Serial entrepreneur Fleetwood Hicks claims to have had "a lot of failures and a few successes" in his career -- but the response to his Villy Customs bicycle shop in Dallas suggests this one's the latter. Capitalizing on the growing trend of mass customization, Hicks provides bike enthusiasts with thousands of design combinations -- colors, frames, tires, even Swarovski crystals.
His team of five has assembled more than 800 cruisers, including a pimped-out one for Jerry Jones Jr., the vice president of marketing for the Dallas Cowboys and son of the team's charismatic owner. With a ridiculous number of colors and stylish accents, customers can design custom cruisers that are extensions of their personalities and make a fashion statement on two wheels. "I always say my bikes aren't for people who go to the bike store -- they're for people who go to the mall," Hicks says.
Hicks' mission is simple -- to get more people out of cars and onto bikes. After all, the cruiser is good for the environment, good for your health and a lot cheaper than a car. If you haven't ridden in a while, don't worry. It really is like riding a bike.
How did Villy Customs come to life?
I started out just having a cruiser bike store, Fleetwood's Kit Kat, in Dallas. I just started to switch things out piece by piece -- I'd swap out fenders on one bike and put 'em on another one. Then I went out and found unique tires, and I found a chaining company that made painted chains. The next thing I knew, we were kind of creating our own bikes and they were selling really well. So I got the idea to bring in our own frames and just build our own custom bikes from scratch.
When the custom cruisers really started selling in the store, I built a website. I got the same company that built Porsche.com, and it took us about eight months to create the website. I feel like it's the best virtual 3-D photo-realistic bike-building website in the world -- what you see is what you'll get.
When did you get into bikes?
I was doing fashion and going to L.A. a lot, and every time, I'd go to Venice Beach and ride around on a cruiser. I rented the bike for an hour and came back six hours later. Time just really flew by and I had a great time. I came back to Dallas, bought me a cruiser bike, then bought a couple more and started having some friends over. Everybody loved going on these little bike rides and it just kinda led me in that direction.
How do big bike makers like Schwinn feel about Villy Customs?
My nemesis is the bicycling industry, because the big bike companies do it the old-fashioned way. They build their set style of bikes with a color scheme and a theme and they sell it to bike shops, and the customer goes in and has to buy the bike that they made. I'm selling directly to the customer -- I'm not selling in any bike shops and I don't want to. I want the customer to personalize and design his own bike the way he wants it. So we've taken it to another level. We're really stepping it up and doing things people have never done before. It's hard for a big bike company to go out and change the way it does business. We're a small company, so we can do it faster and do a better job.
Is this your first business?
No, I've had a lot of failure. I've had a few successes, but more failures than successes. I've been a lifelong entrepreneur and I had most of my success in apparel. I had a couple clothing lines, I've designed jewelry, I've designed bedsheets, pillows, clothing and I delved into real estate a little here and there.
What were your startup costs for Villy?
I have personally financed 100 percent to date with personal savings, and I have had to dip into my retirement account, so I've been very financially efficient in building this company. I've researched what needed to be done pretty thoroughly, and I've negotiated most of my deals with individuals or companies that were willing to work with me for less than would normally charge because they liked the idea and believe in what we are doing at Villy Customs. To date, we've invested about $250,000. We need to spend much bigger dollars to really gain market share in this industry, so we've spent money on inventory, Web development, accounting and marketing expenses. And I have not paid myself for more than 18 months. If I hadn't been pretty shrewd, I think it would've cost more like $400,000 to get where we are.
Worst case scenario, do you have a backup plan?
Yes, we do. We see tons of opportunity in other areas from the course we've taken in this industry. When you innovate, you discover all kinds of ideas along the way. We think the biking industry is a gold mine because there is a lack of creativity. Most bike companies are marketing to an athlete, but our customer is the everyday mall mom, teenager, surfer or grandma.
Why should people buy cruisers?
This is what I say about bikes -- you can't find one bad thing about them. It's healthy, it's eco-friendly, it's fun, it's stylish, it's great social recreation. I think the cruiser is the fastest growing segment because it's the perfect bike for short, casual, fun rides. You don't have to get dressed up in spandex or put on special shoes or buy a bunch of equipment. If you're a girl, you can put on a sundress and a pair of flip-flops; a guy can throw on some shorts and go.
And once you buy the bike, you've prepaid for all your fun. Especially now, people are trying to save money, and bikes are a good thing for that. It's really not an expensive item, and the amount of fun you can have on it is in no way related to the price. It's a good place to spend your money, even in tough times.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Getting the parts I need and getting the word out on what we've got here at Villy. But we're improving on everything day by day, and the word is getting out. It just takes time.
Where'd the name "Villy" come from?
I was trying to come up with a good name. My dog's in the store every day, and he's the most popular, coolest dog. His name is DeVille, named after the car, but Cadillac owns the trademark on that name. Since his nickname is Villy, I ran the idea by some people and everybody liked the name, and I liked how the letters look together. He's just a great looking dog so I went with it, and he's our mascot.
What options do you offer for Villy Customs?
We have four frames -- two girls, two guys. Then there are 29 frame colors, 14 fender colors, eight chain colors, 45 pinstripe colors and 11 styles of tires. Price-wise, a real starter runs just a little over $300, and that's a pretty basic bike, almost like something you'd see at a regular bike shop. At $500, you can get something really unique and eye-catching. You go up to $600, $700 and you get custom pinstripes, Swarovski crystals, powder-coasted handle-bars, custom seat designs from this artist I found on Etsy. The average bike that we sell is about $500, but we can take it to whatever level you want. If you got some crazy idea, we'll try to do it for you.
With all those parts, you must have a pretty serious inventory.
Yeah, we try to get you your bike within a week of ordering it, so we've gotta have all these parts -- fenders, frame guard, chains, tires. We run a fine line between having everything we need and being able to grow, or having too much inventory and risking hurting ourselves financially. Right now we actually spend more money than we make because we're growing our inventory as we grow our company.
What's the next step for Villy?
We're turning it into something way cooler. Right now, you have to design your own bikes -- some people love it, but some people don't want to design their own bikes. Our website upgrade also will have a section where you can actually buy a bike that somebody else has already designed. The cool thing is that the person who designed the bike will get a sales commission from the company, which will help the viral aspect, because people are going to want to promote and sell the bike they designed.
I think we can overtake and dominate the cruiser bike market, but the biggest problem has been letting people in other states know where we are and what we do. I'm trying to work a deal with a large retail brick-and-mortar place where I can set up a style lab and have a kiosk with a display bike so people can order a customized bike at a retail store. But it's gotta be somebody who sells products that go well with a cruiser bikes!
Name: Fleetwood Hicks
Company: Villy Customs
Age: "Can we just say that I'm in my 40s?"
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 3/7/11.