Catching up with Portland’s ‘Builder by Bike’

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.

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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