Marketing for Builders

While I’ve been between shop spaces, I’ve been lucky to have a lot of time to think about marketing and how it applies to frame builders. I’ve also made a point to have as many conversations as possible with potential customers, distributors, and collaborators. A lot of this comes from my experience in the tech startup world which… can be a mixed bag :sweat_smile: I’m by no means an expert, so take this all with a grain of salt - hopefully it inspires something!

I’d love to hear any thoughts/responses/critiques y’all have!

This is the most “market-speak” item on the list, but it’s a pretty important baseline to think about and will feed into other ideas.

TAM: Total Available Market - Everyone who could conceivably use the product you’re offering. In our case, this would usually be the worldwide cycling market, but could also be extended further to anyone who could ride a bicycle. It could be more specific if, for example, you’re only selling mountain bikes or high-end road bikes.

SAM: Serviceable Available Market - The portion of the TAM that is feasibly reachable by your business. Maybe this is hyper-specific and local, mountain bike riders in Marin County for example. Or maybe it is more broad, you could be trying to go for all cyclists in the US.

SOM: Serviceable Obtainable Market - The portion of the SAM that has real demand for your product. This will be people with purchasing power for a custom/small-batch/locally made bike frame. These people will also be aware of and aligned with the value of your service.

A lot of builders start out targeting the SOM and stay there their whole career. It’s fairly low-effort to market to this segment as they’re usually already aware that your service exists and understand the value it brings. In this niche, you’re necessarily competing with other custom builders for the same business unless you have a very well-defined specialty.

Getting into the SAM market means you’ll need to make folks aware of the value of your service who may not be familiar with it. Maybe you decide to target people who are open to spending $$$$ on high-end road bikes and want to make the transition into gravel riding. What would it take to convince them that a custom gravel frame is right for them?

Going further into the TAM market, you’re getting into territory where you’re doing a large amount of business and reaching folks who may be purchasing their very first bicycle frame from you. You’re now competing against Trek, Giant, and Specialized for a share of the global market.

As these categories get more broad, it becomes more and more difficult to reach potential customers. But there are also far more customers and greater chance for profit, especially at scale. Many builders may not want to grow to the point of addressing the TAM or SAM - as a small business it may be fully sustainable and much less work to only address the SOM. “Marketing” may be totally passive for reaching the SOM audience, but becomes necessary when reaching the SAM/TAM.

What’s your super power?

Why are you uniquely positioned to launch your product? Maybe you’re a super skilled enduro rider and you feel you’ve perfected the suspension kinematics for your style of riding. Or maybe you’ve experienced the pain points of hauling cargo around the city and know your system will solve many people’s issues. It could also be that you are deep in community and have seen a need that others have overlooked. Perhaps you bring a style of artistry or technical perfection to building that stands out among others.

Whatever it is, there is something unique about you, your style of building, or your vision - it’s important to harness that and focus on it. Your customers will pick up on this as well, it may be what makes you stand out in the crowd.

Why should we trust you?

There are many established and trusted builders in this “scene.” When someone new enters the frame building stage, it takes a while to build up confidence in their work. How you build this trust can vary - do you build some cheap frames for friends and have them spread the word? Or do you find an “influencer” on social media to partner with? Do you try to align yourself with another trusted brand? Where do you already have trust and how can you bring that trust with you to your building endeavor?

What is your customer acquisition cost?

Most of us aren’t paying for ads online so this is not as easy to nail down as companies dumping $100k into Facebook each month. But acquiring a customer still comes at a cost to us, usually more with time than cash outlay.

Factors that may come into play for this are:

  • Time spent posting/curating social media
  • Time spent responding to customer inquiries
  • Time spent updating your website
  • Any goods discounted for exposure/brand awareness
  • Expenses involved in conventions, travel, or community involvement

It may seem like these don’t add up to much, but if you’re doing 4 frames/month and spend 30min a day responding to customer inquiries or social media, that’s 3.75 hours per customer. If you pay yourself $25/hr, that’s closing in on $100 per customer. It’s important to always be assessing what your low- and high-value marketing activities are.

What is your customer journey?

Most customers don’t place an order the moment they hear about you, they are usually on a journey of some kind. They could have found out about you while researching custom builders and bookmark your website for a later date. Maybe a frame of yours is a fantasy of “when I have enough money saved” or “when I move somewhere with real mountain biking.”

The most common way to think of the customer journey is through the “marketing funnel” of:
Awareness → Consideration → Conversion → Loyalty → Advocacy
This is some grade-A marketingspeak, but a useful paradigm for thinking about how to convert potential customers into actual customers. It’s also a great way to think about how maintaining a happy customer base is crucial to building brand trust.

Who is your competition?

One of the most powerful things to think about when aligning your business is, “who is my competition?” This will help define you and the market segment you’re looking to target.

If you see your competition as other frame builders (SOM from above), it may be helpful to ask yourself - “How will I stand out? How can I offer more value than them? How can I beat them on cost, performance, or artistry?”

Maybe you think a bit more broadly and decide that the local bicycle market (SAM) is your competition. In that case you can ask - “What makes a custom frame compelling? How do I communicate value of a locally made product? What advantages do I have over other more established brands?”

If you decide to think even more globally (TAM), you begin to see your competition as people who don’t ride a bike. In this case you ask questions like - “Why are these people not riding? What barriers can I remove to engage them? What education or advocacy can I do to improve bike access”

Your first customer

I am not usually one for TED talks, but I found this one oddly compelling. It talks about how the start of a movement has more to do with the first follower than the leader. This was instrumental in me choosing my first customer - I wanted someone who was trusted in their local community, would be honest with me in their feedback, and would help advocate for my brand. It was then my responsibility to highlight and boost the voice of that customer so others would see and want in on the experience.

Many of us are past the point of needing a very first customer, but I think this can still inform things like new product launches, special announcements, or other changes to one’s brand.


@liberationfab this is fantastic topic and something I think every builder struggles with at some point. I forget where I heard it and I’ll do my best to find it, but Carl Strong spoke on a podcast about understanding your ability to scale when approaching marketing. To summarize, it can be easy to fall into the trap of more sales and market share without realizing your manufacturing limitations before it’s too late and you inadvertently damage your businesses reputation.