A Pro Move

Mar 16th, 2021

This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

The Pro’s Closet was not an overnight success, according to John Levisay, its chief executive officer. “It was a decade in the making,” he said. That decade began in 2006 when founder Nick Martin was “an aspiring professional mountain bike racer living on a shoestring budget,” as The Pro’s Closet website puts it.

Martin — improbably — bought three Volkswagen buses and started parting them out on eBay to make money. Soon he had moved on to selling his own unwanted bike gear.

“This elegant minimalism appealed to him, and soon he had sold most of his possessions,” relays the website, in a nod to Zen tranquility.

Martin began driving a trailer around the country, helping his fellow professional mountain bikers sell their stuff on eBay and the guiding mission for today’s very successful company was established: ownership is temporary.

“You don’t need to be tied down to the same bike season after season,” The Pro’s Closet says.

When you think about it, it’s pretty darn appealing. Used to be, you had to be rich or a sponsored rider to change bikes every year. Now, thanks to The Pro’s Closet, anybody can do it. They’ll buy your bike, cash on the barrelhead. They have used bikes for sale, checked out and certified by a platoon of 40 mechanics in their headquarters in Longmont, Colorado. (The company is planning a move in March to a new, 137,000-square-foot warehouse/office in Louisville, Colorado.)

“We offer the biggest selection of bikes in the world with practically every brand and thousands of different models,” the website states. “Each bike we sell is inspected and serviced by professional technicians to ensure it is as good as new.”

If you don’t like the bike you buy from The Pro’s Closet, the company will buy it back from you under their Certified Pre-Owned program. You have 18 months to decide whether you want to keep the bike, with its trade-in value updated monthly in your account with The Pro’s Closet.

You can also choose to receive cash for the bike instead of credit, but it will be valued 10 percent below the trade-in price. There are some other terms you’ll want to check out, but all in all, this is pretty revolutionary stuff, and cyclists have taken to it like Velcro to a pannier strap.

The company is privately held, and Levisay declined to disclose annual revenue, but he did offer some insight into The Pro’s Closet’s success.

“What I can pretty clearly say is by a large margin we would be the biggest seller in the world of pre-owned bikes,” Levisay said. “We’re talking on the order of hundreds of bikes a week.”

In 2021, Levisay expects to move more than 10,000 bikes, in addition to a ton of parts, accessories, gear, wheels, and frames.

Levisay, 53, grew up in central Illinois, southwest of Chicago. He worked for General Electric for years, in Erie, Pennsylvania, Louisville, Kentucky, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.

“I spent years in the Bay area and New York City,” he said.

GE gave him a solid grounding in business and finance. He worked in GE’s aircraft engine, aerospace, and appliance divisions.

“It was great to learn the manufacturing side,” Levisay said.

After GE, Levisay joined eBay as a director — ironically enough, given that The Pro’s Closet positions itself as a better alternative, for both you and the buyer, to that well-established website for selling your bike.

“If someone’s buying a $5,000 bike off Craigslist or eBay, that’s a risk,” Levisay said. “We take that risk out of it. People feel more comfortable coming to a destination where they know bike mechanics have inspected the bike and approved it.”

Not only that, Levisay added, but as the seller, you don’t have to go through the rigamarole of listing on eBay, answering questions, and perhaps meeting a potential buyer in the parking lot of Walmart, where he tries to renegotiate the deal.

“You send us the specs, answer some basic questions, and we cut you a check and help with shipping to our warehouse,” he said.

Before joining The Pro’s Closet, Levisay started his own business in 2010 called Craftsy, a website for crafts, hobbies, and “lifestyle interests” focused on online education.

“Eventually we began selling product,” Levisay said.

Once Levisay hit seven employees, his wife insisted he move the business out of the basement of their home.

“That was a great experience, growing that business to scale and being purchased by NBC Universal,” Levisay said.

Not bad. Levisay believes his position at the helm of The Pro’s Closet combines all of his work experiences into the perfect job, in the perfect place — Colorado’s Front Range.

“It’s where I want to spend the rest of my life,” Levisay said. “I feel like this role is consolidating my eBay experience with the hands-on manufacturing experience at GE, combined with Nick’s knowledge of the industry and the team we’ve assembled.”

The Pro’s Closet currently has 93 employees.

The Pro’s Closet’s (potentially inauspicious) business model inspiration.
Courtesy The Pro’s Closet

One of the lessons Levisay learned at both eBay and Craftsy is the nearly unlimited potential of businesses that tap into people’s hobbies and interests.

“The passion and dedication to hobbies is something a lot of times is lost on people who are not privy to those hobbies,” Levisay said.

Take quilting for example. If you didn’t know better, you might think of quilting as a quaint, old-timey hobby mostly practiced by elderly grandmothers. Guess again.

“The domestic quilting industry is a $3 billion a year business,” Levisay said. “Twenty million Americans have a quilt or do quilting. It’s the same with knitting, sewing, and woodworking. Each has an amazingly dedicated, passionate group. Cycling is no different.”

Another example: by the time Levisay left eBay, the website was doing $14 billion a year in used automotive alone, including cars and trucks and parts.

Cycling is what Levisay calls a “first paragraph hobby.” What he means by that is when you’re describing yourself to someone who doesn’t know you, it turns up in the first paragraph: “Hi, I’m Dan, I’m from Oklahoma, I’m a father and I’m a cyclist.”

“Hard-core cyclists will tell you within the first five minutes of meeting them,” Levisay said. “It’s not an ephemeral hobby. It’s a lifetime hobby.”

If you go to The Pro’s Closet website to look for a bike to buy, you’ll find six categories of bikes: cyclocross, gravel, road, mountain, electric, and triathlon.

Notice anything missing? That’s right, touring. Asked about this glaring omission, Levisay said to stay tuned.

“We like to say the categorization we use on the site is constantly evolving,” he said. “So a year ago, we didn’t have a category for gravel bikes. We heard it from customers, so then we go in and make the changes. Our goal is to get the right person on the right bike at the right time. Our filters are constantly evolving.”

Levisay promised he would talk to his “product guy” about touring bikes and find out what it would take to add the category. (Now’s the time to make yourselves known, Adventure Cycling members!)

Despite being an online business, The Pro’s Closet has not escaped the devastating reach of COVID-19.

“COVID has been a tough year for all of us,” Levisay said. “The main risk to us is we have a warehouse with 40 people working in it. We have to be methodical about making sure stations are separated and that receiving people are not coming in contact with shipping people.”

Levisay has gone so far as to make sure the mechanics working on wheels and suspensions and other aspects of the bikes are separated, so that if a COVID-19 case did turn up, he wouldn’t have to shut the entire warehouse down.

“We’ve had to be pretty deliberate,” he said. “All non-warehouse employees are working from home for nine months. I’m really looking forward to the vaccine rollout getting us all in one place.”

COVID-19 has also affected bike manufacturers, disrupting supply chains and making new bikes harder to get. That has benefited The Pro’s Closet, Levisay said, which can put its customers on a bike that’s new to them at a lower cost than a new bike.

Levisay is particularly interested in the electric bike category on The Pro’s Closet website, which had 22 bikes available when this story was written in mid-January, ranging in price from $1,500 to $7,000.

Levisay said he was riding in the mountains in late September last year, just before the weather turned cold, when he met a cyclist coming up the trail while he was going down near Beaver Creek. The cyclist was 76 years old and was on his second loop of the trail.

“This was an hour climb, not insignificant,” Levisay said.

Amazed, he asked the elderly cyclist if he did the ride often.

“He said, ‘I’ve been doing this for 50 years, and this eBike has allowed me to do it again,’” Levisay remembered. “It’s not a motorcycle, it’s only 20 percent assist. It extends the ability of folks to continue to ride.”

Encounters like that one remind Levisay of why he’s doing what he’s doing.

“We think we’re playing a great role in the industry, making a difference,” he said. “A lot of people have unlocked capital in their garage they didn’t even know about. It’s exciting and we think it benefits the whole industry.” 

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