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SIMON MOTTRAM FreshBritain | Glenn Kitson | Sam Green
Simon Mottram is the founder of trailblazing cycling brand Rapha. Combining his passion for two wheels with his professional background
he launched Rapha in the summer of 2004. The brand proved to be an instant hit and has gone from strength to strength in the years since.
Glenn Kitson spoke to Simon in an attempt to get the inside track on Rapha.
PART [1/3]

GLENN KITSON: Can you tell me a little bit about your

SIMON MOTTRAM: Yes, my name is Simon Mottram and I am
chief executive and founder of Rapha. Before doing this I spent 15
years as a brand and marketing consultant. Before that, years
and years ago I was a chartered accountant and I took the unusual
step from this into design and marketing because that was what I
was always interested in. I managed to make this work for me,
so I had a lot of experience of advising brands on development
and strategy etc… particularly luxury brands.

GK: Which brands were these?

SM: I did a lot of work for high-end drinks and high-end car
brands, Aston Martin and Jaguar. This was 15-20 years ago. I
also did some work for Chanel and Burberry, brand evaluations
for those guys.

GK: So you understand this market then?

SM: I lived in that world a little bit and I enjoyed that world. I
couldn’t really afford to be that big a participant in it but if you think
back ten years ago it was pretty exciting and there were lots of
interesting things being done. There was lots of talking regarding
the direction that the luxury market would go, from being simply
expensive and exclusive to making it fit with this democratised
‘internet world’. That is exactly where we (Rapha) fit. There are a
number of brands, such as Apple even, that are kind of luxury in
the sense that they are beautiful and curated and the product is
incredibly well thought through. They are pretty exclusive and yet
we all have them. So the question was how do you manage such
‘mass luxury’. I did a lot of work around these things and the
idea of Rapha came from me being a customer and being a rider.
I would go to my local bike shop and walk in with my wallet open
with the intention of buying something. I wouldn’t want to buy a bike
every week so I'd look for a cap or something that would connect
me with the sport and I would walk away with money in my wallet
because what was on offer was really horrible. It was bad quality,
it was positioned badly, nothing was ‘talking’ to me.

It became a huge frustration and an obsession to find a better
way of doing it. What I realised was that there was a gap in the
market for people like me who were a little bit older, a bit
discerning and had money to spend on something authentic and
wanted a better quality product. People like me wanted something
super focused and not just for everybody. I spent a lot of time
travelling the world with my work and talking to people about bikes
and realised that there might be a few more people like me out
there and this is what Rapha became eventually. A market
opportunity that I saw and a personal passion mixed with
professional expertise.

GK: So having identified what you wanted to do, how easy was it
to get the ball rolling?

SM: I knew I was OK at doing the branding sort of thing but I didn’t
know anything about making products. I knew nothing about online
retail either. Back in 2000–2001 there wasn’t much online garment
retail anyway, so all the basic bits were missing but the stuff about
building a brand I was good at.

GK: So how did you deal with the online ‘democratisation of the
luxury market’?

SM: Well, I’m not sure that we really have concluded that yet. I
think it’s a constant journey that we're on, certainly as a brand
that has started with nothing. We are on that journey because for
the first few years of our time we sold a very little amount and
there was only a certain amount of people who could get it. We
sold out all of the time and although this probably helped build the
brand, you shouldn’t really sell out, and we try not to these days
[laughs]. When you’re a young brand and you are growing quite
quickly you do tend to sell out and the people who bought it are
the early adopters, the style leaders, the people who are first in
the group that see something new. So there was an amazing
exclusivity about it, as you just couldn’t get it. People had heard
about it but didn’t really know about it. Now we are eight years
old and in London you see it in New York, in San Francisco, in
Tokyo it has presence. So Rapha is now much better known and
we are obviously trying to grow. We are not attempting to be
purposely tiny though. We are happy to grow but then the question
becomes 'how do you keep it special?'

GK: It’s about having a strong opinion?

SM: Yes, definitely!
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PART [2/3]

GK: So as you developed the brand, how did the product develop?

SM: Well, the brand came first and continues to come first.
The whole idea about Rapha is about the sport and how tough
it is and how beautiful it is and the experience of it.

You know as a rider that the experience of riding a racing bike
quickly over long distances, over difficult terrain that is so
incredibly positive and life affirming and invigorating. For me
the greatest moments of my life outside family stuff is those
moments on a bike when you’re probably a kilometer from the
top of a climb, not when you’re at the top because that’s when
it’s over, when you’re almost there but you’re not sure and you
think you just might make it. For me it's nirvana. If only you
could bottle that up! It is a brilliant sport yet most people
think it is geeky and laugh at you when you walk into the office
in cycling shoes.

GK: I get called a social worker when they see me with my bike.

SM: “Why can’t you afford a car?” Exactly, you can be the
wealthiest person in the world and still ride a bike. Attitudes are
changing and it is very exciting that it is taking off the way that
it is.

So, my drive was that this is such an amazing sport and that not
enough people know about it. I would sit there years ago before
the Internet at midnight watching crackly Eurosport coverage of
a second division race in Europe that was amazing but I would
sit on my own like a social leper thinking this is crazy that more
people don’t love this sport. The brand is built all around that
sport and that moment and that experience and how amazing it
is that that sort of suffering gives you.

The guys in cycling are all media trained and hide behind
sunglasses and helmets these days. They have become jockeys
now, by and large. But if you look slightly further back to the
80’s, 70’s, 60’s and 50’s, the human experience, the sense of the
person as a rider was so strong and so charismatic and
appealing. It's a bit like boxing really, the human condition
laid bare through the medium of sport. Over the years of
following the sport I came across such wonderful photography
and paraphernalia and that was how I believed the sport should
sell itself.

This is how it feels and yet I go to the bike shop and all they
have are hideous jerseys, some Japanese technology and some
spotty kid who doesn’t really get it and doesn’t understand why
it is so appealing. So that is where we are with Rapha, this is
where it comes from.

GK: How do you express what Rapha is about through your

SM: With the products, the product is really the sport. I would
think why am I squeezing into a bright yellow Asos jersey that
makes me look like a spaceman and only makes me look good
one day a year when I am tanned and I have lost a bit of weight.
Why am I doing this? This sport should make me look great and
make feel great so lets make a better product.

A lot of our drive is to improve product and to make it better.
Let's make a product that really is truly great to reflect that the
sport is great. The sport is also really hard so don’t just want a
sweaty waterproof jacket, you need a waterproof jacket that also
breathes because it’s really tough. So why compromise? You
should have the best and be offered the best. People don’t think
twice about paying £400 for a skiing jacket or a sailing jacket
because they understand that it’s either freezing cold or that
there are going to be huge waves. Cycling is really tough and yet
everyone was only selling £40-£50 jerseys and therefore they
were crap and made from rubbish materials. Their features
were terrible and not very well thought through. We thought, let's
change all that.

GK: This leads us to production, how did your relationship with
KTC develop?

SM: It came about because when we started, none of us had any
experience of garment manufacture so we used a couple of
agents to handle production and develop and source products
and one of those agents was working with KTC. Initially the idea
for the products came from us.

We would do rough designs and sketches and would work with
the agent to turn them into proper formed specs. They would
take these to the right factories and earn a commission. That’s
now all gone and we don’t use any agents at all. We have a big
in-house team now who do it all for us but initially this was the
only way we could operate as we didn’t know enough about
garment manufacture. We originally approached KTC to make a
key piece of outerwear because these are the guys who make the
best stuff. We had to negotiate as we were very small still and
there was questions regarding minimums, could we get these
guys to make for us?

The boot was definitely on the other foot, not that it is exactly on
our foot now but it is a much more of a partnership than it was
at the start. Initially with all our manufacturers it was a struggle
to get anything made and KTC is high end, so they had high
minimums and required a high deposit. We started slowly but
what we are trying to do at Rapha is for every category to work
with the best manufacturers, best in terms of quality. Cost
comes into it but we are lucky as we have a premium factored
into our price so we can actually go for the best product and
the best production and KTC for a number of reasons fits the bill.

GK: There seems to have been a trend for manufacturing on
these shores over the last few years. KTC doesn't do that.
What's your take on that?

SM: We are keen to be up front and honest about where we make
our products because we have good reason to be. We work with
the best people and I think our customers are very discerning and
intelligent and very interested and care where our stuff is made.
I think it’s important for most people nowadays but our particular
customer is very interested. There is a lot of myth making
regarding Chinese production and equally there’s a lot of truth.
From a political point of view I have as much concern as anybody
but for that matter, I have concerns about the United States too.

As long as the companies we work with are doing the best
possible work to the right standards and ethics then they are the
right people for us and it doesn’t matter whether they are in
China or Mexico or Somerset – if they are the right people then
we want to work with them.
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PART [3/3]

GK: You mentioned the Rapha customer, who is buying your
product, how do you see them?

SM: Well, initially the Rapha consumer was me but I'm getting
a bit old now [laughs]! At the start, the vision of the brand was
very much about the male psyche but now we find ourselves
selling more and more to women so we have had to adapt that
slightly. So that’s quite an interesting journey for us as a brand.

Originally, it was a man between 30 and 50 who had disposable
income. Not the youngest guy on the block but not too old either.
Quite a successful person in aspects of life but also interested
beyond that and passionate about cycling. It was very easy
because I was that person, so any decision about marketing or
product design or service or any aspect of what we do I could
respond visceral as a person. If I liked it we did it or if I didn’t
like it we didn’t and that’s still a lot of what we do. But as I get
older and become more of a part of the industry we have to be
careful. I have to make sure the rest of the team are bringing
some of that knowledge and speak to our customer base to
get more insight from them. It was incredibly liberating that we
could cut through all this. We didn’t need any focus groups or
research stuff because we just knew.

GK: It’s almost focused luxury?

SM: Yes, the focus is part of the model that is most important.
It's never been properly articulated before but it is the fact
that it is premium; it’s the fact that it is direct to the consumer.
I think this is critical because if you care that much about the
sport and your customer does then why would you let anyone
else get in the way? You want a direct relationship with the

GK: Bob Sheard (of FreshBritain) once said that the ‘truth’ of
Rapha is that they have unearthed the romance of cycling?

SM: Yes and I am very happy to talk about romance and the
emotional side of the sport. I think it is very relevant but you
have to be very careful. Romance and romantic is a very
pejorative expression or word isn't it? It can be taken to be not
serious or perhaps not technical and not performance but for
us it is about not making that compromise. We lead first with
emotion. When someone sees the Rapha image it's their heart
talking and not their head but they will also need the
reassurance that the product is good and correct and will fit
well. So, all the rational side is very important but they are
definitely making their purchase decision with their heart.

GK: How do you communicate this with your customer?

SM: Photography is very important. We are a marketing-led
company and there are some components of that which are very
important, one being photography. Right at the beginning a few
people that I know suggested that engaging with photography
would be really powerful, which was very good advice.

Now film is as important, the moving image and sound is again
incredibly powerful at projecting the same idea.

It's about the human being and the human experience, it's not
about the race, it's about what is happening in the person’s
head during the race.
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In sports performance, the brand image is often made up almost entirely focused on the product, understandably so. It's often thought
that a brand must either be simply about a feeling or about a high quality product, rarely both. Rapha has managed to mould these two
concepts, harnessing the allure of cycling, pointing it at those who understand it explicitly. They have filled a gap in the market they
created themselves. Rapha is an uncommon marriage of Knowledge Technology and Craft, aware that the increasingly sophisticated
market demands more than just great product. The consumer needs to have confidence that a brand holds the same values they do.
The secret of Rapha's success is that they are the consumer.