Detroit Bikes Logo. Photo courtesy of Zak Pashak.
When you think of Detroit, Michigan, the first vehicle that may come to mind probably won’t have spokes and hand brakes. Further, the cradle for our nation’s struggling auto industry (not to mention soul music and garage rock) wouldn’t sound like the most ideal location to start a manufacturing business for many Americans.
But after Canadian entrepreneur Zak Pashak lost his bid for the Calgary city council in 2010, his mind started wandering toward the Michigan capital, for reasons not even he is entirely sure of. At first, he was looking for a place that would benefit from his new found interest in bicycles – an interest that was deeply embedded in his experience running for public office and unblemished sense of communal responsibility.
“On my campaign, I started learning a lot about urban development issues and transportation issues,” Pashak tells BTR. “I got really interested in cycling and started realizing how it impacts that city on so many levels.”
Earlier this year, Pashak decided to invest $500,000 into an old Detroit factory and start a bike manufacturing company in the motor town, aptly titled, Detroit Bikes. Some followers of the young ex-politician were perplexed, others supportive, and friends worried about the stigma surrounding the city.
“But I think that’s changing really quickly – that stigma now has a wake of interest trailing behind it that people are catching up to.”
To state the obvious, the city has seen better days. As Pashak points out in our interview, something that has made biking around Detroit easier is the fact it’s population has receded, from 2 million to just over 700,000. But while he (or anyone else for that matter) doesn’t find Detroit particularly bike-able or walkable, that’s not why he ventured there; rather, he saw the opportunity to be part of a genuine and unique kind of comeback story.
The 32-year-old may not have any prior experience in manufacturing or the bike industry, he does know a thing or two about starting successful businesses from the ground up. In 2003, Pashak founded a music venue in Calgary called Broken City, which has since become an award-winning staple of the Canadian musical landscape. Five years later, he branched out to Vancouver to start the Biltmore. Both ventures, Pashak tells BTR, gave him a crash course in delegation, networking, and self didacticism that he’s brought to his latest project.
“The main lesson I learned from it was that you can start a business and not really know what you’re doing,” he chuckles. “You don’t need to feel like you need to do every job yourself. There are people who will do those jobs better than you can do them, so I kind of learned a management style I feel more comfortable with and gave me more confidence going into something that is so new for me.”
It was through music that Pashak’s social consciousness took root in a niche he felt personally connected to, and in turn an interest in how everyone got around.
“I think when you start stepping out of that small community and trying to consider the bigger community of a whole city, then transportation issues start to pop up.”
One of the achievements Pashak takes the most pride in is starting a music festival in Calgary called Sled Island that encouraged attendees to ride their bikes around city. He found fostering biking culture through the event did as much for community building as the music itself did.
“Outside of venues, you’d see mountains of bikes locked together. And I thought that was pretty healthy, to get people actually exploring their city and being a little more apart of it than if they were driving and parking,” he remembers.
In thinking about transportation, his mind turned to how Calgary’s urban economy could be improved.
“In the space of a small area, you could have a hundred people’s modes of transportation all locked up and if that had to be a parking lot, it would be knocking out two or three other businesses on that street for the sake of street parking.”
Though Calgary voters may not to appreciate the wealth of his vision, Pashak seems to have found a welcoming environment in GM’s backyard. It’s still “frustratingly” early on in the process (Detroit Bikes doesn’t yet have a product to sell), but there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic with not only the growing interest in his company’s potential but the sense of hope it’s bringing to a city in desperate need of it.
“I’ve always been interested in Detroit for some reason,” explains Pashak. “So I came here and saw something very interesting happening and I thought this might be a good way to contribute to two cents to the Detroit story that’s happening right now.”
Detroit Bikes hopes to have their bikes on shelves by spring of 2013. For more with Zak, tune into his interview on the latest episode of BTR’s current events podcast, Third Eye Weekly, this coming Thursday.