Chatting with Don DiCostanzo is like getting hit with 48 volts of electricity. Ironically, that is the same amount of voltage that drives his electric bikes. As CEO and Co-Founder of the Orange County-based Pedego Electric Bikes, Don’s enthusiasm and passion is as electric as the bikes and business he has created.
“We’re not here to sell bikes, we’re here to educate people and to have fun,” says Don and he’s not kidding. A few hours with the lifelong O.C. native, and you not only get an expert course on electric bikes, but an invaluable lesson in marketing, branding and business. And you may even break out into a few belly-laughs.
An O.C. boy through-and-through, Don is a product of Corona del Mar High School, graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a Business degree, resides in Newport Beach, and houses Pedego Electric Bikes headquarters just outside of the John Wayne Airport.
Despite the fact that Don’s roots are firmly planted in the O.C., his electric bikes are changing lives all over the world. I recently sat down with the amiable entrepreneur to discuss his innovative product, his brand’s impact on the bike industry, and the importance of doing something you love.
Patricia La Bella: What was your life like before starting Pedego Electric Bikes?
Don DiCostanzo: After graduating from Cal State Fullerton, I literally walked across the street and went to work for a company called Wynns, an automotive chemical company. My office overlooked CSF so I never really left college. (laughs)
I worked for Wynns for about 25 years. In 1999 I became the president and then in 2000 they sold to Parker Hannifin. So, my dreams were sort of dashed.
PL: What were some of the things you learned at Wynns that helped you create Pedego Electric Bikes?
DD: One thing I learned was the value of brand. When I would travel the world on business, people recognized the Wynns brand. And that’s a very important lesson for anybody in business, particularly if you are entrepreneurial.
I also learned how to be a “turn-around guy.” In other words, I learned how to take divisions or companies that were in trouble and make them succussful.
PL: How did you discover electric bikes?
DD: I lived at the top of a hill and I loved to ride my bike down to the beach. But, I didn’t love going up the hill to get home. Just knowing I had to go up this hill after a great ride always hung over me. The thought of going up the hill just spoiled my ride.
In 2006, I discovered electric bikes and I bought one online. It was a total piece of junk. But it got me up the hill!
So, I started shopping around for a better electric bike, and at that time there were no shops locally that sold them. Then I read where a company in New York City was selling electric bikes and their number one customers came from California. I thought, ‘There’s obviously an opportunity here.’
Not long afterward, I opened up a retail store selling electric bikes right next to the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach. I sold any brand I could get my hands on, and at that time there wasn’t a big selection.
And also, the companies supplying me the electric bikes had no good sense for building brand, no sense for customer service and their styles were kind of ugly. So, I began building my own electric bikes.
PL: How did you build your electric bikes and what made them different from what your suppliers were giving you?
DD: I picked up some really nice, cool regular bikes and bought electric systems or kits and I put the two together.
I also discovered that a huge percentage of my customers were women. And, by the way, my old suppliers paid no attention to the needs of women consumers. But I did pay attention to them, and I discovered that women were very interested in color and style (like 95 percent of the time). So, I offered yellow, pink, green bikes – really cool colors that weren’t available by my suppliers.
The suppliers at the time weren’t making any colors other than black and silver. It’s a huge advantage for us to offer so many colors because its an extension of the rider’s personality. I also found that women wanted things like baskets or a place to put their purse in case they wanted to run errands.
PL: So you were compiling your own electric bike customer profile!
DD: Exactly. Unbeknownst to me, this was turning out to be the best research and development I could have. For one year at that store, I began to learn and understand the electric bike business.
PL: What makes an electric bike different than a regular bike?
DD: First thing, there’s a battery. Also, there’s a 6-pound motor in the rear hub. But it’s super quiet. There are other things such as a throttle, pedal assist and the LCD display. Other than that, they have all the other pieces that you’ll see in a regular bike.
(Authors note: Check out the video for the Pedego Electric Bike pedal assist technology).
PL: You talk about the variety of colors, but the styles are pretty cool too. How did you come up with the Pedego Electric Bike designs?
DD: When I was a kid I had a Schwinn beach cruiser. The Schwinn’s original cruisers were made for kids, not adults. What I discovered when I had my retail store is that the people who wanted to buy electric bikes preferred the cruiser style – like the bikes they grew up riding. So, most of the bikes I converted were cruiser style.
At the time, I went to my supplier and told them that I’d like my electric bikes to be beach cruiser-style bikes. And they told me, “No, we tried that and nobody likes them. Nobody buys them.” And I said, ‘Well, they’re buying them here.’
And that’s when I decided to launch Pedego Electric Bikes, because I realized there was a disconnect between what the customer wanted and what the bike people wanted to build.
PL: I noticed your catalog features more than just cruisers. When did you start branching out to other designs?
DD: Well, what we learned in the process is that not everybody wants a cruiser bike. Some people want a more traditional style bike. But we took the cruiser and we made iterations of it. We came out with the City Commuter with more of a functional design and we recently launched our Mountain Bike.
And because we do a lot of rentals, we discovered that people wanted tandems. And I think we make the only electric tandem bike in the world. Tandem is the perfect application for a motor because you get the motor going, then you get your feet going and you’re off. It’s really easy for people to ride.
PL: On your website you offer the option to customize the color of the frame, rims, grips, etc. How far do you go in customizing?
DD: Every bike is different depending on the buyer. Everybody has a different taste. It’s like going to buy a car – there are different models. The electric bike is kind of the same, so we try to have everything covered.
One guy was looking at our mountain bike and he said “I love the bike, but I hate the seat.” That’s no problem we can fix the seat – we can put any seat on it you want. People can customize a lot of it.
(Authors note: Check out the Pedego Electric Bike online catalog and play with the customization tools).
PL: Tell us something about electric bikes that would surprise people.
DD: The first thing that may surprise you about electric bikes, in general, is that people ride them more often than they would ride a regular bike. The frequency of use is higher and there’s empirical data to support this.
Even for regular cyclists who also own an electric bike, the electric bike is going to get more use mainly because people use them for transportation and to run errands. As one of my customers told me, “I use it to replace car trips.”
Another interesting aspect is the social dynamic to electric bikes. We organize group rides all the time. And if we don’t organize a ride quickly enough, somebody will send out a text and say, “Hey, how come we haven’t done a ride?” And someone texts back, “Okay, let’s do it this Sunday!” Then 10-12 people show up.
PL: What’s the biggest misconception about electric bikes?
DD: Well, some may look at us and think we’re cheaters. Especially those who are competitive cyclists. They think we cheat because we ride electric bikes.
The conception of ‘electric bikes are cheating’ is just fundamentally wrong. We’re not cheaters, because who are we cheating? Are we cheating competitive cyclists? No, because we’re not competing with them. Are we cheating ourselves? I don’t feel like I’m cheating myself and if I am, who are you to judge?
Am I cheating myself because I’m riding my bike instead of driving my car? I’m not sitting on the couch watching the football game because I’m out riding with my friends. Am I cheating because I lost 20 pounds since I started riding electric bikes? I don’t think so.
So, that’s a misconception that we have to overcome. But that’s not really a concern of mine because our goal is to get people who haven’t ridden a bike for 10, 15, 20, sometimes 40 years, back on a bike to see if that’s something that suits them.
Then when they get on the bike and they find the switch and they discover that they can go, they’re like little kids again!
PL: That goes back to the whole idea of selling fun, right?
DD: Yes! The main thing about riding electric bikes is it’s fun. In fact our catalog is called Hello Fun magazine. Because its all about people having fun. And I don’t care how much money you have – there’s nothing you can buy that’s going to give you as much fun as riding an electric bike. At the end of the day, we sell fun.
PL: Why do you think you’ve seen so much success in such a short amount of time?
DD: Most of my competitors who are selling electric bikes against me, are riding regular bikes. So, they can’t be passionate about electric bikes.
They sell them because its a business idea. They think, “Yeah, electric bikes are growing, so we need to add this category and we’ll sell them to these idiots who want electric bikes and we can make money on them.”
But they’re not passionate about it. They lose because they’re playing against me and I’m passionate about this product.
PL: Do you have any encouraging advice for the young entrepreneurial spirits out there reading this right now?
DD: First, find something that you’re passionate about. I heard people talk about that all the time, but I never really believed it until I lived it.
So, for example, if you’re into basketball and you’re fanatical about it, but maybe not good enough to be a pro player, then sell basketball equipment, or coach or work in the basketball field. It doesn’t matter.
The most important thing, in my opinion for happiness in your lifetime, is to do something you love. It’s not good enough to just do something you like.
Then, pursue that passion relentlessly. In other words, don’t get discouraged. A lot of people will try to discourage you from doing something, but don’t listen to what other people say. Just stick to it.
So, find your passion and then pursue it relentlessly. I think that’s important advice for everybody. I give that advice to my daughters. Do something you love and it’s not work. I really, really liked my other job. But, I didn’t love it. I love this.
To find a Pedego Electric Bike dealer check out their website at PedegoElectricBikes.com. To find out about group rides, follow them on Facebook.