Behind the Blueprint: An Interview with Jake from Barnstorm Cycles - 1620 Workwear, Inc icon

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Behind the Blueprint: An Interview with Jake from Barnstorm Cycles

by Mary Farrington March 29, 2024 9 min read

Behind the Blueprint: An Interview with Jake from Barnstorm Cycles

 

A Background in Motorcycles

Question: What is Barnstorm Cycles and what do you do here in Massachusetts?

Answer: I’ve been doing this full time for about 20 years now. Founded the company in November 2004. Originally in Worcester, in an old barn that was my childhood home. Technically it was an old carriage house, but we always called it the barn. So, it was 1600 square feet of garage on the first floor and then we lived above it. Super cool building.

Question: Were you always into motorcycles?

Answer: My dad always had bikes, since he was maybe 16 or 17. So, when I was born there were just bikes in my life. The first time I ever rode on a motorcycle was when my mom was pregnant with me. There are pictures of me sitting on the tank in front of my dad when I was definitely too young. You’d probably get in trouble doing that these days, but we were always around bikes, and we had a do-it-yourself mentality in our household. So, my dad was always tinkering, taking stuff apart, fixing things. I grew up in that environment and I started riding dirt bikes when I was big enough. Then had my first minibike when I was maybe 4. So, I just liked it and kind of got the bug.

Question: When was your first motorcycle?

Answer: When I was ten, my mom of all people bought me a Honda Aero 125 scooter. I rode that in a parking lot until I was 16 and then I registered and insured it. So, that was the first motorcycle I rode by myself on the road. Then, the next summer I worked my ass off for my dad at his real estate management company, and I bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster.

Building the Company

Question: So, you’re at the barn, working on your own bike. How does Barnstorm Cycles start? How do you get to that first transactional moment where you work on someone else’s motorcycle and get paid?

Answer: Originally, when we started the company, it was a school project that wasn’t meant to be a real company. At the time, the college I was going to didn’t have any business courses, so I designed my own and got permission to do it as a winter fieldwork project. I put together a business plan, budget, goals, and got it approved by the school.

The original business model was to build a whole custom bike and then try to sell it, build another one, try to sell that. When we got into it, my dad and I were partners, and we were working on a few different bikes. I wasn’t going to do service, but I started having people come in and ask if I could do oil changes, change a tire, or whatever it was. I had a couple lifts, and a lot of the equipment, but I was still pretty green. I had some experience, but people were coming in and they were willing to pay me $50 or $60 an hour as a 19-year-old kid. Truth be told, I would have worked for free back then because I just liked working on bikes, but they were there. So, that’s when I started incorporating service into the business.

Because the business was a school project, it was a weird thing, and I didn’t know if there was any longevity to it. But when I started getting service customers, I was enjoying it and making some money, doing what I loved, working with bikes every day. It was still part time then because I was in school back then, but eventually I dropped out to do it full time.

Forging a New Path

Question: Was there a moment when you realized that you didn’t want to be sitting in the classroom and wanted to be just working on motorcycles instead?

Answer: I got through three years full-time in college. I was in school in Vermont, and I was back every weekend, sometimes coming back midweek to do stuff. At the time I was also working part time at a machine shop, so my schedule was packed. I don’t know how I did everything. I was a mad man at that time for sure, younger with way more energy. After the third year, I realized I wasn’t going back. I tried doing some night school for a little while, but I just had to decide at that point.

Question: There are a lot of guys that have the opportunity to work in a trade or skill, even custom motorcycle work, instead of going to school. Stepping off that ledge and making that choice, what kind of advice did you get from the people around you?

Answer: I feel like I’m still figuring it out every day. Obviously, I have goals and aspirations and I’ve made plans. But the business model has changed several times throughout the past 20 years, and it may change again. Some of that is being willing to adapt. I think it was Ernest Shackleton who said that you have to be adaptable.

So, it would be impossible to be 100% sure of anything. But I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I had good support. My dad was very supportive, and so was my family. I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities, I was young, so I figured the worst that could happen is it failed. So, I went for it, and we’ve managed to make it work until now, obviously we’re still here. Mid-pandemic we made some major changes, but I’m still here and I’m still working on motorcycles.

Question: Advice for young guys that really love motorcycles and maybe want to work on bikes for a living? What should you do if you’re looking at trying to get into this industry in 2024?

Answer: It’s not a get rich quick scheme. There are many other careers you can get into without formal education and do much better financially. So, you need to decide right away what your goals are. There are some tradeoffs. I’ve gotten to do a lot of cool stuff, meet a lot of cool people, and I have a lot of fun, but I’ve struggled financially sometimes in a significant way to make things work.

I’ve been working on motorcycles my whole life and it’s what I know, but I have a non-traditional way of getting into it. I started young as a hobby with my father, apprenticed at a motorcycle shop in my teens, did some apprentice work at a machine shop, and I worked for very little money at a welding shop for a couple years when the business was in its fledgling state. So, I got experience and knowledge with some really good mentors. At Vangy Tool Company I worked for a gentleman named Paul Italiano, and then I worked for Danny Balmer at Advanced Welding and Fabricating in Millbury. Those guys gave me a chance, they gave me a shot when I had no real skills to speak of. They saw that I was willing to learn and willing to do whatever. I worked for free at Vangy in an apprenticeship position for seven weeks, doing whatever they wanted me to do. But that gave me access to the lathe, the welder, and he gave me a chance to learn some stuff. Then I was able to roll that knowledge into bikes. So, I don’t necessarily have experience with motorcycle school or MMI or trade school, or any of those things. I think those are good routes for people, they’re a little more defined and a little more predictable, or structured. But I think, if motorcycles or hotrods or whatever, is a passion, if you have a burning desire inside of you to create that stuff, I’d encourage you to try and find a way to make it work. Just know it will come with sacrifices.

Looking Forward to New Opportunities

Question: In terms of how the business has changed, the focus is a lot on custom parts and some innovative stuff with modifications and tricking out bikes. In the next 12 to 24 months, where are you seeing the biggest opportunities?

Answer: I feel like everything is coming full circle to where my initial aspirations were. The original business model was custom work only and we ended up in the weeds with service, selling bikes, all those things. At one point we had almost 100 motorcycles for sale here, with a full team of people. They were mostly upstairs; we could fit about 75 bikes up there. I have a fork truck and I custom build some pallets to move stuff up and down. So, that was becoming the focus of the business. We had three or four events per year, and I found myself doing less and less of the things that I really wanted to do and more and more in managing the team, making sure events were working, and this and that. It was enjoyable and it was work, but it wasn’t really what I wanted. I wasn’t working with my hands as much as I wanted to.

So, during the pandemic, we really struggled with staffing and bike sales. It was a tough decision to make a pivot, but I decided to go back to what I like to do. To focus on custom projects, custom fab welding, specialty work, and try to grow this parts line with the Challenger parts we had made.

Question: How do you differentiate yourself out there? It’s a competitive space, so is it focusing on what you think would be better from riding bikes yourself? Or are you getting feedback from other riders? And how do you work with the big companies in the industry to keep your ideas safe?

Answer: I think a lot of it is relationships. At the retail level, at the manufacturing level, and business to business. People are buying from people at the end of the day. So, I’ve always tried to be as honest, straightforward and reliable as possible with my customers and the other companies I deal with. Just trying to be a real human being, I find gets me reciprocal treatment.

The motorcycle industry is a retail space and people are trying to make a living. There are big guys and small guys like me, but it’s a relatively small community and I feel like it’s pretty respectful. Like anything, you get some jerks here and there, but especially in the space that I’m in, in a niche inside of a niche, it’s very small volume stuff at the moment. So, most of my stuff is pretty unique and if someone were to try and rip me off, I don’t think it would go over well for them. It hasn’t happened yet, thankfully. Even myself, designing product, I try to make sure I’m aware of what’s out there so I’m not blatantly copying anyone.

Question: Talk to us about some of your craziest builds, your high-profile riders, maybe some of your favorites, or some of the more interesting ones?

Answer: I’ve gotten to do a lot of cool stuff as a kid that started off working in his home garage. Motorcycling has brought me all around the country. Some of my work has been to crazy places. The bike I built for Indian last year went to Japan. I didn’t get to go, but the bike was there. I got to work on a really cool project with Carey a few years ago, the King Killer bike that we did. That was awesome, too, because it was a really cool, core group of guys. It was me, Evan Favero, Sacha from Kraus, Big B, and Carey Hart. It was like a little hive mind of super creative, super talented people.

Randomly, I built a few bikes for Tiffany’s, the jewelry company. It was part of this 12 Days of Christmas thing they did a couple years ago. To be completely honest, I get a lot of junk emails and the request was in my spam folder. But I periodically go through that, and while I thought it was spam, I figured it might not be at the same time, so I replied. Then, I ended up building a personal bike for the CFO of Tiffany’s that was based on the ones for the project. That was cool. I got to go to Tiffany’s a couple times and got a private tour of the space after hours. They’re a big company and it was a whole different dynamic than working on a regular customer one-on-one with their committees and meetings and lawyers involved.

Built a couple bikes for some local Indian dealers. Great experience with MOMS of Manchester up in New Hampshire. Super awesome dealership there. We did a really cool Challenger with them. I had a bike in the Michael Lichter show in Sturgis. I’ve done way more and met more people than I ever imagined I would from working on motorcycles. A lot of it is dumb luck from being in the right place at the right time, and then just trying to be myself and a genuine human being.

Learn More About Barnstorm Cycles

Check out their website here, and follow the company on Instagram and Facebook.

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