24 October 2017

‘To do anything well is a struggle’: Simon Mottram, founder of Rapha

In 2004, Simon Mottram unleashed an audacious plan to put his startup, Rapha, at the centre of road cycling. Now the world’s biggest luxury group wants to buy it.

Of the four ‘company values’ at Rapha, number three is a strange one: ‘suffer’.

The others are rather more humdrum. Not only is it hard to imagine ‘suffer’ on another company’s corporate manifesto, but ask around at Rapha and even a few of its own employees are a little perplexed by it.

The company’s founder, Simon Mottram, however, is resolute. ‘To do anything well is a struggle. You need to give it everything.’

‘You can’t get real satisfaction without application. That’s what road cycling is about. It sounds wanky, but you get real enlightenment in the moments when you’ve really pushed yourself.’

This is a man who certainly appears to have thrown his all into creating a multi-headed beast of a company, which has ridden (and, in part, driven) cycling’s boom superbly well.

Many tentacles

Picking apart what’s actually inside Rapha reveals the extraordinary breadth of a company barely into its teens, and explains why such a broad sweep of potential buyers are eyeing it up. Most notable of these is the luxury behemoth LVMH, owner of Louis Vuitton and Dior.

Aside from its clothing and accessories, last year Rapha also sold a range of travel guides, won a D&AD design award for its biannual magazine, saw its cosmetics business grow, made several documentary films and organised 35 cycling holidays for over 400 Rapha fans.

It continues to sell everything through its own website (which makes up 80% of sales) and its 11 shops around the world which, along with serving coffee and food, act as a meeting place to watch bike races and organise rides.

Then there’s the Rapha Cycling Club. It is on course to reach 10,000 members around the world, each spending £135 on an annual subscription to go on weekly spins. There are 2,000 members in London.

There are few businesses quite like Rapha. Spanning so many areas is counter to the ‘focus’ maxim of modern business orthodoxy. And everything — everything — is done by the 150 employees jammed into its head office north of King’s Cross.

Some might call this need to do everything in-house control freakery, but Mottram is adamant there’s no other way if ‘you want to do it properly’.

Rapha is a commercial phenomenon, turning £60m in annual sales, and has become a case study on how to build a brand in the modern era.

None of this is surprising to Mottram. He quixotically envisaged the company as a holidays-films-members-clothing hybrid, even in the simpler times when the company launched and far fewer people were cycling to work, let alone donning lycra on the weekend. None of this is an accident or even an evolution. Mottram always wanted Rapha to have this many tentacles, and always saw it as something immersive and evocative.

The three Cs

One investor recalls the period when Mottram worked as a brand consultant and used to rope in colleagues and clients to go on cycle rides: ‘He was saying, “I’m going to create the world’s most beautiful cycle clothing, and sell jackets for £260 over the internet.” I thought he was utterly mad.’

An avid devotee of the book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Mottram decided his focus, and his company’s mission, would be to make road cycling the most popular sport in the world.

He admits ‘making £5 jerseys or offering free cycling proficiency courses’ might have been the more obvious path, but that just wasn’t him. He sought out a different strategy: making cycling aspirational.

Cycling clothing in the early 2000s was no more than functional. Mottram hated it, calling it ‘crappy and niche’. He saw an opportunity to create an entire experience of high-quality design, fabric and shopping closer to the realm of fashion.

A couple of principles shaped his masterplan. Everything was built around three Cs – commerce, content and community. He also studied brands, had a strong taste sensibility, cared about quality and was a complete cycling nut.

In his search for investment, he gave away a staggering 85% of the company in exchange for £40,000 to get Rapha off the ground. ‘It has never bothered me,’ he insists. ‘This was always about creating something amazing rather than holding on to [it] for myself.’

The investors are a mix of close friends and silent backers who give Mottram a long leash to run the company as he sees fit. Ultimately, however, its long-term ownership is not in his control.

Tellingly, Mottram ploughed a lot of his early funds into nurturing Rapha’s identity, although the startup consisted of little more than a handful of employees and a few jerseys it had designed and made.

Mottram was keen to harness cycling’s then-underground culture. To mark Rapha’s launch in 2004, he put on the ‘Kings of Pain’ photography exhibition in east London’s Old Truman Brewery, which set the tone for what followed. The Tour de France was broadcast on a big screen, there were cycling film screenings, buckets of beer and some Rapha jerseys for sale in a corner. No one had seen anything like it. It was more of a hub for cyclists than an apparel company, and a precursor to what Rapha’s retail would look like.

Clerkenwell to Richmond

The ascent since then has been rapid. But not everyone has liked it.

Rapha is adored by some cyclists, but vilified by others. The reasons are manifold: the clothes are criticised as expensive, while some say Rapha’s tone is pretentious and smug. Its high-minded mission also jars with some cycle purists who see Rapha as a commercial company trying to hijack the sport.

Mottram says: ‘I’m comfortable we’re not everyone’s cup of tea. We’re passionate and we stand for something.’

He does, however, concede the flak bothers him. ‘People who knock us; what do they think we’re doing here? Either they think we’re driving around in Maseratis or just playing around with this stuff. To provide what we do is immensely difficult. A lot of people just don’t like confident brands.’

He adds: ‘Phil Knight (the Nike founder) said, “Nike is a cult. But a good one”. I hope we are too.’

Rapha is definitely cult-ish, closely associated with much-maligned Mamils – ‘middle-aged men in lycra’ – who’ve embraced the brand with enthusiasm.

Critics say Rapha’s spiritual home has drifted as a result; shifting from its Clerkenwell roots to the off-duty corporate types doing laps around Richmond Park in a whir of black and pink lycra. If Rapha has liberated cycling, the argument goes, it’s as a pastime for a certain type of man looking for a way to spend his time and money.

Love the sport

Those brickbats are likely to intensify in the coming years as Rapha tries to become a bigger beast, potentially multiplying sales tenfold. Shops will increase at a steady rate each year, starting with eight new openings in 2017, and another eight the year after. It also wants to double its members in the next 12 months.

Mottram faces two big challenges in this new period. The strategic one is staving off the blandness that often afflicts brands that were once cool and are trying to grow. Mottram says this is increasingly his job: protecting the company culture. He has always been militant about the company’s ‘love the sport’ mantra, encouraging staff to follow his example by cycling on a Wednesday morning rather than coming to work.

But as new cycling brands like Cafe du Cycliste and Chpt.III pop up, with a more underground, younger spirit, can Rapha seriously maintain its edge? Mottram, who turned 51 earlier this year, believes Rapha’s various strands will protect it. But it’s still not clear whether the brand can attract a new generation of cyclists.

Mottram’s other challenge is a personal one: letting go. So far, Rapha has been Simon Mottram, and Simon Mottram has been Rapha.

He says he’s been working on being less of a detail obsessive to become the kind of leader the company now needs. ‘We’re going from where “everything is possible” to where the bets are a lot bigger. We’re not a startup any more.’

Relentlessly executing Rapha’s broad portfolio to a high standard has been draining. This is a man who for years has been working all hours, been caring for a son with severe autism, and has taken a substantially lower salary than many of his direct reports.

The pressure may have been immense, but he knows how lucky he’s been. He’s cycled all over the world and got to know, and worked with, many of his heroes: Dave Brailsford, Paul Smith, Bradley Wiggins and Norman Foster.

Many founders find the transition from startup to big company incredibly hard, but how Mottram manages it will be especially fascinating.

‘I’ll be immensely proud when cycling is the biggest sport in the world, but a tiny part of me will probably be saying, “It was better way back when it was smaller”.’