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Simon Mottram: On Passion, Obsession & Why Your Brand Should Take Sides

Simon Mottram: On Passion, Obsession & Why Your Brand Should Take Sides
Published October 7, 2011 by Jocelyn K. Glei
Road racing is a grueling sport that demands intense focus, strategic thinking, and a very, very high tolerance for pain in pursuit of the greater glory. It's never been a sport for the faint of heart, and - until recently - it hasn't been for the faint of style. (We've all seen that guy clunking around the coffeeshop in an eye-blistering neon jersey with 23 logos on it.) But in 2004, the UK-based performance roadwear company Rapha changed all that. They brought high style to cycling.

Since their launch over seven years ago, Rapha has evolved into a vibrant ecosystem for road riders around the world. Beyond their 100+ product line of high-performance clothing and gear sold online, the brand encompasses a world-class cycling team, a super-cross racing series, a bi-monthly cycling magazine, a gallery and shop in San Francisco, and multiple blogs covering the sport.Behind it all is road racing enthusiast Simon Mottram. Prior to launching Rapha, Mottram worked for 15 years as a marketing and branding consultant, collaborating primarily with luxury brands. And the experience shows: Since day one, Rapha's branding has been executed with flawless panache. I chatted with Mottram via phone about how he geared up to launch Rapha, the challenges of evolving the brand, and how he makes it all hang together so beautifully.

I heard you did research for about five years before starting Rapha. Can you tell me what happened during that incubation period?

I think I was at the right point in my career: I was in my mid-30s and had some experience, and I was ready to do something for myself that wasn't just an agency. I wanted to do something that mattered, and at the same time I'd always been obsessed by road racing as a sport. The whole idea came out of my own frustration with the cycling kit that was available. You know, you're frustrated as a customer, and you think: "Someone could do this better." And a nagging frustration became a sort of full-on obsession over a few years. As I went around the world working at my day job -- which was marketing, brand, and identity consulting -- I was looking at the market thinking, "Hang on, there's something in this." There are more people like me out there who are frustrated. There is a gap in the market, and I think actually there might be a way of doing it. simon_550

Simon Mottram ready to ride.

- So Rapha is a sort of curious train smash of personal passion, a perceived gap in the market, and some professional expertise in that I did lots of branding for luxury goods businesses. I had some insight into how you do that kind of brand -- a sort of specific, authentic, exclusive brand for a very particular type of discerning customer.I didn't know anything about garments, didn't know anything about running retail, or running online retail. And I had never set up my own brand before. So there was a lot to learn and a lot of risk. But the key thing is it came out of me being the customer. You understand the customer, because you are the customer. And as soon as you have deep customer insight, it really gives you a massive headstart. It liberates you to build around something very real rather than just research and a perceived sort of market plan.

Rapha is a sort of curious train smash of personal passion, a perceived gap in the market, and some professional expertise.

How did you start to ingratiate yourself into the cycling market?

I would call up editors of magazines and go see them. I would go into bike shops and talk to bike shop owners. I started to learn about fabrics and garment technology. I read the magazines, I went to trade shows. I talked to the fabric manufacturers.Because I was a little bit older, mid-30s, not straight out of college, I had a quite good network of contacts already: people who ran brands or clothing businesses. So, just through my network, I managed to get into people who were relevant -- people who ran outdoor brands or outdoor retailers. And, before long, people were introducing me to other people. I found all the way through that people were incredibly helpful with time and advice. I think that people know how hard it is if they've done it themselves, and they really want to give you the time to help you succeed. So it was just through persistence really, and networking, but that sort of good old-fashioned networking. 

Rapha Riders trace the route of the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge before the pros.

When did you actually decide to pull the trigger? How did the financing, the team, etc, all come together?

There was never a moment when I thought: "OK, now I have to take the plunge." The drip drip of obsession took me over, and before I knew it I was doing it. So there was no sense of having to make that big leap. Which is good really, I mean, I'm not particularly brave as a person. If I had had to sit there with everything laid out, maybe I wouldn't have made the decision. It was just a driving passion.I wrote a business plan, having done all this research, and at the time I was working with Sapient. Luke [Scheybeler] was a creative at Sapient. And I said, "Can you come help me do this? I need a graphic designer to work with me." So he came on effectively as employee number one. He helped me with the brand development, with the website, and designing the first products. He was really central to getting that whole thing launched. I also hired a woman named Claire who did everything else -- customer service, the administrative side, and so on. At launch, it was a 3-three-person company. brevet_550

Rapha brevet jersey.

- jean-550

Rapha rider-specific jeans.

- On the money side, it took me two-and-a-half years of hard fundraising to just enough to build the first five or six products, put the website together, set up the marketing, do a launch event to show people that I could get that far. After that, I went off and raised another half a million or so, and have done it twice again since. Just in small amounts from the same kind of people. All our money is raised from individuals and lots of them have been there from day one. They saw the risk, but thought, "There's an opportunity here."It was such a risky proposition to say you could go into a market called cycling apparel and accessories, which nobody knew. Ten years ago, people just weren't thinking about it. And to say that, with no experience of garment manufacturing or Internet retail, I could come in and sell clothes to men online around cycling, and do it at a price that was 30-50% higher than anybody else in the market using the principles of luxury branding. It was classic risk capital. The investors had to believe in me, and the team I had with me. I think they were backing that fact that I was prepared to do everything, and anything, to make it work.

The drip drip of obsession took me over, and before I knew it I was doing it. So there was no sense of having to make that big leap.

What was your vision for Rapha at launch? I'm curious about how that differs from how things actually unfolded.

As a consultant, there are lots of tricks that you use with clients to help them work things out and see the future. I used to do this little thing where you would ask clients to envision the future -- which clients actually find very hard. You know, "Describe your business in five years time..." One thing I used to do is write faux business pieces, Financial Times or Wall Street Journal articles, about a company in the future. So you can sort of say, "That's what we're trying to achieve."I wrote one for Rapha in early 2005, when we'd been going for about seven or eight months. I wrote a piece that I pitched as being December 2010 in Fortune magazine. (Obviously the world's a bit different now, and Fortune magazine isn't quite what it used to be.) But it talks about Rapha revolutionizing the cycling market and leading more people to discover road racing as a lifestyle and a fundamental part of their lives. It talks about 25,000 Rapha customers meeting at Rapha cycling cafes, going for rides together, consuming Rapha coffee, being all part of a club. It talks about some of the products, reading magazines that Rapha publishes… Five years on, the way it described the business was actually very accurate to where we were last year in December 2010. We've now got about 40 people at Rapha, and I gave a presentation at the end of last year where I said, "Here's where we're going in the next five years. This is how big I think we can be, here are the things we want to do." It was quite a scary presentation because it was quite ambitious. But I said, "Don't worry because this is what I wrote in 2005 about today, and you'll see this is actually what we said we'd do." So I've written another one now for 2015, just as aggressively. rapha_club_550

Exterior of the Rapha Cycle Club, San Francisco.

- sf_store_550

Interior detail of the Rapha Cycle Club, San Francisco.

What we wanted to create was a brand for a certain type of person that was absolutely for that person. So it was everything to some people and nothing to some people. I didn't want to be something to everyone. I've spent so much time with clients trying to explain to them that you can't sit on the fence -- you want your brand to have a bit of side to it, a bit of tension. We're lucky to have customers who really like what we do and are like friends. But we also have a lot of detractors, and that's really good. It means we're getting things right, that we're creating impact in the right way, that we matter to people.But the ambitions for the business were always much bigger than creating a little niche and selling some expensive road cycling gear. The business is all about the sport. I think road cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, and the toughest sport in the world, and I think it should be the biggest sport in the world. I think more people should do cycling than watch football, or play baseball, or whatever. So that's the crazy vision that drives me forward. It's not to create a luxury brand and sell it. Or to create some nicer products because I didn't like the jerseys that were on offer. That was definitely part of it, but it was all heading toward this idea of celebrating the sport and making it a more popular thing.

What we wanted to create was a brand for a certain type of person that was absolutely for that person.

There are so many things that you do with Rapha -- the Rouleur magazine, the cycling team, etc -- that aren't directly related to selling a specific product. How does that fit in?

I think there are some roots for it. But I should say that the main thing that drives that is pure enthusiasm. Imagine if you're in love with leather goods, and you're given the job of running Hermès. I mean, you would just go mad. You know, anything you've ever wanted to do in leather goods. And that's what I have. Essentially, I have the keys to a nice part of the cycling market, and I'm a road cyclist. I can do anything -- within reason. We have the freedom to indulge our passion. I think if you do that more you build a stronger brand. One that has a much more rounded platform than a brand that's just built on one attribute, or that plows one particular category. So part of it was about building strength by having a more rounded offer. But I've also always been taken with emporia, the idea of an emporium is really central to what we do. We're not trying to create a shop, or an offer, or a set of products. It's an emporium. It's the sort of place where you walk through the door, and the doorbell jangles, and everything to do with the subject is there. It puts you right in the heart of the thing that you're to do with. In our case, that's road cycling. You look around and there are clothes, and there are accessories, and there is stuff to read, and there are people to talk to, and there are things to do, and there is a film to watch, and there is a smell and a taste and experiences to be had that are all about that one subject. I've always been keen on those things. In a mild way, Paul Smith, who's now a friend of ours, was an inspiration for me. I used to love going to his shop because you weren't just walking into a clothes shop, you were walking into Paul Smith's mind of curios. I find that fascinating. Colette is the same kind of thing. I think it's a much more interesting experience for the customer. So I always wanted to create an emporium. I think brands that equal an emporium have quite a good platform to connect with customers. rouleur_550

Rouleur magazine, issue 24.

- skincare-550

Rapha skincare: Winter Embrocation.


You talked about how you were the customer at the beginning. Now that you've grown to over 40 people, how do you maintain that level of customer insight as you evolve the brand?

It's definitely one of the challenges. Because, now 7 years in, I don't go into bike shops with the eye of a customer so much anymore. Often, I'm sent a product by someone in the industry. You become part of the industry. One of the things that we talk about internally is how it's really important that Rapha is an independent spirit.I think one of the huge advantages we had starting out was that none of us were from the industry. So we didn't think like cycling brands, didn't think about what would we normally do here. We could look at it completely afresh, and with a customer's perspective, totally unencumbered. So I've tried to enshrine in our values the idea of the independent spirit. It's important for brands, and it's important in road racing actually. So I can link it back to the sport. The guys, the characters, in cycling that we love and want to watch, who have panache and charisma, are the guys with independent spirit. They follow their own path, and they surprise people. They don't follow norm. It gets harder and harder to do as we become part of the industry. So we're now starting to have to make sure we adopt a customer view on things.

We're not trying to create a shop, or an offer, or a set of products. It's an emporium.

We spend a lot of time with our best customers, and our new customers, to make sure we keep up to date with what they want and their perspective. That's the great thing about being a direct business. We talk to these people all the time, and they offer us amazing insights.We had a meeting this morning... the women's market is a new venture for us over the last year. And, I'm not a woman. There are women who work here, but not that many. We need to make sure we get deep in the psyche of women riders, and they are very different in many ways to male riders. As the brand develops, and the business develops, we've got to get better at that stuff. We don't have the luxury any more of it always being completely instinctive, of me being able to say, "You know what? We're going to do that because I know it's right." That's still the case sometimes, but not always. It's tough.

More about Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

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