Annabel Palmer talks to Sir Chris Hoy: Olympic athlete turned entrepreneur
BRITAIN has caught the cycling bug. Close to 7m people hop on a bike once a month, a rise of 1m in four years. Not only are City professionals now donning full lycra for their daily commutes, but the craze has inspired entrepreneurial flair across London – from UBS Investment Bank’s former deputy head of FX Mark Clarke founding coaching app Trainsmart, to former model Hilary Gilbert co-founding spin studio Boom Cycle in Shoreditch.
And Sir Chris Hoy – six-time Olympic champion – has confessed to an evangelical desire to change our cycling culture. Like Chris Boardman before him, Hoy knew exactly how he would spend his retirement days: by building his own bike brand. HOY Bikes was launched in June this year with Evans Cycles, and its models range in price from £550 for the most basic hybrid, to £1,300 for its top-end road bike. Already, the bikes are exceeding what Hoy thought were “optimistic” sales targets, and he will be bringing out new models next year.
THE ROAD AHEAD
But rewind nine years and Hoy’s situation was very different. Despite a gold medal at Athens in 2004, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics he was earning just £24,000 in Lottery grants, as well as some small sponsorship deals. It was expected that, after London 2012, Hoy could earn upwards of £1m a year through enhanced endorsement deals and appearance fees. It’s not the $9m (£5.56m) deal Usain Bolt reportedly has with Puma, but it would all but guarantee a comfortable retirement.
Hoy, however, had other ideas. The Scot may be hard-wired for sport, but he also has an entrepreneurial streak. The company he set up in 2005 after Athens, Trackstars, had assets of £1.2m in 2012. And at a training camp in Australia in January 2011, Hoy came up with the idea to create his own brand. Despite new bike ranges regularly cropping up in response to the sport’s rising popularity, he was convinced it was a market he could penetrate. Nearly 4m bikes are sold in Britain every year. But with HOY Bikes selling just a few thousand so far, its percentage of the market is still minimal.
Indeed, as James Olsen, product manager at Evans and Hoy’s main contact at the retailer, said in a recent blog: “Every section of the [bike] market is full of choice. So when an opportunity [arose] to work on creating another brand, I was a bit apprehensive. How would we make them stand out? Well, a good name helps. And they don’t come much bigger than HOY.”
GETTING A HANDLE ON THE MARKET
Hoy tries to differentiate his bikes on two levels. First, true to his evangelical mission, his range is specifically designed for young people looking for their first bike, and those wanting to get back into the sport after a long pause. As such, his frames are all aluminium, unlike the full-carbon bikes often ridden by more experienced riders. “I wanted something that wasn’t too elitist, that would help demystify cycling,” he says.
Secondly, HOY Bikes offers a “fit kit” to adapt the bike to each customer’s shape and size. “One of my pet hates is seeing people on bikes with a poorly-adjusted saddle or bars. You hear so many people say they tried cycling for a while, but started to get a sore back, bum or knees. But so often, this is just a problem with set up.”
As such, a five-year collaboration with Evans was an obvious choice. Once the first bike was designed, Hoy approached a number of retailers. But as Britain’s largest bike chain, Evans offered a huge distribution, enabling his range to reach a wide audience. And Evans stocks bikes of all styles and prices, meaning when HOY does expand to track or full-carbon models, it will appeal to the retailer’s existing customer base.
On the flip side, Evans also stocks a variety of other brands, so Hoy has spent many months travelling the country to tell its sales assistants and technicians about his vision. “Hopefully, they will pass on that message to the consumer,” he says.
But with the London Olympics already a distant memory, was there a risk he had missed the boat? “Yes, I could have just given my name and the bikes could have been on the market last summer. And I’m sure that they would have sold very well. But there’s only so long you can pull the wool over people’s eyes. In time, they would have realised it wasn’t a bike I had been involved in or designed.”
SETTING THE WHEELS IN MOTION
Indeed, the man who once spent 30 hours a week in training says he has never been so busy. By August last year, the collaboration with Evans still wasn’t secured. But he is proud of his involvement in this project. “This is my career now, this is what I hope will secure my future. So I have been involved at every stage – the original concept, the design, the components, the geometry, the testing of the bikes, their promotion. While I didn’t physically weld those bikes together, I have made them what they are.” But it has been a big challenge. In track cycling, Hoy in full flight was virtually untouchable. Now, he is back at the bottom rung of the ladder. “It’s hard work – a lot harder than it looks,” he says.
BUMPS ALONG THE WAY
It has also been far more complicated than he initially thought. To give an example, while on a ride in Taiwan (where the bikes are manufactured), he realised one prototype’s break pads weren’t responding properly, forcing him back to the drawing board.
And while the finished product has remained largely faithful to the business plan he drew up in 2011, like any company, HOY Bikes has had to adapt to a changing environment. When Hoy realised the bikes’ full potential, he knew he could be more ambitious with the range. Already, he is looking beyond bikes to accessories and clothing. And while he realises his brand will need to be established first – as well as develop a higher-end carbon bike – he hasn’t ruled out teaming up with athletes, like Boardman has done with the Brownlees.
In addition, he has devoted hours and hours to riding other bikes on the market to compare, contrast, and see how he could improve his models. “Business is like sport: you look at the people who are doing well, you take elements of that, and you try to improve it,” he says.
But while this venture could take up every hour or every day, he is currently doing promotional work for other sponsors, charity events, and he has roles as ambassador for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and as mentor for the Scottish team. This juggling act has been made easier by the fact that first, unlike many entrepreneurs, Hoy has financial security (although, of course, it has taken years of hard work to get that capital in the bank). And secondly, he has a wide support team, headed by Olsen and Evans product specialist Joel Natale.
So what advice would our national treasure give to budding entrepreneurs? “Have a plan. Don’t just jump in. I didn’t try to get the bikes out too quickly, because you only have one chance to make a good first impression, and a dud range would have taken a long time to recover from. And take as much advice from people you respect and who have experience in that field,” he says.
CV SIR CHRIS HOY
Company name: HOY Bikes
Company turnover: N/A
Founded: Launched in June 2013
Job title: Owner
Studied: Applied Sports Science, University of Edinburgh
Drinking: I’m a big coffee fan
Heroes: Graeme Obree and Gavin Hastings
Awards: Knighted, BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2008, six Olympic Gold Medals, 11 World Championship Golds