The Bicycle Academy: Andrew Denham
The cycling enthusiast on making his passion his business – with a little help from the crowd
Tell us what your business does:
The Bicycle Academy is a new enterprise providing people with the skills and facilities to design and make their own bikes. Frame building is taught as a four-day course at our workshop in Frome.
As part of the learning process each student will make a frame designed specifically for use in Africa. Then, once graduated, students will be able to use The Bicycle Academy’s workshop to hone their skills and build their own frames.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I wanted to learn how to build bicycle frames but couldn’t find anywhere that offered the type of course I wanted. At the same time I was trying to come up with a way of helping bicycle distribution charities. The two things became tangled up in my head and the concept of The Bicycle Academy was born.
What’s your unique selling point?
The Bicycle Academy is the only frame-building school to allow students to come back and use its workshop facility, to build their own frames in their own time. Also, we have a strong ethical core to our business and that’s something that matters to people.
What were you doing before starting up?
I still hold down my day job as a mechanical design engineer. It helps pay my bills during this start-up phase of The Bicycle Academy.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
I haven’t necessarily wanted to run my own business, but I have always wanted to work at something that I believe in – that has a meaning beyond simply making money.
What planning did you do before you started up?
I created a rough business plan, which I’ve evolved along the way. I spent a lot of time speaking to other people about the idea, to get feedback and gauge their interest.
I also created a questionnaire that I hosted on my website, to collect information about what people were looking for.
How did you raise the money?
To get the business up and running, I ran a crowdfunding campaign from November 1 to December 13 2011.
I successfully raised more than 100% of our goal (£40,000) in less than six days, by offering people the chance to pre-book courses and secure other rewards, depending upon the amount they pledged.
How did you find suppliers?
Finding suppliers has been pretty easy. As an enthusiast I was already aware of the best suppliers, so knew who to contact.
The Bicycle Academy is in the fortunate position that many of its suppliers are keen to do more than simply supply – providing support and sponsorship too.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Finding a suitable workshop hasn’t been easy, but I’m right at the beginning of this journey and while things are going well, I’m sure that there’ll be plenty of challenges ahead!
Where is your business based?
I’ve been working from home and will continue to do so until we open the workshop in the spring. It’s been hard to strike a balance with home-life and other commitments, as I also run a local mountain bike club and hold a big cycling event in my hometown once a year – all of which take up a lot of my time.
Having a supportive fiancée has made all the difference, but it hasn’t been easy and can put a lot of stress onto relationships. I think the most important lesson that I’ve learned about working at home is to, where possible, create a work/life split. You need to separate the two or both will suffer.
How have you promoted your business?
I’ve promoted The Bicycle Academy through a website, blogging, tweeting, and using Facebook frequently.
I had a small stand at Bespoked Bristol (the UK handmade bicycle show) earlier this year, which was a massive success, and was lucky enough to have a four page feature in Boneshaker Magazine – a fantastic and very well regarded cycling journal that’s circulated all over the world.
I can honestly say that so far all my promotional efforts have paid off and, other than attending Bespoked Bristol, all have cost me nothing but my time.
How much do you charge?
We charge £600 per person for a four-day bicycle frame-building course, based on two people sharing a course.
What about staff – how many do you have?
I’ve got just one member of staff and, while things are looking good, it’s certainly a big responsibility. I want to do the best that I can – not just for me, or my business – but for my staff too.
What has your growth been like?
It’s too early to say, but things are looking positive. We’ve got a year of pre-booked business and a healthy waiting list too.
What’s the impact on your home life been like?
The impact has been huge. For a long time I was working a 40-hour-a-week day job, plus around 30-40 hours a week on The Bicycle Academy in evenings and weekends. It was pretty relentless.
I’ve cut down to four days a week at my day job now, but I’m reinvesting everything in the business this year; so won’t be able to take any drawings and will need to keep my day job to support myself.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
Knowing who to turn to for advice, and also the sheer amount of time it takes to plan everything and make it actually happen.
Even if you are able to get things done, you will almost always have to factor in other people’s timescales and that can really draw things out.
What was your first big breakthrough?
I met hundreds of people at Bespoked Bristol, many of whom are now my customers. Meeting people was really important as it allowed them to make a personal connection with The Bicycle Academy – something that was invaluable when it came to the crowdfunding campaign.
What would you do differently?
In a perfect world I’d have raised enough money to allow me to work for The Bicycle Academy full-time. That would make a huge difference to the rate of progress at this critical time.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Work hard and don’t give up. When it all seems too much (which it will, a number of times, along the way) speak to friends and mentors and remember to give yourself a break now and again. It won’t be easy, but you will learn so much and the potential rewards are great.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
I don’t have an exit plan; I’m passionate about what The Bicycle Academy is and what it could be. I hope that I’ll be teaching people how to make bicycles, building my own frames and enjoying riding to work each day for years to come.