Aaron Stinner Says the Bike Business Is Broken. Here’s His Way to Fix It

He’s gone from managing a cycling shop in Santa Barbara to owning a handmade cycle company.

“Every day, I was going into work like, ‘This is so fucked,'” Aaron Stinner said, reminiscing on his former job. He was 24, managing Bicycle Bob’s bike shop in Santa Barbara, and observing from up close what he calls a “broken” business. “I noticed how screwed up the whole supply chain was. The bike industry in general is like a dinosaur.”

This was Stinner’s experience: On any given November, a cycling giant like Specialized would come to his shop and ask for a $250,000 commitment. Specialized would flip that order to its plant in China, hopefully earning a discount for the massive batch, and then deliver it to the shop four months later. Specialized took on little risk, while the shop owners were saddled with the financial burden and inventory.

“Specialized lives on bike shop credit, essentially,” Stinner said. “It’s up to brick-and-mortar shops to sell [their bikes] with very little support from the brand. What you thought was going to be hot in November could very much be not hot in March. Now, you have the season to unload all this inventory you basically had sitting on credit, hoping that it’s not obsolete. Come August, you have to blow it all out, because you have to decide what you’re going to sell again next year.” This, in essence, is everything Stinner Frameworks exists to destroy. They make American-manufactured bikes, built one at a time, sold direct-to-consumer, with a focus on limiting their environmental footprint.

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Stinner set off making bikes for friends in 2010, drawing on a childhood spent wrenching bikes and frame-building experience he learned from Oregon’s respected United Bicycle Institute. He estimates he crafted between 10 and 20 frames before orders started coming in from strangers. Soon, he was earning more money from fabricating bikes in his garage than he was managing Bicycle Bob’s. Committing to starting his own business was an obvious progression.

In August 2014, Stinner upgraded from his Santa Barbara garage to a 1,000-square-foot workshop in nearby Goleta. He got into business at an opportune time. The hand-built bike sector is thriving, even in the wake of an overall stagnant bike industry. The North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where Stinner Frameworks once earned “Rookie of the Year,” started in 2005 with 23 exhibitors and 700 attendees. By 2016, the numbers for the annual summit had ballooned to 179 and 3,500 respectively. Before NAHBS Chief Judge Patrick Brady stepped on stage to present the awards in 2014, he told a reporter from The Atlantic, “Right now is the golden age in custom frame building. There have never been more builders producing, and the quality has never been higher.”

Despite the hand-built industry boom, there are still obstacles. In 2015, 99 percent of all bikes produced in the $6.1 billion dollar industry remain from overseas, and mostly from the so-called “Big Three” of Trek, Specialized and Giant. Zen Bicycle Fabrication, a venerable Portland frame builder who handcrafts frames for companies like Lemond and Turner Bikes, announced in February they were discontinuing operations. Aaron Stinner is quick to make an important distinction regarding this news: Zen produced frames in batches, whereas Stinner manufactures bikes one at a time. Stinner estimates the company only has about $2,000 worth of raw materials at any given time. “It’s allowed us to not have to go out and seek large investments of money,” Stinner said about the lean strategy. “We’re able to grow very reasonably, design iterate, and get better as we go.” His buisness has grown five times from December 2014 to December 2015.

Stinner Frameworks makes American-manufactured bikes, built one at a time, sold direct-to-consumer, with a focus on limiting their environmental footprint.

Most Stinner bikes are made from steel — heavier than popular carbon fiber, and less stiff at similar weights, but much more durable and, according to Stinner, more enjoyable to work with as a fabricator. “When you’re working with steel, bending it, forming it…it’s definitely an organic dance that you do with the material itself,” he says. “It’s forgiving, it understands what you’re trying to do in a very spiritual way.” Another important factor that lead Stinner Frameworks to favor steel: the environment. Steel can be smelted down to be reused over and over, and much of the steel from Stinner’s supplier, True Temper, is recycled. Carbon, on the other hand, goes into a landfill, and often after one season of use. He’s getting advice from colleagues at Patagonia’s nearby headquarters to find ways to further reduce Stinner’s footprint, as well as how to complete a lifecycle analysis.

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Stinner Frameworks shows no signs of slowing. The company is experimenting with a single-speed cruiser, a full-suspension bike, a track bike, aluminum bikes, and expanding their road and mountain bike lines. But Stinner spends more time thinking about the next generation than the next year — and not just for his own business. “The next $7 trillion that are going to be spent in this country are all gonna come from millennials,” he said, sitting outside his shop, the hiss of air compressors and the hum of welding torches in the background. “It’s my responsibility to not only help bring manufacturing back to the US, but to also run a great business and brand. It’s showing you can do this. You can make shit here. You can run a good business that’s lucrative and build a brand that people believe in.”

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