AKRON, Ohio - "Being an entrepreneur has always been in my blood," said Tim Wilhelm. As a boy, he had a paper route. In the military, he shined shoes and cut hair to make money.
The 57-year-old Wilhelm, facing a layoff from his truck driver job a few years ago, was looking for a way to add to his income. He always had a passion for bikes and struck upon the idea of a pedicab.
When co-workers heard about his idea, they dubbed him Rickshaw Willie.
He ordered it from a Colorado company and with delivery, it cost him $5,065. He began giving free rides to people in downtown Akron in 2009, but he got off to a rocky start.
"When I first bought this bike, I rode up and down through town and I wasn't getting any riders," said Wilhelm, who grew up in Massillon.
He knew he needed to be noticed and he struck upon a couple of ideas.
"So after a couple days I went home, I dug this horn out and dug out my orange Chucks."
The Chucks, or his orange, nearly calf-high Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, and an odd-sounding shrill horn that was 15 years old got Willie noticed.
The rides he gives are free; he makes money from tips and advertising. The Barley House has been his main supporter since day one, a tattoo shop and pizzeria hopped onboard the Rickshaw Willie Express. His business was off and rolling.
He paid off his bicycle rickshaw in the first year, and paid ahead on his mortgage and car payments.
When he first started, business owners looked at him funny and cab drivers thought he was inching in on their turf. But soon he gained acceptance among both groups. Cabbies realized Willie only works a route of a couple of blocks along Main Street.
The pedicab and Willie were a hit, especially with the college crowd.
He waves at the many familiar faces he sees along his route, blowing the horn, and rooting for the city of Akron and the hometown Aeros baseball team.
"Welcome to beautiful, downtown Akron!" Willie yelled at the crowd along Main Street.
He said on a good night, he'll give 30 to 40 rides.
"I have almost 2,000 miles on this street ride here," he said.
He got a truck driving job with C.J Dannemiller last January delivering concession supplies. He has cut back riding his pedicab to mainly Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
But he's expanding his bike fleet with an advertising billboard bike and a bicycle with a front-mounted freezer for selling ice cream.