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McMurray: Planet Bike sees bike advocacy as path to sales

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

There are a slew of different ways to drum up business. 

For Bob Downs, who founded Planet Bike in Madison’s more than a dozen years ago, aiding bicycle advocacy groups was – and remains – a way to help his company grow. 

Since its start in 1996, Planet Bike has given away 25 percent of its profits – nearly $1 million to date, says Dave McMurray, director of sales and marketing for the after-market, bike accessory company.

“From the beginning, we’ve been passionate about giving back to the sport because Bob thought it was important. But also because he knew it would be good for business.

“If you strengthen organizations that are pushing for more bike lanes and improved safety, that will get more people on bikes. And they’ll buy gear.”

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Downs worked for Waterloo-based Trek Bicycles for eight years before branching out with his own firm.

An avid cyclist, Downs commuted more than 60 miles a day on his bike riding from Madison to Waterloo – “or so legend has it,” McMurray said with a grin. Downs has ridden as many as 15,000 miles a year and participates in road, mountain bike and cyclocross races, according to the Planet Bike website.

McMurray said the company, which is run out of a nondescript building on Madison’s East Side, has always focused on after-market accessories. It now has 8 employees and sells primarily to independent shops, though cyclists can also find its products at REI or buy them online.

The company sells everything from bamboo fenders (a new offering) to heavy duty chains.  But the strongest category is lighting, including head and tail lights, as well as illumination for seats, ankles, helmets and just about any other spot on a cyclist’s body or ride.

He said Planet Bike’s Superflash lights are its most popular items.

“As the daylight shortens this time of year, you see some cyclists lit up like Christmas trees,” said McMurray, who uses a lighted BRT ankle strap, another on his seat post, two on his handlebars and a Superflash on his backpack.

After lights, the most purchased items are fenders, which come in two styles; full for the most coverage and clip-ons, which road riders like because they can snap them in place for rainy day riding and then quickly remove them.

Then there are pumps, gloves, cycling computers and more.

“Planet Bike wants wants to lower the threshold for getting people on bikes for fun and transportation, from taking a trip down to the corner market, to school, going for a short spin or a much longer tour,” said McMurray, who lived in Crested Butte, Colo. before moving to Madison with his wife and family.

The company doesn’t want to pigeon-hole itself as being just for commuters. It sponsored the big cyclocross race held recently in Sun Prairie and also supports its own cyclocross team. (Cyclocross is a rugged blend of road and off-road riding, with races held in the fall and winter.)  

But McMurray acknowledged that the majority of its sales are to people who use their bikes to get to work, school or to run errands. 

And last summer, when gas hit $4 a gallon, he said its sales took off when people took down bikes that were hanging in the garage and began using them to commute. 

As part of its philosophy of being a firm that has higher goals than just making a profit, McMurray said Planet Bike has pushed for sustainability and cutting waste.

“From the beginning, Planet Bike has tried to be a model company within the bike industry and beyond,” he said. “We’ve had MGE energy audits, we put solar panels on our roof, gotten rid of plastic packaging and are always looking at ways to reduce our impact on the natural world.”

It was early November when I interviewed McMurray and a fairly mild day.

“You may have noticed we never heat our warehouse. (I hadn’t.) So it gets awfully chilly come January,” he said.

“But our offices are heated, barely,” he said, chuckling. “That’s why we are all layered up. We try to promote the ‘tread lightly’ theme. And we all use our bikes when we can.”

The sustainability idea flows into Planet Bike products, he said.

“We put a lot of thought into what we make," he said. "First, we try to make it durable so it lasts for a long time. And then, if it breaks, it should be rebuildable."

He said the store offers parts to keep products functioning and keep them out of landfills.

McMurray said Planet Bike has worked with advocacy groups from Madison to Chicago to Iowa City and around the country. 

“A while back, we gave refurbished equipment to a school group from the Bronx that was following the Underground Railroad through New York,” he said. “We also support the ‘Get Lit’ program that targets lower-income folks to get them to use lights when they ride at night. And this summer, we worked with Latino and immigrant communities to teach bicycle safety. We get oodles of requests.”

The company also has collaborated with other cycling companies to make Madison a more bike-friendly town, with the aim of getting the League of American Bicyclists platinum award. It now has the gold honor. 

“We’re a small firm, but I think we’re making a difference,” he said. “That’s a pretty good feeling. For a long time, we felt like we were the lone voice for advocacy in this industry. I’m proud that we have created some momentum.”

For the future, McMurray said Planet Bike wants to expand abroad.

“We have customers in Australia, New Zealand, Korea and even Dubai. Right now, we are looking for opportunities in Europe. Our brand is growing because our products are phenomenal, reasonably priced and we have that great ’25 percent’ message that separates us from the competition.”

For more information on Planet Bike, go to http://planetbike.com.

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