So you've got an idea for a community cycling project...now what?

Jenni Gwiazdowski is the founder and director of the London Bike Kitchen, an open DIY workshop where you can fix your own bike. Here, she gives some background on how she got started with an idea, and how you can learn from her mistakes.This entry is partially excerpted from a Spokeswomen blog entry written in 2011. www.LBK.org.uk

I think it all started when I decided I wanted to build my own bike at the beginning of 2011. I already owned two bikes, a Lemond Etape (road bike - stolen 2013) and Alpina Spranghina (granny bike - sold in 2013) and thought my third should be my foray into the fixed world. Almost two years before, I had bought a beautiful vintage Claud Butler frame at a small bike jumble sale. Two friends with me also happened to be avid cyclists and upon inspecting the frame confirmed that it was in perfect condition and I'd be a fool to pass it up. Two years later, it was still sitting in my room.

I had been googling bike building courses in London but every lead led to a dead end. The closest I came to anything was offers from friends to help me - but I was stubborn. It's not that my friends weren't good enough, I just learn better in a classroom setting with a teacher. I happened to mention this to my new flatmate at the time, a fellow Californian, who then asked, 'Do you have a Bike Kitchen here?' My interest was instantly piqued - What is this...Bike Kitchen? Tell me more! 

Turns out there are several Bike Kitchens in California - Los Angeles Bicycle Kitchen and Bike Kitchen in San Francisco are the most prominent, but they are all over the state and are in other states as well. The concept is simple: it's a volunteer run space that uses recycled bicycle parts to supply DIY workshops where people work on their own bikes. For some reason I thought to myself, 'Wait a second...I could do this. I've got contacts, some semblance of knowledge and bucketloads of passion...' So I applied for the Community Cycling Fund for London grant with just an idea.

The CCFL grant was a godsend - it was the kickstarter of the life of LBK. I remember the feeling of absolute joy when I received the confirmation email. I was in my day job office at the time, and had to celebrate in silence, biting my hand. But it was pure happiness, followed by fear. They were going to give me money to do this?? Crikey, now I have to actually do something!

But first, let me get this straight - I'm not a business person at all. I'm not very good at maths, I'd never written a grant application in my life, and I think bankers are the scum of the earth. But my job at the time was working in the community recycling & reuse sector, and I saw that there was a way to balance the social with the economic - a “social enterprise”. (I now think that this word is too politically charged for my taste, but that’s another blog entry.) This was going to be a workplace that didn't have shareholders to please, a place that invested in the wellbeing of its staff while simultaneously providing an awesome service to the public. But where to begin?

1) Talk to a few people about your idea: I started out by telling trusted friends and family about LBK, and the response was generally the same: "That's a great idea!" "You should totally do that!" and "Why isn't anyone doing it over here?" Good question. This led me to step two:

2) Do you research: Online desktop market research is a cheap but time-consuming way to determine what exists out there already, and what people are paying for it. I made my own google map of all the bike-related organisations in Hackney and surrounding boroughs, made a spreadsheet of what services they offer and what they charge. I also designed a survey and sent it out to as many trusted friends as possible (I was still keeping this on the hush hush, you see). I needed to find out people's attitudes towards DIY bike repair and how much they valued it (in monetary terms).

3) Write a business plan: I borrowed Business Plans for Dummies off of a friend. I still haven't finished it, but it's easy to follow and straightforward. I’ve done all that they’ve asked so far, and the plan is slowly coming together (I love it when a plan comes together.) And I was able to see where my weaknesses were, which led me to step four:

4) Take a class: Finances frighten me. Like, scare the living bejesus out of me. I think I'd rather have papercuts rubbed in lemon and salt than have to make a spreadsheet. That is when I know I must take a class. I don't have the discipline to learn on my own, therefore I need an authority figure to tell me what to do. I took a finance for start-ups course with London Rebuilding Society and learned all sorts of neat-o things like what 'Rates' are and how to monitor my cashflow. I also discovered that I needed an accountant.

5) Lastly, get a team of people together that are smarter than you are: I rounded up a group of 6 friends that each had their own superpower: entrepreneurship, bicycle shop experience, small business knowledge, finances, good-at-understanding-the-fine-print, representative of my target market...your list will probably be different. They are invaluable in keeping their ear to the ground and finger on the pulse because I am WAY TOO BUSY to do so. 

I was lucky to start this up at the time that I did, but I also worked my ass off. I got help from friends, I found a suitable location, I found the right staff, and I put my areas of expertise to work. I never took no for an answer. 

If you have a vision - a crystal clear vision - make sure you act on it. Motivation is not endless, but if you keep working, you’ll keep getting small wins, which will feed your motivation. It’s a positive feedback loop - keep it going!

It’s hard to believe I quit my day job almost exactly a year ago. Yep, it's been pretty terrifying, but I wouldn't change it for the world. 

Good luck, and godspeed.

For all information on how to apply for a CCFL grant, including more examples of insipiring projects click here.

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