I have learnt that starting a successful* cycling company from scratch fascinates many of the people I meet. I think they were once like me, longing to make that leap. It is not easy. Here’s some babblings to explain what it feels like, and what I’ve learnt.
The office motto
I have learnt that starting a successful* company from scratch fascinates many of the people I meet. I think they were once like me, longing to make that leap. It is not easy. Here’s some babblings to explain what it feels like, and what I’ve learnt.
*Well, I’m told we’re the name on everyone’s lips, but we’re still tiddlers.
I longed to do what I was most passionate about for most of my adult life. I had always wanted to do my own thing since I was a kid. I lacked the idea, the maturity, experience, support and probably the fear of regret. Until 4 years ago.
Maybe you want to start your own business, teetering on the edge of a terrifying leap. Or maybe you wonder what the hell goes on in the background. I’m going to try and tell you what its like. Its a bit weird. I’m still not entirely sure why.
The first and foremost two words that describe my experience are these:
I have never ever been so tired in my life. I tell myself (and my long suffering wife Emmalou) it’ll get better soon. It can’t possibly get harder. And it does. You find new resources to cope, new depths of fatigue to ignore, new and inventive ways to inject espresso into your eye sockets.
Actually, one thing I learnt was to stop drinking coffee. I’m far more awake for it. Its the spike/dip thing. The dips are bad, Adrenaline is way better for you. Probably.
Its huge fun because you get to do, to an extent, what you want. I had to raise investment so I have shareholders, so no, I don’t do exactly what I want, but almost entirely! They trust me, and if its a good decision and makes sense, I do it.
Its also fun to be cheeky. We very nearly won Best Brand in our first year. All good clean fun.
And that’s what is REALLY good fun, for me at least. I see the fruits of my labours. If I had done nothing, Vulpine would not exist. If I had not stayed up all night that night, we’d have missed our production slot and we may have gone bust in those early days. If I hadn’t direct messaged Jools 2 years ago instead of watching TV, she wouldn’t be driving the company forwards. Etc. etc. That is addictive. There is almost no waste. You have a thought, we discuss it, we decide to do it. We do it. That is addictive. And to me, decisions, or cause and effect, is fun.
Fun & exhaustion = running your own business
An early design for the Vulpine Softshell. It hasn't changed much, except in the right places.
What are the worst moments?
Having to do an extremely detailed spreadsheet explaining the colour and size of every trim, button, fabric, size breakdown etc of our Spring Summer 2013 order, at 5am, with no sleep for 2 days, the night my son Millar came home from hospital, because I was indeed about to lose a production slot the next day if not completed. That was the hardest thing I have ever done. I believe I cried, unable to see the numbers through a fog of emotion, frustration and extreme tiredness. *violins*
When our production was delayed and we lost a huge (huge) sum of money because we had nothing to sell. That was scary. Staring down the barrel of a gun. Where your company may close because of something you can’t control.
Not seeing my son grow up (though that’s changing, and heh, its my fault).
Messing up a customer’s order. Any customer. They're rare but they stay with me. No jokes.
The launch day, about 9pm on 13th March 2012, when our new marketing email system looped and sent an average of 148 emails to EACH our new customers, just as I crawled out the office after a huge day. I was mortified. But the only thing to do was to sit there and email every single customer a personal apology. But there’s still the one chap who called up the office to shout at us. I never got to say sorry to him, because I had to unsubscribe him. You can’t keep unsubscriber info! Gutted.
Unsubscribers! Rare but each one makes me wince. What are we doing wrong? What can we do better? Arrgggh.
No stock. Kind of a cool problem to have, but it has to be sorted before you become frustrated. We’ve spent a lot of time on that these last few months.
Never having time to cycle, apart from the commute. The great irony of a cycling entrepreneur.
The lovely tweets and emails from customers. The unsolicited compliments. My god, we’re maybe actually doing this ok, aren’t we?!
Calling people up telling them they’ve got the job. (Of course telling unsuccessful candidates they haven’t is not nice).
Belly laughs in the office.
Our first office was on a farm near Box Hill, on the Olympic Road Race route. We've moved four times as we've grown. Hello piglets.
When a finished product lands on your desk.
Working in cycling.
A big piece of press. Like this one, in the Guardian, a total overnight gamechanger for us! Levis vs Vulpine.
Getting to fund a racing team. In the Tour of Britain!! A dream come true.
A customer who corners you (well, not corner…you know what I mean…) on the bike, or at an event, and tells you how much they love their garment.
Or even better, a stranger who comes up to you and says how great their top is and don’t you just love your jacket and those nice Vulpine guys?! And then you say that its your company. He he.
Being able to say what I believe in, without running it past anyone, or fearing repercussions. Honesty is so underrated as a way to live and sell. And there are so few opportunities in corporate/business life.
The moments that stand out so far, in order
Giving my notice at my old workplace in December 2009, with the butterflies in the stomach of the unknown.
Getting a companion for the journey. Lily the dog.
I'll have that one please Mrs Dog Breeder
Pulling out of Dragon’s Den just before the shoot (phew).
The really early days. My wife took a picture of me in the first Softshell Jacket sample. I'm wearing pink shorts. The sample was good.
Turning down a huge offer from a multi-national sportswear company before we launched. (I didn’t leave a corporate environment to go straight back into one).
Our logo, created by Us Design in Autumn 2011.
When the first delivery of Softshell Jackets arrived, ripping open a packet and inspecting a garment, thinking, my god, this is actually happening.
The fear before launch. That maybe I had created something stupid that nobody would care about. Self doubt that became paralysing fear of failure. I had to push through it. I’m not all confidence (honest).
Launch day. Obviously!!
That Levis vs Vulpine article (again). To be the most read article on the Guardian that day. I really did punch the air with delight.
My trip to the Tour of Flanders to meet some journos. Cobbles and pro cycling. My favourites.
Cobbles. Pippo. Hello Pippo.
The first Vulpine Cycling Fete. Putting so much into that on my own, worrying if anyone would turn up, and people pouring in as the doors opened. Wonderful. And then all the nice things that were said, thinking maybe I’d done something ‘good’ for cycling, not just a business concept.
Ricky Feather delivered my bike the morning of the first fete. Big big day. BIG day.
Taking on my first employee in November 2012, Jools.
Jools modelled for us before working here. This is the first shot we took on the first shoot day in February 2012.
Seeing Chris Hoy and pro cyclists wearing our gear.
Marveling at the press behind the Oliver Spencer collaboration blazer. Blimey, we have come a long way!
Ok, fine, its becoming a bit of a back-slap-a-thon. Vulpine is going great guns. We run out of stock faster than we can keep up and we’re growing so fast I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. It doesn’t feel real. But we’re only 2 years old. We’re still tiny. I can assume nothing. There are things in the pipeline that I can hardly believe are happening. Stuff that will change how you perceive us and may change my life. I know I’m a tease, but you’ll know soon. But I/we mustn’t be presumptuous. Early days, all that.
The night at the Victoria & Albert Museum was really special. It was also our first night away from our new baby, Millar!
Here’s a few things I’ve learnt
Racing bikes and riding distance taught me that we always have depths of reserves we didn’t know existed. Starting a company is hard as hell. There are no breaks. It gets harder. That vision I had 4 years ago about choosing my own hours and riding on weekdays is total b*llocks. My hours are the waking ones. My rides are short and sweet. Family is the most precious of all. Its a sacrifice I've chosen to make. Tough.
I can’t complain. I chose to be here. This is my path. I do winge about my fatigue. But I have no right to to. None. This is luxury. I am always grateful….I still moan though.
If I think about how much there is to achieve, I choke and stall. Just put one foot in front of the other.
I can only be good at a few things. Listen to everyone.
Ignore advice liberally. If I’d listened to the advice I was given I’d ever have started Vulpine, because everyone said it wasn’t possible. Listen to and respect everyone. But everyone sees the world from their eyes, their perspective. Which is often wrong. So do have faith in yourself…but not blind faith.
Entrepreneurs must be arrogant but also self doubting. Arrogance to push through the barriers, but doubt as a control to temper that bullishness. Its a hard balancing act to get right. I may not be balancing.
There are a lot of lovely people, often strangers, desperate to see you succeed. And a lot of very negative voices. The more negative they become, the better you’re doing. Unless you go bust, in which case I’m talking sh*te.
Successful companies actually run out of cash fast, because you’ll have to load up on stock/staff, etc. You’ll need investment. Learn about it. Nobody ever taught me anything about investment. Its not nearly as scary as it sounds, and its essential to grow.
Don’t just make ‘stuff’. Have morals and beliefs. Stand for something. People want to get behind something real. Do that and the best staff will come to you and they’ll be fantastic hard working allies and friends. We don’t just work for money, we want to work for something we believe in.
Don’t try and take the product photography yourself!! Ha ha. Oops.
Three months in, we did this. Good for the soul. Good to meet you.
I could talk for days about what I’ve f***ed up, got right and remember dearly. As I set up the next ramps in growth, staffing and projects I become philosophical.
I’m not saying we’re the best, and we’re definitely not the biggest. But starting your own company is an extraordinary, terrifying, satisfying and grim process. If there’s a little I can do to shed light on the process and give you a shove in the right direction, then I hoped this helped.
Fellow entrepreneurs will happily help out others. We know how hard it is.
We want you to do it too, because we love it so much.