Location: Mill Valley, CA and trails all over Marin County
In 2006, Ryan Loften was working as a bike mechanic, a waiter and a “manny.” Juggling all these roles wasn’t easy, but Ryan decided to add “entrepreneur” to the mix. Inspired by his year of mountain biking solo through Nepal, India and Southeast Asia, Ryan wanted to share his love of biking and exploring the great outdoors with kids in his own Northern California community. (Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais is the birthplace of mountain biking.) His plan? To run week-long summer mountain biking camps for kids ages 8-14. The first season, Ryan rode with 50 kids throughout the summer. Now he and his coaches ride the rocky trails with more than 300 sweaty, dusty, tired and very happy campers.
We caught up with Ryan as he gets ready for his busy summer season to learn how his business has changed over time, why being a boss is his greatest challenge and why, unlike most entrepreneurs, he’s determined not to grow his business.
Ryan, what steps did you take to get started as an entrepreneur?
I’d never run a business before, but my twin brother, Adam, had started a filmmaking summer camp a few years earlier. Knowing he’d done it made me feel confident that I could start my own business. I thought, he’s my equal, and if he can do it, I can, too. That was an important part of my decision process. Plus, Adam was a great source of information about things like marketing, building a website, creating a registration form and handling my bookkeeping. Twelve years later, I’m still using 85% of the “templates” my brother Adam shared with me when I was starting out.
At the same time, the owner of the bike shop where I was a mechanic agreed to partner with me on the bike camps. We each put up half the funding, and the shop provided us with a way to reach out to the local bike community. From the beginning, I provided the all sweat equity. Now the business model has changed, and I’m a sole proprietor. I’m still on every ride of the summer with the kids.
Your business has grown significantly since 2006. What operational shifts have you made in response?
Remarkably few, to be honest! When I started out, my clients simply mailed me their registration form and their check. PayPal and other automated payment systems weren’t ubiquitous, especially for summer camps. As the years clicked by, I switched to an online registration form, but since I never significantly raised my prices, I wasn’t incentivized to start paying fees to accept credit cards or use automated payment systems.
My clients all still pay by check. As a result, my bookkeeping is simple and straightforward. I do my own books and calculate my own taxes. It’s old school, but for me, it works.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a business owner?
My biggest growth has been as an employer communicating with my staff. It’s really important to me to be a good employer, and that means helping my team become better employees and coaches. I’ve learned there’s only so much feedback you can give someone at a time, and it needs to be a mix of both positive and constructive.
My challenge is that I see how much people have to offer, and I want to help them reach their full potential. But at times I think I’ve been too straightforward in my feedback, and it comes across as a criticism. I think I’m much better at communicating with kids than adults -- with kids, there’s a lot less ego involved!
What do you love about being an entrepreneur?
I love being able to bring my ideas to fruition without too many roadblocks. I like learning, and the opportunities for challenging myself as a business owner, a coach and an outdoor educator are endless.
I’ve always loved biking – as a kid, I wanted to be a professional BMX racer – but I never thought I’d end up making money from it. For years, I even avoided working in a bike shop because friends who did ended up riding less as a result. I knew that working in the industry can change your relationship to riding, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.
It’s crazy, but I love running this business today more than ever. I can’t imagine being happier than I’ve been for the past 12 years.
Are there any life lessons you’ve learned from working for yourself?
I’ve learned to always try to be patient, caring and deliberate. I have a three-year-old daughter, and becoming a dad has made me even more sensitive about being a caretaker and a mentor to my campers. My greatest disappointment is if someone doesn’t have a good experience. Camp isn’t for everyone, but I try really hard to make it work for as many people as possible.
Ryan, what’s ahead for Mt. Tam Bikes Camp?
Believe it or not, I’m not interested in growing my business. Growth is a misstep if it means you can’t maintain quality control. I think something essential to the camp experience will get lost if my business gets too big. Plus, I love having my boots on the ground as an outdoor educator. I never want to become just an administrator, which tends to happen to business owners as their camps grow.
QB Community members, is tremendous growth the number one goal for your business? If not, why not?
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