The real story about my passion, hustle, failure, unfulfilled expectations, but also successes, refusing to give up, and trying to make it work again and get back on track in my life and business.
My name is Stefan Ceman, and I want to share why am I obsessed with what I do.
I LOVE BIKES.
I started riding when I was six, I’ve been doing it for more than 35 years now, and I still enjoy it the most. As a teenager, I was drawing and constructing my dream bikes, making our existing bikes better, and making money repairing them at bike shops. Later I started racing, organizing races, running a sporting club. For the last eight years, I am running my own ebike business.
I will not brag if I say that I understand bikes and bike business from different perspectives: from rider through seller to customer. I have been 25+ years repairing, 15 years racing (also on an international level, and as a member of our national team), ten years organizing races, eight years selling ebikes, four years bike fitting.
After graduating from college, I started my job in bike wholesale. Later I wanted to use my schools, so I worked as a technical specialist in the production of a global automotive company. I built my way up in the corporations and ended in another company on a good C level executive manager position. I was the boss of 350 people, and I had a premium company car and enough money for a good living. I could work only for a few hours a day. And this was a problem — I did not want to live my life like an old bored general manager. I quit the job. And since then, I was not bored at all.
THE BUSINESS IDEA
I wanted to be free and do what I like, so naturally, I decided to start my own business with bikes. At that time, there already were some electric bikes on the internet. I have never tried one, but I thought, “It must be great! Let’s do this and let’s do it big! I will reinvent the global ebike business forever!”
When I started to think about that business and create a business model, I questioned myself: Why do I always have a problem choosing my bike? What is wrong on today’s bikes? What problems did I have on my bikes in the past? How should my ideal bike ride and look like? How would I want to buy it? What were the problems in this process? And many different questions. It was clear that today’s bike business is not supporting the rider and customer enough.
My process should go like this: first, the rider will be scanned for body dimensions and optimal position. Then he will configure his ebike online. After that, the frame will be designed, produced on a 3D printer, and assembled locally and delivered. The network will be all over the world, based on very productive hi-tech showrooms and service centers. The network will also support the pre-sale testing of the ebikes and ebike drive systems.
The result will be that the rider will get an ebike exactly for his body, riding style, in his design and colors, with optimal suspension and components. He should get it for the price of a bike produced the standard way. Other services would also support the customer in the best possible way, including service at home.
The biggest problem in this process was always the right size for an optimal riding position. So I decided that we will build a machine that can measure the body of a rider by giving him also the riding feeling. I was looking for some solution, and I didn’t find it on the market. I started to cooperate with other people, and we started developing this machine. We were progressing slowly. A few years later, I have found this kind of device.
During this period, we started also working on other projects — global development center, worldwide sales network and a global brand.
We also wanted to be the first in the world to create the first real 3D printed ebike.
Our mission was to create:
- The worlds leading R&D, consulting and innovation center for ebikes
- The worlds new sales concept and network
- The worlds “Ferrari” brand in sport ebikes
All of these projects were progressing slowly, did not have one direction, and I started to run out of money. I had a wife and a small daughter. When I couldn’t provide for my family, I knew that I have to do something else that makes money RIGHT NOW. Where to start? Ebike shop. OK, let’s sell some ebikes! And while doing this, I will understand the customers and the market from the first hand. When I learn this and test the first shop, we can open new branches and other countries based on this knowledge. The plan was to make it global within 3–5 years.
I wanted my shop to be better, different, and to work also good for me. I wanted a clean, nice looking showroom. Not the typical bike shop with bikes all over the place, and goods hanging everywhere, that you even don’t see the owner behind the desk. Also, the shop will be appointment only (in other words — it will always be closed, and I would only come when a customer arranged a meeting).
In the beginning, everybody was laughing — they asked if I want to sell electric motorbikes or if I am already old and week to ride with a motor, and so on. You know the talks of the people that have never ridden any “Pedelec” — Pedal Electric Cycle.
When I started, I had to learn: what ebikes are, who are the customers, how to sell them, what other services do they need. Customers at the beginning were not bikers; they were from entirely different backgrounds. Also, ebikes had quite bad systems and low quality at those times — a lot of problems, reclamations, not enough experience even from the producers. Many times they knew less about their product than we in the real world.
I sold my first motor in the garden and sold my first ebike in the living room. After a few months, I have opened a small showroom.
One year later, I have moved to a bigger place. I also have bought “the simulator” — bike fitting machine. We were the first ebike shop in the world to have this machine and first in central Europe. After I have learned how to do the fitting, I was testing the selling of standard ebikes customized for the rider (before the first delivery).
We were progressing quite good — we went from 14 000 Eur turnover the first year to more than half a million the fifth year. After third year I thought — man when it can go like this, and this is only the beginning and only one small branch, what can it do when e-bikes are sold in much larger numbers globally. The ebike market was starting with a one-digit percentage of the overall bike sales.
In the first years, I was working alone and later, mostly with my father. He was the most significant help to me. As a retired man, he still assembled the ebikes better than the young guys. He was working for free, so I was also able to save some additional money.
When we started to take employees, we speed up a little, but not enough. The whole company costed more money than produced. I had more people, especially mechanics, who didn’t deliver. The training process was slow, and also, other systems were not yet in place.
Nearly every year, I thought that it’s the right time to open new branches and dominate the whole area. One year, I had trained a partner for another city, but he betrayed me. Next year, I wanted to do it again, but I did not succeed still. I did not multiply a thing (now I know that in the end, it was good, but during all that period, I wanted it bad).
The more the business was growing, the more I was working. It was hustling — ordering bikes, making the website, assembling bikes, selling, bike fitting, delivering, servicing (in-shop or at the customer location), going to shows or making my test shows, learning, communicating with customers and suppliers, training employees. And this all over every day, seven days a week. I went from home when everybody was still sleeping, came back when everybody was already sleeping. It was crazy, but I couldn’t stop.
I got fat, nervous, and one day, my face started to “shake” in a strange way. It used to happen a few times before, but after getting the sleep, it always went away. But not now. I went to the hospital, and luckily I was just exhausted. The doctor told me — if you want your children to have a normal father, you have to slow down. That was a raised hand. I tried to live better and started to rearrange the business so that I could free myself more. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.
Until then, I was doing the business only from private loans from the 3F group (Family, Friends, and Fools). But for this type of growth, money from friends not rich enough are not enough. The bank also would not give us a penny because of poor economic results (a significant increase of the turnover, but with loss). So I was without money soon. To survive, I even had to sell the bike fitting system. This made the whole concept gone. Since then, we were nearly a typical ebike shop.
We had unpaid invoices for ebikes, but we still managed to agree with our suppliers, that they would wait and supply. We did that, but they already didn’t provide as they could. There were also some problems in the production, so ebikes came late, and we needed to put them on sale and lost another money.
I came up with a plan that next year we will grow to 1.8 million with two new branches. And when we make that money, we can pay the loss back in the first few months of the season. Do you think it worked out? It did NOT.
At the end of the year, I have made more than 500 000, but with a loss of 100 000 Eur. The overall debt was more than 250 000. It is not a result you would want. I thought, OK, we have invested a lot, built the market from scratch, tried new things, made it work. We also came too soon, and this was the cost. In other words — I didn’t have my business under control at all.
I was still able to kind of take it easy in 2017, and I believed that we’re going to make it. But when January 2018 hit, it crashed again. And it crashed much harder. Nobody wanted to give us a penny, and even suppliers didn’t want to supply. They lost their faith in me. Tax Authority wanted to close our bank account because of not paying taxes. A few months later, they also did it, and it paralyzed the whole business.
One of my creditors told me: “You are a dead man, your company is gone. The road down can be hard, and nearly nobody makes it. You will not make it back in the next 12 years. You will live on somebody else credit cards, have no money, and everything will be taken from you and your family. You will be lucky if you won’t get to jail. You have 24 hours to give me the money back, or I will evict you out of your house!” I was so stressed for a few days that I didn’t know what to do.
At that time, I was sometimes shaking, my ear made strange noises, I was sometimes losing my balance, had digesting and other health problems, and I was afraid to drive. Now I know that this was from stress. But at that time, it was crazy. I was worried that if I could not make it with my health, I will leave these problems to my nearest family. I will also have shame with the customers and creditors. All sorts of stuff were chasing my head. My other worst dreams were that I have to sell the business, sell the customers, get a job at my competition.
I was 40 then. Imagine that you are a man who is 40, has two children, and has to take care of his family. I didn’t. And I have made trouble so big, that if something happened to me, my wife and my kids could have a problem for generations. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to have a great life, be independent, and at least a millionaire till 40. And here I was — broke and on the way to take the whole family down. My mother had to cook for us, and my mother in law bought us groceries. We had to take all the money from our children’s piggy bank. These were the hardest two years of my life. Now I know what it feels like to be broke and on edge. It is really easy to lose your mind under pressure. I never thought that it could happen to me. I know what it feels like praying to God to do something, some miracle, because I don’t know what to do.
So here we are in January 2018 in a new place that was cheaper and more hidden. We are unable to service the existing hundreds of customers (my mechanic was gone). We had no bikes (our showroom was empty. The only ebikes were the customers’ ebikes for service). We had to sell all the cars. All the debtors were chasing us, we had no money, and we had lots of debt. I was so close to giving up. But somehow, I did not stop and continued moving forward from day to day, or sometimes from hour to hour.
Luckily, we had a good name in the business — hundreds of our customers liked our services. We had the most new customers from referrals. They knew nothing about what was going on. We had to find new ways of doing business, and we sold the ebikes slowly one by one. And we survived to spring when the sales went up naturally, and we could finally take a breath.
In the meantime, the project of the world’s first 3D printed ebike was still kind of alive. We met once a few months and moved it slowly forward. In October 2017, the ebike was finally ready. We have waited for years for this to happen.
I am glad that I didn’t give up and that I survived. During these hard times, we have made a lot of progress and learned many new ways. We would never do this stuff without that extreme pressure. Before, we had to have everything to do business — money, people, cars, systems. Now we:
- Can produce 700 000–1 000 000 Eur per year in one branch with three people (and I already know how to do it with two people)
- Do it with shop “always closed” (still appointment only) from a remote small village
- Are working without any stock and any own money, we do not have any loan, any credit card, any leasing
- Do not own any buildings, cars and also any other assets
- Are generating profit and paying the old debt at the same time. We pay everything in advance and despite worse margins can make it profitable
- Have turned the processes in the company upside down to fit our needs
- Can train people to be active and adding value from day 2 in the company
- Have hardly concentrated on our service process, which is way better than the competition and can handle the needs of the future business models
This business can now go without me involved not only daily, weekly, but sometimes even monthly. If I wanted to be a classic bike shop owner, I would be satisfied — I have built and tested the first branch. It runs nice, it is producing, and it can grow, or multiply.
I found out along the way that I don’t want to own or run one shop or even a global network of them. I also found the limits of today’s bikes and ebike business. If we want to grow exponentially, standard ways cannot handle that. It is time to go big — but differently.
To conclude it personally — I am grateful for what I have. I want to thank everybody who was at my side or helped anyhow. When I was down, I thought, why do I have these problems. Now I know that I needed this lesson and that those problems are still nothing to what other people have. I am still here, I still have the family, my wife didn’t run away, and I can work on things which I like. And — I can still change the world. I have a lot to share, and there is a lot to do. Can’t wait to do it! You are welcome to join me on this journey.