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Ep. 53 - Community-Driven Content Strategy to Disrupt the Traditional Market with Mehdi Farsi

Mehdi Farsi is the co-founder of State Bicycle Co., a digitally native and innovative bike company specializing in bikes, gear, and apparel.

He is the visionary behind the company’s products and designs, as well as the driving force of the company’s marketing and large social media presence.

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • [1:17] Mehdi’s journey before starting State Bicycle
  • [4:31] Mehdi’s history with eCommerce well before Shopify
  • [5:56] State Bicycle Co.’s origin story
  • [8:48] Successful startups begin with founders trying to solve a problem and providing a simple solution. - Chase
  • [9:23] How long did State Bicycle Co. take from an idea to their first samples?
  • [11:43] When did Mehdi go all-in on the bike business?
  • [12:31] Where did State Bicycle Co. spend most of their time on their business?
  • [14:14] The community aspect always comes up when talking about the first jump forward in business - Chase
  • [14:46] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.link/honest
  • [15:34] Having been running for 10 years, what has changed for State Bicycle Co.?
  • [17:45] How did State Bicycle Co. manage to successfully sell online what was traditionally sold from a physical store?
  • [22:47] Remind yourself, as you grow, that you were once, also a naive customer - Mehdi
  • [24:21] The importance of content strategy for State Bicycle Co.
  • [25:51] What content strategy works the best for State Bicycle Co.?
  • [27:20] Mehdi’s message to young people: If you have an idea, don’t sit on it too much. It’s the perfect time for you to take risks.

Resources:

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Transcript:

Mehdi Farsi

Don't be afraid to put something out there. Get feedback on it, then grow from there and improve.

 

Chase Clymer

Welcome to Honest eCommerce, where we're dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners.

 

I'm your host, Chase Clymer and I believe running an online business does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.

 

If you're struggling with scaling your sales, Electric Eye is here to help. To apply to work with us visit electriceye.io/connect to learn more. Now let's get on with the show.

 

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Honest eCommerce. I am your host, Chase Clymer. And today we have a fantastic guest coming to us. It is Mehdi Farsi. He's the visionary behind the State Bicycle Co.

 

It's an amazing product that they have out there and it's very unique because they're selling something... It's a little higher-end online and it's a completely digital native brand.

 

So he's gonna have a lot of insights on how to help move those products that are traditionally luxury products per se with the higher price points. How to move those online and connect with your customers and your brand. Welcome to the show today, Mehdi.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Alright. Thanks for having me.

 

Chase Clymer

Oh, yes, this is gonna be a fun one. So, before we get into all the fun stuff that you have going on at State Bicycle, let's go back to before starting this business. What were you doing? What was your journey like?

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah. So throughout college, I was working for a company called ImproveNet. They were contractor-to-consumer matching service, kind of like ServiceMagic or HomeAdvisor; I think it is now what it's called.

 

So working on that, under the marketing wing, learning all about different keywords and campaigns that they were managing. Several hundred thousand different keywords and different campaigns.

 

So I really got my feet wet that way. And then, I always had the entrepreneurial spirit. I'm really drawn towards design, as well.

 

So, a lot of my friends and peers were in filmmaking, photography, graphic design and really into that. And so I got into obtaining and selling mid-century modern furniture and mid-century reproduction furniture.

 

So with my passion for that and also my eCommerce background, I started a furniture business where we were selling that type of furniture online. So this was pretty early on. I would say 2005 - 2006, so before Amazon was a juggernaut that it was. So I was doing that in college.

 

I actually wrote my honors thesis about how I could grow that business. And I got out of college. I wasn't really sure what I was going to do. And so I was going to just go the traditional route of, I'll apply for the MBA school at ASU. I liked being a student.

 

So, I went to apply and aced all my entrance exams. Thought I was going to be like a slam dunk in and I was told that I was denied on the basis that I didn't have enough work experience.

 

And so that gave me a little kick in the pants and I was like, "Well, I guess I'm going to just be doing this business that I started that was just extra money for college students, I'm going to go pursue that full time." And so I did. And I was doing that.

 

And my brother, who I work with now at State Bicycle, decided to join me in that. We became partners in that and we grew that. We did over a million dollars gross in our first year, which, being 22 years old/23 years old was phenomenal for us. And so yeah, that's what we were doing before State Bicycle Co.

 

Chase Clymer

Now, that was still back in like, 2005 - 2006 that you were...

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah. 2005 - 2006 was when we started and then I graduated in... We both graduated, actually in 2007. Me in the spring and my bro in the fall, so...

 

Chase Clymer

Yeah.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah. So after 2007, that's what we're doing full-time.

 

Chase Clymer

And that was way back in the day before Shopify and all this direct-to-consumer craze. I feel like it's definitely a lot easier to start a business these days.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Totally. Yeah, we were relying very heavily on eBay. I think, later on, actually, even Amazon but just (as an) Amazon seller, not selling to Amazon. But you could set up a small shop on Amazon. So we're doing that.

 

But eBay was definitely a big driver for us and then also selling locally as much as we can. And then building our own website through GoDaddy. There weren’t really as many eCommerce backend options, as you said, at that time.

 

Chase Clymer

Absolutely. That's probably where I first started to get really deep into this stuff and learning web design and all that stuff.

 

I think I was playing around with WooCommerce back then. I don't even know if that was out yet.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Sure. Yeah. Yeah. I think we're on something called Volusion.

 

Chase Clymer

Oh yeah. I definitely heard of that one. So, is that business still around? Or did you guys sell it or calmed it down?

 

Mehdi Farsi

We phased it out. Yeah. So, to backtrack a little bit, again, that 2007 - 2008 range. We started seeing a lot of our peers and friends riding fixed gear bikes and they were definitely popular amongst younger people at that time and we were brought up around cycling.

 

So we spent our summers watching the Tour de France. It was something that was always a part of our lives as a sport and activity. Nothing that we were super crazy active in terms of cycling but it was something that was always a part of our childhood and even as adolescence.

 

And in the process of wanting to get one of these fixed gear bikes that we just were learning about ourselves, we realized that it was not the easiest thing to get. So at that time there, there was virtually no retailer selling online.

 

And then locally here in Arizona, there were only maybe one or two shops in the whole state that were carrying fixed gear related products. And even in that case, you would have to buy the frame from one manufacturer. A different manufacturer you'd buy the wheels (from). You might have to go online to find the crank that you wanted.

 

And by the time you did all the research, figured it all out, priced everything out, you'd be looking at well over $1,000, a ton of time and for someone who was just getting into it, that wasn't very attractive. Because you don't know... It was a pretty considerable spend.

 

So we actually went through some of our supply chains in Asia and asked around. (We) started looking at bicycle manufacturers and we're like, "Hey, maybe... We know there's going to be definitely a demand for these things. How can we get them made?"

 

And again, -- the same thing overseas-- there weren't a lot of factories making what we were looking for. You could find a factory that might have a bike to sell you, but it wasn't something that you want to ride. The quality isn't good.

 

So we spent about a year and a half just going back and forth sampling and sourcing all the different parts and components and everything, and managed to completely bootstrap the operation. (We) put our funds together and we ordered 140 bikes, which was the bare minimum we could order, and we got them and (it) took off from there.

 

Chase Clymer

It's so funny how many successful businesses start from the founder, experiencing some problem and having that lightbulb moment where it's just like, "It shouldn't be this hard."

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah, definitely. I think, also it was something that we were passionate about. And yeah, it was almost selfish in the sense that, "Hey, we want to be riding these cool bikes, but we don't want to be spending $1500 on them. There's got to be a better way to do this."

 

Chase Clymer

Yeah, plus the countless hours of research and all that. So how long did it take you when you guys realized, "There's an opportunity here. Could this be a business?"

 

How long (did) it take until you guys had that idea in your mind to where you got a physical bike that you were riding.

 

Mehdi Farsi

The first samples didn't take very long, maybe only a couple of months. But those were, again, things that we weren't really fond of. Because the first supplier (said) actually, "Oh yeah. You can do it." So we got a bike.

 

I think it sat... I rode it a couple of times and sat in the warehouse, our furniture warehouse for a couple of months. And then, I think, I sold it on eBay for $100 because I was like, "This thing is a piece of junk."

 

And then it was actually my brother, who kind of prompted it. It had to have been several months later after we sold that bike he said, "Hey, what happened to that bike? I think there's an opportunity. I'm seeing these bikes more and more everywhere. They're really cool. I think we should maybe try to sell these things as a side business."

 

So, we both discussed it and decided that, if we were going to do this, (we) gotta do it right. And that's when kind of that research process happened. And I would say that that took maybe 12 to 18 months.

 

And then we started a separate company because we did bring in a third partner who was actually working for us in the furniture business. So, we all put in a little bit of cash to completely, separately fund the bike venture.

 

And then... And so that was November 2009 so we're coming right up on our 10 year anniversary. And then we started selling bikes that March of 2010.

 

And this is before we even, I think, had the name of the company or anything. We were just selling generic fixed gear bikes. Unbranded fixed gear bikes, I should say.

 

Chase Clymer

That's amazing. So you guys were scaling that up, and the furniture business is still going?

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah. Still humping along. Yeah, yeah. So, all the proceeds from the bike business we were able to reinvest.

 

Chase Clymer

So when did you guys start to shift your focus away from furniture into these bicycles and just go all in?

 

Mehdi Farsi

I would say, we were simultaneously doing both for a year to a year and a half. And then after about 18 months, it became apparent that what we were doing, in terms of creating a brand, that's so much more potential on the State Bicycle side of things.

 

So after about 18 months, I think we decided to just phase out the other business. So, I would say in total, we are probably running about both businesses for about 2 years from start to finish. And then yeah. Then it was off and running full-time with State Bicycle.

 

Chase Clymer

Awesome. So in that first couple... Once you guys started to shift your focus, where were you guys finding your biggest wins? You had established your product-market fit. You guys have made an awesome product. You guys are getting those initial sales. You realize like, "Hey, we got something here."

 

Where were you starting to invest your time to move the needle in your business to increase what was important to you? Which for most people it's sales, but there are other things that are important. So where were you guys spending your time?

 

Mehdi Farsi

Sure. So a lot it was just boots on the ground, grassroots stuff. So, we were able to... Our warehouse was very close to the Arizona State University campus. Big student-base. A lot of people (are) commuting by bike, etc.

 

So, before we had a website or a name we're selling... We're just hustling, selling bikes on Craigslist and Amazon and eBay. But where we started to build that brand and community was through doing different events.

 

And this is also at the time when Facebook is starting to just really take off astronomically and you can reach an audience with actually no money. There weren’t even ads, I think, at that time and everything was chronological.

 

So (we) started building that way, but a lot of it was local community building on Facebook. So, doing weekly night rides at 8 pm on Wednesdays and getting people to come out.

 

I think there was just a lot of excitement around the brand because we were just doing fun and exciting things that we found interesting and people wanted to be a part of that.

 

Chase Clymer

That's awesome. I think the community aspect comes up a lot when people are talking about how they really got the first/initial jump forward with their business.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah, absolutely. I think, without the airs on a community here, --I was being out and really trying to facilitate and foster and grow the bicycle scene here-- we wouldn't have happened. So I think we contributed a lot, but also the riders around here contributed a lot for us.

 

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Chase Clymer

So, let's jump through time to the present day. You guys have been doing this for almost 10 years now, (laughs) what's changed since then?

 

Mehdi Farsi

Oh my goodness. So, a lot has changed and a lot is the same. So, for one, the products are way different. So we started with what is now called our “4130 Line.

 

At that time, it was just our fixed gear bikes and we had seven colorways but it was the same bike, just seven different colors. We started with three sizes and now, just in that line alone, we probably have a dozen different colorways that are constantly being retired and new ones coming out.

 

Seven different sizes, different handlebars, different wheels, and that's just that line of the bike. But we've branched out.

 

We do City Bikes now that are more casual. We have a more price point, entry-level bike at $299, which is called our “Core-Line” out. And now, we have bikes that are... We're getting into Geared Bikes, we're getting into Off-Road Bikes and then --that's not even to mention all the parts and accessories that we do-- we do a ton of apparel. We do anything from handlebars and saddles, all the way to light for your bikes, backpacks.

 

So we've built an entire ecosystem around the bike just because the bike really isn't the only thing you need. There's all kinds of gear and stuff ad that's something that we will either do in-house or bring on third-party brands that we personally love and we personally use and curate that experience for our riders. Because so many of our customers so many of our riders are first-time writers, like we were, back in 2008 - 2009.

 

Chase Clymer

So with selling a bike, that's something that traditionally, people would want to hop on it at the store and give it a test ride. How have you overcome the difficulty of selling something that originally... It was definitely more like a hands-on buying experience. So how do you translate that online? What's that process like?

 

Mehdi Farsi

Totally. So I think, to zoom out and look at the bicycle industry, most people... Let's take out online sales.

 

Most people traditionally would get their bikes in one of two ways. They would go to a local bike shop, --which now we work with, actually, over 300 bike shops worldwide. Local bike shops. And this is your mom-and-pop bike shop that's on the corner or nearby college campus-- or they go into one of these boutique experiences.

 

There's a lot of those shops, but that is actually a fairly small percentage of the market. The big market is big-box retailers.

 

So you go into your Walmart or Target or DICK’s Sporting Goods and they're doing the bulk of bike sales. Even if you exclude kids bikes, they're doing the bike... Unit by unit, they're doing the bulk of the sales in this country. And when you go into those stores, I can't say that the experience is any better.

 

In fact, I know that it's worse than the experience you're going to get online because of those costs... Bikes for those stores is just one tiny SKU in ten, or hundreds of thousands of SKUs at the selling that store.

 

So, there's very seldom, if ever, an expert that can talk to you about the advantages or disadvantages of a bike. Oftentimes, they're assembled incorrectly.

 

They don't really have the size selection. It's like, you go in you, you look, and you see a bike with (and) adjustable seat post in and it's supposed to be one-size-fits-all, but that's not (laughs) normally the case.

 

So I think by being online, we can actually... You can sit down, you can look at the pictures, you can read about how you can customize the bike. We have very detailed geometry and size chart recommendations.

 

One thing that we've had almost the entire duration of our company is a wonderful live chat that our customers often engage with, and then they can also ask questions on social media, and so forth.

 

So I think there are multiple interactions that we can have with a customer, and take care of that customer, and address all their questions and concerns, a lot more than you would get in a big box store.

 

And then like I said, the other side of the coin is a local bike shop. There are some great local bike shops. There are some bike shops that are not so great. So that's going to be a coin flip on what kind of experience you get there.

 

In the bike world, there is definitely a stigma or I guess a stereotype that a lot of the bike shops are like the high-fidelity, snobby record store where if you go into a bike shop and you don't look a certain way, or act a certain way, or even on some of the higher-end stores if you're not wearing clothes where they think that they can't sell you a $2,000 or a $3,000 or a $4,000 bike, the employees there are not really great for their customers.

 

And don't get me wrong. That's not every bike shop at all. But there are countless people that have poor experiences in these types of shops because it is cliquey in a way. And that problem is only exasperated if you're a woman or a person of color.

 

So our whole thing --and it kind of harkens back to kind of the grassroots efforts that we're doing-- is we wanted to be as inclusive as possible for everyone.

 

Our mission, whether it's the price point of bike, the design of the bike, or just our general attitude to new riders, and our patience in explaining what kind of gear you need, and the maintenance and everything, our goal is just to get more riders on the road because that makes everyone safer, that makes everyone healthier and it's good for environment.

 

And ultimately, we're sharing our passion for cycling with more people.

 

Chase Clymer

Absolutely. That was a great answer. My takeaway was if you know, if you want to sell something that's traditionally a more long-term sale, you got to answer every question, you got to be the nicest about it, and you got to be, you know, an expert in exactly what you're doing.

 

And I think that's going to help anyone that's selling a product that could be compared to a bicycle.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah, absolutely. So, the one thing that we always have to remind ourselves, especially the further we get away from the beginning of the company, is that we were not always as knowledgeable, we were not always in the position. Most of our customers do not self-identify (as) a cyclist.

 

So as the brand is growing, we've definitely bled into that like cycling industry and we get hardcore riders but I would say those people only make up 10 to 20% of our client base. 80% of our customers are, the kid or --I say kid but-- the young person that either is going to college and they've had the same mountain bike that their parents bought them in middle school and they are finally buying their first bike with their own money and they want something a little nicer, it's that person.

 

It's a person (who has) freshly graduated and they got a job and an apartment in the city and it's just frankly inconvenient and doesn't make sense to commute by car so they've wanted a bike so they can get to work and back home and go to the bar after work. So they want something like that.

 

They want something that's easy to maintain, simple. That's why the majority of our sales are still fixed gear and single-speed bikes. One gear. And I would say the majority of the commute. Our bikes are sub 5 miles to 10 miles type of thing.

 

Chase Clymer

Absolutely. So let's switch it up a little bit here now. So, let's talk about how important is your content strategy to the overall success of State Bicycle.

 

Mehdi Farsi

I think it's like, they go hand in hand. They're intertwined. Really, with us not having a physical storefront, the many ways that we interact with the customers are... it's all digital.

 

Whether that's our live chat, whether that's our social media, whether that's through our advertising, whether that's through our YouTube videos, those are all of our touchpoints with our customers. And being able to clearly convey our messaging, and what we stand for, and just our overall vibe is really important.

 

And that's why someone would choose to spend their hard-earned cash. Again, many of our customers are college students, they're on a budget, and they're choosing to spend their dollars with us and we don't take that lightly.

 

So, one of the ways that we are able to, convince people and people choose to spend the money with us, is through our content strategy. Like I said, otherwise, we're not the cheapest bike on the market.

 

We're not the most expensive, but we're not the cheapest whatsoever. So people have a myriad of options but choosing to come to State because of our brand, and because of what we stand for, and that's backed up by the quality of the product, but it's really reinforced through the content and conveyed through the content, I should say.

 

Chase Clymer

So what are some of the, I guess, tactics of producing the content for the business? Which ones seem to work the best?

 

Mehdi Farsi

Really, it's going to depend on the line of bike and the different personalities. So, most of our content that you see is going to be, we call it "casually competitive." So, we always want to have that underlying tone that like our bikes can perform, or you can race on our bikes, or you can crush the streets on our bikes if you wanted to.

 

But for the most part, it's laid back, it's fun, it's free-spirited, and that's the messaging that we always try to convey.

 

Another thing that just harkens back to my love of photography and design, and everything, we just want to keep everything simple and clean.

 

Again, most of our bikes are going to first-time bike buyers, and we don't want people to really have to get into the weeds of having too much maintenance or too much technical knowledge.

 

We want to sell bikes to people that can just get on the bike and go. So those are the messaging that we're always trying to convey. And we do that through a variety of ways. I mean, we tried to translate that in our photography, like I said, and the copy on the website, through our different various video series and video ads, etc.

 

Chase Clymer

Awesome. That sounds great. Well, before I let you go here, is there anything else that you want to share with our audience?

 

Mehdi Farsi

I mean, it sounds a little cliche, but (if) you have something that you're passionate about, and you have an idea, don't be afraid to fail, especially if you're a young person, that's the best time to take risks because you have a lot less to lose.

 

So if there are young people listening, if you have an idea, don't wait and don't sit on it too much. Just execute and who knows what could happen?

 

Chase Clymer

Absolutely. You'll figure it out from there.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah, definitely. And your plan (on) day one doesn't have to be your plan five years from now. You do take it day by day. Absolutely. You take it day by day, you sell products, whatever you're putting out there you're getting... And then you get external feedback and you process that and then you get better.

 

It's always been an ebb and flow. We've been, in a lot of ways, driven by the tastes and our interests of our customers. And that's another way that... And social media can be so helpful, too.

 

You need to have a balance between listening to your customers and putting out what you think is right. But don't be afraid to put something out there. Get feedback on it, and then grow from there and improve.

 

Chase Clymer

That's a lovely way to end the episode. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

 

Mehdi Farsi

Yeah, thanks for having me.

 

Chase Clymer

I cannot thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their journey and knowledge with us today. We've got a lot to think about and potentially add to our businesses. Links and more information will be available in the show notes as well.

 

If anything in this podcast resonated with you and your business, feel free to reach out and learn more at electriceye.io/connect. Also, make sure you subscribe and leave an amazing review. Thank you!