Starting from scratch: the story behind Mason Cycles, Snowdon Bike and Bowman Cycles
The men behind three start-up British bike brands on innovation, forging an identity and realising a dream
The sheer number of bicycle brands on the market suggests the desire for new machinery is insatiable. N+1 is a mantra shared by both rider and manufacturer.
Aero, disc, endurance, gravel, a reinvigorated market for metal machines - all are evidence for a market which seems impervious to wider economic trends, though the plummet of the pound following the Brexit referendum could change all of that in the UK.
As each niche gains traction, new brands servicing specific sectors of the market are attracted to enter the mix, and the desire of almost any cyclist to improve upon his current machine means that it is not just commercial motivation that drives newcomers to the market place.
We caught up with the founders of three British brands to discover the inspiration behind bringing a new machine to the market, alongside the highs and lows, challenges and rewards of going against the big boys and launching a bike brand.
Dom Mason - Mason Cycles
Dom Mason might be said to have been there, seen it, done it and bought the t-shirt, but after years as chief designer of one the most successful, small-scale British bike brands of recent years, he decided to go it alone and launched Mason Cycles in 2015.
Mason’s work at Kinesis established the brand as a byword for versatility - a key quality for the UK cyclist, afflicted by some of the most relentlessly inclement weather in northern Europe - and while his four-season manifesto at Kinesis continues to thrive in the hands of parent company Upgrade Bikes, the man behind designs as cherished as the aptly-named 4S and Tripster ATR has sought a new direction.
While Mason continues to design versatile bikes aimed at the all-weather British rider, his eponymous brand occupies a different sector of the market from his previous enterprise and has a different manufacturing ethos. The bikes are made in Italy, rather than in Taiwan, and while the geographical shift is only one part of the brand’s story, it has allowed its founder to become more ‘hands on’.
"I wanted to get more involved with the process, to get my finger nails dirty," he explains. "I wanted to be there and to know the people who were painting and welding and making the final product. Also, I wanted to work with very small workshops; businesses more like a carpentry workshop than a bike factory."
Every brand must have a unique selling point - a USP, in the jargon - and nowhere more so than in the bike market, where a visit to the annual Eurobike trade show, or even an online search, will reveal the scale of the industry and the breadth of choice enjoyed by the consumer.
"We just had something that no one else is doing," Mason says. "No-one was making modern frames with progressive geometry in small batches in Italy. They weren’t doing long distance, all-season, endurance, disc brake bikes with mudguard and tyre clearance with that special fork."
Mason has valuable advice about establishing a brand identity. His belief that a bike brand should have a persona for customers to buy into is so strong that he conceived all aspects of the brand’s identity before designing the first Mason Cycles bike.
"I wanted to get more involved with the process, to get my finger nails dirty"
"I worked really hard on developing the brand before launching the first bike," he says. "I had an idea that the brand had to be strong before I dropped a product into it. I didn’t want to design a very detailed product with custom tubing and drop that into a vacuum or void. My wife would ask me when I was going to design something, and I would say, 'I’m doing the brand.'"
Mason’s initial focus on identity rather than product may have seemed counter-intuitive, but he insists it has already paid dividends.
"We had a fork supply problem and didn’t have forks for four or five months, and I’m pretty sure that if we didn’t have a strong brand we might not be here today. People had identified that the brand was good, and that we were operating from a solid platform."
The founder of any business will cherish the moments that justify the hard work. Mason has several to choose from. Glowing reviews of the first two Mason Cycles models to reach the public domain - the aluminium Definition and steel Resolution - brought reassurance. And the ‘ping’ of an SMS message confirming an order is a sound he is unlikely to tire of hearing.
Mason Cycles has just begun its third year of production. After two years of rapid growth and 'working out how to run a company', Mason is hoping 2017 will be a year of consolidation and 'normality', but with the launch of a third frame, the Bokeh adventure bike, and two new titanium models set for release this year, these ambitions may need to be put on hold. With customers in America, Hawaii, and Tokyo, as well as the UK, Mason has found himself already running an international concern.
His advice to would-be brand owners is to talk to those who have already established successful enterprises. "You can’t always let your idea out of the bag," he says, "but it’s important to talk to people."
Rapha founder Simon Mottram and Fabric main man Nick Larsen were among those whose advice he sought. Both brands, unsurprisingly, have very strong identities.
"People are surprisingly happy to talk, even if you feel like some fool with no idea," Mason says. "If they’ve been successful, they are happy to help.
Tim Snowdon - Snowdon Bike
If Mason is the voice of experience, then Tim Snowdon is the newcomer. A self-described "cycling nut", Snowdon is following his own instinct for the perfect bike, and attempting to turn it into a business. His USP? The aptly-named Paradox: a high-quality, titanium road bike with frame geometry to complement a flat handlebar.
As an enthusiast, he has looked from outside the industry at domestic brands like Ribble, who have grown from small to very large, and others, like Boardman, who have capitalized on the caché of the man at the centre of the brand.
"I’m a cycling nut who decided no-one was making the bike I wanted"
"I’m trying to do something very different," says Snowdon. "My company will provide niche bikes that are handmade in small numbers. I’m a cycling nut who decided in the end that no one was making the bike I wanted. I was aware that so much of what people wanted was driven by marketing."
Snowdon is another to have sought a manufacturing partner to realise his ambition and, in keeping with his focus on small scale, high-quality production, has partnered with Enigma Bikes, Jim Walker’s esteemed marque.
Snowdon says for his business, finding a manufacturing partner was the biggest hurdle to overcome. He considered UK production essential to having trust in the supplier.
"First, I ignored bike manufacturers overseas," says Snowdon. "I wanted the best quality around, and I was fortunate enough to talk to Jim Walker at Enigma, who was happy to make my frames. People are buying into an extremely respected brand."
While there are many unforeseen obstacles on the path to establishing a brand - Snowdon identifies the cost of business insurance among the myriad of concerns that a "micro business" might overlook in its haste to bring a product to market - he is convinced that there are at least as many opportunities.
He has been braced for tight budgets in the first year of trading, with orders necessarily lagging behind the time required to establish a brand as credible. Independent reviews, he believes, are essential to this goal, and the Snowdon Paradox has appeared in a magazine devoted to urban bikes and on its companion website.
All new businesses must be cost conscious in their early stages, and Snowdon believes his micro business model has helped him. Reviews come free of charge and a favourable account can have an inestimable impact on sales. Similarly, social media offers a low-cost publicity tool, even with subsidiary costs like promotion and analytics.
"You have to be really tight on costs, particularly in the first year," he says. "Once you’ve built a brand, the sales will come, but in the beginning you’ve got to pare back costs. Trading as a micro business, I’ve been able to do that," he says.
Snowdon draws an analogy with hi-fi manufacturer Rega, and a turntable largely unchanged since the 1970s. While the comparison with a bicycle might, at first glance, seem unusual, Snowdon argues that a classic model will always endure the vagaries of fashion and marketing.
Whether there is a market for a flat bar, titanium road bike remains to be seen, but by establishing his business on the principles of quality, UK manufacture and cost-conscious promotion, Snowdon has given himself every chance of success.
Neil Webb - Bowman Cycles
As a former cycling journalist, Neil Webb, the man behind Bowman Cycles, is well placed to understand the power of story telling. A compelling narrative, he believes, can prove invaluable in the task of establishing a new brand in a crowded market. That story can be as simple as a genuine belief that a design can be improved, and there are few better roles for identifying room for improvement than that of reviewer.
"There are lots of bikes that you see where you think, ‘That would be great, if only they’d fix that one thing,’" Webb says. "The lovely bike let down by the seat clamp or cable routing or a headtube that’s 40mm too short. We’ve all seen them and thought, 'That makes no sense.'"
Webb had originally put his insights at the service of an existing brand, but in the midst of a high-speed rail transfer from a trade show in Asia to Tapei Airport, decided to e-mail a manufacturer and enquire about the cost of sample frames. By the time he changed flights at Hong Kong, the supplier had replied with technical drawings.
Bowman Cycles subsequently launched in 2014 with the Palace, an affordable, aluminium race bike inspired by - and named after - the Crystal Palace criterium circuit in south London. Fast forward to 2017 and the Bowman range now includes an updated version of that original frame, the Palace:R, alongside the stainless steel Layhams, the Pilgrims adventure bike and the Foots Cray cyclo-cross machine.
One might consider an insider’s knowledge of the industry to be the greatest advantage in establishing a new bike brand, but Webb insists that business sense is the most important aspect. Anyone can spot a niche, he maintains. Similarly, the oldest hand in the game can face ruin if they fail in basic housekeeping.
"It’s very easy to put a lot of money through the business and still make a loss," he warns.
Webb’s belief that small companies are more innovative than the industry giants offers greater encouragement to the erstwhile start-up. The ability to spot a gap in the market, allied to an agile business structure, can be a powerful thing.
"Innovation comes from small companies. A niche is enough to sustain a small, developing company, if you know what you’re doing"
"From a mountain bike perspective, the whole 29er thing came about because someone thought, ‘Why don’t we make a bigger wheel?’ That [innovation] comes from small companies. A niche is enough to sustain a small, developing company, if you know what you’re doing."
Do not underestimate, however, the scale of the challenge involved, especially when manufacturing overseas. Webb has learned lessons in the cultural significance of language, specifically the absence of tense from Mandarin Chinese.
"That culture’s mindset is completely different," he says. "There is no, ‘If this, then this.' It’s a very difficult concept to explain. If your whole life is absolute, then the whole idea of theoretical outcomes doesn’t compute."
China’s dominant position in global manufacturing suggests this problem is not insurmountable, however. Webb says he is "super precise" in his instructions to his manufacturing partner, but warns that, "Yes never means yes. It means, ‘I’m answering you’ and nothing more." This year, he will seek greater stability in manufacturing and identifies "historic incompetence and inconsistency at factories" as the biggest hurdle he has had to overcome.
Despite the challenges, running your own brand can be satisfying too. Webb identifies a chance sighting of a rider on a Bowman Cycles bike as his most rewarding moment thus far.
"I was riding back home and saw someone pulling out of a side road," he recalls. "The bike had a quite distinctive flash of colour. Initially, I thought it was an x or y, and then thought, no, it’s one of mine. Someone’s actually spent their own money on one of our bikes.’"
Running a business leaves little time for romantic encounters, however brief. Bowman Cycles will attempt to build on its success this year, with Webb seeking greater stability in manufacturing. As one who has taken a bicycle brand from concept to reality, his advice is worth having. He puts it simply: keep a close eye on the finances.
"You can never do too much research, and, yes, it does come down to knowing what you’re selling and why you’re selling it, but also get help with your numbers. If you’re the person with the ideas, you’re rarely the person who does the numbers."
Three brands, three stories
Bowman, Mason, and Snowdon represent three distinct takes on the British cycling market, and each will cater to separate tastes. The unifying theme – of British design (and manufacture also, in the case of the Engima-made Snowdon Paradox) – is one to cherish.
Tim Snowdon is following a hunch, albeit one he says is backed by the response of riders he has met on the road. Almost every cyclist believes he has a product that will change the market, but few have the courage or application to chase the dream.
Neil Webb’s approach with Bowman Cycles is entirely different: a case of industry insider using his knowledge to enter the game and to strike out for himself, rather than place his talents at the disposal of others. Those of us who continue to pursue his former calling – that of bike reviewer – will recognise his desire to get right the small details that are so routinely wrong.
Dom Mason might have continued to produce excellent bikes for Kinesis for as long as he chose, and should be admired for taking on a new challenge. The excellent reviews garnered by Mason Cycles proves that his decision to follow his instinct has been the right one. Mason is a man with his finger on the pulse of British riders.
The expansion of the cycle industry shows no signs of slowing, even if, in the UK at least, we are five years on from the watershed moment of Sir Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory and Olympic gold medal seven days later. Tastes change and fashions come and go, even with mechanical devices like the humble bicycle. Good design will always prosper, however, and our three subjects certainly won't be the last to enter such a buoyant market. Good luck to those who do.