Matt Appleman has built the business he loves, but can he go beyond one size fits one? Bicycling and engineering converge at Appleman Bicycles, a Minneapolis shop that builds custom bikes out of carbon fiber
Like many here, Matt Appleman is crazy about bikes. He's also one of the few who has a degree in composite materials. Adding those two interests, and acting on his desire not to work for someone else, he launched Appleman Bikes, his one-man operation that produces high-end, carbon fiber bicycle frames, specifically sized to each customer's individual fit, in a small Minneapolis shop. Each frame takes a month to build and costs $4,000; a complete bike $7,000-$10,000 (or more) but people are happy to pay up for what a custom bike that likely will be the last one they ever buy.
Matt Appleman has forged an entrepreneurial vehicle for his two passions -- bicycling and building things with carbon fiber -- at Appleman Bicycles, his custom bike frame shop in Minneapolis.
He crafts each frame by hand, offering a custom fit tailored to the individual customer's dimensions and riding style, from road to cyclocross or track. He founded the one-man operation in 2010, fulfilling what he said, even at age 25, had been a long-held desire to be his own boss. He previously worked at an aerospace engineering firm in California and a wind-turbine manufacturing company in South Dakota.
He makes a dozen bikes a year but could make up to 40. He also repairs carbon fiber frames, his or those from other manufacturers. Sales last year were $50,000.
His shop is part of a cluster of bike-frame makers housed in the Ivy Arts Building near the Midtown Greenway cycling trail. Appleman is the only carbon-fiber frame builder in Minnesota, he said, and one of only 10 such independent builders in the country. The next closest is in Texas.
While he's well-positioned to tap into the booming bicycling business in Minneapolis and beyond, Appleman's frames aren't cheap. The custom fit, labor-intensive production and high cost of carbon fiber mean the bikes start at $4,000, including the frame, fork and bearings.
A complete bike starts at $7,000 but can go for $10,000 or more. He prefers to build and sell those because then he can make sure the other components, which he buys wholesale, fit and perform properly with the frame.
Customers, however, can buy parts separately or transfer them from another bike.
The cost, Appleman points out, includes a 25-year warranty.
His customers typically are performance bicyclists who race or frequently ride with speedy groups. Most are 30 or older, already have bought a number of high-end bikes but now want something built for them, unlike anything they'll see in their riding group or on the greenway.
"The price initially is a turnoff," Appleman said. "They don't realize how dirty my hands get building it. You're getting incredible quality, built to fit you and it's going to last the rest of your life."
Much of his time goes into wrapping carbon fiber, often colored with pigment he has added, around frame tubes to add strength and aesthetic appeal. He is especially proud of his ''Big Bad Bike Baking Oven,'' which he had built to harden the epoxy resin that bonds the carbon fiber tubes that make up a frame. The process takes just two hours instead of the two days it would take if the frame just sat drying in his shop.
Bicycling has been in Appleman's blood since grade school. He went on to start the cycling club at Winona State University. His obsession with carbon fiber also began at Winona State, where he earned a bachelor's degree in composite materials engineering in one of just three such undergraduate programs in the world.
With a remarkably high strength-to-weight radio, carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer, often simply referred to as carbon fiber, is used in everything from Formula One race cars to aircraft and sporting goods such as hockey sticks. Among the characteristics bicyclists appreciate is the material's ability to absorb the shocks of the road.
Appleman raced road and track bikes for 10 years until he injured a knee in college. As he recovered, he began building his own bikes to ensure a comfortable, high-performance ride.
Most of his sales come through his website, though he is seeking to partner with select bicycle shops to display his bikes and do custom fits for buyers. One such partner is Brone's Bike Shop, a high-end specialty retailer in Fountain City, Wis.
"What we like is the 100 percent flexibility he has with build options," owner Mark Brone said. "The ride quality is top notch. It's got impeccable craftsmanship and well-thought-out tube construction to go into that perfect ride for the type of ride you're desiring."
Andy Kruse, a velodrome racer from Minneapolis, said the bike he bought exceeded his expectations.
"It was definitely a machine that's well made for me and what I do," Kruse said. "The advantage of working with Matt is getting something totally personalized to what I want and like."
The expert says: Dileep Rao, president of InterFinance Corp. in Golden Valley and clinical professor of entrepreneurship at Florida International University, said Appelman has done well in clearing the first two hurdles of starting a business: finding an opportunity he likes and where he has special expertise and developing a business model where he can satisfy a need and make money.
But the third hurdle -- growth -- could be challenging because it will require Appleman to expand beyond his "single product, single market" strategy, Rao said. His plan to expand into multiple markets is sound but evaluating options such as distribution channels, strategic alliances, marketing and who could work with him might be helpful.
"The decisions that he makes at this stage can be crucial because he is going beyond relying on himself to relying on others," Rao said. "This means that he needs to think about the kind of organization he needs to develop and the leadership skills he needs to learn.''