INTERVIEW by RAFAEL ROY | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of SCOTT COLOSIMO
The products at Cleveland CycleWerks seem too good to be true. They’re affordable (around $3,000 for most models), classically styled with an eye towards customization, get great gas-mileage, and include modern components. The man behind the company has an equally unbelievable story. Shortly after being laid-off from his full-time job as a designer, CEO Scott Colosimo scrapped the concept of working for someone else and decided to take a shot at his dream: manufacturing motorcycles. Nearly three years, and thousands of bikes later, Scott’s story is a testament to perseverance and the pursuit of excellence.
Cleveland CycleWerks has become pretty well known, but it’s taken a while for the motorcycle scene in America to warm up to the idea of an affordable, small displacement motorcycle. What’s wrong with the motorcycle industry in the USA that a company like yours is just seeing the light of day?
I don’t necessarily think it’s a question of what’s wrong, but rather, what are people looking for and desiring, and where is there an unmet need? For me, looking around in 2007, no one was buying new bikes, but in Cleveland everyone was buying old, small displacement bikes from the junkyard. People were happy to be riding around on old, worn-out bikes; people just wanted to ride a cool-looking bike. But unless you had the ability to fix up a really old bike, there were really no options brand new. There was a clear market, and coming from a design background, I thought, “There’s got to be a way.” I wanted to make a bike that people could be proud of.
In addition to being a CEO, you’re also a teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Art. What got you into teaching?
It just comes kind of easy to me. I guess it’s a little selfish — being around students inspires me and keeps me creative. I think students have more creative ideas in a day than some entire organizations have in years. So maybe it’s self-interest to keep myself fresh.
How does teaching influence the way you run your business?
It influences it quite a bit; the only reason I was able to start my business was because I went to art school. I didn’t go to business school. I didn’t have a formal education. Everything I learned was about creating solutions to problems or coming at something in a different way. The most important thing in art school is creativity and honing your skill, and if you think about drawing, a lot of people say art is bullshit or don’t take it seriously, but in reality, you really have to become a master to articulate a pen. The dedication to the craft — I think it actually translates really well to running a business because there’s long-term dedication but also creativity in drawing up these bikes. For me, I’m always looking for creative solutions or solutions that other people may say are crazy, because starting a motorcycle company almost straight from college and after being laid off is kind of crazy, right?
Scott found inspiration and an outlet for his creativity at CIA
Actually, I’m a recent graduate myself, and I think it’s been really challenging for this generation to get it out of their heads that there’s a particular path you’re supposed to take. I think previous generations have had it laid out — you go to college, get your degree, and start working from the bottom up in your respective industry. I’ve found that, especially in the creative industry, that’s not a reality; those people are clinging to those jobs for dear life. It’s a joke in the photography industry that you don’t get a job in a position you actually want unless someone croaks.
I really do think we are the generation of the unemployed, the overeducated, the over-ambitious. When I graduated, I thought, “These corporations must really understand what it means; they have their shit together,” and I quickly realized that many of the people running these corporations are more incompetent than the majority of the people working there –they just had more degrees.
And basically from the time I graduated, I was just trying not to get fired, and that’s a horrible way to live. Especially being a creative person. I had a full-time job as a designer, and I had never been more miserable in my life. There were times I would call my friend on the way to work. We’d call each other every morning and joke about the ways we were going to kill ourselves on the way to work. Kind of jokingly, but we hated going into work so bad. You’re a creative person, and every day you had to be creative from nine in the morning until five at night and you had to act like you loved everyone you worked with. You had to go to meetings with ten people who weren’t creative — about your drawings — when they couldn’t even understand the drawing and didn’t care about it. It was really frustrating.
The most creative time I’ve ever had in my life were the five years I was at CIA. Going from that environment, and everyone telling me how great life after college was going to be, and how great it would be to have an awesome design job — the reality is that two weeks after I got a job they fired, like, 10,000 people. So from the very start of my career after college, I was worried about getting laid off. I was launched into the business world, and then a year later, they fired nearly 30,000 people and shut down three factories; I mean, it was just constant. Everyone was worried about losing their job; it was a horrible work environment.
For our generation in the US — this whole idea of making your way up the ladder in a company — I think it’s damn near impossible to do that, because your boss might only be there one year, and the company might only be there two years; your whole department might get outsourced. It’s constant, and this is what we’re faced with every day. It’s horrible.
Absolutely. So what advice are you giving your students right now?
The most sincere advice I can offer someone just graduating is don’t fall into “the trap.” Which is this: spending your way into relying on a job. Here’s an example: you graduate college, you buy a new car — mistake. You graduate college and you look to buy a house — mistake. The best thing you can do for yourself is have financial freedom to be allowed to do whatever you want.
And don’t be ashamed to follow your dream. If that dream requires you to not have a car, or to live in your parent’s basement, or whatever it is — you have to look at your long-term goals. For me, my long-term goal was to never work for anyone again. And who knows, my company’s young, maybe I’ll have to go work for someone again. But financial independence, and not falling into the trap of the bullshit American Dream, that’s what allowed me to start CCW. If I got fired with $150,000 dollars in debt because I owned some expensive car, CCW would’ve never happened. I think that’s what happened to a lot of my colleagues. You get into the car industry, and you’re buying really nice cars and swanky places, then all of a sudden you’re fired, and you need to find a new job right away, like, “Holy shit, I’ve got all this debt.” The lie of the American Dream, the “more is better,” is a trap. That trap will really prevent you from doing what you want to do.
You actually interact with fans a lot on social media. You have a very active role, and I don’t see a lot of CEOs putting themselves out into the world like that. How does your personality play into the brand of the company?
It’s funny; it’s not something we anticipated. As a small company, we don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on advertising, so we put in the time ourselves to reach out to people. If nothing else, I think people just appreciate authentic interaction.
There’s a lot of different things I could be doing, that my partners and employees could be doing, that are a lot easier. Starting a motorcycle company is not easy; it’s one of the most daunting things we could’ve chosen to do. So you really have to love what you’re doing. Everyone I’ve hired, everyone who’s involved with the company, genuinely enjoys what they’re doing. I remember obsessing over motorcycles when I was five years old. You know, motorcycles aren’t toasters — I can’t remember what kind of toaster I have in my kitchen, but I remember every motorcycle I’ve ever owned and almost every motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. And I would say the majority of people who ride motorcycles are the same way. It’s a passion purchase; it’s something people love doing. I like going to events and meeting people who own our bikes and hearing their stories. We’re a company that loves what we do, and maybe people just enjoy seeing that a little bit.
Cleveland CycleWerks melds style, affordability, and passion
On that note, how can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
I’m not going to ask anyone to go out there and buy our products, but just keep us on your radar. If you think what we’re doing is worthwhile, keep an open mind and see where we’re going in the future. I think people who are into bikes will be surprised. And if you think what we’re doing is cool, just spread the word.