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Catching up with Portland’s ‘Builder by Bike’

Posted by on August 15th, 2012 at 8:38 am

Chris Sanderson, a general contractor who
works by bike, has had a successful first
year in business.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Back in February, I introduced you to Chris Sanderson, a licensed general contractor who runs his entire business from a cargo bike with a trailer attached. In an industry where big trucks are the norm, Chris’s story stands out among Portland’s growing crop of bike-based businesses. I ran into him the other day and learned he’s celebrating a very successful first year in business.

Hoping to learn more about Chris’s experiences, I asked him a few questions via email…

How was your first year in business?

My first year in business has been a learning experience. I never planned to be in business for myself and I have learned valuable lessons, sometimes the hard way. One thing that I did not anticipate going into this was the amount of administrative/overhead time that it takes to run a business. I am starting to learn that I need to account for the hours running the business, and adjust my rates appropriately to cover those costs. Needless to say, I am beginning to understand why contractors charge what they charge. When I first started doing this business, I was charging $20/hour, which is super cheap compared to many contractors, and now I am starting to see that I need to charge about $45-55/hour to cover my overhead costs. Some people tell me that is still super cheap, but I have the advantage of not having automobile expenses.

20120808-IMG_3259

20120808-IMG_3261
A chop-saw, bag of concrete mix, and a bunch of other tools
is an everyday load for Sanderson.

What type of impact has using a bicycle had on your business?

Using a bike for the business has generated so much interest from the public. I’ve had other contractors chase me down in their trucks, asking me how I do it, and I try and provide the most palatable answer possible, so as to encourage them to do it as well. One contractor I met was amazed at the bike and trailer, and told me that when gas hits $5 a gallon that he will strongly consider doing the same thing.

“One contractor I met was amazed at the bike and trailer, and told me that when gas hits $5 a gallon that he will strongly consider doing the same thing.”
— Chris Sanderson

Some of my clients are thrilled that I arrive on a bike, and have take pictures of my rig, and shared it with their friends on social media sites. Other clients lift an eyebrow of interest, but seem more focused on me getting their projects completed, and doing the job right. Regardless, I think people are pretty impressed when I show up on a bike, and do everything just as capable as a contractor who shows up in a utility van or truck. Most of my clients have been very pleased with my work, and have become my greatest advocates, which has meant more business for me. Right now, I am swamped with work!

Perhaps the greatest challenge to do this business by bike is planning ahead for each job. Joshua deParrie (The Bicycle Plumber) and I have talked about this. For each job, we have to load our tools and materials to specification, meaning that what we carry needs to be targeted, and precisely what we need to complete a project. There have been a few times where I have completely overlooked bringing a certain tool or material to a job, and that can be embarrassing, and a time killer. I have learned to carry a few extra tools just in case I forget something.

What about the physical toll it’s taken?

I have clients in Kenton, Milwaukie, and up near Council Crest Park. Riding to these areas can sometimes be long and very exhausting — have you ever hauled a trailer full of tools up SW Broadway? I must admit that sometimes I have zero desire to pull a bunch of tools to these far off places, but I have a soft spot for these clients. They have been with me from the beginning, and I feel a sense of loyalty to them, as they do to me.

Joel Grover at Splendid Cycles let me borrow one of his Bullitt bikes with a 1 1/2 horsepower Eco-Assist motor. I attached my trailer to it, and a whole new world of possibilities were opened up to me. I have been resisting getting an e-assist bike, because I am a huge purist, but an e-assist bike could make those long trips to Kenton and Milwaukie so much more doable. I am tempted to get one of Joel’s bikes, but I would have to better budget my money to do that.

What about your gear set up? How has the Yuba with the cargo trailer worked out for you?

Since we last chatted, I picked up a hitch from Bikes at Work to attach my homemade trailer to the Yuba, increasing the capacity of what I can carry. I’ve hauled some pretty sizable loads with the set up, and the Yuba Mundo makes hauling so easy. If there is one issue it is this: the hitch I bought is designed for a Yuba Mundo version 3, and not a version 4, so my tow bar hits the bike, making left hand turns constricted. Nevertheless, I make do.

I also upgraded the trailer with signage that I made myself, which has given me some great exposure, and business that I did not expect to get. Some of my client’s neighbors, have approached me about doing projects for them.

What’s next?

I am contemplating hiring. I have been so overwhelmed with business that it would be great to get some help with projects. I’ve told people that if I were lord, god, king of the universe, I would have a Builder By Bike in Southeast, Northeast, and North Portland, and I am thinking that this might be a reality. I have to think about it more, and research what it takes to have an employee on payroll.

I know I need to boost my web presence, so I plan to roll out a dedicated website here in the coming months.

Anything I left out that you’d like to share with the community?

For those who want to see the work that I do, check out my Facebook page. I post there pretty regularly.

I am having a lot of fun doing this! I have had the great opportunity to do a lot of work over at Joe Bike on Hawthorne, where I have helped economize his space. I also got to do some work for the Portland Timbers, installing a fence in the upper deck area, which houses the Timber’s Army banners and other stuff. I also did a few projects for noted peace activist (and hand cyclist) Brian Willson, and I had a lot of great in-depth conversations with him.

I am thinking about doing a customer appreciation day. I couldn’t be doing this without the support of my customers, so I figure I should throw a party for them! Be looking for that in October.

Thanks for taking time to share this with us Chris. Good luck out there, and here’s to many more years in business. For more coverage of local bike-based businesses, browse the archives.

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Comments
  • A.K. August 15, 2012 at 9:03 am

    So cool!

    I don’t think you should be so hard on yourself about being a ‘bike purist’ and resisting an e-assist bike. I think electric bikes could have a profound impact on people being able to offer services like yours in urban areas, without the need for a work truck or van. I say go for it when the budget allows – after all, I’m sure while much of the time it’s a good workout, pulling too heavy a load at too low of a cadence could eventually have an impact on your knees and joints, I’d think.

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    • Chris I August 15, 2012 at 9:37 am

      I agree. E-bikes are the future for this type of application. A e-assist Bullit with trailer would allow you to carry a lot more, avoiding additional costly trips to grab tools and supplies. Splendid has a few on sale right now.

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    • Chris August 16, 2012 at 11:37 pm

      Thanks A.K. for the encouragement. I will be looking at an e-assist bike here in the near future. Yes, I want to save my knees for hiking and backpacking, my true passion.

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  • michael downes August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am

    I agree. The day I added e-assist to my cargo bike was the day I was able to kick the car habit for good. The economics are compelling. It costs about 50 cents (on average) to charge a battery but definitely takes the donkey work out of hauling loads plus you may be able to set it up so that you could charge your cordless tool batteries as well. That would be a twofer.

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  • o/o August 15, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Milwaukie is not that far or hilly! :) Contractors do travel a lot tho.

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    • Spiffy August 15, 2012 at 10:09 am

      that’s what I thought too until I started trying to get across the town and found all these hills hidden in the middle… but you can ride around the outside fairly flat…

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  • HAL9000 August 15, 2012 at 10:23 am

    That concrete has got to be heavy. Probably can’t carry very many bags of it, either.

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  • JAT in Seattle August 15, 2012 at 11:11 am

    While the big pick-up truck does seem to play a big part in a lot of builders’ ego / self image (and rarely seem to actually be carrying a load), and rejecting that is refreshing; I think I would have liked to see a question about large bulky building materials (plywood, sheetrock, etc) which are pretty integral to the trade. He’s got the chop-saw – what’s he going to chop?

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    • Chris I August 15, 2012 at 11:57 am

      For most large jobs, you have wood delivered. Even if I had an F-450, I wouldn’t consider hauling the wood myself if I were, say, adding an addition to the house, or finishing a basement.

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      • 9watts August 15, 2012 at 12:28 pm

        Fantastic work, Chris! So inspiring.

        I defer to Chris on the business and logistics of all this, but as for hauling supplies: dimensional lumber, plywood, sheetrock, doors, etc. I have found that doable. Since most of my materials some from dumpsters or Craigslist I find trailers adequate to the task. But I’m also not doing anything on Council Crest. Ha.

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      • Greg August 15, 2012 at 2:05 pm

        Yep. We’re replacing the trim on our 1890 house (it was pulled off for asbestos a long time ago). Parr delivers anything over $300 for free, so there is no need to try to haul 50 twenty foot long sections of trim across town yourself.

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      • JAT in Seattle August 15, 2012 at 2:28 pm

        Ah Of course. As a pro you probably do a much better job of knowing what you need and getting it all in one order. As a rank amateur I find I’m always heading out (or borrowing a friend’s truck) for the forgotten big odds and ends.

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    • Chris August 16, 2012 at 11:35 pm

      I actually had picked up trim moulding earlier in the day, and used the compound miter saw for the project. Also, since i knew that I would be burying a post the next day, I picked up a bag of concrete at Westmoreland Hardware in Sellwood. I guess that explains the picture that Jonathan Maus took at the BTA event.

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  • Jim Lee August 15, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Had a nice chat with Chris as he was finishing a project for Brian Willson, who lives just 3 houses down the block.

    That’s 2 Ls, not the Beach Boy.

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  • dwainedibbly August 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Agree with getting an ebike. Nothing at all wrong with that in this application.

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  • Pete August 15, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    Nice article and interview, thanks for sharing Jon and Chris, and good luck growing your business!

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  • Chris August 15, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    Hey Everyone, Thanks for all the encouraging words, and lively discussion here. Indeed I am pondering the ebike, and will be talking first with Joe at Joe Bike about fitting an e-assist on the Yuba Mundo. A. K. makes a good point about protecting the knees and joints by using one, and at 42-years of age, I need to protect my legs.

    Chris Sanderson
    Builder By Bike

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  • Devin August 16, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Very nice job and this hits home with me, as I was unemployed for 5 months in 2009 and fell back on my skills as a carpenter and used my Xtracycle and a borrowed BAW trailer to get to all my jobs.

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  • Jim Labbe August 16, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    This is very cool.

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  • Pete August 16, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Chris watch out, this guy’s moving in on your business…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1y2_RIVGfs0

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    • 9watts August 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm

      Oh, no. Another video with strange humor from Bike’n’Hike. Only marginally better than I Am Cyclist.

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      • Chris August 16, 2012 at 11:32 pm

        I recognize amateur when i see it. Ha! Agreed with 9watts take here.

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  • Ken Wetherell October 13, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Congratulations, Chris! Glad to hear your biz is going gang busters. I wore my Builder by Bike long T that you gave me when we all rode in the parade together (great shirt; thanks again!), which prompted me to look you up and check on your progress. Oh, and e-bikes rock! If the goal is to minimize the use of petrol burning vehicles, battery-electric is a massive enabler. All the best for you and your continued success!

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