2 years in – running a cycling business – my personal journey

stolen goat has been running for just over 2 years now. Friends & family are always interested to know what it’s like running my own company, and I think that most people are very curious about what it’s actually like. I know that I was very curious for the 7 years I spent working in a corporate environment. So I thought I would share my personal journey to this point and some things I have learnt along the way…

Words of Wisdom

When I was at University studying Electrical & Electronic Engineering we mostly did modules that centred around mathematics. In the second year we had the option to do a business module. I jumped at the chance – anything to give my brain a break from calculus! The lecturer for the module was roughly 152 years old but an excellent teacher and mentor. He offered us some advice one Friday afternoon which I will never forget…

When you finish your degree you’ll want to run your own business. That is the moment to do something about it. Because what happens to most engineers is they finish their degree, get a job in a corporate role, get married, get a mortgage, have some children and all of a sudden their is no way to escape the corporate jungle without risking a whole lot. So you get stuck.

Sure enough, despite a deep rooted desire to run my own business I quickly landed a great job in a corporate engineering role, got a mortgage, got married and had some children. These are not bad things, they are great things. In fact today is my 5th wedding anniversary and I couldn’t be happier.

But my lecturers words of wisdom rang in my head. Daily. Despite enjoying my job I knew that I needed to quench my thirst for running my own company.

Humans NEED to be challenged

My degree was extremely dry and I found it very challenging. I didn’t have a mathematical background so from day one I knew it was going to be tough. And it was. I think I’m someone that can only achieve to a high level if the subject is challenging for me. If I find something trivial then I become complacent and generally perform in a mediocre way. My degree was challenging and I ended up scraping a first which I was super proud about. But it took a huge effort and commitment. Cycling is challenging, that’s why we feel proud when we accomplish a ride. Being a parent is challenging, but that’s why it’s so rewarding.

Once we stop challenging ourselves we may as well give up.

So, whilst I sat in my comfy swivel chair in my corporate job I knew that I was ready for the next challenge – running my own business. Yes the risk was high – I had (and happily still have) a wife and 2 kids to support plus a mortgage and everything that comes with it. Bring it on – these do or die situations make you realise just what you’re made of. And for me personally, the disappointment of never trying far outweighed the potential risk of failure.

Adaptability is key

What I was taught at University – mostly – was how to perform certain calculations and to break problems down into smaller chunks. This is engineering – using the tools available to you to solve the problem at hand. But what I really took away from my time at uni was that I can adapt to a situation and succeed. Maths was never, and will never be my forte. But with enough work and dedication – anyone can tune themselves into the task and succeed.

This is what it takes to run a business. Especially one with a low head count – you need to be the marketeer, salesman, developer, accountant, customer service rep, designer, business developer, and above all… decision maker. A small business will live or die by its decisions. It’s scary and it’s the ultimate form of accountability. If you can’t make a decision then running a business will be tough for you.

You need help

stolen goat is run, on a day to day level by me, myself and I. But running a business entirely on your own is a real challenge. Both practically and mentally. I realised early on that I needed help with packaging and despatching orders so we use an independent fulfilment centre who we can easily communicate with. They do a fantastic job of getting your orders out each and every day. They are the cornerstone of our customer service and a lot hinges off them so I’m very grateful for their services.

I also introduced another director into the company. His name is Tim Morel, he’s a good friend, riding companion and someone who looks at the World in a positive way. If you come to any of our shows you’ll probably meet him. He provides me with the opportunity to bounce ideas off another person on a daily basis, but he also lets me vent my frustrations and helps me weigh up certain decisions. He has no aspirations to take over the company (or he’s really good at disguising his evil plot), he just loves to be a part of it. You need someone like this if you are to survive and remain sane! Thank you Tim.

Cash is King

A small business needs money to start, survive and grow. Cash-flow is the single biggest killer of small businesses. Banks make you promises but rarely deliver and when you are brand spanking new – nobody will give you any credit. Why should they? So you need to run a tight ship, keep things lean, assess every financial decision and either have deep pockets or seek out investment.

Fortunately for me I found 3 willing investors who have the vision to see where we are going and what we are trying to achieve. Again, none of them want to make any business decisions so I still have the masochistic joy of being responsible for our success or failure. We certainly aren’t rolling in cash but we have been able to expand and invest in things such as our own jerseys which help us deliver our goals – exceptional products at an an acceptable price.

Roll with the punches and stick with the vision

As a new business you need to try a lot of things. Some things work, some things don’t. Some people instantly get what you’re trying to achieve – others, the nay sayers, fun police and generally negative people of the World may not share in the vision quite so readily.

As the core manager of the business you get an unfiltered view of this. You see the great reviews come in and you see any negative comments on facebook and so on. The negative comments hurt and doubt can quickly enter your mind. But I’ve learnt that for every one person who dislikes your brand or offering there are 100 other people who get it and love it. I can’t personally ignore the negativity, it’s not in my genetic makeup. I take it on board and handle it where possible. But the positive feedback makes everything so worth it.

Two weeks I had a phone call from a customer who needed advice on the fit of our jerseys. He had bought a jersey from an expensive brand and wasn’t thrilled with the fit and performance. I gave him my advice and he opted to buy our jersey. This morning he phoned me up to personally thank me and to rave about the jersey he bought. We spoke a little about the riding he did and kit that he would like in the future. He absolutely gets what we’re doing. He doesn’t realise how great this kind of feedback is for us as a company and me as a Human Being. I now know there is a least one person in the World who loves our brand. As far as I’m concerned that makes us a successful company.

Revenue, profit and sales growth are measures of survivability not success. See what people say about your company – that is how you should measure your success. If you have stuck with your vision, and others believe in it then the process of running your own business is so much more rewarding than if you have merely managed to turn a profit somehow.

Surviving is tough, so tough that sometimes the vision can get lost. Stick with it. Otherwise – what’s the point?

It’s a roller-coaster

Running your own business is a constant roller coaster – emotionally and financially. Especially in this industry. It’s a very small industry – everyone knows everyone and ultimately, despite the growing popularity of cycling we are still a “niche” sport. Like it or not that’s how it is for now. Sales go up and down with the seasons, that’s a fact. People in the industry need to help each other not compete.

The other day, a (nameless) supplier berated me at a show for having his stock towards the back of my stand. Quite bizarre really that someone who you spend money with thinks it’s OK to dictate how you lay your stand out. But perhaps he was having an off day. Either way it puts me off doing business with him again. You can’t afford to be like this, no matter how “big” you get.

Stay true to your roots and your vision and you’ll either be a success or you’ll fail with dignity. But whatever you do – make sure you satisfy yourself that you gave it your all.

Am I earning more than I was at my steady corporate job? No. But I’m surviving and I get to play with my kids more. Not only this but I ride my bike more and fundamentally my potential for personal growth is only limited by my ability to deliver and not by me requiring someone on the rung above me to retire or resign. I’m happy to be on this roller coaster. It’s stressful but rewarding.

Thanks for listening :-)