it has taken rapha precious little time to be revered as one of the icons of modern cycling, ironic since much of their inspiration has been on the cycling of yesteryear. this has been achived by almost never wavering from their ideals, which appear to have been similar to the ideals of a great many of us across the world. (however there are many of us who would have loved rapha's designers to have advised columbia about their 2009 jersey.) since i have known many of the folk involved with rapha since those early days, it seemed like a nice idea to ask their ceo, simon mottram, about the current state of the union.
it's been five years since you and luke formed rapha, even though the first product didn't make an appearance till later that year. do you allow yourself the odd moment to sit back with a smile on your face?
Absolutely. Although it's very hard work managing a business that's growing very quickly, all that hard work is focused on something we love: road racing. Few people get to combine their work with their passion in life. There are plenty of smiles around Rapha HQ.
will you be having a class re-union with claire?
I hope so. Claire was our first employee and saw the business go from two people in a room above a shop in Camden to 16 full time staff and thousands of customers. We'll definitely open a bottle or two with her.
is your (collective) perception that you've become better at it?
When we started we had plenty of marketing and branding expertise, but no hands on experience of garment production or direct retail. We had to learn very quickly and are still finding our way. We're certainly better at product sourcing and retail operations than we were in 2004. Hopefully our customers would say that we're still pretty good at marketing too.
what exactly are the roles you and luke have within rapha today, and have those changed substantially over the course of your first half-decade?
In early 2004 Luke and I did everything between us. It was extremely hands-on. Every piece of copy, design, accounting, customer email or phone call was handled by one of us. We now have talented specialists doing most of the detail, but Luke still oversees and directs every point at which the customer touches Rapha. I try and keep the growing business profitable and focused on our plan, as well as co-ordinating our operations in the USA and Japan.
how much input do you get from your staff and/or customers?
A lot. Everyone at Rapha in the UK and US rides a bike to work. We have a very passionate group of people and we encourage their input on products, marketing and the way we operate. For me, one of the most surprising and satisfying features of our business has been the commitment so many of our customers have shown to Rapha. We sent out a ten minute online survey last year and had a 75% response rate within 24 hours. I've never seen brand engagement like that in my career. It's such an advantage to be a direct retailer, with personal relationships with the people buying and using the things we make.
how much of what has happened with rapha over those five years has been part of a masterplan for world domination?
We don't have a plan for world domination, but we have always had a very clear business plan. I'm pleased to say that Rapha today is remarkably similar to the original plan I prepared in 2003. Our customers, products and reputation are just where we hoped they would be. We set out to build something that was uniquely appealing to a very focused group of road riders, people like ourselves. That seems to have worked very well.
are there any features that were unplanned, but a reaction to the way things were going at the time?
Well, creating and publishing a quarterly magazine (Rouleur) wasn't part of the original plan, but came from conversations between Guy and me in 2005. I didn't expect it to become so succesful and influential, so quickly. We always saw Japan as an opportunity but didn't predict the sales growth we've had there in the last year.
was america always on the hit list?
It was. As the largest cycling market in the world, it was always key. We originally expected to focus on Continental Europe more than we have done to date. The US has been our primary focus for the last twelve months.
and the rapha continental?
We always wanted to connect Rapha to other passionate road riders by writing about and photographing the epic riding and stories that are core to our love of the sport. I think the features on our web site, our brochures and Ben Ingham's wonderful photography have done that very well. The idea for the Rapha Continental came out of the blue, in an email to me from Daniel Pasley in Portland. It intrigued us and seemed the perfect US interpretation of the great riding we enjoy in Europe. I think it perfectly captures the spirit at the heart of Rapha: the adventure and personal fulfilment that comes from pushing yourself on long, hard rides in beautiful scenery.
i don't mind admitting that i'm hooked on the rapha continental, eagerly awaiting the e-mail on a thursday that will alert me to another chapter in this continuing happiness. has it had the desired effect (whatever that is/was)?
So far, the Rapha Continental has built a good following of committed fans. There is a body of work online that is quite impressive already. Our plan for this year is to spread word of the programme much more broadly, especially in the US. We are getting great product feedback from the testing that the Rapha Continental riders do and think the rides can showcase Rapha products even better.
what part does rouleur play in all this?
We created Rouleur with Guy Andrews to be the most beautiful cycling magazine in the World and hope it will become a very successful specialist publishing business.
you always said that the reason you started rapha was because you couldn't find the style or quality of clothing that you wanted to wear on the bike. given the number of cycle clothing firms that the world seems to support, do you think there could still be another simon mottram lurking out there in the wings thinking the same thing today?
I'm sure there is. We've been pretty successful at promoting one style and idea of what cycling clothes and accessories should be like. With the growth in cycling and the proliferation of cycling tribes and bike types, there are plenty of opportunities to offer something different and more suited to a particular group or attitude. Just look at the Fixed wheel culture that's spread from San Francisco, New York and London to most major cities. There are very few really strong brands for that scene. For commuter cyclists it's even worse. Surely they don't actually want to wear day-glo Altura and SPD trainers?
rapha would appear to have achieved their pre-eminence in the firmament with very little emphasis on press advertising. how have you managed this?
We don't believe in shouting about what we do. Our customers see through that kind of crude advertising. We prefer to create products and stories about the things we like, then rely on publicity and word of mouth to spread the message for us. In many ways this is harder and takes longer than conventional advertising, but I'm convinced it creates stronger and more long-lasting brands.
are you surprised that rapha seems to have acquired a fanatical fan base, similar to that enjoyed by some of the world's more prominent cycle manufacturers and even riders?
It was always the plan, but it still amazes and delights me every day.
the number of folks working at perren street has increased dramatically over the past two years. has that personally meant more concentration on management than on progress?
We're pretty ambitious and can't afford to just manage what we have. Rapha grew by 80% in 2008, so we have to do both things at once: manage the business better, while also driving growth very aggressively.
the rate of development has seemingly been frantic through 2008, with a regular stream of e-mails announcing new product. can you sustain this level of output? is there a danger that it will become the expected norm amongst your customers?
The exhausted faces at Perren Street would suggest we need to slow down! We do plan to reduce the rate of growth in our product range (which now has 45 products) this year and next. However, we still need to offer exciting new products and limited editions to keep our most active customers interested.
has the 'it costs how much?' tag subsided these days?
Quite a lot. We still manage to cause controversy every season and in new markets overseas the reaction is often like that. But in the UK and US, people seem largely to accept that Rapha is expensive but worth it. As more people experience our product quality and service first hand (and as other brands push their prices up), the word gets around that Rapha isn't some sort of marketing conspiracy, but is actually in love with the sport and honouring it pretty well. The Rapha Condor team has helped with that too.
without giving too much away, how much further can you go in this current direction? is there a major twist or turn that we should expect soon?
No major twists or turns. We're still small and the road cycling market is growing strongly. As you have shown brilliantly on the Washing Machine Post, the sport of road racing has so many amazing stories to tell, heroes to celebrate and desperately needed products, that we still have plenty to go for.
are there any unannounced products that you could tease us with at the moment?
Well, we have a number of products for urban riding launching this year, that raise the bar in quality and style even further and will raise some eyebrows. We're also working on some more 'race-ready' kit, developed on the back of our pro team.
how many of you from the office still go out on the wednesday morning ride? is this a part of what might be termed 'keeping it real'?
The Wednesday rides are an institution that I really care about. But, as we are all spread across London, two rides tend to happen, one to the East (out to Essex) and one to the North and West (Herts and the Chilterns). 8-10 of us regularly head out at 8 on Wednesday mornings.
for me at least, rapha has always been a very approachable entity - can you keep it this way as things become more corporate? do you think this comes down to the quality of staff you employ?
Exactly right. We should always be approachable.
is it all just as much fun today as it was five years ago?
Definitely. The expression 'living the dream' is a bit nauseating, but it's completely appropriate. There can't be many dreams as good as this one!..........................................................................................................................................................................................................