“How do you make a million dollars in the motorcycle industry? Simple: start out with 10 million dollars!”
– Old motorcycle industry gag.
Har, har! Let’s all have a good laugh. As a motorcycle-industry participant entering a second decade of negative net worth, though, sometimes the laughing sounds like hysterical sobbing emanating from under my fake-veneer Target desk. Luckily, I don’t measure my self worth in terms of my net worth. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. Thank God for antidepressants.
Anyway, you may have seen a story or two on this website about the American International Motorcycle Exposition in Orlando, Florida. I attended last week, reluctantly making the jet-lagging trip to my least-favorite state (Florida Fun Fact: Alcohol makes it tolerable) because (a) I think it’s important to meet industry folks face-to-face and (b) somebody else was paying for it. Though I was expecting to enjoy it more than my regular life, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.
That’s because of the people. The motorcycle industry is a small place, with a small group of people chasing after small amounts of money. Almost nobody is going to get rich doing this stuff. And yet, the huge hall in the Orange County Convention Center was crowded with people – and that was on an industry-only preview day, closed to the general motorcycling public. Hundreds of motorcycle dealers, shop employees, distributors and some folks just scouting things out, making connections.
Guys like Charles Lysogorski. At 64 years old, he took his retirement savings and started up a company selling a new kind of goggle for off-road riders. “They told me I was crazy, but I always wanted to be a product designer.” His goggles are funny-looking, a larger design that Lysogorsky claims gives riders a wider field of vision, works better with glasses and offers more comfort.
At 64, most of us will be thinking about how much riding we’ll get to do when we retire next year, not about how we’ll start a new career from scratch. But Charles isn’t daunted. He’s leveraging his experience researching and developing products for military contracts into creating this new product just so he can see something new out in the motorcycling world, something he had a hand in creating. “When Trail Rider magazine said this is something completely different, that gave me joy.”
Charlie’s no fool, though. He knows not to jump into something too quickly. This year, he was just scouting out the show, wandering from booth to booth, meeting people he’d previously only talked to on the phone. “I wanted to look at the booths, see what looked good, what didn’t. Having a poor booth is worse than not having one at all. I took pictures of what drew people in, what didn’t.” Walking among the 500 or more vendors, I’d have to say that’s wise advice. Plenty of booths were manned by sad-looking folks rearranging brochures or dipping into their bowls of Starbursts and gazing longingly at their busy neighbors. Been there, done that.
Jack Khorsandi‘s an older guy, like Charles, and has followed a similar path. After being a distributor for Apple products for 20 years, the Iranian-born businessman partnered up with the co-developer of the Grip-N-Ride, a handle-equipped belt for passengers to grab on to. Khorsandi saw the belt wouldn’t just make riding better for motorcyclists, especially ones with kids looking for a better and safer way to enjoy riding with their offspring. “My goal is to see nobody get hurt riding, especially kids.”
The AIMExpo was useful for Khorsandi. Not only did he get to show off a new product line – this one can be ordered with custom logos and graphics, which was popular with the dealers and distributors he met with – Jack also was looking forward to meeting the public. “We really want to show the product to the customers and let them know there’s a product out there that can help riders and passengers.” Whether they think they need it or not doesn’t matter – they know there’s a guy out there – Jack – who cares enough to offer this thing to improve their experience, even if it’s just a little bit.
I’ve talked to plenty of small business people over the years, and it’s almost always a similar story. They hit on a simple (or not so simple) way to make the riding experience better while making enough money to cover their costs and keep the company going. Contrast that attitude with the tech industry, where much lip service is paid to making the world a better place even though the goal is clear: make millions or billions of dollars selling out to a bigger company. And screw anybody who stands in your way: consumers, government regulators or workers.
You can’t do that in the small two-wheeled world, where everybody knows each other and people remember slights for decades. That’s where we get back to the busy, crowded enormous room in Florida. It’s a big room, but it pretty much contained everybody I’ve ever met in the motorcycle world. If I behaved like a greedy, self-centered jackass, I wouldn’t want to show my face in there – and would have a limited way to do business in the industry. Behave well – the way you like being treated – and it’s more like a family reunion than a trade show. “[The people here] seem less cliquish, more friendly, more down to earth, even with the big companies,” Lysgorsky told me. “A lot of people I met over the phone I got to meet in person. Ninety percent of the people were really happy to help out a small company and spread the word.”
Come into that hall with an interesting product and a good attitude, and you’ll get farther in three days than you will in three years working email and your phone, even with all the social media platforms and other tools we can access easily and cheaply. Everybody you need to talk to is right there, from the person who handles ordering product for a small motorcycle shop to the marketing director for a big parts distributor. You can hand out samples and business cards to V.P.s from all four of the Japanese OEMs or get your favorite motocross racer to try on your new elbow pads. And you can do all that before you go get your bucket of deep-fried Grouper nuggets or whatever it is that passes for lunch in Central Florida.
The best part of it all is you don’t have to be born wealthy, have a PhD, good grooming habits, own an expensive (or any kind of) suit or even be from this country. You just have to love motorcycles. You don’t even have to ride motorcycles, just enjoy some aspect of them.
And where would we be without folks like that? Motorcycling is about motorcycles, of course, and since making a whole motorcycle (or complex riding gear like helmets) is usually beyond the capabilities of a small operation, it’s the little things that are improved by these quasi-heroes. I’m thinking of my Aerostich suit or DeerSports gloves, which I wear every time I ride, or the many Corbin saddles I’ve put under my butt. There’s special underwear (no, not the Mormon kind – the comfy kind that keep your naughty bits comfortable), cooling vests, tools, lifts, turntables, lighting kits … the list goes into infinity. Not all these things are great ideas, true, but I’ll bet you use a few items like this, and you wouldn’t want to ride without them. Every one of those items has a proud inventor and businessperson behind them, a guy (or woman) who’s spent years toiling in mostly unrecognized obscurity.
What’s the payoff? Well, I’ve found that if you’re an honest person and don’t piss too many people off, the opportunities are there. You won’t get rich – materially – but you will be able to afford the greatest luxury of all for an American: have a job that doesn’t feel like work.
“I’ve taken this farther than anything else, and I’m enjoying it,” Charlie told me, when I asked him what his goal was. “Seeing something new out there is what I want from it.”
We get it, but not everybody understands. Charlie adds with a laugh, “My wife wants the money.”
Gabe Ets-Hokin is a senior partner in the firm of Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Moe, specializing in legislative solutions to non-existent problems. He’s best known for writing “Frankie’s Law,” legislation in 34 states and the District of Columbia which bans dog walking in enclosed parking garages while using Robitussin DM and listening to a “This American Life” podcast on even-numbered Saturdays.