These five Roanoke-area businesses are blossoming even in the midst of a downturned economy. And while they vary greatly in size and scope, they share a common drive toward success.
Six-Eleven Bicycle Co.
Type of Business: handmade bicycles
Number of Employees: 2
Why It’s On the List: So popular their waiting list for a custom bicycle is more than a year; recent inclusion on Wired.com as one of 12 handmade bicycle owners singled out from the North American Handmade Bicycle Show; full-page image of a bike in June/July issue of Garden & Gun magazine
When Aaron Dykstra decided to go into business making handmade bicycles, he didn’t mess around.
Dykstra flew to Colorado and spent a month learning from the storied bicycle frame builder Koichi Yamaguchi.
“He teaches people for a month at a time out of a shed in his backyard,” Dykstra says of Yamaguchi. “His English isn’t great. It’s very ‘Karate Kid.’”
Dykstra developed an obsession with road and mountain bike racing in his early teens. He got a job at a now defunct Roanoke bike shop. Dykstra left the Star City at 17 to join the Air Force where he worked as a mechanic.
Dykstra later worked at a New York City bike shop and as a cycling advocate. He ended up in Chicago where he worked organizing Bike the Drive, an annual ride of over 20,000 participants. It may sound like a dream job for a cyclist, but the job left Dykstra burnt out. “When you have one event that you work the whole year then after that’s over it’s hard to start thinking about the following year,” he says.
As far back as his days in the Air Force, Dykstra had fantasized about designing his own bicycle frames. And so, in 2009 Dykstra and his wife Michelle returned to Roanoke’s better cost-of-living and bought a house in the Grandin Village – a house the Dykstras picked because its basement made a perfect bicycle shop. A week after closing on the house, Dykstra left to study framebuilding in Colorado.
“He would just kind of hole himself up there for 10 hours at a time,” Michelle recalls of her husband’s early days of toiling on bikes in the basement. “I’d come home from work and he’d be covered in dust and that’s how the business started.”
The Dykstras named their business after the 611 J Class steam locomotive, built by the Norfolk and Western Railway’s East End Shops in Roanoke.
“The story has done a lot for our brand,” says Michelle Dykstra. “We get people from all over who are not only cycling fans but rail fans.”
The Dykstras were lucky. Unlike a lot of small business owners, they didn’t have exorbitant startup costs.
“We had some money saved up and we bought just the bare minimum,” Aaron Dykstra says of his modest beginnings. “That’s one of the benefits to handbuilding, it’s all hand tools.”
Dykstra did a lot with those tools. In 2010, he took a chance and attended the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond. “I was kind of terrified showing alongside some of my bicycle heroes.”
The trip paid off. Dykstra won the Rookie of the Year prize. “That helped me get my name out there a little bit,” he says.
The next year, Dykstra won Best Track Frame at the Handmade Bicycle Show and this year he took home the award for Best Cyclocross Bike.
“We hadn’t done any advertising in the four years we’ve been in business,” Dykstra says. “It’s all word of mouth and having people out on the bikes.”