Jeff Cayley – Founder & CEO, Worldwide Cyclery

Founder and CEO of Worldwide Cyclery, Jeff Cayley went from racing mountain bikes professionally to building a one-of-a-kind boutique bicycle shop. However, Worldwide Cyclery is no ordinary bicycle shop. With retail locations that double as fulfillment centers on the East and West coasts, the company is a multi-million dollar, omni-channel retail operation that’s landed on the Inc. 5000 list consecutive years, as well as on the Entrepreneur magazine 360 list. Jeff managed to do all this in his early twenties, and his company is now filled with dozens of employees that enjoy a phenomenal company culture and a fast-growing business in an industry they love.

Tell me about your early career.
I started Worldwide Cyclery at age 21, and before that, there was not much of a “career.” I spent five years racing mountain bikes all over North America, two of those years I was racing professionally. On top of the racing, I was working at a local bike shop in Newbury Park, California, where I grew up. I worked at that local shop for a handful of years and really enjoyed it. Working face to face retail teaches you a ton, and that experience is something I think everyone should have at some point in their life. My “career” in eCommerce in the early years is much more entertaining. At age 11, I was selling all sorts of stuff on eBay. Be it random things from around our house and garage, or stuff on consignment for neighbors and friends. I was actually making some decent money in middle school doing this. It was awesome. At one point, when I was 19, my friend’s dad got me an account as a retailer at a big home goods liquidation company. I was young and didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I know any of the formal rules and regulations of business. The idea was that he was the sales rep, he’d pitch me good deals they had, and he’d buy the product. Then, I would flip it on eBay. This actually worked pretty well, and in one summer, I sold $250,000 worth of faucets and shower heads. Then, one day, he got fired and I got a call from the owner of that company. Turns out, everything I sold was stolen and my friend’s dad was quite the swindler. Luckily, the owner of that company was an understanding guy. He wrote the whole thing off as a loss and went on with his business. He actually ended up letting me keep my account there as long as I got a tax ID number. I did get a tax ID number, but as it turned out, I couldn’t sell much product if the prices were the real prices. All in all, it was an incredible learning experience, not only in eCommerce, but in people, trust, and ethics.

How did the concept for Worldwide Cyclery come about?
I was observing and paying attention to trends in the bicycle industry, and in retail in general. I saw how things would evolve and knew there was a big opportunity to capitalize on with omni-channel retail in the bicycle world. I also saw a major opportunity to export bike products. I knew the niche I wanted to target and how I wanted to go about it. I spent a year thinking about the idea, testing the waters, and developing the strategy. I had the advantage of being a sponsored racer, so I had plenty of product laying around that I could sell. Between eBay and industry forum classifieds, I was moving product and getting feedback, and just noticing things like where buyers came from, how they preferred to shop, and the kind of products and deals they were looking for. I was diligent with spending time on this and learning everything possible before I actually launched the business. On day one of the business opening, I had already done so much market research and other due diligence around the concept that it gave me a lot of confidence in my idea and how I was going to make it work.

How was the first year in business?
Honestly, it was brutal. I was working an insane amount of hours and was ridiculously overwhelmed, constantly. But, I was on a mission to succeed at making it work, and I was in touch with the reality of what that would take. Being 21 made it pretty tough. If I didn’t have such supportive parents, I don’t think I could’ve pulled it off. There was so much to get done before we could even make any revenue, not to mention profit. I was a one-man-show doing this. I had a friend helping out part-time that first year, but he was of little help, and well, he was not in touch with reality when it came to what it would take to make the business succeed. I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders and knew what I was trying to do, but did not really know how to do it or the best way to go about it. I’ve yet to hear a story of any business that had a smooth or easy first year. Mine was much the same: rough and extremely challenging. But it was not catastrophic. I made it through and we didn’t fold. 🙂

What was your marketing strategy?
I get this question a lot. I know it’s because most successful businesses got there because of their marketing strengths. This was actually not the case for us. We didn’t spend a dime on marketing for just over three years and we were well over $1 million in annual revenue before we started doing any marketing at all. Marketing was not my background. I knew nothing about it, when I started. I did, however, know the bicycle industry. I knew where the holes were, what products people wanted, where they were shopping, and how things were evolving, as far as consumer purchasing habits go. Because of this, I took a very different approach that centered around omni-channel retail, data utilization, and filling the needs of customers who were struggling to find retailers doing what they wanted. This meant finding ways to get thousands of products listed on multiple channels (website, eBay & Amazon), while keeping inventory levels accurate and product data, top-notch. The cycling industry is very global and it’s shifted online a ton, just like several other industries. We did a good job of using product data from our distributors and getting it in front of our customer’s eyes simply by getting the products listed online where the traffic was. Finding buyers on third-party marketplaces, giving them astonishingly-good customer service, and helping them find what they needed – and shipping it the right way to their particular location – was key. A lot went into this strategy and its execution. So, unlike many other businesses, marketing was not our method for growth in the early years. However, marketing has played a big role in our continued growth, beyond year three.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We were growing pretty fast. 172% year-over-year growth from years one to two, and 80% from years two to three. It gets harder and harder to stack big, year-over-year growth percentages as your annual revenue climbs, but even in our seventh year now, we have not grown less than 38% in any given year. It’s nothing crazy. We are not some heavily-funded, mass-market tech company from Silicon Valley, that’s for sure. But for being in a cool and fun industry and more of a lifestyle business, we are very happy with the growth.

How do you define success?
I believe “success” is radically different for each person on this planet. For me personally, success is a combination of a number of things: being able to chase my dreams, my passions, being happy, giving back, smiling, experiencing amazing things, and just getting the absolute most out of life each day and having genuine fun. I guess it boils down to being able to do what I actually want to do every day I’m alive. For me, this stuff is riding bikes, playing the game of business, laughing, any kind of adrenaline rush, getting out of my comfort zone, making people smile, etc. It’s stuff I do everyday, already. 🙂

What is the key to success?
I think the key is first defining it for yourself. Not someone else’s version, but your own true version. What is your ideal life? Figure that out and then go make it happen, or at least as much as you possibly can. It’s not really that complicated. Just live the life you personally consider to be epic!

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I don’t think I can pinpoint a single one. There are thousands and I continue to learn more each day. But I’ll give you a memorable one I’ve grasped better in the last year. Respect and admire everyone for who they are, even if you completely disagree with their way of living and/or their goals (or lack of goals). As I’ve grown up, I’ve kind of sucked at doing this and still sometimes mess up. I’m pretty adamant about living a great life, chasing your passions, and just being the absolute best human you can be, every single minute you’re alive. I seriously care about this, and my attitude of just going after life in a positive way has made me who I am and made me love life so much. I want to show that to people so bad. But at the same time, everyone is different. Just because the way I live my life is phenomenal in my eyes, it does not necessarily mean it is even close to “phenomenal” in someone else’s eyes. I’ve really learned to appreciate people for who they are and the choices they’ve made, and are presently making, even if it’s not what I would do. It’s so important to be open-minded, respect people, and always remember that things are very complex in each of our lives. Making any quick judgments makes you a fool.

What are some quotes that you live by?
This is more of a saying than a quote, but it sums up lots of good things:

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.” – James Michener

What are some of your favorite books?
There are plenty! I read a ton. Some standouts:

Shoe Dog – Phil Knight
The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Ben Horowitz
Zero to One – Peter Thiel
Start with Why – Simon Sinek
Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve luckily not had that many rough days or situations in business. Especially, when compared to some stories I hear from other entrepreneurs! In comparison to some of the madness I’ve heard about, I have nothing significant to say here. Sure, there have been struggles. There have been plenty of times I felt overwhelmed and plenty of stress from who knows what or why, but that’s standard stuff. This isn’t an easy game and is not for the sensitive.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My desire to live an excellent life and do something I consider awesome with my time on the planet. I genuinely care about chasing my passions and making my dreams a reality. No matter what happens, I’ll keep going because that’s what I want and what I’m going to get.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Read a boatload of books, don’t ever dare think you know what you are doing, never stop learning, be open to change, and be open to evolving as you go. Make damn sure entrepreneurship is what you truly want. It is NOT an easy game and it will chew you up and spit you out if you’re not truly passionate about the sport of business.