FAIRBANKS — John Stowman and Jennifer Eskridge were certain of one thing when they dreamed up Fairbikes about a year ago — bicycles are cool.
Now they believe they can be good business, too.
The longtime friends plan to launch an ambitious and unprecedented bike-share program in Fairbanks this summer, providing a way for people to explore the city with loaner bicycles. By the end of June, they expect to unveil a fleet of 100 new bikes throughout the city in 30 evenly spaced stations.
It’s a big step for a business that had a modest beginning. It was launched in March 2013 “as a goof,” as Eskridge put it, during a business start-up event sponsored by Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation.
Eskridge and Stowman, who are both avid recreational cyclists, thought a bike-share business would be a fun model for a start-up exercise. By the end of the event they were convinced it was something more.
“It was funny,” Stowman said. “It looked better and better the more we looked at it.”
Fairbikes claimed top prize at the start-up event, wowing judges with a detailed vision of a program that could cater to both tourists and Fairbanks residents.
Sean O’Shea, who worked as FEDCO’s project manager during last year’s start-up weekend, said few ideas from such events become viable businesses. It became clear that Fairbikes could be the exception.
“All of this was developed just over a weekend, and it’s all, for the most part, stayed true to the concept they developed,” O’Shea said.
Bike-share programs have blossomed around the world in recent years, providing urban residents a way to explore cities without the burden of owning or taking care of a bicycle. People can pick up a GPS-monitored bicycle at locations throughout a city, ride to their destination, and leave it behind for the next customer.
The model has proved both popular and lucrative in many locations. Sponsors who are eager to attach their names to bike-share programs have added a stream of advertising revenue to successful programs.
Eskridge and Stowman expect the Fairbikes launch will cost about $1 million, but are confident it’ll be a good investment.
“We are intentionally doing this as a for-profit,” Eskridge said. “We are trying to make this a profitable business that does well and does good.”
Stowman and Eskridge said they like the positive impact that added bicycle traffic can have on the economic and physical health of a community. Cyclists are more likely to make stops along their routes, Eskridge said, providing a boost to small businesses. Studies also show that people who ride bikes are healthier than their vehicle-driving counterparts.
But the launch has encountered some challenges in a state that doesn’t have an established bike-share program.
Fairbanks doesn’t have the high-density population of many larger cities, and the thought of scattering bike kiosks throughout the area was financially impossible. Instead, Fairbikes will use a “smart-lock” for the bikes, which can be unlocked by entering login information or swiping a credit card. People will also be able to use their smartphones to locate bicycles, which will be available 24 hours a day until Oct. 1.
Eskridge said attracting a major sponsor has been difficult, although she expects that will be easier once the bikes become a visible presence in Fairbanks.
“This is an Alaska thing where we don’t totally believe you’re here until you’re here,” Eskridge said. “I get that — I’ve owned that, I’ve resembled that.”
Fairbikes got a big boost this month from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Office of Sustainability, which purchased more than 450 memberships for students and employees to use on a first-come, first-served basis.
Eskridge and Stowman said they’ve also been contacted by residents of Anchorage and Juneau about expanding the concept to those cities. After a summer of tinkering with the concept in Fairbanks, they see those markets as a logical next step to make the business viable.
“The truth is, our target is too small,” Eskridge said. “We can’t just be Fairbanks’ first bike-share program — we want to be Alaska’s bike-share program.”
Updates on Fairbikes and its summer launch are available at www.facebook.com/FairBikes.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.