While most of the world will be watching the Olympics for fun, an entrepreneur who makes custom handcycles for a living will be watching for inspiration. And while Greg Damerow, owner of Ohio-based Personalized Cycling Alternatives, will be watching other athletes go for the gold and accomplish their dreams, he is just getting started on his own.
That journey, however, has been anything but smooth for the 2016 Paralympic Games hopeful. At age 18, Damerow was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a disease that left him bedridden for two years and forced him to relearn how to walk without the function of his hips. Those obstacles, however, were a guiding force that led Damerow to take the leap into starting his own business.
That decision has been paying off for Damerow, who was recently named winner of the Hartford's "Achieve Without Limits" contest. From that contest, Damerow received a $10,000 grant for his business and a trip to the 2012 Paralympics in London. Damerow, however, has not forgotten how far he's come.
"I had been working in the field on my feet at a plumbing company and I really enjoyed the physical aspect because it kept me in shape," Damerow said. "I got promoted within that company to be a dispatcher and I realized that sitting in the office five or six days a week wasn't doing my health any good. I started looking around for some physical activity and I discovered handcycling."
Through a simple YouTube search Damerow was introduced to handcycling, a sport where riders use their hands to propel themselves on a modified bicycle. Damerow soon turned that hobby into a business after he noticed an opportunity from racing handcycles.
"I started researching handcycles and I realized I could build one," Damerow said. "I'm a self-taught machinist and I had always built and designed various things. I came to realize there was a real need and niche."
The niche Damerow saw was in the customization of handcycles. He felt he could improve upon the customer experience that the small handful of existing handcycling manufacturers in the world offered.
"You would think with handcycling, which is a highly adaptive sport, that there would be a bit more personal service given by the companies that existed already," Damerow said. "It turns out my fellow racers were impressed with my ability to modify the machine that I rode personally. From that, I became known as the guy who built his own bike, which was unheard of."
Even though Damerow operates in a highly specialized field, he believes that all businesses can learn a lesson from his business. Particularly, he believes all businesses can benefit from offering customized products to consumers.
"The idea is to offer a truly personalized service," Damerow said. "It is one thing to build customized bicycles, but it is another thing entirely to have the patience and the time to sit down with the customer and say what can I do for you? That sincerity really counts for a lot."
Although Damerow's business is still growing, with just one customer so far and two more potential customers, he has experienced more growth of late since being named the winner of the Hartford's Achieve Without Limits Contest.
Even with an increase in interest in recent months, Damerow is cautious to use the grant money to rush growing his business too quickly. Damerow, who acts as an owner, operator and the company's only employee, instead is looking only to improve the business in a way that will not overextend it as well.
"Businesses that invest in things such as equipment upgrades because they are excited about the momentum in their company, sometimes invest a bit faster than they should," Damerow said." You have to temper your enthusiasm for your business with a realistic mindset as far as being able to grow the company without overtaxing yourself with debt."
That patience and vision of the future can be attributed to Damerow's experiences racing handcycles. Damerow says a surprising similarity can be drawn between being a small business owner and a handcyclist.
"In businesss, there are some days that you wake up and know you have a full day and you have to do everything that needs to be done in that day," Damerow said. "In those days you really have to push hard. In a race, you start out on your own, then you push harder and harder. Halfway through you may feel really tired and to get to the end, sometimes you must reach for your limits and use that last bit of energy. In that way the two are very similar."