By Lou Melini
There are many “American Dreams.” Achieving the dream usually involves hard work, some luck and a little bit of help from friends. Johnny-Mack Barlow is achieving his dream as owner of The Bike Guy in Salt Lake City.
Cycling Utah: Johnny, how did you get started fixing bikes?
JMB: Being a child of a single parent mother, who had no means of fixing my bike, I had to fix my bike myself, or not ride. Then I had a wonderful time as a twenty-something mountain bike racer and seasonal bike mechanic who just happened to be ambidextrous and trained at United Bicycle Institute. Needless to say my opportunities were limited in terms of college money.
C.U.: So over the course of some years you became determined to start your own business?
JMB: Actually, it took about ten minutes from the time of my first thought about my business to actually putting out the sign and making it happen. I made the decision to start my own bike business at home, one day sitting looking out the window at the traffic backed up from 1700 south, and thought, with my skills I could put a sign out and repair some bikes. Thanks to the fact that I was in possession of The Bicycle Collective’s repair stand, and had some tools of my own, it took off. My location had a lot to do with it too and I have really had a ton of support from the Sugarhouse community, plus the fact that everyone thinks they can fix a bike, but not everyone can do it right.
C.U.: By “putting out a sign”, I assume you did not get a business license?
JMB: I had no thought of getting a license when I first put the sign out, but it exploded so much I had to make it legitimate. I just walked on down to the business licensing office at the Salt Lake City and County building, filled out the paperwork, and paid the fee. Then they investigate what you are doing. That is if you are already doing it. If you were not already doing it, a business plan would be in order. Part of the paperwork is getting signatures of all the property owners that abut your property. The nice folks down at the zoning office will help with all the details of starting up, including giving you a satellite photo of your house so there is no question of what signatures to get. I did get a special exception for my operation and that is also a matter of just going down and communicating with a real person and explaining your intentions. Looking at the ordinances will help but if it is too much to understand just go down and talk to someone. (www.slcgov.com/buslicense)
C.U.: Did you have to have your home rezoned for commercial or obtain a variance for your business?
JMB: My home is zoned residential. You do pay an extra fee for the home business application. It is nearly impossible to get a residence re-zoned to commercial status, as there is a city moratorium on losing any more residences to commercial zoning.
C.U.: How cooperative was the city in your efforts to start a home-based business?
JMB: My business was happening, and the city has been very cooperative. The good folks involved in my business approval have the insight to see when something magical and unique is happening. The city let me grow. They saw the importance of a business like mine, and let it happen. I have worked real hard to be more compliant as time went on to reciprocate that. I would encourage people who want to start a home-based business to look at all the rules and try to conform first rather than after the fact. It would be a lot easier on the business owner and the city.
C.U.: As a member of my local community council, it seems that neighbors are always fighting home based businesses. “Too much traffic, not enough on-site parking, and too much noise” are some of the regular complaints. Did you have issues with your neighbors?
JMB: There are very specific rules and standards for home business approval with or without a special exception. You cannot have a parking issue, there cannot be any noxious fumes created, noise must not be made beyond a normal level for a residence, and many other standards. The recent amendment allows some more leeway in regards to some of the standards but all the same approvals are still in place. Some things just would never be allowed such as auto repair for example, or a high traffic food serving operation, and there is no way you can have retail sales that does not relate to a service. A barber can sell a comb, or a bike mechanic can sell a headlight, but you will never see retail sales in the front room of a house. The standards are many and quite clear, but the special exception allows the zoning officials to look at an idea even if it violates one or some of the standards.
Also there can be no objections by abutting property owners at all. They must all like what is being done. Fortunately all my neighbors have been very supportive and love having me nearby, and I try to be very sensitive to their needs and input about what is going on.
C.U.: Do you have any plans to expand your business outside of your home? Do you have a need to or are you able to expand your business at your present location?
JMB: I have tried to expand into a commercial storefront in 2010 but it failed miserably, and I am still trying to recover from it financially. I thought I could do it with no money and no loans like I have been able to do at home, but it takes a list of things to start a high cost business. You must have a good presentation, full inventory, good staff, a line of bikes on the floor, decor, huge savings, and many other things, and you MUST have them BEFORE you open the doors. At a home business I have been able to start with almost nothing, no product, no money, very little tools, no suppliers, etc. I have worked very hard to build those things up over time, and my customers continue to be very patient with my growth. I have all the tools I need now, all the suppliers, and a line of bikes I can order from. I still struggle with having enough money and inventory but it is a seasonal business so winter wears us down each year.
I cannot expand at my present location too much, but aside from more space to store repairs when it is busy, I don't really need to. I do fine with my little space, I can fit all my tools and parts in there, although every square inch is packed tight, and I have room for repairs after I'm closed. I can fit about two or three dozen bikes in there, which is about a week out on repairs, if I can stay ahead of the game I can avoid going “appointments only”. But I have had to do that in the past because of crazy amounts of bikes coming in, usually in March or April depending on the weather.
C.U.: What help have you had to get your business going?
JMB: My wife Elva Nava has been a real force in my success. She has learned how to do bicycle repairs and has been a big help in allowing me to bring this seasonal income to our family. I owe her a debt of gratitude for her help. She can bust out very-well-done tune-ups better than anyone I have worked with in the past. I check all her work and I think she is getting better than me. She is critiquing my work now! My customers and I are lucky to have her doing bikes.
I have had many people help in my growth process, too many to name, but I will try. First I must thank Mike Nichols who owned Hamer Nicker Construction for building my shop basically for free. And he helped me get my first parts order once I finally got a real supplier. Second I must gratefully acknowledge Rich Waldorf of J & B Importers for completely hanging his neck out to get a home business lined up with new parts (this almost never happens). I must also thank James Zwick for caring so much, and lending an ear when I need help, and for his great support of me and every cyclist and shop in the area with the great work he does at the annual Bike Swap and Expo. The cycling community is fortunate to have him.
I also thank Dave Iltis for his great work at the MBAC (Salt Lake City Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee) over the years, as well as the Mayor, Becka Roolf, Nole Walkingshaw and all the others at the City. And finally I really must acknowledge all the mentors I've had over the years like Mike Hanseen (Millcreek Bicycles), Mike Pratt (Canyon Bicycles), Keith Archibald, and all the others at the old Midvale Bingham's, Joey May and his dad from Bike Board Blade, and all the other shops I worked at, for good or for bad (mostly good) they all taught me a lot. I’ve had a good relationship with other bike shops because I fill a niche for them repairing bikes such as Walmart type bikes that may not be profitable for them.
Of course I must thank our neighboring property owners for letting us slide when times are tough. To all of our wonderful customers for being so incredibly supportive and patient, Thank You.
C.U.: Thanks Johnny for helping with this story. You can find Johnny, “The Bike Guy” Barlow at his business located at 1555 South on 900 East in Salt Lake City. The phone number is 385-218-1649 or at [email protected]