Features & Columns

Cowgirl Bike Courier

Female-focused bike courier business navigates Silicon Valley sprawl
SADDLE READY: Teri Nguyen, Cain Ramirez, Seth Reis and Amanda Muehlbauer (left to right) launched the region's only bike courier service. Photograph by Larry Hinh

The Bicyclists arrive in half-hour successions to Roy's Coffee Station in Japantown. Strapped with helmets and messenger bags, 18 of them are here to prove they can patch a flat, maneuver through city traffic and follow orders under duress. One by one, they sit down at a table for a quick interview and briefing. Their first assignment: deliver a note to San Pedro Square Market, fifth booth to the right from B2 coffee.

A quarter of them go to the wrong place. Two walk through another entrance at the public market and abandon the folded-up paper on a counter. A few ask for directions. One went back to Roy's, asked if that was the end of the drill and booked it back to B2 upon learning that the point of the task was to find a second set of interviewers.

"Poor thing floored it back from Japantown to re-deliver the letter," says Cain Ramirez, one of the interviewers camped out at B2 that warm August day. "She showed up dripping in sweat."

Ramirez hired her on the spot, one of eight messengers—most of them women—enlisted to work for the just-launched and crowd-funded Cowgirl Bike Courier, which he founded with three other business partners. According to local cycling groups, it's the only bike courier outfit in Silicon Valley.

"We wanted to see how they handle pressure," says Ramirez, 25, a music major at San Jose State and erstwhile political activist. "How are they going to react if someone is having a stressful day? Can they think on their feet? How do they present themselves to a client?"

Technology was supposed to spell the end for bike messengers, with its promise of same-day, same-hour and—maybe someday—drone deliveries. Instead, it spurred a cottage industry revival. After years of plummeting ranks, couriers have started to make a comeback, albeit a small one and mostly in denser cities like San Francisco—partly because of the appeal of patronizing local, sustainable businesses and partly because in a traffic-jammed city, it's quicker to dart around on a bike.

Some courier services managed to make technology, and the on-demand lifestyle it engenders, their means. Postmates, GrubHub and other delivery apps recruited bike couriers to transport goods that "last mile," from store to consumer. Although, unlike the days before DocuSign and DropBox, when legal documents were rushed from one office to another by two-wheeled speed demons, the focus these days is less business-to-business and more direct-to-consumer. Couriers today are busier delivering flowers, wine and food than contracts. Still, Ramirez hopes to woo clients from area law offices.

Silicon Valley, however, presents at least one challenge unique from San Francisco: sprawl. The trips are longer and the roads wider and clearer, making it often more convenient to make a delivery by car. Ramirez is looking to the handful of courier services in San Francisco for guidance, while putting his own spin on things.

"We have a very different market," says Ramirez, who gets around on San Jose's sky-blue Bay Area Bike Share bikes. "Even the way we present ourselves has to be different. Silicon Valley has a cleaner, more professional aesthetic. We want our couriers to reflect that."

Though South Bay suburbia doesn't lend well to the industry, Ramirez believes the demand is there and the temperate weather conducive to year-round service. While volunteering last summer as a social media manager for the San Jose Bike Clinic, a pop-up repair shop, he posted a promotional video for San Francisco-based TCB Courier on the group's Facebook page.

"I thought, this is interesting that couriers are becoming a real trend, an actual alternative," Ramirez says. "I shared it online thinking that people will come to [the San Jose Bike Clinic] page because it's just an interesting concept."

People loved the idea. They started commenting and messaging him, wondering when Silicon Valley would get a bike courier service of its own. By the end of the day, several people had asked him how they could hire a local bike courier. One of those messages came from Rodolphe Verhaegen, a business director at eBay.

"Rod spoke up and said he'd be very interested in working on this project if someone wanted to take the lead," Ramirez recalls. "I figured it couldn't hurt to meet the guy."

They met at his eBay office in Santa Clara. Verhaegen told them he used to run a courier service in Brussels and that he'd love to bring one to his new home.

"He promised, 'All of my resources will open up to you,'" Ramirez says.

Ramirez and Verhaegen recruited Teri Nguyen, Seth Reis and Amanda Muehlbauer—making for a half male, half female company ownership—to put together a business plan. They decided to name the venture Cowgirl Bike Courier, a spin on the name of the bike valet service they ran two years ago at the SubZERO arts and music festival in downtown San Jose. Also, Ramirez adds, the gendered title draws attention to the dearth of women cyclists.

"We looked at the numbers and realized that there are so few women in the industry and bicycling in general," Ramirez says. Women account for just 24 percent of annual bicycle trips in the United States, according to the League of American Bicyclists. The decision to spotlight the discrepancy elicited some criticism that the company was exploiting women. Ramirez shrugs it off.

"We're an equal opportunity employer," he says. "We just wanted to encourage stronger representation of women in another male-dominated field."

After fine-tuning the message to focus on sustainability, professionalism and female empowerment, Ramirez posted a fundraising page on IndieGoGo. He asked for $20,000—a "best case scenario" amount—and raised $4,000. The founders then built a website and set rates: $10 to $30, depending on location and speed, with discounted subscription rates.

Couriers, as independent contractors, get a 50 percent cut from each sale—much higher than the industry standard of 30 percent. Still, to make it worthwhile, they'll have to line up a series of dispatches, ideally at least a few an hour.

With Google, eBay and Amazon gearing up their same-day delivery vans, the competition is bound to get tougher for Cowgirl's fleet of cyclists. Uber recently launched a bike courier outfit in New York City, which could one day branch out to the Bay Area. But Ramirez is banking on the South Bay's thriving cycling community, and its penchant for backing local businesses, to back him up.

"A person delivers this to you, someone who knows the lay of the land and is really passionate about cycling," he says. "There's an appeal there for people who want to support a sustainable, emissions-free business, and connect with other local companies, or discover people who offer locally made products."

Corinne Winter, head of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, says she's thrilled to welcome a new bike-centric business to the region.

"It's long overdue that the South Bay have a bike courier service and I'm happy someone finally had the vision to make it happen," she says. "We hope this is something the community will support and help thrive."

Not to mention, Ramirez adds, "there's something really cool about racing around town on the back of a bike. People are into that."