How one bike rental business decided that hours spent staring at spreadsheets wasn't the best use of its time and built its own bike hire software instead

PROFILE: The booming bike rental market

Rental forms a backbone for many bike businesses, but handling bookings, co-ordinating maintenance and making sure bikes are in the right place at the right time is no mean feat. One hire business – Village Velo – decided to take matters into its own hands and create bespoke software to help run rental bike hire. The brains behind that software – named Bike Rental Manager – is one Doug Stoddart. BikeBiz caught up with the man during the busy rental season…

How did you end up running a rental shop?
Pre-bike shop it was all suit and tie jobs for me. I started with Accenture (Andersen Consulting back then) – a big American computer consulting firm who taught me all about how to build large robust computer systems. Then I moved to an investment bank, a much more serious environment, where I was building some of the first online trading systems. Overall I did ten years of corporate IT life in London, but I had always wanted an active, outdoor life. In ‘03 I quit the rat race and bought a run down villa in South France to renovate and run cycling holidays from.

Did you start work on BRM as soon as you got into the bike business?
Our bike rental business, Village Velo, started with just four bikes, mainly supplying clients on our cycling holidays. We grew the fleet yearly and now have around 55. Initially, like most people I talk to in the business, we had a spreadsheet…or, rather, several spreadsheets. I was even quite proud of them! But as the business grew I was spending more time ‘fixing’ the spreadsheet and not actually doing real work. After an fruitless search for suitable software I started to program BRM version 1.0 from the back of the shop. I knew there had to be a better way so I started from the ground up, building exactly what I needed. I knew I wanted to eventually sell the software so I started talking to a few bike rental shops. I had my first client within four months of writing the first line of code. Since that day my clients have helped shaped the software. There was clearly enormous demand for this thing.

Have you seen bike rentals grow?
Yes, I think bike rental has grown and there are a few drivers for that. Firstly there are more cyclists now than eight years ago. Secondly it’s getting more expensive to travel with bikes, especially trans-atlantically. Finally people are realising that renting bikes is so much more convenient than travelling with their own, and they get to try out a different kind of bike. I think city bike schemes like Boris bikes have in general been good for the bike rental industry. It just gets more people used to bikes, and yet still remains a means of transport, compared to a recreational bike that you might rent from a shop.

Are more shops offering rental now?
Yes, for one thing bike shops are seeing it as a valuable weapon against the online world. No matter how cheap and good the online shops become there will always be a demand for the right bike in the right place in the right time. On holiday, on a business trip, on a cyclo-tourism event, people demand convenience these days, and a great convenience is not having to travel with your bike but still be able to squeeze in a couple of days cycling on that trip you couldn’t otherwise manage. Bike shops realise that getting people in store is half the battle towards better business, however you achieve that. 

What about the benefits of the software?
It takes the hassle and stress out of rentals. On the face of it, it’s really simple: You just rent people bikes, right? But in reality making sure the right person gets the right bike on the right day is much more challenging. If the phone rings and someone says, ‘have you got five mountain bikes for next Thursday’ you need to be able to say yes or no very quickly otherwise you waste your time and your potential customers. Even better the customer is checking your availability and booking online while you sleep. That’s a lot easier said than done. Fundamentally BRM manages your reservations, fleet, customers, transactions, invoices, and maintenance, all online, accessible anywhere.

Is being able to make bookings online really a big deal for consumers?
Yes, and I would say demand is increasing steadily; ignoring that is to risk getting left behind. BRM Clients that are using online booking are seeing a steady flow of reservations and it is just one line of HTML to put it on their website! You just have to take a look at any ecommerce statistics to see where the trend is going. People are increasingly making decisions and purchases online, and more and more from mobile devices. But this is a good thing for the supplier as it’s a lot easier to let software handle all those repetitive conversations and let your staff concentrate on excellent customer service. However I always say online booking really just represents the ‘tip of the iceberg’. The majority of my clients buy BRM because of the benefit it brings to the ‘back office’ – ie simply to facility the business of bike rental.

Has the software changed over the years?
The fundamental concept has not changed since day one (over four years ago), whereby it supports the ‘rental life-cycle’. People book bikes, then they use the bikes, finally bikes are maintained. It is there to facilitate this simple life-cycle taking place as efficiently as possible many times in a season. This holistic approach to supporting rentals, encompassing bookings, service delivery and maintenance has not changed. However, yes, many features have been added: For example, barcode scanning of bikes and emailing customers their reservations to name just a couple – these alone can save hours of time per week.

You’ve been linking with the likes of Citrus-Lime and Bikmo – can we expect more link ups with third parties in the near future?
Yes, I believe in strategic partnerships. I would like to leverage all the powerful software already in the bike industry to provide a better service to my clients. As more and more bike shops go ‘online’ to some degree the expectation of integration with existing packages increases. Expect to see many more integrations and partnerships in coming years.

Which countries are you working in and were there any challenges in launching overseas?
We’re currently in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, United States, Canada and Australia so far, but we expect that list to increase soon. Yes, of course there many challenges, from time zones to cultural differences to little formatting issues like handling dates and taxes. Then of course there is the language. My wife and I speak French and English so those markets are fairly accessible to us, but we will have to think hard about expanding into other language regions. However one factor that makes is easier for us is that lots of bike renters speak English as that represents a large part of their customer base.

Can you tell us about your new CTO?
Yes, we’re delighted to have got Mark Negus on board. Mark has been working in mainstream software development for over 20 years so brings a wealth of deep technical knowledge and management experience. The creation of his role will allow me to concentrate on building the business while he manages the continued development of the software. We’re very lucky to have him, and I consider it a testament to the distance that BRM has travelled in its short life that we were able to attract him to the business.

This article is an extended version of the one that ran in BikeBiz August 2014, issue 103. Read the full mag here.

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