Today, he heads up a multinational business turning over millions. But the one thing that hasn't changed is his love for the sport, as Nick Martindale discovers

There's a long-standing debate about whether entrepreneurs are born or made, by circumstances or other influences they pick up during their lives. The reality is it's probably a combination of the two, with a latent entrepreneurial instinct buried until the right set of circumstances emerge, with the right idea and timing.

This was certainly the case with Simon Mottram, founder of high-end cycling clothing and accessories firm Rapha. He recalls growing up in the capitalist culture of the 1980s, with his father working for a serial entrepreneur, before opting to train as an accountant. "But I wasn't very conventional really because I was the only guy who qualified from Price Waterhouse who went into marketing and design," he says. "Everybody else went either into the City or industry. I was the only accountant who read Design Week and Blueprint magazine. I was always balancing this left and right brain thing."

In the end, it was his love of cycling coupled with his career working as a brand consultant for marketing agencies which helped him find the right channel for his entrepreneurial instincts. He'd always been a keen cyclist, and would commute by bike into London every day, long before the popularity of cycling really took off in the UK.

"I was working in various agencies and getting frustrated by what companies did or didn't do about their brands, and in the meantime I was frustrated with cycling because I'd fallen in love with the sport and I rode a lot abroad and then I'd go to my local bike shop and the products were terrible," he recalls. "It felt like cycling was an old-fashioned, traditional backwater, whereas mountain sports, skiing or surfing had this real swagger and confidence, and they were inspirational lifestyles whereas cycling was quite dowdy.

"It hatched a thought in my mind that there must be a better way, and I'd got to that point in my career where I'd been consulting for around 12 years and was looking for something else. It was a market opportunity which came at just the right time."

It wasn't just the immaturity of the market which made him think there was a genuine business opportunity. Mottram also identified there was very little out there for people such as him, who would be prepared to pay more for a higher-quality item. "At the start of the journey I thought I'd travel around the world and find great products and sell them to consumers over here, but there were no great products," he says. "There was a complete lack of anything that combined performance, quality and style. I realised early on that I was going to have to develop my own."

Gut instinct

There were plenty inside the industry who thought positioning himself at the top end of the market was a risky strategy but Mottram never felt it wouldn't work out. "It was very deliberate because the market at the time was incredibly low quality and fairly low price, so the opportunity was to create something that was more premium. I was sure there were more people like me out there."

The other unconventional step was his vision of selling direct to customers rather than through retailers, particularly as they would be unable to try items on ahead of purchasing. His initial idea when writing the business plan in 2002 was to launch it as a catalogue business but by the time it launched in 2004 it was clear the internet was the channel of the future.

"As I developed the plan it just became clearer that online was developing and that people would buy clothes online," he adds. "We launched with an exhibition called Kings of Pain, which was a month-long event about the Tour de France, full of mementoes, artwork, vintage bikes and jerseys, and in the corner were Rapha products."

The business grew slowly, taking on around eight members of staff in its first two years, working out of one room. "We had to work within our means and with going direct it meant using our own working capital to invest more. It was a really valuable thing to do that because you learn so much about what makes the business work, and how to get products right."

Mottram and his fledgling firm also benefited from the growing popularity of cycling, in an age where investment in the sport saw the start of a period of sustained success for the British cycling team. "It really took off around 2007 when the Tour de France came to London," recalls Mottram. "It was just one of those moments when you realise people in the UK are starting to think cycling is quite interesting." By this point the business was also beginning to gain traction internationally, with the majority of its sales coming from outside the UK.

"The strategy for Rapha was to always go after a niche, but it was a global niche," he says. "The niche was people who were engaged in cycling, and interested in spending money on their passion. If you just looked for those people in one city there might not be that many but there were pockets of those people in every major city. The internet allowed us to reach those very quickly and efficiently."

But by 2010 the business was starting to think about expanding beyond its online remit, looking to take advantage of the popularity of its products overseas. "It was only a matter of time before we decided to do our own physical retailing," he says. "We were always very conscious to try and make it physical, so we'd do rides, pop-up events and exhibitions." The starting point was a series of more formal events in London, New York and Tokyo to trial its clubhouse concept, and the first dedicated outfit opened in Soho in 2012. Today, the business has 16, including Taiwan, Japan and Melbourne.

A further boost to Rapha's reputation was winning the contract to provide Team Sky with its kit in 2013, replacing Adidas, which saw it supplying products worn by the likes of Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. "It was very significant for us and quite a big surprise because we were pretty small at the time," he says. "It definitely helped us to be more renowned for technical products. We'd always done that but we'd tended to downplay technology and performance and focus more on the experience and the aspiration, so people sometimes assumed that we were more style than substance. Working with Sky has changed that, hopefully forever." The contract also helped the business to grow in its European markets, he says.

The arrangement came to an end in 2016, when Rapha decided not to retender for the contract. "It was a massive investment in money and people, so we had to decide whether it was worth throwing the dice again for two or three more years. We felt there would be diminishing returns from that point, so we decided to move on. But it was a very important step for us."

Peak performance

Today, Rapha employs around 400 people, with around half working in offices and half in the clubhouses, and turns over £63 million a year. Inevitably, this means Mottram's own role has changed over time. "It takes a lot more processes and structure than with a start-up with 20 people where I could sit on the same desk as everybody and show them what to do," he admits.

"We've hired some really strong leaders across the different functions of the business and I still drive the business forward, but I spend a lot of my time now on the culture and the top team. I see the culture as my number one responsibility, because if those people who work in the clubhouses or in merchandising or ecommerce don't get what Rapha is and what we're trying to achieve, then there's only so much I can do."

Mottram attributes most of his own success to having a deep understanding of his customer base; something he believes is essential for any business. "If you don't have a deep insight of who your customer is and what they want and why they want it, then doing any consumer-facing business is asking for trouble," he says. "But if you create a business around that customer insight, it works; you just tap into the customer in a way that buying and marketing will never do.

"So many people get put off at each hurdle, whether it's writing a business plan, trying to get investment or coping with the first financial set-back," he adds. "You have to have total confidence and determination to get there, and if you show that passion you'll do it well and people will find you. If you're hedging your bets and are totally analytical and get put off at the first hurdle, you just won't get there."

Mottram has himself had to overcome some significant challenges along the way. Working capital has always been a concern, although trading directly with customers has helped to alleviate this. "It's much easier now because we're a bigger business, but that's definitely been one of the hard things," he says. "Making sure that everybody internally understands where we're going and can follow through on the plans that I throw out there has also been a real challenge." In future, remaining nimble and being able to adapt to change will be a focus as the company expands.

He's also learned a few lessons around recruiting the right staff, particularly in territories outside the UK. "When you start out you're desperate to find somebody who seems to get it, but it took us a few goes to get the right person in the US and Australia. It's one of those accepted wisdoms that it's always better to hire somebody who's more qualified, and I think I've learned that the hard way. You don't always have the money to be able to pay somebody that much but if you can then do, because you're a growing business and the business changes every year."

Unsurprisingly, Mottram has had plenty of approaches from other investors, all of which have so far been rebuffed. "The thought of selling the company is an odd one because it's not only mine anyway," he says. "I sold most of the company before we even launched, so I've been a multi-shareholder since day one. But we're constantly approached by people who are interested in what we do, and as we grow and take on all these interesting opportunities, it's always worth reflecting on whether you have the right strategy and the right finance, so it's something that we would always consider."

One thing he is clear about is that he has no desire to start other businesses, or expand his entrepreneurial empire. "I don't really think of myself as an entrepreneur even though what I've done shows that I am," he says. "I'm definitely not one of those serial entrepreneurs who love setting things up, where it's the journey and the

process that they enjoy. I do enjoy the journey and the process, but I enjoy it particularly because it's around this sport, and this is the thing I want to do. I'm not sitting here with a long list of other things I'm desperate to do."

Making a difference

One thing that he is keen to do, though, is to continue using his passion for cycling to raise money for Ambitious about Autism, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of children and young adults suffering with autism, which is close to his heart having a severely autistic son himself. Each year the company enters a team of people into a bike ride, which has seen it raise over £1 million in the past five years, including taking on the Manchester-to-London bike ride which involves cycling 220 miles in a day.

"One of the things I find quite nice is the comparison you can make between what we do on our bikes, which is ride quite hard and push ourselves, and the lives of people like Oscar who have so many more challenges than any bike ride can have," he says. "That's how the idea of these challenging rides to raise money for autism came about, and that's why we've made them really quite hard." He's also in the process of setting up a Rapha Foundation, which could manage all such initiatives in the future, with a view to doing more of them around the world, and hopes to get this up and running in 2018.

As for the business, Mottram still believes cycling is "under the radar" and has the potential to be the most popular sport in the world. "It's so much more relevant than most sports out there and yet it doesn't get the recognition, so the more the sport can grow the more opportunity there is for Rapha to grow as part of that," he says. "There are large parts of the world that we've not even looked at yet, such as Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and South Africa. Even the markets we're in, we've only just penetrated a certain sector." The business also launched its Core range in 2016, a mid-price range of products to complement its traditional high-end lines, which is part of Mottram's vision of extending the reach of cycling to more people.

Mottram himself estimates he notches up around 8,000km each year on his bike, which he claims helps to "keep him sane". "It is my relaxation as well as my career," he says. "My whole social life revolves around the bike. We don't go to the pub; we go for a bike ride. Just travelling to and from work on a bike keeps my head clear and keeps everything in perspective. It's why I'm so evangelical about it."