Ypsilanti, Mich.—Tree Fort Bikes Co-Founder Scott Mulder has a great tan. Scanning merchandise in the warehouse annex of his successful Ypsilanti bike shop, which opened in 2003, he’s eager to get back to work after his return from a well-deserved Puerto Rican vacation.
Exploding with growth, Tree Fort Bikes is a local bike shop that is evolving into what is shaping up to be one of the United States’ premiere online bicycle retailers. Selling everything from deck pedals for cruiser bikes in Florida, and mountain bike tires to riders in Michigan, Mulder says their target market is limited to no one.
He cites the shop’s dynamic, ever-evolving retail and shipping policies for its success. He thinks they do a good job keeping up with expectations set by mega sites like Amazon and Zappos.
When asked whether or not their nice-guy, non-bike-snob attitude has anything to do with it, an employee from across the warehouse yells a resounding, “Yes!”
Mulder smiled and considered the comment.
“We’re nice people. We care about what we’re doing. Everyone is on the same team,” he says. “When people call they know we want to help. We give no one the feeling we’re better than them because we know more.”
Bike shops and snobs, unfortunately, often come as a packaged deal and can deter many who are on the verge of getting into cycling.
“It’s the tradition in bike shops,” says Human Resource Director, Dante Tucker. “Which is what some people want, but we try to approach customers with humility.”
“A lot of times we’ll learn a lot while we’re helping customers,” says Mulder. As it turns out, you probably don’t become one of the nation’s largest online retailers of anything by being inaccessible to customers.
Humble beginnings and huge growth
Mulder, now 34, left school while studying landscape architecture because he decided he didn’t need academic credentials to run a bike shop. He started planning Tree Fort Bikes with Co-Founder Craig Anteau in 2003 while on a trip to Moab, Utah - the unofficial ‘Mecca’ of mountain biking in the U.S. and opened upon return.
After leveraging a line of home equity and gathering cash from his savings account and some friends, they were able to open up shop.
“No one working [at Tree Fort Bikes] has a business education at all,” says Tucker, who is also 34. “But we’re always expanding. We’re not even in the middle of expanding because we don’t even know where that is.”
Tree Fort Bikes employed only two people during the first four years of operation. In 2010, that number was up to 11. Now, in 2012, there are 16 mostly full-time employees, many of whom are working on improving the shop’s marketing strategy and the company’s online visibility.
“We want to be the biggest bicycle shop in the United States,” Mulder says with confidence. “And that’s our little plan.”
Tree Fort Bikes’ explosive growth is driven by its online sales, which Mulder says is sustainable because they haven’t yet tapped into the full potential of the market.
“I feel like we have a community of potential cyclists [that] far exceed what’s actually being tapped by our competitors,” Mulder says. “We’re out to grow the community of cyclists and we don’t think there’s a big enough community yet.”
Mulder says the boom really started in 2007 when word got out that Tree Fort Bikes was price matching against big retailers. Customers responded well because they wanted to shop locally, and they wanted the best price. The shop also does its best to match shipping expectations set by companies like Amazon.
Online testimonials praising their quick response times to complaints, and ability to match prices, share those sentiments.
“We’ve been known to throw in our own money to get products out faster,” Mulder says. “We’re constantly working to improve our shipping services.”
Advocacy & Community
Not only is Tree Fort Bikes working to build its reputation as a great online retailer, they’re also working locally to improve Michigan’s cycling community.
The shop has been providing support for the Michigan Mountain Biking Association’s Triple Trail Challenge for years, as well as many other events.
Years ago, Tucker says they were only able to put in effort, man-hours and organizing. But now as a solvent, debt-free company, “we can put more money into it,” Mulder says.
The shop also donates used bicycle products to Programs to Educate All Cyclists, and was recently the title sponsor for Detroit Bike City, the first bicycle expo in Detroit in over 100 years. They intend help grow and influence Detroit Bike City for years to come.
Tree Fort Bikes say they’ve seen a surge in sales in the past few years and would like to help be a part of Michigan’s paradigm shift to cycling as a form of practical transportation - not just recreation.
“I think growth in the suburbs is hindered by the fact we’ve moved away from accessible downtowns,” Mulder says. “But as we break those paradigms that you cannot ride that far to work, yeah, It will grow. We find every time gas prices go up, there’s a huge spike in people willing to ride further to work. Gas prices; that’s going to help Michigan grow.”
Tucker thinks, however, they’re biggest competitors aren’t other bike shops or even gas prices, but rather things like ESPN, junk food and movies.
“All fine and good things,” Tucker says. “But getting people’s attention and their willingness to spend that time on bicycling, and ultimately themselves? Those are our enemies.”