Randy Ellis started on his career path in 1970 while serving in the U.S. Army in Thailand. "I just walked into a (motorcycle) repair shop and started breaking things," he said.
Ellis wasn’t on a rampage. He just wasn’t as skilled as he thought he was in handling a wrench. He pulled out his wallet and paid for his mistakes. Ellis’ ham-handed efforts developed into a voluntary apprenticeship that had him hanging out at the shop every day to learn some real skills.
"Not only did they not pay me, I also had to buy lunch every day," he said.
Fast forward a few years and Ellis was back in the United States helping to put accessories on new motorcycles at Lynnwood Cycle Barn. Not long after that, he met the woman who would become his wife when he bought a used car she offered for sale.
They later bought a 1907 home at 3418 Rucker Ave. and started their own business called Randy’s Cycle Service in a tiny street-level garage originally built to hold a Model T.
Randy handles the mechanical side of the business and wife Leigh handles the business end.
The garage was a bit of surprise for the couple. It wasn’t until they started clearing away some vines that they discovered the tiny space. "At 12 by 18 feet, we’re the world’s smallest cycle repair shop," Randy Ellis said.
He said he always wanted to own his own business, so he started doing work on motorcycles on the side until he earned enough to go off on his own.
"That’s the secret - jobs on the side," he said.
Randy and Leigh Ellis said other motorcycle shops were essential to their success. Many gave good business advice, generously offered repair tips or referred work. The referrals were typically on bikes that were 10 years old or older, models that often required a lot of difficult or time-consuming work that didn’t fit the training of their own mechanics.
"Most dealerships don’t want to work on bikes that are older than 10 years," Randy Ellis said. "That’s our niche. Basically there are people looking to work on their bike and nobody will work on it."
They’ve worked so hard on getting old bikes running and keeping them in repair, they’ve literally written the book on the subject. "How to Get Your Motorcycle Up & Running" is a self-published volume the couple sells on the Internet.
"A lot of people are looking for a little bit of knowledge so they do a lot of the work themselves," Leigh Ellis said.
In addition to enjoying running his own business, Randy Ellis tries to pass along his skills in a way similar to the way he learned. He often will take on an apprentice to help in the shop with the idea of guiding people into starting their business.
"I like to teach," Randy Ellis said. "I’m a natural teacher. I’ve had people spend hours, days, years. I always push them toward starting their own business rather than getting a job."
He noted that the old master-apprentice form of teaching fits the nature of the work.
"What we do in the shop is old tech," he said. "It’s not work they can ship overseas."
Both Randy and Leigh Ellis said they don’t advertise the business, relying on repeat business, referrals and on people who notice the shop while driving along the busy street. Several motorcycles usually sit in front of the shop.
Randy Ellis tells people interested in starting a business not to worry about making mistakes.
"Don’t make them twice," he said. "You’ve got to fall on your face and get up. We goofed up, but the customer never knew it. By the time he got it back, it would be right."