On a Sunny late Autumnal afternoon, I find myself behind the main street in Newtown, staring at a pink house. I can’t find a way in, even though I’ve knocked at the front door twice.
It is one of those old flats you still find around Wellington. An old home, given up by the family and leased as a flat in a rambling amass of wooden staircases and veggie gardens for students or young working types. It is the kind of house on which you want to sit on the porch and just sip cider as the sun sets. Luckily for me, I know the perfect guy to enjoy such luxuries in life with. And he lives in this house. His name is Russell Silverwood - or for some of Wellington - Russell from Nocar Cargo, Wellington’s most loved bike courier. From as little as $6.50, you can have your goods of anything up to 75kg delivered by bike, anywhere in the inner city. I wanted to meet Russell to find out more about how business is going in Wellington and why he started it in the first place.
"From as little as $6.50, you can have your goods of anything up to 75kg delivered by bike, anywhere in the inner city"
I figure my way around the side of the house (realising I’ve ignored Russell’s clear instructions on my messenger app), and find him the garden shed, covered in grease, working on his bikes. Focaccia bread bakes in the oven, filling the whole flat with a wafting warm small. Russell lives with 6 other people, and they all cook together. Much to my good fortune, today is Russell’s day of the week. So, over a pot of tea, bread, seriously amazing Whitestone smoked butter and a spicy chickpea stew, Russell explains the winding road that led to him setting up a bike courier business in Wellington.
A Good Bikey
Russell and I met in our final paper at Victoria University (the excellent Law and Sexuality). He really couldn’t be missed around campus, with his wirey mop of sandy hair, jeans and bike helmet. Quickly, I noticed I’d stumbled upon one of the nicest folk at uni, possibly around town. As is typical of Wellington, we would chat about mutual friends - Russell was in a band called ‘Robert’ with one of my dearest gal-pals and her brother. When I heard that Russell had set up a business about 18 months ago, I was mighty curious and excited. How had a law degree turned into his passion for bikes into a business?
On Yer Bike
Russell’s childhood was a leafy suburban one - and it got him on the road to his bike obsession. He grew up in Khandallah, Wellington and (apart from three years travelling) has lived in Wellington his whole life. With no immediate family history of entrepreneurship, there is, nevertheless, a strong tradition of cycling. Russell’s earliest memories are of bike trips with his family. “They did lot of mountain biking” he remembers “but I always struggled with it because I was smaller and less athletic than my brother. The activities would skew towards higher skill levels. I’d get pretty cranky.” While Russell can’t remember his first bike he does remember his yellow, 6-speed Diamondback. Then he upgraded to a Giant Sedona (which his parents still have).
Growing up in Wellington
As Russell got older, bikes fell away in favour of skateboards and friends. “I was never that good at skateboarding” he says, laughing. Russell enjoyed school at Onslow College and reflects on it fondly. “What a funny time of life” he muses. “Teenagers lumped in with all these strangers. Trying to figure it all out. It was good though.”
After school at Onslow, Russell attended Victoria for three years. He ended up studying law and working part-time at Mojo Coffee. Russell enjoyed some aspects of law, such as Youth Justice papers and volunteering at the community law centre, but didn’t have a goal nor did he want to work in a large law firm. So Russell decided to ‘tag out’ of Wellington and go travelling for a while. “University didn’t necessarily introduce me to a lot of new people - because I was at uni in my own town” Russell explains. “It was a desire to explore and discover the unknown. I needed an outside perspective.”
With a close friend, Russell travelled to Sydney, then Melbourne to work and save up for further travel. Almost immediately, Russell hopped back on his bike. “Any city is easy to see by bike. Being in a car is the same the world over but riding a bike places you in the city without barriers. It was my primary mode of transport in Melbourne” Russell says. He then flew to Chile and covered “too much of South America in not enough time”, then flew to Amsterdam. “Then shit got wild. There were lots and lots of bikes” Russell laughs. “Everywhere is pretty close in Amsterdam, you can cycle everywhere and everyone does. It’s a really interesting, easy city to live in” he says. “Everyone is very familiar with English.” He remained working in the Netherlands for 8 months, after which he travelled through Spain and Portugal. Despite getting a two year visa for the UK, Russell felt the aches and longings for Wellington. After returning and spending a year chilling out, he resumed and finished his degree.
Law school to a Business plan
I ask Russell whether he thought he would use his degree to ever work as a lawyer. “I guess I fooled myself” he reflects, slowly. “thinking that I was looking forward to it. I would think about different jobs that I could go into, following the expected trajectory I guess. When I finished I was so tired of it that I needed space from that way of looking at the world.” Around that same time, in February 2013, a few things came to an end for Russell so he decided to clear his head. He went on a big bike trip in the South Island “Cycling and tripping around.” “I gave myself space after studying” Russell says, “University took up so much space. I needed to work out what I was going to do and where to go. Cycle touring is an incredible way to travel and it gives you plenty of time to think.”
Russell’s inspiration to start the business came from a desire to show people more environmentally friendly ways of doing business. “While I was taking time off after university, I noticed a lack of cargo bikes.” Russell remembers, “There had been lots of cargo bikes in Amsterdam. It was completely normal to see a huge piece of furniture, an art portfolio or a parent with two kids on the front of a bike. I thought by seeing something so absurd, it might make riding a bike to work more normal.”
Once Russell started talking about the idea, he couldn’t shake it. His friend Dan at Bicycle Junction in Newtown was highly supportive. He began taking little loads around and then got the first of a shipment of new cargo bikes from Denmark. It was a slow burn, Russell explains, but that’s the way he likes it. Russell also rates the guys at Six Barrel Soda and Roman and Andrea from peanut butter manufacturer Fix and Fogg for giving him sound advice as he was starting up.
Now with around a dozen customers, Nocar Cargo has all of Wellington spinning its wheels. What can you bike cargo? Well, pretty much anything it turns out. Russell delivers everything, from chocolate for the Wellington Chocolate Factory, prints for Ink Digital, bread for Wellington Sourdough and even dental moulds. “It’s a really nice days work” Russell reflects. “It’s brought me into contact with some really nice people. Being my own business is great because I can angle it towards the kind of people who genuinely want this type of service. At the risk of talking about the weather, the worst part is probably the Wind. But even so, it’s really not that bad as far as things go and it isn’t going away so you better not worry about it.”
What’s the future for Nocar Cargo? “The more the merrier” Russell says. “The more bikes that come through the city, the fewer cars there will be. I’d like to have two or three bikes and have a bit of a gang around the city.” Would he ever stand back and get off the bikes? “I really enjoy being on the bike” he says “The nice thing about having your own business is you don’t have to fit someone else’s idea about what it means to be part of it. The satisfaction from this job I haven't really had before. It would be great to be able to offer a job to someone else and give them that same satisfaction as well.”
“The more the merrier” Russell says. “The more bikes that come through the city, the fewer cars there will be. I’d like to have two or three bikes and have a bit of a gang around the city.”
Russell is also passionate about supporting local businesses. “Look at where you’re spending your money” Russell advices, “Support local businesses. It’s often people living down the street, making something they want to see in the world. Most people aren’t doing something for huge financial gain but it makes sense that if you want to see it you need to support it.”
So back to those doors - the metaphorical doors, I mean. How easy is it in Wellington to get someone to help open one with you? Russell thinks Wellington is a great place to start a business because people help open the way. “Wellington is such a supportive city. People are more than happy to make a suggestion or give some advice,” he says.“People have been really encouraging. There has been minimal arm twisting and fast talking yet. Which is good because I’m not so great that,” he laughs. After all, once a door has been opened you can just ride right on through