Gear Issue: Sitting in with Adam Sklar
Sklar Bikes owner Adam Sklar launched his handbuilt bicycle company after blending his passion for cycling with his engineering degree. Sklar grew up racing mountain bikes in Colorado, and moved to Bozeman, Montana, to pursue an engineering degree at Montana State University. As a college kid, Sklar regularly welded his own bicycles in his garage; as the months went by, his personal designs became quite good. Friends asked him to build bikes for them; soon, it was friends of friends. So, during his junior year of college, he launched Sklar Bikes, and the rest is history.
You started Sklar bicycles without any previous business experience. How have you navigated those challenges?
It’s been really fun so far. I was [making bicycles] just for fun because I liked to make things. At some point I had to learn about running a business. It turns out, I really like that part of the job. A lot of people come to [bike building] from working in other industries or working in the bike industry and wanting something smaller. For me, this is the only end of the industry I’ve known. In some ways, it’s been an advantage to not know the way things operate, not be as tied to the norms. It’s helped me reach out to customers in different ways and talk about my bikes in different ways that I think people relate to. I think that’s part of the success there.
What have been your biggest challenges throughout the company’s history?
The main challenge you face starting out as a custom frame builder is the experience. Customers get to talk to the person that’s designing and building their bike, and the design process is where the bulk of your time is spent. Setting up systems so that I’m able to be really available to all my customers and provide them with a really nice experience—that was definitely the hardest part.
It takes time to set up relationships with distributors. You go to events and you meet people, and that’s sort of a slow process—making those connections. And then you’re also trying to make every bike you build better than the last one. I started my business during my third year of school. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. I don’t think I could do it now. I had more energy back then.
How helpful was your engineering degree in this process?
It was really helpful. I’m more involved with the craftsmanship side of things, but there’s definitely all those engineering principles that come in handy. Sometimes I take them for granted as things that I just know. For example, I just designed these new parts that are pre-printed, stainless steel and titanium. I know how to design them, develop them in [computer-aided design software], go to a manufacturer, and have them made for a reasonable price. That’s all stuff that I learned in school.
How have the market dynamics impacted your company’s growth?
I definitely launched the business in a good place at a good time, when the handmade scene had seen a big resurgence. Because I was younger, I took advantage of things like digital marketing, and I used the Internet to get my brand out there. I think being in Bozeman helped too. I’m so isolated, there’s not enough people here to support me so I’ve had to reach outside. By having to reach so far, I’ve set myself up for a more sustainable business.
I know the whole bike industry right now is on edge. We sell luxury goods, so people are pretty nervous. The handmade scene is doing well. I started doing titanium bikes about a year and a half ago. I think, in general, there’s a lot of folks who are looking for performance bikes that aren’t necessarily a race bike, or even derived from a race bike. They still want the high performance. Titanium bikes have been huge for that. I think that direction is where the industry is headed, in general.
What’s your best-selling model thus far?
I still don’t have a great word for it, but right now it’s the monster ’cross sort of all-road bike. It has road bike geometry and big tires. It’s the one bike you can you can ride pretty much anything on.
So, it sounds like your customers are gravel fans.
A big reason people come to me is because I ride a lot, and I typically do a lot of gravel or mixed-surface riding. my background is in mountain biking, and as I moved more toward road bikes, I still wanted something I could ride on singletrack. I just couldn’t help myself. I think gravel is becoming more popular because it’s more approachable than hopping right into mountain biking. If someone’s going to spend a bunch of money on a bike, they want something more versatile. If I could only have one bike, that’s the bike I would own.