SmartEtailing Blog

Origin Story Part 4

By Ryan Atkinson


We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of SmartEtailing by reflecting in this blog series on how the bike industry’s original tech startup came to be.

In the previous post we learned about the early growth in popularity of SmartEtailing among bike shops and cycling brands, along with the financially sustainable mindset of the co-founders.

Started from the bottom

Graff and Brenner operated a modest startup. For the first five years, the company’s sales and content efforts happened primarily out of Graff’s home basement. Brenner began working out of his dining room, and eventually opened an office in Ventura.

Graff recalls with a smirk, “We joked that if someone were ever to write a book about us, the chapter about our early years would be Low Overhead & No Letterhead since we rejected the trappings of more traditional businesses. Fun was a key ingredient to our partnership and our company.”

Brenner handled administration, bookkeeping and the technology side of things. Graff handled sales, brand relations and customer support. They worked together on marketing.

Brandon Dwight, the company’s first employee, was a bike racer at the time who began writing copy and taking photos to populate the product catalog and the library of articles retailers might want to use on their own websites. He has since worked at IMBA, owned a successful multi store bike shop and created his own technology startup.

“Mark had a nice basement office setup,” Dwight remembered. “I had my list of products I needed to get photos ready for and write copy, and I put on headphones and hammered away. Some days I was there for two or three hours, other times longer. I could work remotely before it was a thing because I had a laptop and I was traveling for races.”

Dwight remembers sitting next to Graff, who would be on the phone making sales.


“He would be talking with bike shop owners or industry people. Mark has this voice for radio, happy and cheery. He was always in a good mood,” Dwight recalled.

“As I look back at it, it was fun to be part of this new thing. I didn’t understand what Mark and Barry had conceptualized and what they were going to create but especially in hindsight I have a ton of respect for what they did.”

Slow & steady growth

Seven people, including Graff, eventually worked out of that basement, mostly on building the cycling catalog and long-form educational content, before opening a dedicated office space in a nearby building above a local bike shop..

Meanwhile, Brenner was also hiring the firm’s first staff of software developers and secured their first California office space on the second level of a strip mall in Ventura. On Graff’s first visit to that office he expressed concern that industry press not be invited to this office. “It was located directly over a PC repair store named ‘Computer Idiots’ and might send the wrong message.”

Several of SmartEtailing’s hires came right out of bike retail and from industry connections. Graff noted, however, that they were always sensitive to not actively recruit staff from retailer clients where hiring and retention can be extra tough.

Recruiting brave souls

Happily, the firm actually was approached by some of its earliest clients to recommend certain store staff for their next career opportunities. The first of these came from Penn Cycle and many others would follow.

Industry friends also helped, such as when Graff’s former Catalyst co-worker Ray Keener helped bring cycling author Jim Langley to the team. Langley had been technical editor for Bicycling Magazine for 11 years. During his time with the company he helped raise the credibility and technical accuracy of all content the company produced.

One of the early retail recruits was Chip Kelsey, who is still at the company today. Kelsey worked at Plano Cycling in Texas for 11 years before coming to SmartEtailing. He celebrated 18 years at SmartEtailing in December 2018.

Kelsey, who worked on Plano’s website, sent in his resume shortly after sitting through a presentation at SmartEtailing’s first formal Interbike.

“It was the right position at the right time. It was a really good fit for me. I was really enjoying doing web work. I contacted Mark and they needed someone to do content. I had good writing skills and a lot of experience in the bike industry,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey invested in ongoing learning and is now a member of the company’s team of in-house web developers, with a hands on role in enhancing the software he’s been working on for nearly two decades.

Eighteen years is a long time to be employed at one company, but Kelsey doesn’t see an end in sight. “I really like our mission of helping small bicycle retailers,” Kelsey said. “I’ve been treated really well and we’ve got a really good culture.”

Stayed tuned for part 5 in the series about the software’s evolution.


<< Read Part 1    Read Part 5 >>

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