Benno Baenziger, 57, upended the staid bike industry with his breakthrough Electra and Townie models.
By BRUCE HOROVITZ | 02/16/2023
Benno Baenziger, the guy who created some of the best-selling bikes in America, never particularly liked to ride bikes. Really. So he designed one that even he would use.
Now bike enthusiasts globally are so enamored with the Electra and Townie bikes that he designed that they’ve even created Facebook (FB) pages that worship them like a two-wheeled effigy.
Baenziger, who founded the Electra Bicycle Company 30 years ago, is already on to the next thing. These days, he’s busy creating what he hopes will be the first electric bike that can also carry a serious load of cargo — and still look pretty cool getting the rider from place to place.
His leadership mantra all along: the best product is always something you make to satisfy yourself — never to satisfy others. “If I solve a problem for myself, I’ve probably solved a lot of other people’s problems, too,” said the 57-year-old bike design guru.
Build Something You Love
Building something Baenziger himself likes is how and why he created the original Townie bike while still at Electra. “I asked myself: How could I make a bike that a guy like me — who doesn’t like to ride bikes — would feel good about riding?”
Answer: Make it comfortable and easy to ride — and ultimately add an electric assist. The rider sits upright on the Townie (not crouched) and the bike rider’s feet can comfortably be set on the ground. As for the bike itself, well, it’s super snazzy-looking. And easily customizable. Electra upended the bike industry, putting comfort and style first, prompting most bike makers to scramble to keep up with similar designs.
Baenziger, who grew up as a skateboarder kid in Berlin, Germany, succeeded beyond his wildest wheeled vehicle dreams. He moved to San Diego in 1991 because, he said, “I thought there was a spirit in Southern California for free thinking, open-mindedness, and new inventions.”
That’s precisely why, along with Jeano Erforth, he co-founded Electra Bicycle Company in Encinitas, Calif. in 1993, and sold all of 300 bikes the first year. When they ultimately sold the business to a hedge fund in 2008, they sold an impressive 60,000 bikes that year. When bicycle juggernaut Trek took over Electra in 2014, the Townie became a top-selling bicycle in the nation.
See A Larger Role For Your Invention
Baenziger never much liked bikes. At least not the ones he had as a kid raised in Berlin.
He had to pretty much ride a bike or skateboard to get anywhere. He wasn’t impressed with the options, either, when he co-founded Electra. And he’s still underwhelmed now with most choices. And that’s fueling his drive to again make something better of Benno Bikes. Benno Bikes is a company Baenziger created 10 years ago to design an e-bike that can lug around real-world cargo — say, four bags of groceries or two small kids — and still look like a head-turning vehicle.
He thinks e-bikes are the next wave. They have empowered millions of people to ride bikes for transportation — not just for sport. The transition has taken many years. When Baenziger started Electra, it wasn’t even an electric bike company. It mostly made cool city bikes and cruisers. It wasn’t until 2010 that it started making electric cruisers. Two years later, Baenziger sold the business to a private equity group that then sold the company to Trek. By 2015, Baenziger founded Benno Bikes.
He’s still working on this project along with 10 other design employees who literally live in 10 different time zones.
He sees this as just another shift. From his ocean-view home in Del Mar, Calif., he says that he already rides his Townie more often than he drives his car. He rides it to the gym to work out. He rides it to the store to buy groceries. And he rides it to the ocean to catch some waves with his surfboard. He rides the bike because he knows it’s the right thing to do for himself and for the environment.
“We exposed non-biking people to the experience of riding a bike because we made a product that was not intimidating and didn’t ask much of them,” he said.
Start By Asking “What If?”
Baenziger leads by first asking himself this single question: What if?
No one knows that better than Kevin Reed. He was the first Electra dealer in the country, helped design the Townie and ultimately was hired by Electra as business development manager. “Benno leads by always thinking outside the box,” Reed said. It was Baenziger, he says, who was among the first to imagine bike designs more as art. “People just fell in love with his designs,” he said.
But Baenziger didn’t stop there. He introduced multiple colors to bikes and created bikes that people actually wanted to ride, says Reed. Baenziger “didn’t just make a better riding bike. He made it attractive,” he said.
Don’t Focus On The Money
While Baenziger is now a multi-millionaire, for his first 10 years at Electra, he says he hardly made any money. He recalls earning an annual salary of about $15,000 per year. “My accountant told me I didn’t have to pay taxes because I was living at the poverty level,” he recalled. “That went on for years — and 90% of people would have given up.”
He didn’t. He persevered.
Perhaps that’s because he makes no differentiation between work and play. “Everything I do is meaningful to me,” he said.
The best way for any leader to persevere, he says, is to not act like a big shot. By that, he means success is all about respecting and appreciating those who work under you. “Try not to be a boss,” he said. “Don’t treat them like they work for you. Treat them like partners. They don’t work for me. They work with me.”
Keep People You Work With Motivated
Success as a leader requires constant motivation of workers. The best way to do that, he says, is to throw light on the bigger picture of what the company is trying to achieve and also show how important they are in achieving it.
“My goal has never been to sell more bikes,” he said. “It’s to get more people to ride bikes. I’m working for a company that’s trying to make the world a better place.”
That’s why, he says, he has never hired an employee who was “just looking for a job.” Rather, he says, he only has hired people who share his vision of making the world better.
In that way, he says, Benno Bikes is much like Patagonia, the outdoor apparel company whose founder essentially donated ownership of the entire company — worth $3 billion — to a trust whose mission is fighting the effects of climate change. While Baenziger says he’s not ready to give away his company, he is giving away his personal labor and hasn’t taken a paycheck since he started Benno Bikes almost a decade ago.
Have A Cause That Drives You
What’s driven him to do all this?
In part, he says, he was motivated by growing up watching his father uncomfortably give up his personal dream of being a musician in order to work for years as a bureaucrat at the Swiss embassy in Berlin. “That gave me the spirit to not compromise and (also) push through,” he said.
He’s also learned to hire people who he says are “smarter” than him — and to step aside and let them do their jobs. “You have to know your weaknesses and strengths. When you find weaknesses, you must find the right people to fill these voids to make you complete.”
Always Plan Your Next Act
Even after forming that team, Baenziger can’t stop thinking about his next bike.
Within the next five years, he hopes to create an entirely new category in the bicycle industry which he has dubbed “e-tility” (like utility). This type of bike will essentially be like what an SUV is to cars. It will ride very comfortably. It will carry a lot of stuff. And it will look super cool.
“I got back in the industry because I wanted to be part of the e-bike revolution,” he said. E-bikes are not quite defined yet as a category. By creating the Benno bike that looks great, rides great, and carries cargo, he hopes he is creating the industry’s new standard.
In the meantime, he can’t keep from fixing whatever needs to be fixed. Even if it’s just a small bakery owner’s distressed Townie.
He recently walked by a bakery where an older Townie was parked outside. He noticed that the handlebars and seat were all wrong. Without telling the woman who he was, he offered to fix her bike — and asked her to bring him whatever tools she had. She obliged, but as she was watching him fix her bicycle, she uncomfortably asked: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
Baenziger still doesn’t know how to answer that question. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t stopped trying.
- Co-founder of the Electra Bicycle Company, which sells the top-selling and emulated bikes: Electra and Townie.
- Overcame: The biking industry’s initial reluctance to cater to comfort and style.
- Lesson: “Everything I do is meaningful to me.”