Nicole Johnson’s career trajectory took an unexpected turn after her experience selling radio ads and interning with ABC – she realized she did not want to be the next Barbara Walters after all. Moving south to Charlotte to join her brother, she found herself in the world of high-tech recruiting, eventually transitioning to a startup led by three college entrepreneurs she met at a trade show. (If you have met Nicole, you’re not surprised that they called her the day after meeting.) This marked the beginning of her exposure to the excitement, intricacies, and challenges of the startup world. She experienced firsthand lightning rod success but also how bringing on investors can lead to losing control of company direction, which ultimately led to the closure of the company.
Seeking mental and physical health and well-being, she found cycling
Amid the stress and rapid growth of her job, Nicole’s health and well-being suffered, prompting her to seek an outlet in an unlikely place—cycling. Introduced to the Leukemia Society, she embraced the sport with a purpose, raising money for a child in remission. She then dove right into the world of triathlons. A newbie, she received some direct, yet sound, advice: “You should really learn to swim before you sign up for a triathlon.” Again, we’re not surprised Nicole was ready to embrace this new challenge fully despite not really knowing how to cycle OR swim!
Undeterred, Nicole, in a brave and determined move, accepted an offer from a now-good friend to teach her how to swim. They swam together three days a week, showcasing Nicole’s commitment to overcoming challenges. However, cycling was still a hurdle; she hesitated to clip into the bike, feeling like a true beginner among experienced triathletes.
From doggie-paddling to professional cyclist
Starting a group ride from a local bike shop marked a pivotal moment. An encounter with a seasoned 70-year-old mentor who recognized her tenacity left a lasting impression. He pulled her aside and, impressed by her determination, offered to train her through the winter. The winter training sessions, coupled with 80-mile weekend rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway, transformed Nicole. In the spring, she emerged as a different person, ready to face new challenges in the cycling world.
Introduced to criterium racing by her mentor, Nicole found herself under the guidance of a cycling professional. This led to her joining a big-name professional women’s cycling team. She remembers it being the time of her life. Still employed full-time, she was able to train and ride without the burden of racing to support herself. It was during this phase that she crossed paths with Boyd Johnson, a fellow cyclist chasing his dream of becoming a professional racer.
Nicole & Boyd, a meet-cute, and mom’s advice, “You’ll figure it out.”
Boyd not only eventually became her husband but also a pivotal figure in her cycling journey. Despite the financial constraints of professional racing, Nicole’s mother offered sage advice: “You’ll figure it out.” Juggling a full-time job with 20 hours of training per week, Nicole exhibited a relentless drive that would later define her entrepreneurial endeavors.
Following a decade of racing, Nicole and Boyd decided to make Greenville their training ground. Nicole transitioned from the high-tech industry to work for the Chamber of Commerce where she focused on building a strong, local network. She subsequently joined Hincapie Sports, where she deepened her understanding of the cycling industry. In 2008, Boyd and Nicole married and, a year later, took the plunge into entrepreneurship with the establishment of Boyd Cycling.
Nicole reminisces about a phone call from Boyd while she was traveling for work: “Hey, when you get home, I have some stuff I want to show you. I think I want to start this company. While you were gone, I created the website and I’ve been talking to these guys in Asia…” This may not have been verbatim the conversation but the gist is he was already all in. The rest is history!
From home to international success
Starting the company out of their home, Nicole played a crucial role in the company’s early days, focusing on sales, business development, and even delving into finance and HR. An early challenge was coming to grips with all she didn’t know. We have no doubt that Nicole had a smile on her face throughout her personal development – we can count on her for kind words, big smile, and a bright laugh at any event she attends.
“Founders have an idea and they don’t realize there are so many other factors in running a business. A lot of things I didn’t know how to do and it was unnerving to figure things out. We wanted to make sure we were doing things right and following the rules. I’m very resourceful and found people I could talk to and found experts, like our [VMS] mentors.”
Another notable challenge occurred in 2012 when a manufacturer in Asia delivered subpar products three different times – Boyd prides themselves on their quality control process. Prior to this, the Johnsons were debt-free, having been incredibly savvy with their finances. The manufacturer ultimately ghosted Boyd and kept their money while also stealing their IP, forcing Boyd Cycling to go back to the drawing board. This adversity, while painful, instead of thwarting their progress, became a catalyst for growth.
Challenges abound but lead to significant growth
Manufacturing in Taiwan and Asia dominated the industry. To mitigate risk and costs, the company shifted operations onshore during COVID-19. Instead of buying inventory, they invested in machines, gaining a 50% competitive advantage. Having foreseen the severity of the pandemic starting in Asia, they took a risk to build up inventory. This decision paid off during the strained supply chain, especially in shipping. Overcoming challenges, they grew 1.5 times during COVID-19, maintaining this growth. The outdoor industry also thrived as people rediscovered outdoor activities.
Boyd Cycling’s success is not only a result of overcoming challenges but also of the support they received from mentors, notably through the Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) program. Nicole emphasizes the importance of seeking help and acknowledges the crucial role mentors play in their journey.
Nicole’s commitment to community extends beyond the cycling world. Involved with organizations like Moms for Motion, she actively participates in initiatives like the paved pump track project, aiming to provide a safe space for people of all ages to ride.
As Nicole reflects on her journey, she advocates for education about the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, emphasizing a deeper understanding of a company’s role within it. She actively contributes to organizations like NEXT, recognizing the pivotal role they played in their journey. Boyd Cycling was chosen as one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups featured at NEXT Venture Summit in 2023. She was also featured on the Women in Innovation Founders Forum panel alongside other female innovators.
Nicole Johnson’s story is not just about co-founding a successful cycling company; it’s a narrative of overcoming challenges, seizing opportunities, and embodying the spirit of a true trailblazer. Her journey, from the radio ad sales offices to the cycling tracks and the helm of Boyd Cycling, is an inspiring testament to the transformative power of passion, perseverance, and the support of a dedicated community.