September 24, 2009

Money & Career, So You Want My Job

So You Want My Job: Bicycle Product Manager

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Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Today we feature an interview with Luke Elrath. As the product manager for Breezer Bicycles, Mr. Elrath is responsible for both designing and marketing Breezer bikes.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

I grew up in Bucks County Pennsylvania 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia. I moved to Philly to go to Temple University for electrical engineering. I’m 32 years old. I worked in the engineering industry designing airfield lighting and navigation systems for four years after graduating. While it was interesting and challenging work, my first love was always bicycles.

My job responsibilities as the Breezer product manager include studying the market, selecting the models and designs we want for each year’s offerings, and working directly with Joe Breeze, the founder of the brand and one of the inventors of the mountain bike. Together we select frame styles, components and graphics for the bikes. Then I coordinate the production of the bikes with our manufacturing partners in Asia and Europe.

2. Why did you want to become a bicycle product manager? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I had always loved bikes since I was a kid jumping my Schwinn BMX bike off of a plywood ramp in the yard. Tinkering with bikes, riding bikes, reading about bikes were activities that consumed most of my free time. I had built my ideal commuter bike up from an old steel frame when I took a job 5 miles from my house. While I ended up not liking the job, I loved riding to work every day. The freedom from traffic, fuel costs and auto maintenance expenses was so liberating!

When I heard from a friend that the world headquarters for a major bicycle brand was in Philadelphia, I submitted a resume sight unseen. I was called for an interview that week and a dialogue began that eventually landed me the position that grew into Product Manager for Transportation and Utility Bicycles.

3. If a man wants to become a bicycle product manager, how should he best prepare? What should he study and what kind of experiences and skills should he seek?

The subjects to study that will give a man an advantage in bicycle design are: industrial design, materials science, mechanical engineering and to a lesser degree biomechanics. I’ve found that in this industry my contemporaries come from very disparate backgrounds. Some were pro racers, some worked at bike shops as mechanics, others started in sales. The common thread in all the people I’ve met in this business is passion. Very few people get into this world to simply make money, make a living. It’s about waking up every morning excited to play, to create, to share the love of the bike with others.

4. How competitive is it to get a job as a bicycle product manager? I imagine there are only as many are there as bike companies.

The bicycle industry “vets” seem to cycle through the big bike companies, so the competition is high. I’m finding that most people in the industry know each other, worked with a friend of a friend, etc. Because there’s not a university degree specifically for this subject, there’s a lot of self-instruction and on-the-job training. Be a quick study and a good listener.

5. In addition to designing bikes, you also market them. Which aspect of the job do you enjoy more?

This is my first year in the position and much of my time has been spent learning the design/product development side of things. Marketing is largely determined by budget and we’ve had to get creative looking for non-traditional venues to spread the word about Breezer. My efforts in marketing have been focused on developing relationships with blogs, websites and journalists that write about bicycles but also about other subjects that may reach the audience who may be interested in our bikes.

With my engineering background, I’d have to say my preferences lean towards the technical aspects of design and product development.

6. What is the best part of your job?

Sharing every day and every experience with like-minded, passionate lovers of the bicycle. The perks aren’t bad, either: I have a fancy carbon fiber road bike waiting in the hotel every time I travel to Asia. Morning rides in the mountains outside of Taichung City are glorious.

7. What is the worst part of your job?

The time spent away from home for factory visits, trade shows and promotions leaves less time to spend with my incredibly supportive wife. Though few and far between, the best trips have been the ones in which she joins me.

8. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

Daily calls to my wife during long periods of travel are a great way to keep connected. Even when working from the home office the hours can be long and intense, so it’s important to me that my wife and I take time to “leave it all behind” from time to time. Sometimes it’s a special night at a nice restaurant; sometimes we’ll spend a Sunday morning riding our classic tandem bike on the bike path along the river.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

When I describe my job to fellow bike lovers they often imagine all the high-tech, fancy toys I must play with all day. While there’s some of that, the lion’s share of my day can be spent on a spreadsheet figuring out which tires I can use to meet our price needs. The meathook realities of a competitive market make it a reality: no matter how cool your bike looks, for most dealers and consumers it comes down to price. Is your bike cheaper than the other guy’s? The bottom line creates all the compromises of the job. 

10. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

There are some significant sacrifices to make in order to succeed in this industry, but the rewards can be spectacular. On the 15th day of a recent trip oversees I found myself atop Five Finger Mountain above Taipei beginning a descent where I would hit speeds exceeding 40 mph. The sun was just coming up and burning away the mist in the valleys below, and I was doing what I truly love to do in a beautiful, exotic locale.


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