Read Part I of the VeloHouse story here.
It’s almost nine o’clock in the evening when I get through to Olly Stevens for a catch-up about how things have been progressing at the VeloHouse project in Tunbridge Wells. The face on our video call looks tired but his day is still far from done. With only a few weeks to go until opening he will be working and emailing until at least 1am tonight. Ours is the second interview he has done since getting back home from the site where up to 16 vans have been playing a daily game of musical chairs in the car park as the building phase nears completion. A new door out to the car park has been completed this week, perhaps easing the congestion a little bit, and it has prompted Olly into a bit of reminiscing: “I used to meet my riding mate in that car park. Fifteen years ago, when I was living in Islington, I’d get the train down on the weekend to do the Ashdown to Lewes run and that would be our meeting point. It was good because it was central and, being the car park of a bank, it was always empty on a Saturday.”
I venture that it must feel good to be coming full circle and to soon have riders setting off from there again, but the difference being that now Olly is the owner of the bank building and the carpark. “Yeah, although we didn’t set out looking for an urban location initially so we didn’t foresee that. Once we decided on this building it really shaped the direction of the project a lot. The building has become a huge part of what the VeloHouse will be.”
Having recently spent a lot of time out in the car park (which we really should be calling the bike park by now) directing vans this way and that, Olly has met quite a few cyclists who have seen the poster in the window and pulled up for a chat about what is coming. “It’s been a great eye-opener,” says Olly with a smile, “There have been all sorts of people stopping by, not just members of the local clubs; young people, families, seventy-year old guys who want to show you the bike they’ve been riding for the last 35 years.. There is more interest out there than I expected at the start.”
So will the VeloHouse be organising rides from the famous car-park? “No,” says Olly “We don’t want it to be just about the ‘VeloHouse Club Run’ – we want other clubs and other riders to use us as their base to start and finish their rides at. We want it to be open to everyone.”
Although Olly studied Economics at LSE and headed for the City straight afterwards, putting together a business plan and taking the first tentative steps towards the VeloHouse project were not a straightforward job. It took ‘three to four months’ to put the business plan together as he was ‘really starting from scratch’ and still working at IG at the time.
Originally Olly’s vision was for a mid-ride pit-stop place out in the Kent countryside. “I started out with the name Cog & Sprocket and was thinking of it much more like a country pub. We were still going to have the shop and workshop elements but the cafe side would have been more limited” he confirms. Finding the St John’s Road building and re-thinking the VeloHouse within a more urban location let the project grow in scope and ambition. But not before a frustrating game of ‘chicken and egg’ had to be resolved.
The VeloHouse has four main investors who are backing the project. In order to convince them of the project viability Olly had to secure a building. But in order to secure the building, the bank providing the mortgage wanted to know that the required investment was in place. Throughout late Summer and Autumn last year Olly battled to get over this single biggest hurdle. “I had originally approached seven or eight potential investors and four eventually came on board. But at that time it was very hard to move things along. It was probably the time where I most thought that it wasn’t going to happen.”
It was a tough time for Olly personally. “I had left a relatively well-paid job and was putting everything into this new thing. [My wife] Sophie has been my biggest supporter throughout the whole thing but it was difficult for everyone around that time.” Eventually the sticking point was resolved and the building was secured. “We first saw St John’s Road in August and knew it was right. We finally got the keys in early December and started onsite straightaway. The builder that we chose is a friend as well so we were able get underway really quickly.”
The thing that strikes me most about talking to Olly about the VeloHouse is how is had grown over time and responded to new challenges or opportunities. We tend to have an idea that new business developments are fixed concepts which are rigidly processed through to inception but the VeloHouse, like many other dream projects, has had to adapt along the way. “We’ve had to shift some things in terms of suppliers who we wanted to work with.” admits Olly, “We’ve had to respect other cycle businesses in the area and not tread on their toes but we’ve also been able to add in products and suppliers that initially we didn’t think we would be able to offer.”
The bike and clothing range that the VeloHouse will open with is a good example of how things shift along the project timeline. A couple of the bike brands Olly was speaking to at our last meet are still unresolved and won’t be there for the opening, but he has been able to agree some alternates, and in one case, pull off something of a coup.
“I approached brands who I believed in.” he explains. “Ones I have used over the years and who support local bike shops – no high volume brands. Sigma Sport gave me good advice in the very early days and Focus were the first people I spoke to. They were very supportive and we’ve not really had to oversell the project to get people on board. “
“One of the best surprises along the way has been Parlee,” continues Olly with a hint of pride. “I had approached them earlier but they wouldn’t agree to be a supplier as we are a start-up and had no track history. But when the agent came to meet me – he also represents Lightweight – and saw the space and what we are doing, he changed his mind. He came on the Friday and called back on the Monday saying, ‘The VeloHouse fits in perfectly with what we want to do. When you open everyone will be knocking on your door and we want to be here with you.’ It was really good that someone could see the vision even though the place was still a building site.”
This means that the VeloHouse will be one of just a handful of places selling Parlee’s gorgeous high-end carbon framesets in the UK. But Olly is keen to set out his vision that the VeloHouse is not just about super expensive bikes. “We will have a full range for all budgets. We wanted to make sure we have bikes from £600 so we are not too niche. It’s great being able to offer the ten grand dream bikes too but we’ve already got Focus, and have now added Colnago and Scott. Scott have a great range of women’s frames so with all those brands we’ll have something for everyone. “
Olly has also been busy on the apparel side and, once again, his personal enthusiasm has paid off. “Gary Vasconi, the CEO of Capo, came over and loved what we were doing so we will be stocking their range too.” I wasn’t familiar with the name so asked Olly to explain more. “They are an American brand – I first saw them in Mellow Johnny’s in Austin – but nearly all their product is made in Italy.” As we have come to expect from the VeloHouse, it’s pared down, graphically restrained and very good quality. Likewise, Olly will be stocking Jersey Pocket favourite Vulpine, which also seems a good fit for the VeloHouse’s subtle approach of restrained design and high aspirations. Vulpine founder Nick Hussey wrote a great blog this week about the contrasting rewards and hardships of taking the plunge of starting your own cycle business. I’m sure Olly would see a lot of familiar things in there already..
So what have the next couple of weeks and beyond got in store for Olly and the growing VeloHouse team? I already assume that there will be no letting up in the run-in to opening on Paris-Roubaix weekend but I’m wondering if Olly has taken time to look beyond the light at end of the tunnel, which is looming larger every day, and thought about the wide open spaces of the months ahead.
“My biggest fear is not delivering on what we have promised ourselves; of underwhelming.” he tellingly reveals. “We are fully staffed now with 13 people and training begins next week. We will be having some local businesses come in during the week before opening to test the cafe and the menu, and then we will be hosting Sophie’s cycle club, the Kent Velo Girls, for one of their regular monthly socials to test the evening set-up. There are about 180 of them!”There will be no relaxing before opening, that’s for sure.
And beyond that? Maybe it’s the tiredness in Olly’s eyes, and hearing that Sophie is also working late tonight on a design project presentation for the following day, that prompts me to ask if he has a holiday planned for later in the year. “Nothing concrete,” he concedes in another clear sign of how something like this takes over your entire life, “but Sophie’s family have a house in France and I’ll join them there at some point for sure.”
I’m relieved that Olly can at least imagine taking some time away from his new venture over the summer. At this moment, with the pressure of delivering the project at it’s height, that is probably the farthest thing from Olly’s mind. He will be 40 shortly after the opening of the VeloHouse and has alluded to the project being a classic case of a mid-life crisis. Starting your own business is a big brave step, but starting your own venue should, in theory at least, be something that you can also envisage enjoying taking part in as well as running. Finding that balance could be the next big challenge for Olly.
In Part 3 (read it here) we will see how the opening went and talk to the VeloHouse’s new staff and customers.
The VeloHouse will be opening in April 2014 at 5 St Johns Rd, Tunbridge Wells. | twitter: @thevelohouse