To Celebrate Tri Town’s 10 year anniversary we are interviewing co-founder and owner, Antonio Gonzalez.
This past month, Antonio sat down with long-time friend, colleague and local business owner, Lance Davisson to reflect on Tri Town’s journey that started back in March of 2011. Lance is owner at The Keystone Concept and co-founder of a local non-profit, Treasure Valley Canopy Network. As a small business owner and father of two, Lance also volunteers as a coach and board member for the Boise Brave Mountain Bike Team. Lance and Antonio’s journey, coincidentally began almost exactly 10 years ago during the first month of Tri Town’s opening when Lance, a new transplant to Boise and aspiring triathlete, walked into Tri Town in Hyde Park to shop for a new triathlon bike …. And as the old saying goes ….. The rest is history.
Lance: Tell us a little about yourself and your journey in creating Tri Town Bicycles
Antonio: Growing up I was always passionate about sports, and really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life until I found triathlon!
My parents were great in getting me involved in typical American team sports: baseball, basketball, soccer, football, etc. I believe playing these sports helped me establish a good athletic background, but I never felt like a natural, and rarely felt like I “fit in” with the other players. In high school I realized my interests were rooted more in individual sports, versus the more traditional team sports. Initially that was tennis, then rock climbing and eventually triathlon.
By chance, a couple high school jobs were instrumental in leading me to triathlon and eventually opening a business. When I was 14 years old I got a job as a paperboy. At 5am I would jump on my bike and deliver papers for the Idaho Statesman. The route would take about 90 minutes, and I did that for 7 years. My time as a paperboy taught me perseverance, built an understanding of bicycle maintenance (my bike would break down all the time), and was excellent base-training for cycling.
Around that same time I got into rock climbing, and began working at the West YMCA as a climbing wall supervisor and later a climbing instructor. This was my introduction to coaching and teaching. Like the paper route, I held this job for 7 years and only later realized how instrumental it would be in teaching me communication and teaching skills.
I graduated high school in 2001 and had no idea what I wanted to do. I was a good student, but not great. I was a good athlete, but not great. I was passionate about a variety of things, but not 100% committed to any of them. I remember feeling a lot of pressure to “know what I wanted to do with my life.” In hindsight I believe it’s perfectly normal for a young man to not know what he wants to do out of high school, and possibly a mistake to commit to a path too early.
By chance, Boise State offered me a small academic scholarship to study civil engineering, so I went to BSU. Fitness and athletics continued to be an important part of my life, but my focus was on my studies. During my junior year I decided to run a marathon, and though the race was great, I found the training monotonous. The Burley Spudman Olympic distance triathlon was a few weeks after the marathon, and I decided to give it a try. I ended up having a good day, placing near the top of the field. At that moment I fell in love with triathlon -- I found a sport that just felt right to me: the training, the racing, the people. It all fit. From that moment onward my life’s focus shifted to triathlon.
Soon after the Burley Spudman I joined a few friends in starting a triathlon club at BSU. I also landed a job at George’s Cycles to learn more about the cycling world. My time with the BSU Triathlon Club showed me the importance of building community around a sport, while George’s showed me how rewarding small business can be.
At this time I was still a student at BSU, but my grades were plummeting. I changed my degree to General Business, thinking that one day I may open a triathlon store and a business background would be helpful. I also had an entry-level data-analyst internship at Albertsons Corporate while also working at George’s. At Albertsons I sat in a cubicle 40hrs a week with little human interaction and little understanding of the ultimate objective of my work. I felt my business degree was leading me into a life in which this would be the norm. Though I was scared of the risk and unknown of opening a business, I realized opening a triathlon store was the only way for me to stay true to the life I wanted to live. I had no money and little confidence in my ability to run a business. Ultimately, I felt if I was going to fail at something, I might as well fail at something I love doing. Soon after I dropped out of college to pursue this dream.
I suspect it was hard for my family and close friends when I dropped out of college. I believe the concern was that by leaving college, I was closing the door to better opportunities- and in some ways they may have been right. From my perspective, leaving college was a critical step in taking initiative for my own future and my own ‘education’. I did not consider myself a good student in high school or college, but since leaving college I found my thirst for understanding, reading, and taking on challenges much stronger than when it was guided by a classroom environment. As a student I often felt like there had to be one “correct answer” to a problem. Now I rarely seek any one answer, and instead try to find the path that makes the most sense for the unique situation. This flexible mindset has been important to our success as a business and is helpful in sparking creativity.
After leaving college, my focus became 100% on learning everything I could about triathlon, the cycling industry, and everything that goes into running a business. Fortunately, there is no text book on how to do this, so I simply took it upon myself to learn everything I could. An example is bike fitting, which is now a critical component of our business. Around 2005 there was a bike fitter working at Georges (where I worked), who told me that I do not need aerobars on my bike to compete well at triathlon. I politely thanked him for his time, went home and purchased 3 or 4 books on bike fitting, and immediately began experimenting on my own fit. Soon after I called a bike fitter in Detroit, who was well known as a top triathlon fitter at the time, and offered to work for him for a summer for practically nothing. I learned a lot in Detroit, developed as a fitter, and as a side benefit got a lot of practice on the mechanical side of triathlon and road race bikes.
Back in Boise, I got a job at Idaho Mountain Touring, which is still one of my favorite shops and a wonderful place to work. IMT afforded me the opportunity to expand my mechanical understanding of bikes, and I began developing a reputation as a thoughtful and reliable mechanic.
Around this same time I started a small triathon coaching company called “Tri Boise”, in which I helped beginner triathletes train and prepare for the local Boise 70.3. I observed the athletes I coached would often make it a point to shop with me at IMT- despite IMT selling very few triathlon specific items. This was a key moment in which I saw the value of blending the coaching and retail business models.
In early 2011 my friend and coach (Harold Frobisher) and I opened Tri Town. At the time we focused simpy on serving the local triathletes. We coached athletes and operated as a full fledged brick and mortar triathlon store.
Opening Tri Town with Harold was the first “accelerated learning” moment in my life. Up to this point, I was learning new skills gradually. When doing something like starting a business you must adapt and learn a variety of new skills in short order, and I found that to be one of the most rewarding times of my life. I suspect I learned more in the first 6 months of opening Tri Town than I did in 4 years of college.
Here are a couple key lessons I learned the first few months after opening:
- I was more scared of opening a business than I should have been. Often we are scared of the unknown, and fail to take action because of it. You can never have all the answers before taking a risk. You simply must make informed decisions and take calculated risks.
- Taking action guides future action. If you feel overwhelmed, don't know how to start, simply get started! The act of taking action shows you what you need to focus on and what is important.
- Do not seek perfection in the first round. Hemingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Whether it be your product, service, or knowledge, the key is to constantly re-create and improve what you have. View these as prototypes that are going through constant revisions.
Lance: Tell us about some of your struggles in opening a business?
Antonio: In almost all circumstances, any struggles we’ve had have turned out to be an excellent learning opportunity and advantageous in the long run
For example, we opened our business with less than $30k. This was barely enough to secure rent, conduct a small remodel, and buy some tools, cash register, and inventory. At first having no capital seemed like a disadvantage: we had maybe $10k of inventory to sell, a small store with an 800sq/ft showroom, and survived month-to-month. But having limited capital can actually be a good thing: in our case it taught us how to operate lean. We had to be very thoughtful with our purchasing decisions, we focused on developing our own necessary skills instead of hiring it out, and we engaged thoughtfully with everyone who happened to walk into our store.
Another way to look at this is to find a way to make your weaknesses your strength. For example, in the beginning we had little inventory to sell. We were never going to win somebody over with product selection. So instead of focusing on the product, we would focus on getting to know our clients and build trust with them. If someone knows you really want what’s best for them, they are much more likely to work with you than someone who just wants to sell you what they have on the shelf.
Lance: I was originally attracted to Tri Town because of your attention to detail and customer service. After shopping for a new road bike 10 years ago, having gone to most cycling stores in town, I decided to walk down the street in Hyde Park and came across Tri Town. I was “SOLD” after the first 5 minutes of talking to you. How do you make that connection with a customer and then build what you’ve successfully built here at Tri Town?
Antonio: I don’t honestly have a formula on how I make connections with people, but I do feel very fortunate to have met you. Maybe that is the trick: just be genuinely interested in other people and their goals.
When I have had a poor customer service experience somewhere, it is almost always because the staff are not interested in their clients. In other cases it may be the staff are simply not interested in the product or work itself. I try to lead by example and feel I’m genuinely interested not only in endurance sports but my clients as well.
Lance: I’ve heard many of your friends, local athletes and Tri Town customers comment about the unique, simple yet very informative and personal touch of your Tri Town Times weekly newsletter (sent out first thing on Monday morning each week). Can you tell us more about your ideas for the Tri Town Times (TT Times) and what this communication venue means for you as a personal touch with your customers and community?
Antonio: I started writing the TT Times 3 years ago, and publish it every week. My only motivation in writing this newsletter is to “write the newsletter that I would like to receive.” This may not be the best strategy from a marketing standpoint, but it keeps the process enjoyable for me. I find my time working on the newsletter therapeutic: writing is a slow and sometimes difficult process, especially for me as I have no background in it! But like in business, I love that writing requires multiple edits and revisions to get right- you don’t want to seek perfection on the first draft. Most of the ideas or thoughts I write about in the TT Times are simply extensions of thoughts I’ve been discussing with clients at the shop, or working through in my head.
Lance: I’ve observed Tri Town grow over the last 10 years and become good friends with you. What keeps me coming back and recommending your shop to everyone I know who rides bikes or likes triathlon are a few observations: (1) A connection to community is important to you and you create a very open, friendly and inclusive environment for all athletes at all levels (from pro to beginner); (2) You’re committed to environmental and social responsibility and to your community (as a longtime supporter of the YMCA and sponsor of Boise Brave MTB Team); (3) You’re a well-read saavy businessman with an interest in self-improvement (whether in business, sport or team-building with Tri Town staff or growing local training programs and triathlon clubs).
What are your motivations for these foundational pieces of Tri Town? Any ideas of how you’d like to communicate these values to your customers and community to help them better understand Why you do What you do?
Antonio: I wish I had grand motivations for my actions: but in all honestly I don’t. If I have had any success or if I have done anything well it is simply because I have tried my best to stay true to myself, my clients, and simply do what I feel is the right thing to do. I love our community and all it has to offer, and giving back in some small way seems like the right thing to do.
Lance: What are your hopes for the future? What does the next 10 years look like for Tri Town?
Antonio: The bicycle industry is going through some major changes. My hope is that small brick and mortar stores like ours can maintain relevance by offering highly skilled, expert service to not only local clients but also their niche online. Today’s stores not only have to compete with their direct local market, but effectively the entire world. This is excellent news for the customer: they should have little tolerance for poor customer service. For a business to survive they have to be truly world-class at their chosen niche.
Personally, I’ve been trying to find ways to stay ‘close to my customers’. It’s very easy as a business grows for the owner(s) or management to create a kind of separation of themselves from their clients. Some of this is necessary, say to provide an opportunity to step back and think about the direction of the business and the big picture. But too often I see leadership losing touch with their clients, especially if they have found some earlier success. I like to work one-on-one with our clients, and try to manage my time so that I can continue to do so.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the role so many people have played in our success. I am especially proud of our staff- some of whom have worked with us since Day 1. They show up every day, and pour as much heart, soul, and pride into the business as myself. I am regularly blown away by their dedication and loyalty. If this business is to survive another 10 years, it will be because of their vision and hard work.