PezChat: Rock Lobster’s Paul Sadoff
Paul Sadoff has been building custom bike frames for over 30 years under the name Rock Lobster. His candid, unassuming attitude and accessible pricing is a breath of fresh air in these NAHBSy (North American Hand Made Bicycle Show) times where art is often prized over substance and proven experience. PEZ finds out what makes this odd ball of sanity tick.
Paul Sadoff in his studio
PEZ: It seems that there are two kinds of bike builders: those that apprenticed and then set out on their own and those that kind of figured it out by themselves. Which one are you?
Paul: I started with about 6 weeks in the shop of Ross Shafer in 1978. This was years before Salsa and Ross had only built about 8 frames but his experience machining and brazing was light years ahead of anything I knew. The next 9 years I kind of figured out the rest (and am still figuring it out…) by myself in my own series of garages in Santa Cruz. I spent those years as a hobbyist but did sell about 3-6 frames a year. I officially went full time in January of 1988.
PEZ: Why the name Rock Lobster, does it have to do with the B-52’s? Does this lightheartedness reflect certain qualities of your brand?
Paul: Yes, I got the name Rock Lobster from the B-52’s. I saw them in Santa Cruz in 1980 opening up for the Talking Heads – the band made an impression on me. I didn’t adopt the name until early 1984 when I began building MTB frames. Rock Lobster seemed the perfect irreverent name for a bicycle that would be ridden on the wild and twisting singletrack of Santa Cruz county.
PEZ: What are typical Rock Lobster customers like?
Paul: Most of my customers are racers but there are folks who do things like Brevets and all that Radonneuring. I would say that the majority of people who order from me are middle income and their bicycle riding is usually the most important outlet and recreation.
PEZ: Do you work with them in person or is most of the process done over the internet or telephone?
Paul: I do a fair amount of business on the computer and on the phone. There are about 15 – 20% of the people coming by in person for a fitting but the number of folks from out of state has been growing steadily. I do get some overseas sales as well from Switzerland, the U.K., Taiwan, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
Paul entered his seven year old and unwashed cross bike in 2012 NAHBS Best Cross Bike award
PEZ: Is there a certain way a Rock Lobster road bike should handle or is that completely up to the customer? Are all frames custom or are there stock sizes?
Paul: Since everything I build is custom, there are no set stock sizes. About 10 years ago, I got too busy with custom orders to do any runs of stock frames. Most stuff is left up to the customer but I really try to get the handling such that the bike feels safe and fun at the same time. I really believe that scary bikes are utterly useless in most folks hands and quite literally hold them back from enjoyment and during a race from performance. I make my bikes with the express purpose of not holding the rider back.
Aaron Bradford, the 2012 US National Single Speed Cross Champion, rides Rock Lobsters
PEZ: OK, now let’s talk about pricing, which is how I stumbled upon you in the first place. Large bike companies design and price their wares according to what the market will accept for a certain category and then design/work back to see how profitable their bike will be (market minus model), whereas most small bike builders calculate their expenses and labor costs and add in a little profit and then that’s what they charge. I assume that you follow the second approach, right?
Paul: Honestly, I think I charge too little. That said, I’m still making a living and I am probably busier than most builders out there. I have a hard time raising prices in an economy like we have right now. My prices are not based on any labor/materials/overhead formula. The prices have evolved from being so low that I lost money as a business 60% of the time to the current level where I’m getting by financially and not going broke. I guess it has taken me many years to arrive at that place… one gets so busy in the shop that the fundamental things like profit/loss get largely ignored! When there’s only one person running the show (I do everything except the painting), many things can take a long time to get figured out.
PEZ: Today’s entry level road bikes are priced around $1,200 while the mid range are $2,500 and top of the line are $5,000 up to $10,000. Depending on the build, your TIG welded steel and aluminum frames priced at $1,350 and $1,300 respectively should fall under the mid level. I’ve often heard bike builders lament the fact that their bikes are priced out of reach of the racers that they’d most like to see riding their bikes. Is this one of the reasons that your prices are (relatively) low?
Paul: My prices are roughly reflective of my needs and overhead – I keep the overhead low and don’t live “high on the hog” so to speak. I live in an expensive area but have managed to get a foothold here at a budget I can afford. If my list of frame orders goes over 40, I might think about a price raise. I’m currently at 33 frames. Even though I’d get a boost in my wages, I don’t like raising my prices… it’s kind of a sick ‘Santa Claus’ thing… I want everyone to feel like they got a great deal on their purchase.
Bradford’s single speed and geared Rock Lobsters in team versions
PEZ: Out of curiosity, why the $50 dollar difference between steel and aluminum? Your site makes it sound like the steel frame will last a lifetime while implying that aluminum is meant for a few racing seasons.
Paul: The price difference between the aluminum and steel frames has nothing to do with the longevity of the material. It is determined by how long the frame takes to build and what the materials cost. Aluminum frames just take less time to build so I deduct a bit for that. They have to be heat treated so that is added on. The $50 less is just how it came out after my number-crunching think tank ran the data through the wind tunnel.
PEZ: In answering my email, you wrote, “my prices are low as my expenses are kept low and I don’t want to price myself into a ‘luxury’ market’”. A few years ago, Dario Pegoretti (lamenting the fact that his bikes are priced out of reach of the racers that he’d most like to see riding his bikes) introduced an entry level model priced the same as yours and it was a sales disaster. People were suspicious. I think it’s because we naturally feel that you get what you pay for. So one problem with entry/mid level pricing for custom work is that there’s a risk that people will not value it properly. Now, the last thing I want is to convince you to raise your prices, but how do you overcome these preconceived notions of quality?
Paul: What works for me might not work for Dario or any builder who has been associated with the super high-end market. I think if I came up with a $4,000 frame the same truth would hold for me in reverse. Folks would say, “Why should I get a $4,000 Rock Lobster when someone just won the Nationals on a $1,350 model?” Another person might say, “Hey, for that money I could get a Pegoretti!” As builders, we settle into a demographic of customer. I think it is great that someone can spend $1,350 on a frame that is identical to one that was raced in U.C.I. cyclocross races all over America. I would like to continue to offer top-level custom frames at a price that can make people decide to buy from someone like me, as opposed to someone like a multi-national brand. My commitment is to the riding community, not to the growth of my company. While I do want more brand recognition, I do not want things in my shop to go beyond my abilities to control them. I enjoy the building process too much to run a bigger company. Building and riding is why I got into this such a long time ago. I don’t want to change.
PEZ: I guess I’ve learned a third business model: price your stuff to fit your personality which eventually creates a brand – profit or loss be damned! It is certainly an original and modest and possibly risky one. This populist approach is a slap in the face to the market minus model and even the conventional supply/demand one, too (because guys with waiting lists usually charge accordingly).
Paul: My business plan is totally insane but for the last few years it has worked really well. There’s definitely some luck involved and my location so close to all this racing and population is advantageous for sure. All that said, on paper I should have gone under after the first few years.
PEZ: Paul, this interview has been a real pleasure. Thanks for your time and considerate answers. I wish you and your insane business plan all the best!
If you want to know more about Rock Lobster, you can go to the website
or even better, Paul posts stuff on two blogs. “What’s Up in Santa Cruz” deals with the frames and builds and “Can’t We Just Get Along?” features thoughtful and opinionated pieces. Two of my favorite entries are: taking the piss out of NAHBS and tips for custom frame builders If you are interested in a frame from Paul, reading his stuff is a great start.
Since receiving our Rock Lobster a few changes have taken place. Due to strong demand the waiting list is now seven months and Paul has had to raise the price for this frame to $1,400 – still a Statement. Now the good news, Rocks now can be ordered with tapered forks and BB30 or PF-30 bottom brackets.
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