Five Years of Freedom

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This is a blog about how I decided to become an entrepreneur and start Vulpine, it’s not really about cycling. If you’re after cycling, look away now!

Five years ago to the day, I chucked in my job and stopped being an employee. I was very very relieved indeed. Then I started Vulpine.

I’d spent the previous eight years working in the film industry, mainly in ads and music videos. I started as a director’s rep, showing DVDs to mostly disinterested but polite advertising and music execs, and left as a very well paid executive producer of an achingly hip production company. It was all rather glamourous. And I ended up loathing it. Why?

Well I’ve always been a square peg in a round hole. I never stayed in jobs long. I’d enter low down, make my way up, get bored, then leave. I craved knowledge, control, to reassess everything. I was a pain.

Because of this, I was pretty awful at playing corporate politics. It’s not that I’m rude (best to double check that with someone less biased) but I simply refused to accept the status quo. “Do it like this”. “But why?!”, I would tiresomely exclaim to my bosses. I never realised that to fit into corporate culture, it’s invariably not your ability and opinion they’re looking for. It’s your agreement. Just get on with it. And I hated that. I hated the inefficiency of towing the line, the waste of thought and talent, not just of me, but my peers. I couldn’t bare it.

“Of course the money must have made it bearable?!” You’re thinking, trying to suppress your sarcasm, and you’re right. I was wearing tarnished golden handcuffs, absolutely. But *violins* I never had time to spend it. I worked seven days a week, all the hours I could speak, and when I got home (often by taxi after meeting a client for drinks) I was so tired I hardly looked at Emmalou. She had her own very stressful successful career, yet she was putting food on my lap as I came home. I’d pour myself a whisky, eat, then fall asleep on the sofa at 11pm. Then get up, hands shaking with stress and fatigue, and do it again. I was not a nice man to be married to.

I love people. The more eccentric and challenging the better, as long as they’re not rude or aggressive, which they often were, if you worked where I worked. But I found sucking up to the right people and tolerating an ingrained blame culture hugely demotivating. All in all I was not doing my soul any favours.

I started day-dreaming to conclusions that I now realise push some employees into entrepreneurs. Sure, I’m earning good money, but I’m working myself into an early grave, and for what? I can’t keep this up for much longer. Five years? Ouch. Ten? No thanks. Twenty??! NO F***ING WAY. Until retirement?… The thought made me feel sick.

But what can I do instead?… The internal dialogue continues… I’m flogging myself for company owners who reap all the benefit. I’m never going to get rich. I can’t retire on this job. I have to fight to keep a job. I have to keep trudging the hamster wheel. I can’t.

And then the decision starts flashing in front of my retinas like implanted LEDs. What had seemed an impossible risk a year ago was now the safe option. To set up on my own was the only way forward. Or I’d hate my life. And I’d be divorced. For all its posh dinners, nice suits and shiny bike bits. That meant not a great deal.

I often think about what motivates me, and perhaps the most intense source is fear of regret. Fear of bitterness, of never knowing what could have been, never knowing if I was capable of more. This was kicking in behind the hatred of my role. Turbo charging me to leave.

So fine. Practicalities. There will be no money coming in for years. In fact, it won’t just stop, it’ll start going out the door. A new business needs money and lots of it. It all felt very distant again. And once you’re heart is in one thing, and left another, you can’t go back through the door you just closed. 

More importantly than the finances, what was I going to actually DO? Luckily I knew the answer to this. I had done for as long as I’d toyed with the idea of being an entrepreneur, in my early Twenties, when I met my wife in Manchester, back in ’96. She gave me the confidence to believe in myself, even then…Anyway, I knew it was cycling. My greatest passion. The lifeline that ran through my life since I was a kid. 

I needed to go heart, not head. If I was going to be able to motivate myself through the fear, risk and unknown, it had to be for something I loved. I knew I was a passion player, and that passion would always sustain me. Cycling was the only choice.

I also knew I wanted to do something with clothing, which I’d also always loved along with all design, since I was old enough to dress myself (ask my mum about my toddler dress sense!). And I was pretty certain it should be based around commuting. I was sick of riding in in either full race kit, having to shower at a gym, get changed, then run back to the office. Or just wet wipe myself and hope I didn’t get found out in a warm, enclosed conference room. Eww.

I love things that do the job they were designed for, that work, that are also beautiful. Practicality is beauty, to me. My cycling gear back then was none of that. I’d had an idea for ages, that I felt great about, that I was convinced people wanted. Great.

But my wife. How could I put this pressure on her? We wanted kids. This was not a kid friendly life choice. How could I make her shoulder paying the bills, put off having kids, and spend every cent we had? On my wild selfish fantasy. So I didn’t ask. I couldn’t.

Then, as it always does in the best stories, fate intervened. A series of unfortunate events pushed us towards an inevitable conclusion.

In the Autumn of 2009 my life started going off the rails. The owners of the film company were becoming intolerably belligerent. Their demands on me, and others were unfair, unpredictable, disrespectful and even downright nasty. My malaise became loathing. 

My Dad was seriously ill from alcoholism. I dreaded every phone call, in case my Dad…actually, you don’t need to hear that. He was ill. That’s enough. But it was awful. If you’ve experienced addiction at the really pointy end, you’ll know.*

*Important note. I’m very proud that my Dad finally managed to kick the booze a few months later and is now dry.

I’ve had serious back issues since I was a teen, and on location in Belfast, two discs in my neck popped. I was in agony, unable to hold a pen with fingers I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t even hold my head upright. I was working lying down; using a phone I had to dial by sight, as I couldn’t feel; on heavy painkillers, looking at serious invasive surgery and a life without cycling. 

It was all a bit pants. Definitely not horrific in comparison to true suffering, but for me, pretty unpleasant. I was just about as close to having a breakdown as I assume you can before it actually happens. I don’t know, thankfully.

 

Camber Sands, November 2009, where Emmalou told me to leave and chase my dream

 

So my wife and dear friend Emmalou, just as it felt like the black hole was swallowing me up, TOLD me to get out, to chase my dream, because the alternative scared her. I can still remember her words, freeing me “I don’t care if it’s a success. I don’t care about the money. I just want you back. I’m scared for you, and for us. Just do it. I want you out of there and to be happy. Try your best.” It makes me choke even now. 

I had been released. 

So I gave my notice, which went down like a cup of cold sick, and ran as fast as I could the other way. I slept for a month over Christmas, just decompressing, getting my head and heart in order.

Then I gunned it. During that month I found massive motivation and it grew into a fervour. I’ve talked about motivation earlier. Now all my fears and positivity seemed to channel into the greatest motivation I’ve ever had. I had to honour Emmalou. She had made a huge sacrifice, and I was going to pay her back. That was my promise to myself. I HAD to do this. And it felt like a gift to give, not a weight around my neck.

I was at home on my own five days a week. I established rules for myself. I had to work from 9am to 6pm every day. No lazing in bed or messing about on Xbox. But yes, the odd long bike ride, for research purposes. Cough. 

I would do all the housework. I’d cook the meals. It was the least I could do. And the rules gave me structure and pride. I could so easily have sunk into self pity, because the 27 month journey to launching Vulpine in March 2012 was difficult, and I nearly gave up many times. But I had to do it. For Emmalou, and myself.

 

The proud owners, just before we launched, February 2012

 

The treat for this journey was a dog. We got a puppy, Lily, a sweet, gentle, Parsons Jack Russell, with a turn of speed as a mountain bike trail dawg.

 

 Lily the day we picked her up, aged 9 weeks. I made a bee line straight too her, and her to me.

She didn't even wee on the drive home, just wagged.

 

Life was simple whilst I created Vulpine. I had a puppy to train, I got ideas as we walked or cycled, I cooked, designed, learnt, cleaned and pushed myself. Life was also full of unknowns and yearning.

Vulpine’s story is in the early chapters, but it feels good. We are parents now, with Millar conceived at the same time (not literally!) as we launched. Life is full of patterns isn’t it? His birth didn’t help my sense of exhaustion, but it gave me new happiness and even greater motivation. I had to provide.

 

No job, a new puppy, and some time to rebuild my resources

 

There’s part of me that was always absolutely certain that Vulpine would do well. You need that belief to push forwards. But part of me is amazed. That fear and doubt I needed to motivate myself in the early days still pervades my thoughts. In fact, it’s more intense now. I have far more to lose. The pressure is greater now I have staff to support too. I need to nurture them. It’s not just me anymore.

The hours and exhaustion can be crushing, but the belief, pride and enjoyment in what I’m doing is intense, since that is the life changing leap I took five years previous.

All that crap we go through, it happens for a reason. Doesn’t it?

3 thoughts on “Five Years of Freedom”

  1. Can so relate to this and think my wife would too. You had the balls to follow your dream and fantastic it all worked out for you with such a great company and superb products.

  2. Lovely story and great to see it has a happy ending. Hard work and determination do seem to pay off a lot of the time. For me it happened the other way round – set up a company in my twenties, loved it for 20 years then sold it to a bunch of muppets and hated it for the next 10 as I was in the dreaded corporate/megalomaniac environment for real. Now on my own again starting all over! Hopefully your blog will encourage people to try it if they feel they can – the longer you wait the harder it gets. Fantastic that your dad is OK too – determination is in your genes!

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