SAN JOSE -- In a world where it seems every enterprise is rushing to embrace a mobile strategy, Jim Gardner is celebrating his operation's move into a firmly grounded brick-and-mortar storefront.
Gardner's work with Good Karma Bikes is all about constant motion -- turning wheels, turning screws, turning rundown pieces of scrap into working bicycles for the homeless and those who support them. But that doesn't mean tooling around from homeless shelter to homeless shelter in his van was the most efficient way to get the job done.
So on a recent evening, Gardner, some of his army of volunteers, supporters and the requisite politicians gathered at Good Karma's (relatively) new home to mark a new phase in the nonprofit's life.
"It makes all the difference in the world," Gardner told me a few days before the bash. "People can come and find us." Good Karma is helping more people, he says, "because we have a home."
Gardner and Good Karma are a Silicon Valley success story, though Gardner would say it's more of a success story in progress. But like so many winning enterprises in the valley, Good Karma came about because of a big pivot. And it survives because of sound business fundamentals, something Gardner is rightfully proud of.
First the pivot: In 2009 Gardner, a fluid dynamics engineer, was working at a startup that was trying to revolutionize 3-D flat-panel monitors. The company overreached and Gardner was laid off. The layoff came as Gardner was starting a charitable crusade. Inspired after witnessing the travails of a homeless man on a broken-down bike, Gardner came up with the idea of traveling to homeless shelters to fix up the basic transportation of some of the most vulnerable among us.
When he lost his job, Gardner realized he could focus more on his bike mission.
"Something good did come out of it," says Gardner, who credits his wife for her patience and for keeping the family afloat in lean times. "I got a new career. I work seven days a week at it."
And if Gardner, 48, thinks good came out of the change for him, consider the good that has come to those he's helping. What started out as periodic visits to shelters to fix a few bikes is now an enterprise that runs out of an 8,000-square-foot building that once served as a cannery warehouse in the Midtown district.
Joseph Matej met Gardner nearly three years ago when Matej was living at the Montgomery Street Inn homeless shelter. He started volunteering to work on bicycles. Eventually, Good Karma gave him a bike.
"I don't know what I would do without my bike," Matej, 36, says. It's how Matej, who lives in an RV parked on city streets, gets around. It's how the former smog technician gets to Good Karma on Sunol Street, where he still volunteers regularly. The work helps keep him clean and sober, Matej says. It gives him focus and sharpens his mechanical skills, which he hopes will land him a job some day.
"This is a safe place I can go where there are upbeat people," he says, taking a break from tuning up an 18-speed.
As for Gardner's sound business fundamentals? Having a fixed location is part of that, but there is more to it -- most significant, that he's built a retail bike business to support the work that Good Karma does with the homeless.
"We're of the new breed of nonprofits where we don't rely completely on the government," Gardner says. "We don't rely on donations. We're a secondhand bike shop, a full-service secondhand bike shop."
Good Karma accepts donated bikes, including bikes abandoned at area college and corporate campuses. Then volunteers and Gardner, who is a certified bike mechanic, refurbish them. Once the two-wheelers are up to speed, Good Karma either gives them to the homeless or sells them to paying customers. Since moving into the building in the summer, Gardner has expanded his moneymaking pursuits. The shop sells some bike parts and accessories, it offers bike repair classes, rents work stations and does repairs at market rates.
Then, every Saturday, volunteers throw open Good Karma's doors and start fixing for free what needs to be fixed on the bikes of the area's homeless. All of which had me wondering: How does Gardner know who can afford to pay for a bike or a bike repair and who should be given free service or transportation?
"It's the honor system," he says. Honor system? Don't people rip you off?
"Have we been taken advantage of? Yeah, I guess you could look at it that way," Gardner says.
How do you look at it, I ask? "I look at it as, somebody comes to me for help and I help them," he says. "I'm not a good businessman."
I'm not so sure about that. Gardner says that Good Karma, which launched in late 2009, expects to help its 10,000th client this year and give away its 1,000th bike. His retail operation now accounts for more than half the nonprofit's budget. Which is great, but Gardner's goal is to grow large enough that he can hire the homeless; give them what he calls transitional employment -- a stop on the way to something bigger.
It could happen. If anybody knows the steps on the way to something bigger, it's Gardner.
Good Karma Bikes
Good Karma Bikes is located at 345 Sunol St. in San Jose. For more on the nonprofit see www.goodkarmabikes.org.