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For business-major-turned-entrepreneur, making bikes for little people is a big deal

September 21, 2009

For several years, Russ Morin ’10 had worked at the same bike shop on Solomon’s Island, helping cyclists sort through their many choices. It was a good way to keep busy and earn a few dollars.

The Business Administration major never imagined that a chance encounter last summer with a customer would lead him to launch his own business, chart a new career path and champion a new cause.

As Morin recalls, the customer, Lee Milburn, asked whether it was possible to get an affordable bike that would allow her – a little person, or one who has any of the more than 200 forms of dwarfism – to ride comfortably.

Morin didn’t know whether he could help Milburn, but he wanted to try.

“She had already been to eight or nine shops,” Morin recalled during a recent interview. “I took her name and number, but I was prepared to call her to tell her there was nothing I could do either.”

Custom-made bicycles generally start in the $1,500 range, Morin said, but Milburn wasn’t looking for that kind of bike. She just wanted something simple that could accommodate her short stature and allow her to enjoy a leisurely bike ride with her family now and then, Morin said.

He figured he could tinker with a children’s bicycle, but he knew it wouldn’t be as simple as giving Milburn a smaller bike.

For Milburn and many other little people, a children’s bike sits too high for their feet to touch the ground and the handle bars are situated too low, Morin said. The retrofit generally includes stripping down a child’s 16-inch bike frame, adding 12-inch wheels and chopping down the seat frame, he said.

“You have to find the perfect balance between the inseam and the torso,” said Morin, who estimates that he spent about 15 hours in his spare time working on that first bike.

In now takes him under three hours to retrofit a bike, having since retrofitted more than a dozen such bikes for other little people – many of whom learned about Morin after Little People of America, a national nonprofit organization, posted a link to his website, www.littlecycles.com.

When Milburn’s bike was finished, she couldn’t have been happier.

“I am thrilled with this bike. It is comfortable, safe and easy to ride,” Milburn wrote in a testimonial posted on Morin’s website. “I’ve started taking long bike rides with my husband and children – something I was not comfortable doing before. I love this bike and have no reservations about recommending it to any other little person who is looking for a great bike!”

That success inspired Morin to self-design a Jan-Term course earlier this year that would enable him to parlay his newfound skill into a business venture. He spent the winter-break term in Oregon, taking an 80-hour class to earn national certification as a bicycle mechanic.

“Being at McDaniel allowed me to customize,” he said. “I know of no other school that would’ve allowed me to earn credit for taking a course to become a bike mechanic.”

Morin also credits a class in entrepreneurship that he took during his sophomore year with giving him the confidence to develop a business plan, create his website and launch Little Cycles.

On his website, Morin boasts, “Little Cycles is proud to be the first and only affordable bicycle option for little people everywhere!” His bikes start at about $550, including shipping and assembly.

His website has drawn visitors from at least 40 different countries, including Peru, Brazil and Finland, he said.

Milburn also encouraged Morin to join her at this summer’s Little People of America National Convention in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he landed several more orders for retrofitted bicycles.

“I was not prepared for how interested people would be in this,” he said.

While it isn’t yet practical for him to ship bikes around the world, Morin said he is likely to start accepting orders from customers in Canada and Mexico.

As he settles in for his senior year at McDaniel, Morin said he is brainstorming more ideas for his business. In addition to retrofitting more bicycles for little people, he is thinking about creating a line of exercise equipment designed for them.

“After I got into building the bikes, I started doing more research on little people’s needs,” he said. “There are some great possibilities.”

 
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