I had been scared of starting a small business in Orange County—especially something like an electric-bicycle shop. With our shallow pockets, my partner and I didn’t have the resources to compete against the larger recreation-based businesses along the county’s tony coast. They could out-advertise us, outmaneuver us in making deals, and outdo us in manpower. But my business and personal partner, Brian, and I really do love these bikes, and everywhere we ride, people ask about them. So when I gave up my full-time job two years ago, selling them seemed to be the most promising way to redirect my life. Together, we embarked on a seven-day-a-week odyssey to prove our hopes right, and my fears wrong. We have mostly achieved both, but there have been plenty of unexpected bumps in the road, including the persistent sexism that seems to run through the industry.
The bikes are a green alternative to cars. They also keep couples with unequal fitness levels riding together, and we see a lot of different kinds of people fall in love with electric biking the way we did. So we built the business to run on a three-tiered plan, offering rentals and sales of electric bikes, as well as tours. On each tier, we face opportunities and challenges.
Besides competition from all corners of the county, the vacation crowd sometimes ignores us as it passes our quiet strip mall on PCH to visit amusement parks, aquariums, beaches, and nightclubs. The commuter crowd often chooses alternate transportation, from skateboards to the O.C. transit system.
And then there are the sexists. As the female majority shareholder, I regularly deal with men who clearly consider me a lesser partner in the enterprise. I could be standing inside a vendor’s booth at conventions waving my checkbook like a flag. Still, the vendors insist on speaking to Brian.
But the toughest obstacle was setting up our location. It took us a year to find our spot in Seal Beach, build it out at our expense, and then arrange a kickoff event that announced our arrival with panache. But we did it. More than 200 people came to our grand opening. It inspired us to work even harder. We put in so many hours at the shop to build and sustain our name in the community that we began thinking of it as our home.
Having carved out our own little retail space, you’d think the rest would be easy. You’d be wrong. Most of our customers have only so much to spend, and it’s a challenge to keep them focused on why they walked through our door. But we also have to contend with outsiders who come in to compete for our customers’ cash—the small army of men with half-day beards who hustle in to push toys, perfume, makeup, and more. Don’t they realize they’re riding in our lane—one we painted ourselves? It’s more than the expense of rent; it’s the time and sweat that turned this place into an electric-bike store.
The palm reader was the worst. He committed the double crime of store-zone poaching and sexism. I was locking up the bikes one evening, and he saw me through the glass and pounded on the bolted door. I unlocked and smiled warily.
“Is the owner here?” he demanded.
“I’m the owner,” I replied.
“No, the man,” he insisted.
Sigh. “May I help you?”
He paused, considering my worthiness. “Can I read your palm?” He held up his own to demonstrate.
I slammed the door, locked him out, and went home for the night. Nobody sells me my future in my own store.
Most of the folks who saunter in bring smiles and a passion for bicycles, and sometimes even those trying to sell things to our customers win me over. One young couple from Spain financed their cross-country bike tour by selling handmade wire statuettes of bicycles—business card holders—that I thought made great conversation pieces. They targeted bike shops in small, friendly towns such as Seal Beach, and I was happy to buy one during a quiet moment at the shop.
Brian’s passion for spreading the word about our store has him traveling to community events all over Southern California. For each one, he’s up at some crazy hour to bolt out the door with a bike and go, go, go. He has done this so often that the Irvine-based Pedego Electric Bikes Co. awarded us a prize at its annual dealer meeting—a branded tent of our own, so we can participate in community events wherever and whenever the passion calls.
Four things keep us rolling: guts, brawn, brains, and luck. It has taken guts to open our doors, brawn to move bikes, and brains to stay the course. But luck is what really drove our business this year. I couldn’t resist a challenge emailed from Time Warner Cable Business Class to describe our business in 300 words or less. It took an hour to compose my 298-word essay last February. A couple months later, after I’d forgotten about it, the cable company called to say we had won. The prize left us astounded: a top-notch national TV commercial. This amazing tail wind pushed us forward as the year ended, and our shop is thriving despite the obstacles and challenges.
We learned that anything will happen when you run a small business, not all of it pleasant. But with each jolt, excitement balances fear. Prosperity and panic roll side by side. The trick is to be open to the possibility of magic—to work hard, take chances, and make each invoice lead to profit by delighting customers. The latter happened when I sold two bikes to a fellow who limped into our store with a cane. He’d suffered a workplace accident years earlier and was unable to cycle, and he missed the freedom of it. Seeing the commercial gave him the idea that he could return to the bike path. His spectacular grin on the test ride fueled my fortitude. He might never have learned about electric bikes if I hadn’t won that TV spot.
The fear of even bigger obstacles ahead will probably never completely fade. But when you experience all that we have in two years, it becomes addicting to throw open the door, stand by a bicycle, and wait to introduce it to shoppers. I’m determined to coast on the good days, and, well, peddle harder when the race is on.