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"I want cycling to be the most popular sport in the world." Rapha CEO Simon Mottram is a man with big ideas

New major investors mean the future’s bright for high-end cycling wear brand Rapha, but it hasn’t always been easy. CEO and founder Simon Mottram reflects on the journey so far

I want cycling to be the most popular sport in the world,” says Simon Mottram, who founded cycling brand Rapha in 2004. “I want it to be ten pages at the back of the newspaper, not one column. I want millions of people to do it because it’s so brilliant. That’s the reason we do all this stuff.”

The stuff in question – which includes making high-end cycling kit for amateurs and the pro peloton, opening clubhouses around the world, and creating luxury cycling trips – has made the London-based brand into one of the standout success stories in cycling, culminating in private equity firm RZC Investments taking a £200m majority stake in the business in August.

We speak to Mottram about what RZC’s involvement means for the business, his early knockbacks, and why someone who loves another sport as much as he loves cycling could create a Rapha of their own.

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On building the brand around passion

I couldn’t have started this brand, and this business couldn’t have been built, if it had been set up by someone with just a spreadsheet and a business plan. The whole thing about Rapha is that it’s based on that passion, and that’s why we’re very singular – we’re not going to do BMX, we’re not going to do skiing, we’re not going to do other sports because this is a thing we all love, and I spend all my time making sure everyone in the company loves it, too.

Hopefully you feel it as you walk through the office – this isn’t just people following spreadsheets, there’s a reason behind it. That’s the thing we’ll fall back on if things get difficult or challenges come along, and it’s the thing we’ll always rely on; that we really love what we do and we love this sport, and so do our customers. Everything else falls into place around that.

On keeping focus while growing the brand

If what you do is always good quality and good value for money – not low priced, but good value – that’s a pretty essential building block. If you start fleecing people or letting your standards go because you’re getting bigger, then that’s a problem.

It’s a classic brand management challenge: how do you retain your brand cachet while you reach more people? I love that challenge; I find it instinctive and natural in my head, though I’m sure my team – who have to implement it – find it harder. I think the momentum and excitement of growth is not to be sniffed at. It’s easy to think that staying the same size and keeping it small and perfect is nirvana, but I actually don’t think that’s right – you become stale and myopic and there’s real benefit that comes from the dynamism of growth.

I think cycling is a cut above other sports because it has this multifaceted appeal, and it’s relevant every day

On getting the message across at the start

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I wrote the business plan in 2002, and between then and 2003 I was looking for funding. Back then, if you’d described cycling as this cool sport, immediately you’d lose 95% of people, because it wasn’t. But that’s exactly what I was saying, and I was also telling them we could reach cyclists and sell them something more expensive than anyone else, which lost a few more people. I’d explain that people would buy this stuff from catalogues or online – this was just after boo.com had crashed and internet retail hadn’t taken off yet – that it would be international, and that I had no experience of garments, e-commerce or retail. I was a brand guy.

There were so many reasons people didn’t invest back then – the main one being that cycling just didn’t have the visibility. Most people said, “You sound like you’re very passionate, you’ve got some brand skills and you’re financially literate, so good for you – but it’s too risky.” And I don’t blame them at all. Now it’s different. “Oh, it’s a cycling business?” Tick. But now the challenge is whether it’s distinctive, and whether you can carve out a reputation in a very congested market.

I never really imagined the business would reach the scale it has now. I thought it might get to £5m-20m turnover, and that would have made it pretty significant, but the fact that we’re nearly four times that now is amazing. But actually, now the cycling boom has happened, we’ve got so much potential to go further.

On why there is a lot of opportunity for others to ‘do a Rapha’

I think cycling is a cut above other sports because it has this multifaceted appeal, and it’s relevant every day – most other sports are games, things you do as an abstract thing, whereas cycling can be an inherent and intrinsic part of your day. You don’t ski or climb mountains every day, and even if you play football every day it’s compartmentalised. The connection with cycling is much more profound, I think, but I do think you could do a Rapha in lots of other sports – someone could do it, someone who cared about the sport and surrounded themselves with people who cared too, and who really went for it. I just wouldn’t have the first idea how to do that.

On what the £200m investment by RZC will mean for the brand

RZC is backing our five-year business plan, which includes a number of strategic initiatives and areas of growth. The backing doesn’t accelerate any of these, per se, but it does give us a lot more confidence that we can now build our business in the right way and pursue opportunities with the solid backing of our new shareholder. During the first ten years of Rapha, cash was often tight and we would have to work extremely hard to build enough ‘head room’ in the business. The business feels much more solid now.

We were looking for investors who understood Rapha and who backed our strategy and plan. They needed to ‘get it’ and be willing to invest for the medium to long term, without pulling our business model apart or stretching our brand too far. The fact that the guys behind RZC are passionate cyclists was an added extra, and a very welcome one.