Over the summer I had written a road report about my last trip to Deal's Gap. In that report, I described a few things I had figured out about how to convey the feel of cornering to someone else. Chris at RevZilla noticed the article and put a link to it on the RevZilla Facebook page with a complimentary introduction. This was a very unexpected surprise. That one act caused 100 new people to like the M-BY-MC Facebook page, our best day up to that point.From this and a bit of reading, I gained a few new insights and have since made quite a bit of progress understanding how to do what I call "ethical social media marketing". I'm a very big fan of being ethical.
A short while later, Chris reached out and suggested I stop by RevZilla. We could have lunch. Life got in the way, as it usually does, so it was quite a number of months before I would make the trip.
In the interim, Chris and some other folks from Revzilla did their own trip down to the Dragon. I believe it was their first time down there. It sounds to me like they had a blast.
Later in the summer, I had my little mechanical mishap in Montana and, after my tow of shame across the country, I needed to have my transmission rebuilt. As it turns out, one of the most renowned BMW mechanics in the country, Tom Cutter, lives not very far from RevZilla. so I figured instead of shipping it to Tom, I could hand deliver it and on the way meet Chris for lunch.
I mentioned to Chris that I would be driving up instead of riding because I had the transmission to carry.
"It's ok. We can still be friends." he responded.
Ok. Challenge accepted.
Tom Cutter would later say, "I've seen someone ride with a spare drive shaft but never a spare transmission."
Upon arriving at RevZilla, somewhat chilled to the bone, I walked into the showroom and was approached by a very attractive woman. I was already preparing to say "I'm just here to meet Chris for lunch." in response to the inevitable "Can I help you find something?" question when she asked, "Is that a Transit Suit?".
"Yes." I replied a bit surprised. This turned into a 25 minute conversation about the history of waterproof leather gear in the US market. I learned a few things I did not know.
I should have known better. It was RevZilla after all. These people are motorcyclists and they Get It(tm).
A short while later, Chris showed up and gave me a tour of the facility. It's a gorgeous building in an old navy ship yard complex. They've redone it with a vast open plan that is very tastefully designed. What struck me was how relaxed the environment felt. Quiet relaxed efficiency was the feel that day which is in stark contrast to the hurried, stressed and inhumanly mechanized feel of other places I've seen. Even on a day like this which was quite cold, there were a number of bikes in the parking lot. "It's a bit cold so more people than usual drove to work instead of riding." Chris mentioned almost apologetically.
We rode out to a cafeteria run by a nearby famous company whose name I completely forget because my memory is a sieve these days. It was in this old lofty industrial building. You could see a decommissioned aircraft carrier through the window.
We spent lunch talking about riding and technique. One thing Chris said during our conversation that really stuck with me was, paraphrased, "Your article showed a healthy approach to riding. You ride with the road not attacking it." I had not considered "healthy" as an adjective to use in riding but I like his point.
We spoke a bit about RevZilla. They are relentless in their efforts to improve, "chasing the awesome" as they say. I was left with the feeling that they don't fully understand how highly regarded they are Out There. But then again it's hard.
The problem is, with so many things, you can only see the magic from the outside and those on the outside rarely let you know what the magic is.
It's the same with me. I have absolutely no idea what people like about Miles By Motorcycle or not. I'm always so surprised when I get some specific feedback about this project, because it happens much more rarely than you might imagine.
Chris and I rode back to RevZilla. He got back to his work and I headed up to Tom Cutter to drop off my transmission.
Chris later posted a photo on twitter.
Hubris and Magic
Despite being a "software guy" and mostly making a living writing software, something that I do quite often is to spend hours trying to understand various businesses. I try to think through what I would do with a given business if it were mine, or more often why, if I it were mine, would it have failed.
So think about it for a second. Think about that day when you decide you're going to found a company that sells stuff online and ships from warehouses. You know you're going to invest huge sums of money in a capital and labor intensive business. More over you've decided, for whatever insane reason, to go into a space that has dozens upon dozens of deeply entrenched competitors that have been there for years. Aerostich. Competition Accessories. Motorcycle Super Store. And dozens upon dozens others.
But more than those players, there's an 800 lb gorilla in the room. Amazon.
Amazon has done such an incredible awe inspiring job at streamlining it's entire process that there's really not much, absent some disruptive new technology, that anyone is going to be able to do better in a substantive way. The best you can hope for is to be as good as Amazon. It's such a high bar and would involve so much work and risk that I would never entertain it. Compete against Amazon? That's simply hubris. Crazy.
And yet, here they are. Do I buy anything from Amazon that I can buy from RevZilla? No. What is the most popular vendor in the M-BY-MC forums? RevZilla. Who do I hear about on the street more than anyone else? RevZilla.
But the question is why? Yes, when I order something from RevZilla it shows up the next day or the day after. It's similar with Amazon. RevZilla takes the risk out of my purchases. If something doesn't work out, I can typically just send it back and they make it very easy, just like Amazon.
So in the basic processes of finding something, ordering it, receiving it, returning it, etc RevZilla has done the impossible in that they are as good as Amazon in every way that matters to me. But yet, I still prefer interacting with RevZilla.
However, there is a kink in Amazon's armor when it comes to niche markets. Amazon is an inhuman machine. Being a machine, Amazon cares for nothing beyond fulfillment which they have automated to an incredible degree and have done fantastically well. But yet every interaction with Amazon I have makes me feel completely alone. I'm interacting with software. The human behind the software is just an extension of the machine much like those poor souls connected to the Matrix.
This is how RevZilla competes. To my knowledge, everybody there rides. They understand the subject deeply and that's something I have come to value. They love talking about it, all topics around it, and they are very knowledgeable as the attractive woman from the showroom demonstrated. And this may be a false impression, but everyone I met there seemed far more interested in talking about motorcycles than trying to get me to buy something I don't need. Maybe that's because they know they are already too hazardous to my wealth.
They also understand the maxim of the internet which is "you have to give to get." And they give quite a lot. Imagine the crazy number of hours it's taken to put together all those fantastic video reviews from a motorcyclists perspective about most things in their inventory. It's simply nuts. But with that comes a greater advantage. In the motorcycling world, Amazon will always be just a machine. However, RevZilla has become a knowledge resource and seems to be moving towards a lifestyle brand and more importantly a story. In some ways, they are competing like a media company with a fulfillment arm.
As an act of my own Hubris, given that I don't think I could actually improve or contribute anything of substance to such a well run organization, but purely as a mental exercise, if I owned RevZilla what would I do? I think the problem RevZilla and retailers of gear in general have is that they are only in peoples minds when someone needs something. If I need tires, I think of RevZilla. But if I'm going out on a ride, I typically don't. I would find ways of moving beyond the gear to being a resource during the ride.
Bob's BMW does this really well. They host events, sponsor a racer who gives excellent talks, host world travellers, do presentations, do tech sessions, do tours and always encourage people just to ride on by. We often do on our days rides around town. They have coffee. They also are a gateway to a much wider world of motorcycling. Revzilla could do something akin to this on a grander scale.
In addition, I would expand the lifestyle/story/media side. They have a blog which is quite good.
I would also also get a woman to review female oriented gear. There are so many women getting into riding and they don't have much of voice out there yet. RevZilla could get a real foothold into being a resource for the female rider. Women are, from what I understand, the fastest growing segment of the motorcycle market and they are still quite underserved.
Like I said, it's just Hubris on my part. But it's an interesting mental exercise that I do with many businesses. What would you do if you owned Miles By Motorcycle?
The M-BY-MC Problem
So for quite a number of years, a bunch of bad things happened and I emerged not entirely unscathed. I realized I'm still licking my wounds these years later. The business I've run for 14 years is officially shut down as of 2013. I was in such a bad place that I just didn't have it in me to start a new company chasing money, to go back to contract consulting. There's a huge call for me to go back to doing defense contracting. I have a number of skills and a base of experience that the military finds compelling, but I so don't want to go back to that world. I could go join a startup. CTO's are really hard to find and I've had several offers on that front. But I don't know if I could do the 18 hour a day 7 day a week grind the way I used to, at least not for something I didn't believe deeply in.
So against all wisdom, I decided that all I really wanted to do, at least for right now, was to build this idea for a motorcycle travel community. I wanted to build a place that my friends, and possibly others, could get together and dream, plan and ride but also a place that could become a repository of all those things we forget or misplace. I hate Facebook in that I can't look anything up. There's so much knowledge in discussions that I want to be able to find again. Seriously, I want to be able to ask what was that post about jackets that Duncan posted last year. I also wanted it to be a place where we could share our rides on maps, and then search over those maps as suggestions for new rides. I'd love to ask what was that road in Pennsylvania Ian liked so much from last month. As it stands now, the site is just a pale shadow of the vision I have for it, but it's getting better.
I knew the site would have to make some money on its own at some point. But I didn't want to go the route that sites typically take. I want to find ways that the site can generate some revenue that is of benefit to the members of the site, not at their expense. The google ads, for instance, bother me because they are interruption based. I'm looking at a thread about jackets and then see an ad for a refrigerator. That annoys me. Thinking about some of the tactics of Upworthy and other clickbait sites make me cringe. The idea of selling data about individual users to advertisers just feels wrong.
"Riders, first. Those who care about them, second. The site, third." is what I usually said.
I don't want to be evil. I'm a big believer in trust and I want to be trusted; which reminds me of something Duncan said the other day about Game of Thrones. "I'm only into the fourth episode, but I can already tell that Ned Stark is screwed. He's a man of principle. It's alway the men of principle who have unfortunate endings."
In line with being principled, and clearly doomed, I had this thought. Motorcyclists are all about gear. One look at the forum and you see most of the time we're talking about gear, parts, tires, supplies. Motorcycling is a deeply "stuff" oriented affair. I know for a fact that the site has caused over 14 people to buy Sena SMH10's.
What if I could somehow capture the "things" that people talk about, like the Sena SMH10 and create a separate list. A "stuff and gear" list that you could search. Looking up the SMH10 you could go to the Mentions tab under it and there see every single place on the site that that "?thing" is mentioned? In this way, you could see conversations between other people about it and not just reviews. You would see the mentions of when the thing locked up. How to recover it. Conversations about upgrading. Etc. In my mind, it would be better than reviews. It would be a way of seeing into real conversations about the thing. If it works, it would be a great way to research something you want to buy. And then, after you buy it, if you run into questions, you already have a way of finding those conversations to participate in.
Then I thought, "Maybe I could sign up for the Amazon affiliate program and 'somehow' get people to post Amazon links to the products they're talking about." As long as the relationship is declared, it's not evil, right? This appealed to me because it would be 'organic'. The products and stuff that the site would promote would only be the things that members of the site had talked about. This feels nicer to me than many other options.
But then something happened that really deflated my hopes of this thing ever making money in this way.
Nobody links to Amazon.
Everybody links to RevZilla.
This really threw a wrench in the works. There's no way that I'm going to be able to entice people to change their behavior and post to anything they don't want to post to. "Riders, first."
I wished RevZilla had an affiliate program.
I briefly considered investors, but they would have to be true believers and have some strategic reason for getting involved. But, I would have to have a business plan with a clear path to growth and profitability. And frankly, that is not something I really have yet. Have you seen the Underwear Gnomes Southpark episode? If you have, then you understand.
Maybe, I could get sponsors. Maybe I could get enough sponsors to let me keep doing this.
I've considered offering custom development services. Imagine you're a motorcycle association, it'd likely be a compelling benefit to having your own group on M-BY-MC where your members could plan and share rides, host events, etc.
Regardless of what happens moving forward, even if I have to get a fulltime position at some startup, or do fulltime contracting, this site will continue, but improvements to it may slow down considerably.
However, there was an interesting development today that might be part of a path forward to let me do this for longer.
Second, as part of forming Flying Brick Software, LLC, my good friend Duncan Sterling has come on board as a partner in the LLC. He's an avid motorcyclist who has been riding longer than I have, if you can believe that. He rides a 2009 BMW K1300S but also has an affinity for Indians and old Japanese motorcycles. He's a former MSF Rider coach and used to run the MSF program for PG County. And he's been the biggest inspiration and motivation for me to continue working all these long hours on the site.
Third, I was saying above that everyone on the site keeps linking to RevZilla and no one links to Amazon?
RevZilla now has an affiliate program and we were just accepted into the program!
This should prove to be very interesting.