James Symes, Founder of Bike Club

S1 Ep8: James Symes, Founder of Bike Club Podcast Transcript

Chris: Have you ever wondered how the businesses you know, and love have evolved? What inspired the founders to create them, what chances do they take, and what mistakes they make along the way?

Hi, I’m Chris, the CEO of Uncommon, a company that creates exceptional spaces for work. In each episode of Alive With Possibilities, I get to sit down with a different business leader whom I admire and discuss the journey they’ve been on.

In this episode, I’m joined by James Symes. James is someone who’s pretty much done it all. He stood for Parliament in his 20s, he’s had a career in accounting, raised numerous rounds of funding, and he fancies himself as a bit of a sportsman.

He founded Bike Club because it’s a business where he can ultimately impact people’s lives. I’ll be asking him how he arrived at the idea, the challenges he’s faced, and what he sees as his lasting legacy.

I’ve known James for a few years as he’s been a member of Uncommon, so I’ve come down to the Borough office to have a chat.

First up, can you tell me more about Bike Club, and how it actually works?

James: Bike Club offers subscription kids’ bikes which you exchange as your children grow or in Germany, Kinderfahrrader. But mainly, we operate in the UK and our website is www.bikeclub.com.

It’s a super simple process. You can choose anything from a balanced bike all the way up to an adult bike. We don’t do too many of those, but it’s mainly for kids between the ages of about 3 to 12-years-old.

You select a bike, choose your colour, put their sizing, we will tell you how much that’s going to be a month. You go through the checkout process, then effectively, you sign up to Bike Club, and we lend bikes across the UK and in Germany, and soon to be in Spain.

Chris: And how many members does the Bike Club have?

James: About 60,000 plus happy members. Now, in the middle of a month, it’s always kind of hard to tell you how many exactly because … closer that’s been which is super exciting.

Chris: Bike Club at the moment clearly focused on providing children with a subscription model, how do you see this kind of growing?

James: This market’s really nice because it’s a secondary consideration for a lot of the main retailers. Whereas places like e-bikes and core adult bikes, they are kind of often the primary bread and butter. So, it’s much more competitive and price competitive as a result.

For us, we know what we do works, but it’s about getting more scale. And to get more scale, we want to grow the total addressable market. And so, to do that, we want to add on a couple of extra products like bike trailers, maybe bike kids’ seats, a bit more parent bike and a bit more junior bike, that sort of stuff.

But also, open up in more countries, and that’s the core focus of the business. So, we want to really open up across the DACH region. That’s Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Benelux, France, Spain or the Iberian Peninsula, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and the UK. That’s sort of the area that we want to be in.

Chris: Do you ever worry that the big guys in cycling might say, “Right, we are going to do all of this?”

James: Not so much because we’re a circular economy product. You have something called linear locking. I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of reasons why people don’t do something, not least, it’s a risk.

But the thing about linear locking is that if you are Halfords and you’re making about 60 to a hundred million pounds a year of revenue out of kids’ bikes, then you start renting them out, what we do (which is kind of like a 36-month process), you’re going to be cutting up revenue from 60 to a hundred million to 20 to 33 million.

And that’s quite upsetting If you are an investor in Halfords. You know that’s going to have to be communicated effectively to the market. And I don’t think that you necessarily want to do that when you’ve got plenty of other bits and pieces you want to talk about with the market.

I know that’s a listed company you’re talking about, but that kind of cascades all the way down to sort of every other size of business.

The circular economy is not one you just jump into and just get on with it. We are probably the biggest bike refurbisher in Europe. We refurbish about 25,000 to 30,000 bikes a year, and that’s a reasonably big operation, and to make that work you need to be quite focused on it.

It’s something that I could see them joining, but also, I don’t see them doing it until a bit later on until the market’s a bit more developed. And then arguably, it’s quite helpful because then they add credibility and growth to the market, and then as a result, in fact we might find it a bit easier to grow.

Because bear in mind we spent a lot of money advertising our business just to tell people that we even exist. Whereas if people knew we existed and we already had a bit of a market position, it potentially would be easier for us.

Chris: That’s where you are now. Can you take me back to the beginning and tell me how you came up with this concept? I understand that you also stood for Parliament along the way, talk me through that.

James: I’ll probably start going back to school days. I was always quite interested in commerce. And at the time, Philip Green was trying to take over M&S, and there’s this big retail M&A deal.

And that really piqued my interest, and I think since then, business and being part of business has always been a sort of big part of my life. Started realising that I wanted to have more impact with my career. I’d actually just finished reading Tony Blair’s book and realised that politicians have an enormous impact on the societies that they govern.

And so, I worked my way through Conservative Party, ended up standing for parliament in 2015. I sort of realised that this perhaps wasn’t for me totally, and that was when I started thinking about entrepreneurism.

I had recently got reengaged with cycling and was getting really seriously back into that, sort of doing triathlons, and all of that sort of stuff. And that’s when I came up with this idea of a bike club, like a super car club but for bikes.

So, you’d sort of be able to get entry level bikes and expensive bikes and all that sort of stuff, and kind of wrote out a business plan on that and tested out a few people, and quickly realised that it’s got a really big flaw in it, and that passion as a service is just not that attractive to people because people want to own their golf clubs, they want to own their Ferraris, their sports cars, all that sort of stuff. And they want to own their expensive road bikes. That’s kind of what they want to do.

Going back to the drawing board, again, a bit deflated, and I was just looking through the Mintel report, just realised just how big the market for kids’ bikes was in terms of volume.

And actually, all the reading I was doing at the time suggested if you want to do a B2C startup, you need to go after enormous markets where you don’t need to target too much, and you can actually just sort of spray and pray. I think I saw it within the kids’ bike market. And it kind of just made sense. Pay monthly kids bikes exchange as they grow, and that’s how it really started.

And then built the model, went to a bike show and managed to persuade one supplier out of about 50 to actually sell me some bikes, which is hilarious given that we’ve subsequently become a really big buyer of kids bikes off that one supplier and a couple of others who also said no to us at the time.

Ended up having seven kids’ bikes sitting in my two bed flat in Balham, put together a website with my co-founder, and got renting those kids’ bikes out. And it just sort of worked quite well. And then we started finding that there was just a lot more demand than we expected.

And the thing kind of got out of control in a way. And actually, at the time, it was like that’s awesome, that’s really, really cool. But hold on, “We got to buy all these bikes, we’re going to run out of money, and we’re in this flat in Balham.”

Probably, did run out of money, and I re-mortgaged the flat, and borrowed some money from friends and family, and did everything you possibly could to sort of try and make the whole thing keep going. But the one thing I couldn’t do was quit my job.

Chris: So, what on earth did you do next?

James: My boss had just been promoted to be the chairman of KPMG and he was like, “I know you’re going to quit for this kid’s bike thing, but you shouldn’t do that. Come and have a promotion and come work for me for 18 months.”

And then in 2019, I was able to leave and start doing a bike club full time, and that was when we raised our first money from Mike Balfour, the founder of Fitness First. He’s sort of one of my key mentors and has been a massively transformative influence on business and my life, really helping us understand how to scale this type of business.

And then that’s when I suppose Philip Green sort of comes back into my life in a slightly strange way. We then ended up doing what we call our series A raise with KX Capital Partners, and one of their financiers behind that is very, very close to Philip Green.

And so, it’s sort of strange how my business life has kind of come full circle from reading the FT with my dad about Philip Green trying to take over M&S, to now working indirectly with Philip Green on my own business, which is a bit strange. Here we are, 60 odd thousand bikes later, which is very exciting for us.

Chris: It’s certainly a lot of bikes and it’s certainly a diverse route or a meandering route to where you are today. Where do you think your toughest moments have been?

James: I think the toughest points I’ve had in my career is when I potentially haven’t been brave enough, and haven’t taken some of the bigger decisions.

You can’t really regret things, but you know I think there’s times when I just think I could have made a better, quality decision at that point, and I wouldn’t have had to spend six months doing that other thing, and then have got here now.

Chris: I found at times I’m sitting there as perhaps these people do know a lot more, therefore, I must listen when your gut might be telling you something else.

James: When I worked for Bill Michael at KPMG, he had this amazing ability to be able to select the advice he listened to based on the source of the advice. So, he was incredibly respectful of someone when they came in, they’re like, “I’m an expert of people,” or something like that.

And then maybe the conversation would sort of go into where some team should grow or something like that, and this person might try and chip in with some piece of advice, and Bill would pretty quickly shut these people down.

Perhaps not in a style I would appreciate, but he would very quickly sort of just say, “I’m just not listening to what you’re telling me because you are not able to advise me on that. You advise me on 25 years’ worth of people’s experience. You don’t know whether you know we should be growing some international team in some part of the business somewhere.”

And I think that that’s where it is easy to make mistakes where you take people you have a lot of respect for, and you start taking advice off them in areas where they don’t actually really know anything.

Then I think you get a bit wonky because you’ve got in your head a delineation between the fact that this person knows a lot about maybe yourself, it’s that your parents or something along those lines. But they might not know anything about career decisions in London or career decisions in entrepreneurism or fundraising or anything along those lines.

So, just because your parents are telling you, “I think it’s really high risk, you’re trying to raise all this money for this business and quitting your job,” they probably don’t know anything about that.

Whereas actually another entrepreneur could probably give you decent advice on your business plan and whether you are ready to do that fundraise, and is this the right thing to be doing? If I think about mistakes and challenges, that’s where I’ve got it wrong.

In the past, it’s where you go and do something based on you talking to your group of your mates or whoever, your advisors, and actually you probably just shouldn’t have been listening to them. You probably should have just gone with the people who actually knew something about the subject you were looking into.

Chris: I think that’s probably why you’ve been building this senior management team of late, trying to then surround yourself with those people that can give you those different viewpoints that you interact with on certain topics.

I think you start off in a business cycle or a business journey because you have less of those voices, or you have different voices, or they’re very close voices to you. It does something different, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

James: Building a team around you of experts who can help you build and grow and advise on a business and do is transformational. It’s the most valuable investment we’ve ever made as a business, and it’s really changed the way this business has operated and improved things.

It’s very easy when you’re going through this to try, and I suppose economise on what you are putting together as a team, but actually, that just comes out in the results really quickly, and it’s really key to make sure you can bring people together.

And I would say that’s one of the key skills an entrepreneur needs to have. It’s not only corralling capital into a project and economic opportunity, but it’s also corralling resources and people, and that sort of thing.

And it’s always horrible talking about people as resources but they kind of are but that’s not how you should think about it, and that’s not the team you’re trying to build and that’s the reality.

You’ve got to think about how you inspire and persuade and bring people together and trust you, that this is a good idea for them to spend what you hope is going to be a reasonable portion of their life: 3, 4, 5 years.

Which I would say is a reasonable portion of anyone’s life to come and work on, pay monthly kids’ bikes, exchange as children grow, build this into the biggest bike rental business in the world or Europe and let’s get to a million members, that sort of thing. And they’ve got to believe that that’s what we could do.

And I think our team does believe that. That’s a really exciting thing. And I suppose I try and monitor that the whole time, there are people still believing that this is what we’re going to be doing and actually this is where we’re going to be, and we’re going to move forward. You have to stay positive on that front.

Chris: So, James listening to your story today, it really is a remarkable one. Do you ever actually stop and celebrate your successes?

James: I don’t want to sound coy, but I often find that after a deal or something like that, I don’t have the greatest need to go nuts if you see what I mean. It’s often at a slightly different time.

Like the rental of our 5000th bike in Germany, I actually haven’t celebrated that yet, but it’s a fact that has happened, and it’s passed and it’s like whoa, that was way ahead of business plan, and it’s a massive achievement to see Bike Club thriving in Europe and growing that fast.

Practically, I see champagne as a good way to celebrate things. I do love a good party and I do enjoy that. I just don’t necessarily like celebrating everything.

Chris: It’s a really interesting topic because I know I do it badly and I do it badly also with the team. Like you are always moving on to the next thing because you’ve already kind of semi-processed that this thing’s happening or say, it’s a deal that’s going on like you’ve heard about the deal for the first time, then it’s taking a while to get the deal done.

But there probably comes a moment where you are, I don’t know, 20% towards the end or it’s happening within the two weeks. You’ve kind of processed that this will happen, then it happens, and you thought that it’s happened.

So, it’s a challenging thing to then stop and force yourself to stop and really enjoy that moment. For us, we got a new building coming and it’s the same thing, like I won’t enjoy that.

James: Yours is so much more physical as well. It’s a freaking beautiful new building and I’ve sat in an Uncommon office and they’re amazing. But yeah, that’s weird actually because thinking about it, you walk into a new building, all the pain and hard work of that project management and executing and fitting out and all that stuff, I’m sure that goes wrong all the time, and yet you still struggle, that’s really interesting.

Because whereas ours is kind of, “Oh, look at our numbers, say this great, isn’t that fun?” You know it’s like you do see a Bike Club bike around and if you know what you’re looking for, you can spot them.

There’s a certain sticker at a certain place, and I weirdly walk through the park looking at kids’ bikes, which is kind of a bit odd, and probably could get me in trouble at some point.

Usually, I’m with my own kids though, so don’t let that … it’s okay, that’s cool. But I’ve never seen like oh 10,000 members. And in fact, we did do a content day once, a two-day content day with a bunch of members.

I’ve done pitches, I’ve done all this stuff, I’ve spoken in front of thousands of people before, and I’ve never been as nervous as that day, turning up to a content day with a bunch of customers and it was just like, “What? How am I so nervous?” Get there, meet these members as we call them. That was a really amazing day.

In fact, that was probably the best days I’ve ever had at work because you actually meet these people who you’ve had an impact on their life and you’re like, “Whoa, how have I done that?”

Chris: Running a business like this must be totally full on. What do you actually do to relax?

James: I keep getting told to watch TV by my mentor, Mike. Sit down and watch some TV for God’s sake. And actually, I am a big reader, and that comes in sort of three forms I would say: the news, the periodicals if you like, The Economist, The Spectator, and then also read books, business books, and then also read some absolute Tosh science fiction stuff.

Why is that important? Because I think reading is a hugely valuable way to acquire and build knowledge, at least for me I find that. I find it’s been really useful to learn from either what’s going on in the world and that sort of topical stuff or what are sort of deep studies and concepts that have been looked at.

And then I think the other thing for me is when I was at school, I remember I made friends with this guy and it was that sort of teenage boy friendship where you were like, “Oh, good to see you at the end of summertime. See you next year sort of thing.” And we just kind of didn’t really stay in touch over the summer holidays.

And then I came back to school in September for second year, and this boy had died over the summer holidays, that was a massive tragedy. Since that point, I’ve always had a slightly different attitude towards life around the fact that it is short, and tragedies do happen.

If you want to have an impact, and you want to move forward, there’s kind of no time like today. And so, there’s this sort of constant drive to spend my time doing productive things.

Chris: Seems a pivotal moment in your life that’s probably added to the drive that you have, that you clearly have. Do you think you get the right kind of work life balance from it, or do you think that kind of drive makes it all kind of all-consuming for you?

James: In my 20s, I probably had some very daft concepts on work-life balance, including phrases such as you can sleep when you are dead, and all sorts of daft rubbish like that.

I think the best thing to do to sort out your work-life balance is to have kids (I’ve got three of them). The phrase I often think about is that the only people who will remember that you worked late are your children, and that is about it. I think it’s been hugely transformational from your father.

Chris: If you kind of fast forward to look, you pick a time horizon, what do you think the kind of legacy that James will leave behind? Have you ever thought about it? Does it matter to you?

James: I probably don’t feel successful enough to be worrying about legacies at this point, if you see what I mean. I really want Bike Club to grow into being one of those fever tree star success stories of the British economy.

I think for me, I would love to get involved with the professional side of the sport, so being able to sponsor a cycling team would be very cool. The business has got to be about probably a hundred times bigger than it is today before we could do that. But still, that’d be a pretty exciting thing to be part of and leave a legacy.

And I think for me, my children’s generation will thank us for trying to support, develop businesses that are trying to fundamentally change the way the economy’s working that allows us to preserve our way of life going forwards.

And that’s what frustrates me because I’m a conservative, I believe in gradual change, not revolution and all this sort of stuff. And some of that stuff gets quite unfashionable.

And I get really frustrated when people of the same sort of political background as me don’t get the impact economy. You are like, “Well no, no this is the conservative economy, I’m trying to build an economy that allows us to preserve our way of life, that allows us to have gradual change as opposed to burning tons of oil and sticking our heads in the ground and saying nothing’s happening: “The heatwave in Europe, they’re nothing to do with climate change. No, the sea’s not rising, it’s all going to be fine.”

And then having to go right, now we’ve got to change everything because we’ve got a massive water refugee crisis, London’s about to be underwater, all of this sort of stuff.

It’s like actually, what we could do is if we can think of ways like sustainable air fuel and circular economy and consumer goods, and more wind power and solar power (maybe wait for unpopular opinion), nuclear power, this sort of stuff — we could perhaps maintain this way of living and we could give that to our next generation and the next generation after that.

Maybe if we took some difficult decisions now to try and move away from some of the fossil fuel base. I say that from a western European perspective, but generally, life is better for us now than it ever has been. And if I can be part of that (and at the moment, I’m part of that by building this business), that’s the legacy I want to be in.

Chris: So, you talked a lot about reading and how important that is to you. We have the Uncommon bookshelf, so what we ask everyone who joins us to do is bring a book or two and talk about it, and just explain a bit more about why you’d like to leave it with us.

James: The first one, you can’t keep because it’s a limited edition, and it’s not actually in print. I feel I’ve got to plug it in because it’s Mike Balfour’s book, The First 60 years Forward.

So, the story of this book is quite funny. So, Mike’s daughter said, “Look, dad, you’ve got to write down everything that’s happened in your life for your granddaughter so they can one day read it,” and bought him a book, publishing contract sort of thing. You can apparently do this.

Chris: Amazing.

James: So, he’s written his own book, and he has then proudly given it to various people. He’s had a few copies published, and learned more about Mike’s life, including his 15 rules of business, which used to be 20, but he had to edit them down for the book apparently, so yeah.

He is a really inspirational guy. He only started his entrepreneurial journey in his 40s after being fired four times from different jobs, and he worked across the world. He was in Panama in the 70s, which blows my mind.

And he’s met three U.S. presidents in his life. He’s done all sorts of cool stuff and built Fitness First, which is an incredible business. He did it through a lot of the more modern techniques that we now talk about, like company culture that wasn’t really such a big thing in the 90s when he was doing that.

That was a huge thing for him and Fitness First, and just generally, sticking to sort of simple rules that a lot of us do now, and make us read basically. The most commercially available book, which I’m sure everyone’s heard of, is Richard Branson’s book, this is the Losing My Virginity version.

I know he’s republished it a number of times, but that was the original book I read. And I think Richard Branson is such a cliche British entrepreneur to pick, but he does have a more similar background to me than perhaps other entrepreneurs.

I just feel that if I could have even 1% of the success that Richard Branson has had or be able to build that kind of style of organisation, that would be an incredible achievement.

He does sound like someone who’s quite hard to work for. I know he’s fallen out with a few people here and there, but also, someone who is very, very good to work for, really quite an inspirational transformative leader.

Chris: It is a really good book. And the bit that I take from him that people I think really push is that he takes all these massive risks and I think he obviously, clearly does. Like you don’t jump industries like that without there being huge risks.

But I think he does it in a very kind of forensic way. Like he really asks a lot of questions from what I understand from people, he asks so many questions that he is mitigating the risk all the way.

He’s kind of thinking very much like an accountant all the way through, but gets to that point and then goes, “Right, yeah, we’re doing it and going for it.” And I think that’s what sets apart people.

Like once a decision is made, you’ve got to go with that decision, and you’ve got to back it. It doesn’t mean to say you can’t get things wrong and change course, but it’s just for me, you can’t spend life just constantly questioning, you’ve got to make decisions, otherwise you get caught up.

James: Not making a decision is a decision in itself, and when you make a decision, just commit to what you want to do, just get off the damn fence basically. It’s kind of amazing how he gets there.

And he does a lot of things, I think both of us do. Like yeah, I have a notebook with him all the time and that’s something I’ve stolen off him, and try to write everything down and ask questions.

Rarely look through all my notes. My handwriting is pretty illegible but I still find writing things down is very useful for recall and holding onto knowledge and information.

Chris: Very true. If you can leave the listeners with one key takeaway or piece of advice, would it be that or would it be something else?

James: I’m going to go back to this book, this is Mike’s book. It has 15 rules in it, and they’re all absolutely cracking. I’m going to use two of them. First one focuses on defining the problem, and then often the solutions are easy.

It is very, very easy when you’re faced with a problem to start thinking of solutions, but actually, often you need to analyse the problem a little bit more. And then once you fully understand the problem (actually Mike is sometimes annoyingly right), that solution suddenly looks very, very easy.

And the other one is a bit more basic, which is dress and act the part. I always love that bit of advice. I see that as a less posh way of saying visualisation. I think when you actually can visualise yourself and you make yourself feel like you’re trying to do this — you want to be the CEO of a big business or you want to be the founder who’s raised all this money, or you want to be, I don’t know, the best marketing executive (using very vacuous phrases here) — but I think when you actually get into that and you make yourself dress, and you feel and act that part, people will take you seriously, and they will believe you.

Because humans are fundamentally tribal people. And if someone puts themself forward as, “I am this thing, this role, this is what I can do,” people will be inclined to trust you on that one.

Chris: Thank you very much.

James: Thanks, Chris.

[Music Playing]

Chris: Speaking with James today has really left me with three things worrying around my mind. Firstly, as we mentioned, James had a slow meandering route to where he is today. While that might sound harsh, subconsciously, he was really building all the experience, tools, and safety around him to go ahead and start his own venture.

Secondly, James’s vision to enter the future-proof shared economy space makes so much sense as the space continues to grow and is so needed.

And lastly, I love how James felt comfortable enough to share the story about the passing of a fellow pupil, and how that acts as a daily reminder for him to make something of himself.

I hope listening to this story has inspired you, and if you haven’t already, follow Alive With Possibilities wherever you get your podcasts, as there are different learnings in each and every episode.