Simon Mottram Spotted The Boom In Road Cycling Coming And Built Rapha Into An All-Conquering Brand

Simon Mottram drew up the business plan for Rapha back in 2002, a time when the only people riding bikes around London and New York were couriers and the kind of hardcore road warriors Strava was invented for. Fast-forward to 2017 and you can’t move for cyclists in high-end, urban-friendly kit. Rapha has lead the city peloton all the way, so what does its rise tell us about building a modern brand?

RISING When you started out road cycling hadn’t blown up – it was seen as a bit of a geeky, losers’ sport – did you spot its rebirth coming ahead of time?

SIMON MOTTRAM, CEO RAPHA  ‘I definitely knew there was something there. Loving the sport as I did – and still do – I had this feeling that it had been overlooked for too long. There were lots of trends, and the business plan that I wrote in 2002 talked about this: lots of trends that are pointing to cycling becoming more popular over mobility and health, and wellbeing. I knew it was positioned well to grow, but I had no idea how quickly. The boom in the UK – and more recently in places like South Korea or Taiwan or Malaysia – those things have blown us away. The speed has been surprising and very welcome.’

RISING What you notice about Rapha’s approach is that the riding lifestyle is front and centre – is that deliberate?

SM ‘The brand is built on communicating the sport, in its wider sense; not just for racing but the riding. The brand isn't built on promoting the product, even though the product is really, really important to us; you just don't start there. I think that's what made it very different to everybody else on the market, who were just lists of products, basically, featuring benefits.’

RISING Is there an example of how you did this right from the beginning?

SM ‘Our first point has always been to say: “Look, this is an amazing thing: this is beautiful, it's tough, it's dramatic, it's got loads of human stories… Look at it, involve yourself in it - if you're already in it, brilliant, let's celebrate it together!” That's kind of what we do from when we launched. We did an exhibition in the Truman Brewery for a month. It wasn't saying: “Here's Rapha!” It was saying: “Here's a celebration of six amazing ‘Kings of Pain’. This is what they do, and here's some memorabilia, and here's the Tour on the wall that we're projecting – come and watch it. Come and have a drink. In the corner, there's some Rapha products.”’

‘One of Rapha’s core values is ‘suffer' – suffering doesn't mean hurt yourself, it means application, determination, ambition’

RISING Cycling is a blood sweat and tears endurance sport, so why do you think it has become so popular?

SM ‘The more you apply yourself the more satisfying the result will be – good or bad. You learn through the process. That's what road cycling is. It's such a counterpoint to looking at screens all day and sitting in meetings and doing work, that it's just profoundly appealing. Most people don't realise that: they see people riding their bikes and they don't know that's what they're getting out of it. I think we need to do more to explain to people that's why we do it. We don't do it because we like wearing tights or we like having an expensive bike.’

RISING Did you draw any inspiration from that when building Rapha?

SM ‘Is it like business innovation? No, but you do have to work hard. One of Rapha’s core values is 'suffer'. There's no business I know with 'suffer' as a core value. Suffering doesn't mean hurt yourself: it means application, determination, ambition – pushing yourself a bit further.’

RISING What do you get from your own daily cycle commute?

SM ‘What I love about riding a bike in town: by the time I get home, I've lost all the stress of work; and, coming to work, I've lost all the stress of home. There's something you get out of every ride, and we’re always thinking about what we can do better and how's the product working.’

RISING To what extent did you allow your customers to define the lifestyle, the identity of the brand?

SM ‘Not at all. Zero per cent. I think these days we've been taught that there's a different way of building products and brands and companies, and it's very much a responsive, fast-learning, A/B testing. The brand definitely lives in the customer's head, but it's not created by the customer. I think, for me, there's a crucial difference there, and my view of best practice is much more defined by Apple than it is by Google. I think you need to deeply understand the customer and be the customer and live in their world; but then you need to – as a brand – decide what they want and what they're going to need before they do. To me, as a consumer, that's what gives me delight.’

RISING Your strategy seems to be less about advertising campaigns and more about communicating directly with consumers, through your own content and Rapha Cycle Club?

SM ‘It's not about slogans and the next product, and just have a transaction and then we're all happy because the business is working. That's a super, superficial kind of approach to building anything, which I find very uninteresting: why would you want to give your life up to create something like that? Because this is all about cycling – which I care so passionately about – it was about building relationships. You don't build relationships by having a nice spread in a magazine that you’ve paid twenty grand for. That might be good for just alerting that you exist, but you build a relationship directly through conversation and experience and interaction over a period of time. So, us having a content-based, story-based, direct to consumer earned and owned media approach is fundamental to success, thinking about it.’

RISING How important to your product development was working with Team Sky, the world’s best pro cycling operation?

SM ‘That four years with Team Sky was really important, because it took us from being kind of credible and: “OK, they do pro stuff good,” to being: “They must be really good, because Chris Froome isn't going to wear rubbish and Dave Brailsford wouldn't let them have anything but the best.” My perception is that that definitely punched through. I think we're at a different place – and we do R&D; that's part of our brand now, where it wasn't before.’

‘Have a really big idea, have a really big ambition and just keep going after it’

RISING So, both the ‘urban cyclist’ and ‘pro cyclist’ tribes are quite well-established now –  where is cycling going to go next?

SM ‘There's just as many people now, I think, turning to adventure and slightly looser, more crossover clothing: bike packing, going off on tours. We're in that area too: two very different aesthetics and requirements. I think being on the road and it being defined by that kind of skinsuit aero aesthetic; I think it's gone as far as it could possibly go. The more people – like me and my mates, who are not aero and not very fast – the more we squeeze into skinsuits, the less appealing it becomes, I suppose. I just think people want something with a bit more freedom and to get away from it all. It's less about mirrors and clenched jaws and looking hard and looking at data. There's a response against that into experience and cerebral stuff, which I think is really good. It's already growing, I think it will keep growing.’

RISING What makes you most excited about looking into the future and where you can take things?

SM ‘The thing that's most exciting for me is the whole community side of what we do: the Rapha Cycling Club, which has just gone through 11,000 members. It's not a loyalty scheme and it's not one of those little mechanics that people have as their marketing strategy; it's a real living, breathing community who ride. There's 150, 160 rides every week around the world that are Rapha club nights. I can turn up to any major city, pretty much, and there'll be ten or 20 or 100 club members I can ride with; we have the same aspirations. That's an amazing thing. It's not selling jerseys – I’m sure most of our competitors have no idea about selling memories and friendships, or promoting that – but that's what we do.’

RISING What would be the toughest lessons that you've learned along the way with Rapha?

SM ‘I suppose the toughest lesson is it always takes longer and costs more, which somebody did say to me before starting the company: “Well, I've read your business plan, but you know it's going to take longer than that, and you'll need more cash.” And, of course, they were right. So that's a tough lesson.’

RISING What advice would you give to someone just starting to build a brand?

SM ‘You can go straight to source; you can go direct; you don't have to play by the rules of the market any more. Things are being democratised, access is being liberated, people are finding stuff. You just need to be really clear and go straight to those people. In the old days, it wasn't like that – you had to walk into a shop, and they might have chosen to put something on a shelf, or you'd see an advert in a magazine – so slow and so indirect. Now, it's all direct.’

RISING What has turned out to be the most important thing, with hindsight?

SM ‘Have a really big idea, have a really big ambition and just keep going after it. That's by far the most important thing for me, and that's what Rapha has always been about. Second to that would be: do your customer insight. You need to know your customers, you need to be all over them, you need to know how they think and feel so you can predict where they'll want to go next, before they do.’

WHAT NEXT? If you’ve ever wondered what Tokyo, New York or Milan look like by bike then you could do worse than check out the series of Rapha Rides films on the brand’s site…