Small Business Majority Blog

Small Business Matters

The Strider Sports team

The old adage ‘it’s as easy as riding a bike’ takes on a new meaning thanks to Strider Sports.

Based in Rapid City, South Dakota, Strider Sports is revolutionizing the way children ride bikes by stripping the bike down to its core. In this case, no pedals required.

Ryan McFarland, owner of Strider Sports and inventor of the Strider Rider, got the  idea for such a contraption from watching his two-year-old son struggle with those pesky pedals.

“I went down the traditional path of a tricycle and a training-wheel bicycle but found them to be too heavy and cumbersome for my son,” McFarland said, recalling his efforts to teach his young son how to ride.

“To overcome the problem, I fabricated a super light weight, really small and simple bike with no pedals. He took to it immediately and was soon riding like a pro and far exceeding my expectations of his abilities.”

At just two-years-old, McFarland’s son was mastering the two-wheeled bike. McFarland found that the best way to fit a bike to a child was to eliminate the pedals, chains and cranks that weighed down and drew focus away from balancing and riding, and to just allow a kid to propel the bike with their feet while straddling the bike.

“This simple method of propelling the bike allows the child to focus all of their attention on balancing and steering the bike,” he said. “Having both feet on the ground also serves the other critical function of giving the child confidence in their control of the bike and eliminates fear of falling over.”

With McFarland’s son learning and having fun on a bicycle at such a young age, McFarland noted that other parents were taking notice and began asking him to build similar bikes for their kids. This marked the beginning for Strider Sports.

“Strider bikes are a paradigm shift for most people. People currently don’t believe their children are capable of riding a two-wheeled bike at such a young age. Once they understand the concept and see other children riding the bikes, it makes perfect sense to them,” he said.

Three lines of bikes for separate age groups helps Strider Sports teach and advance the abilities of kids as young as 18-months-old, while passing along a love of cycling at an early age.

And with more than 10 million kids in the United States nestled in the Strider Rider age range, Strider Sports isn’t hitting the brakes anytime soon.

“Our big accomplishment will be when there are more kids riding bikes than watching TV on a nice summer day. Our ultimate goal is to see the antiquated tricycle and training-wheel bikes go by the wayside.”

The Premier Power team

Approaching its 30th anniversary, Premier Power Maintenance continues to shock its competitors into submission.

The Indianapolis based small business specializing in electrical maintenance of high-voltage power lines started in 1985 as an alternative to other electrical engineering companies, noted Megan Templeman, vice president of Premier Power.

Templeman’s parents opened the business on her father’s electrical engineering background and felt they could operate a more customer friendly business.

“[My father] felt that the competitors mistreated both their employees as well as their customers. He felt that he could improve the services greatly, and he had the tenacity and drive to do so,” she said.

Ever since, Premier Power has been recognized as one of the area’s leading electrical testing and maintenance companies, offering their services to industrial clients including utility companies, mining companies, chemical refineries and the military and government, just to name a few.

“We have continually expanded to meet the demands of our customer base by strategically placing locations across the country in order to provide the best services possible,” she said.

Templeman herself didn’t grow up with a static cling to the family business. Originally a journalism student, it was only halfway through college that she made the switch to focus on accounting, management and human resources in order to take up the family business.

“I eventually learned that I had a business-oriented mind and personality, and people tended to look to me more as a leader,” she said. “I was also encouraged by my parents and older brothers to come into the family business.”

Having just graduated this past year, Templeman’s newfound business education has energized her to take the seat as Premier’s vice president.

“I enjoy the different challenges I face each and every day,” she said. “Management often looks to me for advice and guidance, which is something I genuinely enjoy.”

Templeman’s ascent couldn’t come at a better time for Premier, as she notes the business is currently in the midst of some growing pains.

Premier has expanded to seven locations mostly across the Midwest and employs 65 people. “We are growing quickly in terms of customers, locations and personnel. With growth must always come change. Right now our greatest challenge is transforming current processes to better suit a larger company,” she said.

Those processes are neatly defined into six primary areas, or services, that Premier excels in: safety training, installation, repair, engineering, preventative maintenance and commissioning.

“Premier Power Maintenance prides itself on being extremely versatile, capable of servicing the entire spectrum of our customers’ distribution system needs,” she said.

It’s not just the work Premier does, but the people who do it that truly sets them apart from their competitors.

“We treat each individual working for us very well, and in turn they provide superior service to our customers,” she said. “We have long-standing relationships with many large companies that are based on a positive reputation earned from the services provided by our highly trained and qualified employees.”

With a super charged staff and a wide variety of services being offered, Premier Power is set to reign for another 30 years. Competitors beware, or you just might get zapped.

The SMART-1 jet performing a training formation

Aerial Productions International has proven that bigger isn’t always better by maintaining and flying the world’s smallest jet.

The Tucson-based small business supports professional engineering efforts for the development of advanced aerial systems, and provides small jets for military training exercises.

Coming in at just 12 feet long, under 500 pounds and with a wingspan of 17 feet, API’s SMART-1 (Small Manned Aerial Radar Target) is the only Defense Intelligence Agency certified cruise missile surrogate—meaning it can mimic a cruise missile for the purposes of military training exercises. These military exercises include anything from early systems testing, unit training, major threat exercises and homeland defense development.

A stalwart foundation and passion for aviation helped API rise and take off to new heights since its establishment. President Bob Bishop grew up in the co-pilot’s seat – his father owned a large crop dusting business outside of Phoenix. Bishop’s own career in aviation includes serving as an experimental test pilot, an airshow demonstration pilot and as the founder of the Freedom Team, which flies the SMART-1.

“Our unique services are one-of-a-kind so we don’t have many drop-in customers,” said Peter McNall, vice president of operations for API. “We strive to stay relevant and operationally tethered to the requirements of major programs and keep in contact with former clients as programs mature and requirements grow.”

The SMART-1’s size, maneuverability and manned features have made the jet’s popularity skyrocket, even being featured on the History Channel’s “More James Bond Gadgets” special.

But the team behind the SMART-1 at API is as equally impressive and savvy.

“We have a small work force that has a great sense of pride and ownership,” he said. “That pride translates to a tireless commitment to providing excellent service and quality. This isn’t a job but a passion.”

With two operational jets at their disposal, API has its sights set higher with plans to fly a newly built aircraft with more improved features like the jet’s data transmission and turn-around speed that they hope will excite and capture new markets. Since these aircrafts are experimental and classified under research and development, they are not for sale to the general public.

“We see expanding potential to provide new services for our military and governmental partners. We are only limited by our imagination to what new services we can provide with our small jet aircraft.”

API hopes to have a fourth aircraft built by the end of this year. Some might dismiss this goal as the business having its head in the clouds, but API and the SMART-1 are too busy flying amongst them and revolutionizing aviation to slow down.

“We believe in our mission and the importance of the work we do. We have a strong commitment to our employees and our clients. This is exciting work for us and we see the future requirements for our service expanding.”

The world should buckle up, because API has a license to thrill.

The Aerial Productions International team

The LineSync Architecture team

When it comes to eco-friendly architecture, one Vermont small business started paving the way long before green became a movement, not just a color.

LineSync Architecture, owned by Julie Lineberger and her architect husband Joseph Cincotta in Wilmington, Vermont, is a trailblazing business that specializes in innovative and sustainable architecture.

With a hand in designing everything from sustainable residential homes, to innovative corporate environments and public commodities like parks and resorts, LineSync tackles all their projects with an eye for green building and protecting the land around it.

“It’s an amazing process for everyone,” she said. “Good for our clients, good for the environment, good for the world.”

The behind-the-scenes story of LineSync Architecture is one that is as rooted in romance as it is in sustainable architecture.

Cincotta was a budding architect by the time he entered Kindergarten, building intricate structures out of blocks that many of his classmates would walk across. With architecture already in his blood, Cincotta was only missing the other half of the puzzle that would become LineSync.

He met Lineberger while skating along the Charles River, and a burgeoning love story that would yield both their personal and professional union began. Both hailed from entrepreneurial families, and once married after graduation, they decided to settle in Vermont.

“[We] chose Vermont for its fresh water and clean air and ability to rent a farmhouse that would also serve as our architectural studio,” she said.

LineSync opened its doors in a small southern Vermont town lacking even a stoplight in 1988, with just one client signed to a two-year contract for development. A week later, the real estate market busted and their only client skipped town, owing money to various people.

“That first year, we grossed $14,000,” she said. “Slowly we built our business, moved to the next town with the only stoplight for 20 miles in all directions and started hiring employees.”

LineSync’s operating model is exactly in-line with the rest of their business model. And it’s because of it that this socially and sustainably-responsible business has been able to thrive.

“Each employee, for example, sets his/her own schedule. We work to live, rather than vice versa,” she said.

In addition to designing and running LineSync, Lineberger and Cincotta are frequent public speakers and teachers of design, sustainability and socially responsible business practices.

“Contributing to a better world through good design and socially responsible business practices is invigorating,” she said. “Being able to arrange our own lives to focus on both professional and personal goals is the gift successful entrepreneurship allows our life.”

An irrefutable success in sustainable design, LineSync is leaving other architectural firms green with envy.

Melanie Lichtfeld

Melanie Lichtfeld, owner of Lichtfeld Plumbing in Madison, WI, is the self-proclaimed Latrine Queen. Although it’s a title she bestowed on herself, it’s one she’s fought long and hard for. Since she began running this family-owned business in 1981, she’s been struggling to gain respect in a decidedly male-dominated field.

Lichtfeld noted that despite her vast competency when it came to plumbing, most men would ignore or refuse to acknowledge her.

“When men would call the office for service they would ask for my father,” Lichtfeld said. “When he was not available they would ask for a plumber, even though I would tell them I could help.”

In its essence, plumbing is a problem-solving service, and Lichtfeld knew she could overcome customers’ doubts about her competency by plumbing the depths of knowledge at her disposal.

Lichtfeld Plumbing originated in 1895 with her great-great grandfather, Henry Lichtfeld, who began installing indoor plumbing systems in farmhouses. More than 100 years later, Lichtfeld Plumbing has serviced everything from homes to grocery stores and restaurants.

“We are experts in service because service is all we do,” she said. “We help people keep their plumbing systems in good working order. If it wasn’t for Lichtfeld Plumbing, you wouldn’t have any place to go.”

It’s that cheeky confidence and growing up in a long-standing family trade that has helped Lichtfeld become the first woman to run the family business.

“I was raised in the business,” she said, noting that she started answering phones and going on service calls with her father when she was 10. “I enjoyed working with all the different people but I never thought I would be running the company.”

Her early exposure to the business spiraled into a growing interest for the profession. In particular, there were two areas of stalled social perceptions about plumbing that Lichtfeld set out to unclog.

“In Roman days, the plumber held a high ranking position in the government,” she said . “One of my goals was to get more women respected in the trades and to make the plumbing profession an honorable career choice.”

Heading a successful business has done just that for her. And now that she’s all but proven that a woman can seamlessly thrive in an almost exclusive boy’s club, she has her sights set on environmental matters.

“We love the pure water here in the Madison area and take every opportunity to educate our clients and protect their water supply,” she said.

Lichtfeld’s own efforts to be more environmentally-conscious include using copper instead of plastic and planning to expand the sewer cleaning division of the company. “Using less water is a great thing, but we need to help maintain our sewer lines. This means being vigilant of what we put down them,” she said.

If the success of Lichtfeld’s business is any indication, now’s the right time for a queen to rule over the porcelain throne.