these days from relative newbies - I wouldn’t have tried that in my early years!

I built part-time in the early 90’s, then went full time for a year and a half, then was given the opportunity to take over a friend’s bike shop with another partner, which I did for 25 years, which dramatically cut into the framebuilding gig, making one or two or three a year in the winter. I retired from retail two years ago and built a new workshop building and resumed building again, making ~15 a year. Just finished serial #137.

Mark Beaver
Tamarack Cycles, Halifax, NS
www.tamarackcycles.ca

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I built two frames. A road bike I still ride occasionalky and a track frame I still haven’t built the fork for. That was in 2014. Early 2015 I was thrust into a situation I needed some way of making some money and put a call out to do a frame. I had two friends who paid in full up front and said to take my time. I built one straight away and the second took him about 4 years to get a bike fit done. :laughing:

The first customers frame…


The second but there are some 15 frames between those two.

I have no real opinion on whether to build lots first or only build a few. Its so individual. I can certainly say there are skills I have learned over the years which would have been handy to have learned at the start. The biggest one Ive learned is patience. I studied everything I could before hand so the knowledge was there but I had to teach myself how to transfer what I knew to my hands and the work. That was hard and I made plenty mustskes which took a lot of time to correct before handing the frame over. Then there was the knowledge I learned which can only come from time at the bench.

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I’m in a similar boat, I built 6 or 7 before I sold one to a complete stranger. I wouldn’t call it full price, at the time I had no idea what to sell a frame for so I sold it for $850 unpainted. Hindsight being 20/20 I would have never sold that frame because I know today I would not be satisfied with the results. With the said the customer was happy with the frame and it still gets ridden today some 9 years later. It was strange at the time to get a message from a stranger on a forum asking me how much a frame would cost. I knew I eventually wanted to sell frames so I took the leap, at some point this was a needed step. It’s hard to know when you’re ready without strangers judging your work. Here’s a photo of the 1st sold:
Imgur

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I made about 20 frames before starting my business in 2019. Those first frames were for me, my wife, and friends. But it took me 12 years to make those first 20 frames because it was a hobby that I didn’t foresee turning into a business.

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My third frame went to a close friend and he paid cost of materials for it. I built that one only 4 or 5 months after my first frame.

My 20th frame went to someone I didn’t know, but who lived in town. 23rd frame was the first frame I shipped to someone I didn’t know, which was more nerve racking then the local one.

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Wow it’s really encouraging to read a full on article Emory wrote about your first retail frame, that’s so exciting and cool :slight_smile: and I can definitely see the customer-facing side of things being a real challenge! It also seems that one would hopefully attract clients who vibe with your design/business ethos if you’re doing things right

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Thats awesome. I aspire to build more complicated frames, but I can also think of a lot of people I know who would be stoked about a more simple classic frame style!

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I love hearing the story of necessity too. I feel like it really challenges you to do your best, and that first frame looks amazing! I’m hearing lots of really great stories of friends and community being eager to give support. It really hammers home the idea of a friendly neighborhood framebuilder, and is really inspiring to me.

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Thanks for including the price! and your reflections about your current view on the bike as well as the customer’s lasting satisfaction. Like Eva @liberationfab said, we’re the most critical of our own work

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That sounds scary for sure. I’m curious if anyone had any negative experiences with early frames? Failures, disappointed customers?

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Nice! exciting to hear about your progress.

I would not downplay your skills at the moment. Maybe it will take 3 more frames till you have confidence, or maybe you are already ready!

From my engineering perspective: the only question you need to ask yourself is: is my frame structurally safe to ride? Everything else: the finish, geometry, marketing, pricing, etc… can be phased in over time.

Since its impossible to test EVERY frame that goes out the door, I think there are two ways to answer the “will my frame explode” question:

  • Process Controls
  • Field Testing

Process Controls

" Process control is the ability to monitor and adjust a process to give a desired output. It is used in industry to maintain quality and improve performance."

For manufacturing, process controls can be things like ambient temperature, humidity, raw materials source, cleaning schedule, maintenance schedule, etc…

The strength of a steel frame comes down to:

  • quality control on your raw materials
  • cleaning the tubes for joining
  • not overheating the tubes when joining

IMO, the best way to control your process is to build the same style of bike using the same tubes, dropouts, and the same machine setups. This will help you fine-tune your process and build muscle memory. Which degreaser to use, how to calibrate your fixture, which brand of tubes to buy, how much heat is needed, etc… are the process controls that will yield stronger more consistent frames.

Builders like @Meriwether, Curtis (Retrotec), and Rob English make some wild and amazing one-off custom frames every time. But they have years of experience and hundreds of frames under their belt.

Whit’s latest frame is not easy to build and design: https://meriwethercycles.com/2023/03/28/more-of-kurstins-29-torker/

Field Testing

Most failures will come from joining defects or fatigue. Unless you lifetime cycle test every frame that goes out the door, it’s impossible to know if your frame will break. The next best thing is to look at test samples in the field to validate your construction.

Any product experiences the bathtub of failures:

If you have three bikes that have the same construction and have gotten past the first 6 months of regular riding without experiencing a material, manufacturing, or design flaw, your frames have gotten past the initial failure rate and sitting happily in the bath tub.

Once you are in the bathtub, I think you can have high confidence that your process is good!

Another point that Nick always reminds me: bikes will break. Even the big bike companies, with all their manufacturing and engineering resources, have fork recalls. Every product has a RMA rate which is factored into the cost of buisness. Every builder would be horrified by a minor frame failure, but there is another way you could look at it: every frame has a small chance it can crack, but when working with a custom builder they can repair the frame. And as always, the insurance is not a bad idea, and this thread has become a great resource: Insurance for things you make

@CharlieSBI is there a style of bike you think would suit your potential clients and riding community? I think this is also where the forum can help. There is enough experience here to help design and engineer whatever bike you have in mind. That way you will have confidence that the design is good, and focus purely on the fabrication.

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This is a great explanation - it’s nice to link the concepts from more rigorous engineering disciplines to the wild west of frame building. I think many builders unintentionally do some form of HALT as well, usually in the form of riding their bikes in places they shouldn’t be, leaving them unpainted, and generally treating them like crap :wink:

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I think I made 20-30 frames before I actually sold a frame to anyone. For me I felt I was ready to sell a frame once my process yielded entirely expected results and that process and the results were repeatable.

As is mentioned in the thread @Daniel_Y linked, don’t sell a bike to anyone if you don’t have liability insurance. A lawyer doesn’t care how long your now changed forever best friend has known you.

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Man thank you for such an in depth response, and I really resonate with the advice of sticking to a type of bike - tubing, dropout, method, etc. That’s kind of what I’m working on right now, I’m in a new shop, so I’m figuring out workflow, organization, measuring with what I have without getting too hung up on what type of expensive tools I could buy or go down the rabbit hole of making.

I’m really fortunate to have inherited quite a supply of random tubing, dropouts, brake mounts, weird lugs, steer tubes. Once I get through making the next frame in the queue and figure out some workflow in doing so, I’m gonna try and use as much of the stuff I have available to me to get practice in making bikes. I may not have consistency in tubing and stuff, but it’s expensive to buy new parts all the time :money_with_wings: :money_with_wings: :money_with_wings:

@Neuhaus_Metalworks I like that as a metric of readiness too, minimizing the amount you are surprising yourself. Starting out is a journey of crazy exponential learning!

So far in my experience, I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s not unattainable to make a bike frame, if you have access to tools and guidance of course, and that more people should make one because it’s a super cool thing to do. My goal for SBI is to be able to help people make a bike, and to make handmade bikes (and designing them) more accessible. This is definitely making me think more about using straight gauge tubing to cut down on costs if the rider isn’t looking for a super high-performance bike.

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One of the longer term projects I envision for SBI framebuilding outside of my own personal custom aspirations, is to work with bike riders across Alaska to figure out what a dope “Alaska Bike” would be. Durability, serviceability, and availability of parts is a massive challenge here, extremely so in communities off the road system. Whatever the frame geo ends up being, I’d like to come up with one build kit that will work super well in the crazy conditions people ride through up here, and will allow me to reliably be able to send repair parts to communities, and train folks how to fix those specific parts.

Ultimately I would love to secure grant/transportation/vocational funding to facilitate in-state production of frames, teaching Alaskans how to braze or weld, offer jobs making frames, assembling, repairing, and teaching.

Bit of a pipe (tube) dream, but I really appreciate places like this forum for enabling it :grin:

I remember you mentioning a framebuilder OEM component supply at some point, maybe on the Cobra podcast? I think this could be a really awesome application for that :eyes:

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A few broken ones. I was pretty good at managing expectations on those early frames so no one’s been too disappointed. I fixed or replaced the ones that broke for the cost of materials.

This is so important to keep in mind - especially with mtbs. Coming from bmx I’ve seen every part of a bike break in every imaginable way. Over built, under built, high tech, low tech - it all can and will break.

Mike Laird had a good write up about frame failures somewhere, I just can’t find it right now.

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An Alaska Bike would be AMAZING. If I have learned anything from @wzrd (in the PNW), the further north you go, the more bikes you explode. Mainstream bike companies must sell bikes to the average person and the general public, so they clearly don’t meet the needs of the extreme use cases.

Since this thread is an exploration into starting a business, here are some business/product concepts that I inherited from the tech startup world. To be clear, I am not saying that every framebuilding venture needs to be a financial success, nor are these the best practices for society or the environment. But you can pick and choose the ideas that you believe in.

Also to be clear, I’m an idealistic engineer, and I hate business :rofl: Someone more knowledgeable can chime in.

Outside Investment:

People don’t realize, but there are quite a few custom bike brands that have taken on (and rely on) outside captial. Personally, I don’t think this is the right way of doing things.

Boot Strapped Startup:

Bootstrapping describes a situation in which an entrepreneur starts a company with little capital, relying on money other than outside investments. An individual is said to be bootstrapping when they attempt to found and build a company from personal finances or the operating revenues of the new company.

I think this is where you are at, and I feel like it is the right place to be. Even though I am an engineer, I believe framebuilding is an Art. It takes time and effort to find your creative voice and niche, and growing organically allows you to do that.

Trade money for time:

Time is the true currency of the world. Whenever you can use money to save you time, you should do it (within reason). Even though you are sitting on a bunch of random parts and tools, I personally think it makes more sense to buy the exact materials and workflows to get you to your final product faster.

The BOM cost of a frame is only $300-400. Even if you shaved off 30% (which is massive), using existing parts and tubing, you are only saving $100 bucks. However, every frame is 8-20hrs of labor.

But as I said earlier, this is not the best environmental practice. I would only do this if your current tubes can make it onto student bikes, sold, or be repurposed.

Forge ahead believing you have solutions in the future:

I think this is my biggest takeaway from tech: don’t make decisions based on the present. Make decisions based on the future.

I will give an example: Nick and I identified that selling $5k complete mountain bikes would make the bikes way more popular and accessible to people. There were two small parts that were pushing the MSRP over $5k without offering performance benefits.

  • the headset
  • the 2 bolt seat post clamp

Instead of pricing the bike to $5100 to accommodate the cost of the headset and clamp, we kept the price <$5k and took a smaller margin, knowing that we could phase in my custom production parts over the next 6mo.

I have the same mindset toward every step of our workflow and every part of our bill of materials and build kit. This leads to continual improvement and progress without getting bogged down in the present.

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I have fond memories of Alaska, I have traveled there only once with my bike and for a short amount of time but I do know a couple of people that regularly used to race the Iditarod on a bike and they told me all of their “odd” technical solutions to get to the finish line, like removing all grease from their Rolhoff hub to prevent it from freezing or using helicopter grade grease in certain parts (again to prevent it from freezing).
I believe a bike designed to resist those environment and be able to being serviced without the full shimano/sram catalog at your disposal would be of tremendous help to other places in the world that are in the same situation, you could think of certain parts of Africa but without going in the obvious, I am sure Finland/Sweden/Norway/Iceland/Greenland and even Canada may have the same challenges.
Maybe this should be a different topic, I have got my 2 cents on the subject (more like 1 cent worth).

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