Pedro Avila practically lives on the road. For the past decade, he’s been in the transportation industry, driving everything from armored cars to transport trucks and delivery vans. But despite all that time behind the wheel, he barely paid attention to the thousands of billboards he cruised past. He wondered if there were a better way to advertise, a marketing model that would allow for more one-on-one interaction.
Last May, he was in a car accident that totaled his beloved ‘87 Volkswagen Cabriolet. Desperate for money to repair the damage, Avila came up with an idea for a startup: bicycle advertising. It was a perfect solution, he thought, because it was eco-friendly and more interactive than mainstream methods.
“People have become desensitized,” he says of billboards, “but this is so out of the ordinary, we turn heads.”
He named the business Road Finch, and in February, the startup moved into Stockton’s Huddle tech incubator. Road Finch is a relatively small operation with five dedicated volunteers handling design and web duties, and three hired on-call bicycle riders (finches). The bicycles each have a trailer attached that displays large printed ads. Avila calls the riders “brand ambassadors,” who make the advertising memorable by engaging with the public. They may also wear T-shirts promoting the client and pass out fliers in association with the ad in tow.
Avila didn’t need much money to launch the business. He found the bicycles on Craigslist and refurbished them with new paint and seats. He built the trailers with PVC and painted them a glossy black for the polished, high-quality look of stainless steel. Most of the seed money came from his own pocket, but Avila recently signed with an investment firm to help raise up to $500,000 to expand beyond Stockton, Sacramento and Merced. So far the company has eight clients, and momentum has been growing.
In the beginning, Avila admits, it was hard to convince businesses of the benefits. But Katie Macrae, co-founder a new market that showcases local artisans called Stockmarket, didn’t need much convincing. She wanted to promote her upcoming market, so she hired a Finch during the San Joaquin County Asparagus Festival, which draws tens of thousands of people every spring.
“I’ve never seen anybody advertising on a bike in Stockton before,” Macrae says. “We really didn’t want to miss an opportunity to get the word out to that many people.”
Macrae gave Road Finch 400 fliers to pass out, and the rider distributed almost all of them to potential attendees. Avila says getting the word out about his company will help more people recognize the value of visibility. To help with that, he’s offering all small businesses two free days of service for just the purchase of the sign (valued at $100). For larger businesses, his price goes up to $25 an hour, which he says is nothing compared to the thousands spent on billboards nobody notices.
“People are so ingrained in the old ways,” he says. “But by having more people sign up since our rates are so low, it’ll become as mainstream as a billboard with a quantifiable result. They can see that their dollar is actually going somewhere.”
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