Pedestrians in Faneuil Hall in Boston stop and share. They take out their phones, hoping to get a shot of the party passing by. It’s not a Red Sox or a Patriots parade, it’s the BikeBus.
This bus does not have regular seats, instead there are nine bikes with harnesses for seat belts. As the passengers pedal on the bikes, peppy music blasts as Seema Brodie, a small and energetic woman encourages them to keep pedaling and to turn up their resistance as Eric, her husband, drives the bus throughout the streets of Boston. As the song ends, the riders smile and high five each other, even though they’re drenched in sweat from their spin class.
You may not know it from their class, but the BikeBus staff were not lifelong gym rats. In fact, both started their careers as lawyers. Eric spent some years working as a lawyer for a bus company. “He not only learned the legalities of buses, but also basic operations, ” Seema said.
Seema, on the other hand, was a prosecutor for six years before leaving law altogether. Following the birth of her children, she became a mindfulness coach and teacher.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2014, however, until their separate careers truly came together; Eric’s sister asked him about whether it would be possible to have a mobile gym on a bus.
“And there it was, our Aha moment!”
Thereafter, the BikeBus, an indoor cycling class on a bus, was born in 2015. Here are a few important lessons that Seema and Eric learned in their first entrepreneurial venture. Lessons that you might find useful as you think about how to start your own business.
Doing Their Homework
Though their decision to start the Bike Bus was spontaneous, preparing for it was anything but. In September of 2014, they used their legal expertise to form their company and met with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (“DPU”), to discuss build out proposals and safety plans. In November, they hired Springfield, MA-based Coach Builders to retrofit a bus to their specifications and turn it into a cycling studio. At the same time, they retained structural engineers to ensure their designs were roadworthy and safe.
“We took into consideration the strength of the bikes and and the brackets that were firmly going to attach the bike to the foundation of the bus,” Seema said.
In January 2015, they presented these plans to the DPU and got approval!
Though neither were certified group exercise instructors to begin with, both became certified spin instructors, where they focused on studying proper form and technique in order to make sure the passengers don’t injure themselves long term. They learned that placing gel seats, as well as building lightweight safety harnesses that function as seat belts, kept their passengers safe and comfortable at the same time.
“Some of my friends tell me ‘it’s a cool idea, but I’m afraid my butt will get sore,’ and I tell them ‘We take care of your butt,” Seema said. (For the record, this should be their business slogan.)
They also met regularly with the DPU’s Transportation Oversight Division in order to learn more about how to execute the logistics of their vision of keeping passengers safe as they exercise inside the vehicle.
As a two-person mom-and-pop operation, it is hard for Seema and Eric to constantly manage multiple moving parts, but they delegate based on their talents and personalities.
Bubbly and social Seema teaches the class, focusing on keeping the passengers motivated and encouraging them to “high-five” each other. She also handles the marketing and social media, which is one of her biggest challenges because she is doing it all herself.
“We would go viral on YouTube with more manpower and more money,” she said.
As a result, she has become very creative and nimble with her marketing strategy, executing it in a way that is true to her mission of building connections and nurturing relationships.
In contrast, practical Eric handles the engineering. He not only drives the bus, but he also handles all the maintenance. He built the lightweight harnesses that double as seat belts to keep passengers safe and comfortable as they pedal furiously. And staying true to his legal background, he wrote the company’s entire patent of safety systems.
Even though they are a small business, their delegation and understanding of their own strengths shows their nimbleness, resourcefulness and creativity.
Be Flexible and Pivot
One of the most important things that Seema and Erik learned in their entrepreneurial journey is the importance of pivoting, or adapting to change, even if it’s different from the original vision. They originally intended the bike bus to give people an opportunity to exercise during their commutes to work. Since the concept of a mobile gym or a mobile spin class is so novel and outside the box, and they did not have the marketing dollars to advertise to everyone in the Greater Boston area, it was hard to gain traction for the commuter rides on an individual itickering level.
“When you build something, it doesn’t have to be the way you planned it originally,” Seema said.
So they pivoted to working with corporate wellness programs, providing employees with the opportunity to take the class during their lunch breaks and after work for team building outings. Electronic giant Bose was one of their first clients.
“We found that companies are always looking for unique, healthy, and creative activities to do with their healthy employees,” she said.The companies who have been on board to try out the experience are now starting to open the discussion of scheduling commuter rides as well.
They also stumbled on a way to another way expand their business completely accident. They were nominated for the “Best Tour of Boston Award” this past year (without even being an official tour company,) even beating The Boston Duck Tours, one of the most famous tour companies in the city. (They came in third!) The award inspired them to move beyond employee wellness to city tours of Boston.
“We’re not completely pivoting away from employee wellness, but our weekend city tours that we do in the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays have opened us up to a lot more people,” she said.
Unique Selling Proposition
Seema credits a large part of the BikeBus’ success to the fact that she and Eric have stayed true to their identity and their vision, mainly to their core tenant of forming real bonds with their customers.
“We’re lawyers,not business people,so we still have a lot to learn about business, but we also wanted to stay true to who we are,” she said.
What this means to Seema and Eric is to truly connect and build relationships with their customers, and encourage them to be their zany selves!
“In most spin classes I’ve gone to, the instructor discourages singing along to the music, but I say ‘screw it, let’s let go of stress.” she said.
Seema’s mindfulness training also enhances the company’s mission of building connections and relationships among passengers.
“I like that we’re connecting again, we’re looking people eye to eye and really engaging. ” Seema said.
One of the most powerful images that truly represents the BikeBus brand to Seema and Eric is that of their passengers some from Boston, some from Germany, and some from Australia, smiling at each other at the end of a ride. One hour ago, they were all complete strangers, but now they smile and high-five each other.
“This isn’t about money, this is about making a personal experience,” she said.