I think a lot about the differences between domain expertise and functional expertise, and how much of each is needed to run a company. For us, domain expertise is knowledge of the bike business - manufacturing techniques, economics, the competitive landscape, and of course having a racer's understanding of what specific properties in a bike or wheelset are desirable, and why. There is no big mystery in domain expertise - you just have to decide to become a student of an industry, which Dave and I did. If you follow this blog at all, it's likely that you've made the same decision. If not, then our open kimono policy here on the blog probably comes across as an act of indecent exposure.
The functional expertise required to run a business varies by function, naturally. We're still pretty centralized over here so between the two of us Dave and I have to cover all the functions. We do have some division of labor to avoid redundancy, but some functions require both our attention. Like Customer Service.
It's remarkable how much of our job is customer service. We get a ton of questions - about our own products, about how to use or install them or install something onto them, and about how to choose, use and install products that might one day be in the same room as our products. Currently Dave and I respond to all of these ourselves, but we've started videotaping our customer interactions for training purposes, so our employees will better anticipate questions and get a sense of the customer-focused culture we're creating.
Here are a few of our training videos. The first is Dave responding to a series of questions about our wheels - rim composition, brake track width, hub pawls, origin of components, etc. You'll see that each response yields more questions, yet Dave remains unflappable in his willingness to engage the customers.
The training lesson from this video is that you can never have too much information for some customers. And even though these actually left without buying from us we love them anyway because they're engaged enough with us to ask, and because they actually expect us to have the answers and deliver them promptly. That's one of the ways we try to differentiate, and we're glad when customers take us up on it.
Sometimes we make mistakes with customers though. Here's an example I'm not too proud of. I've been working on the Custom Configurators for the Wheelhouse custom bikes in the current pre-order, which will allow our pre-order customers to build up their SRAM, Shimano or Campagnolo Wheelhouses any way they like. We offered this service last year but it was done through email and phone and took a ton of time. This year, we're programming it into the site. The reason is that it's better service to let the website deliver answers to all the "what if" pricing questions ("what if I go with the Ritchey carbon bars instead of the WCS Curve?"), freeing me and Dave up to answer questions like the ones we saw in the first video.
Anyway, this video is from last year. It was very close to the pre-order deadline and I must have received one too many "what if" pricing and substitution emails. The custom configurator ensures we don't feel we have to respond to our customers this way again.
There are some inherent dangers in our "love the customer" approach. The risk is that our customers could try to take advantage of us. I went to college with a guy (a jackass of a guy, actually) who found a broken set of Ray Bans on the ski hill one day. They were smashed and bent beyond saving but he put them in his pocket anyway. "LL Bean has a policy where you can return anything you're not satisfied with and they'll replace it, no questions asked. They carry Ray Bans." (That tells you how long ago I went to college.) A couple weeks later he was wearing brand new Ray Bans from LL Bean, the result of the company's good deed not going unpunished.
We're bound to get our share of loophole seekers as well, but we have an advantage over LL Bean. Our whole approach is to be candid about our business and our economics, which makes it easy for us to talk to our customers as if we were both reasonable people. LL Bean's blanket promise to customers doesn't allow the brand to say no when facing an egregious violation. Ours does.