Interview with Sian Emmison, co-founder of Bobbin Bikes
Sian, thank you so much for taking part in this interview series with Bloom as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week! It’s a pleasure to sit down and talk to you, so thanks so much for your time.
Thanks for having me!
So, I’m a huge fan of Bobbin Bikes - I think you’ll attest to that when we first met and my reaction when I found out who you were and what your company was.
You were very enthusiastic!
Very much so, and with good reason! They are gorgeous bikes. So let’s start there: what made you get into the bicycle business to begin with?
It’s been a long old journey… Casting my mind back - many moons ago to about 2007 - London did not have much cycling at that point. There were v few bike lanes, v few people commuting by bike, Tom and I had come over from Holland (where we met!) and we just thought “Wow, how come there are so many people commuting by bike in Holland and no-one is doing it in London?” so that was where the seed came from.
We just very simply took a van to Holland, brought some bikes back and started selling them! And then after about a year we got a shop. I wouldn’t say it was a joke, but it got out of control quite quickly! It was just a little experiment at first - we were both artists at the time and just thought this could be a nice little side hustle.
The main thing was that we spotted a gap in the market and that was what created this explosion. Right product, right time, right place.
The true definition of side hustle to successful business! So you literally started out by selling other brand bikes?
Yeah, which is actually part of our story because I think if we’d had some money in the beginning to dive straight in with our vision and design something we liked we probably would have made loads of mistakes. So taking it relatively slowly and organically, we sold some product, we could see what worked, what didn’t and that process over quite a few years informed our own bike range - which would come a few years later actually - we were selling other brands from our shop and just getting a feel for it.
I never knew that! That’s really cool, I was only aware of Bobbin and just thought that’s how it started. Most people see the finished product - most don’t see behind the scenes which is why it’s great to hear more of your story.
I think that’s an interesting point you make about starting out on your own, organically and as a side hustle. By not having this pot of cash or an external investment where it’s someone else’s money you are forced to look at things more closely and make better decisions, in theory.
Yeah, I agree and I think it just seems like more of a modern way to do things nowadays. It’s actually dead easy to set up your own business. Whatever idea you’ve got, you can make it happen relatively easily in this country, so why not give it a pop and see how it goes? You don’t have to have this fully-formed thing before you get going.
I feel quite strongly about that actually; I think there’s a very big difference between businesses that flow into the market like water, and those that just bust in in this very bolshy way, like “Ok, we're going to own the market now” when actually, you might not know what you’re doing.
Totally! And, from my perspective, I think you can see that even from the outside - i.e. you can tell if someone has come out of nowhere and they’re suddenly all over the place, versus someone who maybe you’ve seen something somewhere and gradually seeing them getting bigger. Do you see that difference?
Yes. I think you need to try harder and listen, rather than just shout. Listen to people and what they want. When you’re designing a product that’s actually really important - that process of tailoring the product to the market - and you only get that if you’re carefully listening to people.
We’ve always had this approach right from the beginning, which is just to draw people into our world. We had this little world which we invented, and welcomed people in - more of a gentle way of doing it. And with that, there’s the authenticity to the brand even after all these years as we still have that attitude - everyone is welcome, feedback is important, and the product changes, we follow fashion, and that organic way of doing things seems to fit with us.
Totally! You’ve touched on key elements in business which are fundamentally important but now become buzzwords (like “authenticity”). One of my big gripes is when these things become so cliched, that they start to lose their real meaning and just become jargon terms that are banded around a boardroom meeting - but you’re exemplifying the reality of what it’s like to be authentic, to really listen to your customers and shape it accordingly.
I’ve got a really funny example of that actually. We chatted about Instagram when we first met, didn’t we? We love Instagram at Bobbin; it’s a really good way for us to connect with our customers - very genuinely. And we get lots of people wanting product each week, sending messages like “Hi, I really like this bike, can you give it for free?” and we tend not to do that because we’re small and don’t have a massive budget. Anyway, I was having a look at the reviews on Mumsnet this week, and someone put up a post saying “What do you all think about Bobbin bikes? I’m thinking of buying one - I’m seeing them on Instagram and everyone is waxing lyrical about it, but they’ve obviously just been paid to say that - I just don’t know if it’s genuine or not!” And I just thought. “Oh my god, I can’t win!” I turned down all these freebies so what you’re seeing is genuine - I’m not paying for any of it!
Wow, that’s such a pain it so so hard to win sometimes but you touch on such an important point which is how people have been educated over the years. Personally, if I’m scrolling through Instagram I do just take it for granted that if someone is talking about something, they’ve been paid to say it - and unfortunately you’ve been on the receiving end of that and you are doing things authentically.
It’s just funny! We know those people are genuine and they do too, so that’s the most important thing.
Exactly! Going back to the products which we talked a bit about before, I think the reason why Bobbin stayed in my head so clearly from when I first saw the bikes dotted around London is that you’ve got such an iconic shape, the pastel colour palette, the 60s retro style… Do you think that’s been a contributing factor to your success?
Definitely. The reason we set up Bobbin in the first place was because we wanted to sell bikes like handbags, basically. You couldn’t go into any bike shop in the UK feel comfortable if you weren’t mega sporty - the language, the way the bikes were sold, very tech-y, very much based on performance… What about if you want to bob about, go to the shops, or go to college and you want to wear a skirt? No-one was doing that. We wanted to make beautiful products and, you’re right, that got picked up on straight away. That’s why we got so much press and editorial - because people were attracted to the product. Then it was seen on the street, and the likes of Elle Decoration and Good Housekeeping saw it and did a piece on it, and it just snowballed from there.
So the product spoke for yourself!
Yes. And, of course, with the more bikes we have out there, the more ambassadors we’ve got - genuinely.
Amazing. Bobbin is such a great name too! I have to ask, where did it come from? What’s the story behind the name?
There are a few different reasons!
Number one, it’s really easy name to say in lots of different languages (simple phonetics);
It looks really good as a logo;
Bobbin is a part in a sewing machine - the spool - and the rotating mechanism of this piece nicely mirrors the wheels of our bikes. A lot of our customers are into crafts, so that resonated;
And, while we were in Holland, we got a bit obsessed with watching people cycle against the wind and, with it being such a flat country, you’d see someone’s head bobbing up and down from the horizon as they battle the wind, haha!
I love that! I agree the logo looks good. I’m a big believer in how things look visually - same with my company name, ‘Bloom’ - the capital ‘B’ that we both have, the double ‘o’, for Bloom, Bobbin has the double ‘b’...
Lots of circles!
Exactly! Is it also true that you co-founded the business with your husband many moons ago?
What’s that like?
It’s good! It works; we have very different personalities, we’ve got different experiences so we’re very complementary in how we work. Tom deals with customers, he’s really nice to everybody, everybody loves him, I’m usually more in the background - there’s a bit of “bad cop, good cop” - I do planning, strategy, finance… The more boring stuff!
Would you say you’re the introvert and he’s the extrovert then?
Ooh, I think we’re both quite introverted actually! I’m not used to doing interviews, so this is a good opportunity for me!
You mentioned earlier that you set up the business a decade ago - which is massively impressive, especially in this day and age with so many businesses failing in the first 6 / 12 months. What have been the hardest lessons during that time you can share with us?
Perseverance. It sounds really obvious but that’s how many people fall by the wayside, because they just give up. It is a battle and I didn’t realise at the beginning that you could be a small company and you can just do your thing and enjoy people loving it, but as you grow you become marked and you become surrounded by people copying you.
We found in the early days that we got copied brutally, and in the beginning we just felt like we were under attack, so how do you compete against competitors and big companies. If you have a genuinely new idea and we did - this idea of a “bike boutique” full of colourful bikes, which really changed the way that bikes were merchandised, particularly to female cyclists, so we got through the first few years on a wing and a prayer, and then come year 4 or 5 we needed a strategy and we need to dig in because it’s war. You’re at war with your competitors and there’s only a certain size of the pie that you all want a slice of, so you have to be strategic and treat it like combat, which didn’t come that naturally to us as a lovely little bike shop! But you put all this effort into building and growing something so of course you have to protect it.
There is a lot of marketing tactics, acronyms, and strategies that actually originate from the military. As horrible as it sounds, we’re on this battlefield together and you’ve got to protect what’s important
Yes - dig in and persevere!
Also you have to treat it like mountain climbing, because there is no end in sight! You see a huge peak in front of you and think, I’ve just got to get on top of that peak, and you get there and look around and you just see a load more peaks around you! Bigger peaks. So you just have to keep going and enjoy the journey along the way!
I can definitely empathise! With that in mind, I think “entrepreneurship” has become quite trendy these days - which is largely a great thing. It’s very easy to set up a business - as long as you have access to the internet, a device to use it on, and an idea - you can make it happen almost overnight. How do you think the landscape lies at the moment for new and budding entrepreneurs?
I think there are loads more tools that are available now, and those tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated. When I think back to when we first started, it was very hard to get any sort of funding or credit - and it is still very hard but there are options now like Kickstarter and CrowdCube, for example.
With technology, of course, to have a Shopify site is dead cheap and easy to set up - you can do that in a day and start selling!
The barriers are very, very low to entry. The thing that you have to make sure have is a good idea - and it goes back to that idea and that you’re not simply voicing your vision on to the world and that the world actually needs it and there’s interest there!
Do market research most people don’t do that and that’s probably why your company fails.
You have to look at the product market fit! You mentioned crowdfunding before - Bobbin is proudly independent - was that always your intention to keep it that way? Or did you ever find yourself in a position where a cash injection would solve a lot of problems?
In our journey we’ve had these phases; we set up with very little, put the money back into the business, grew, opened a shop, then thought actually we don’t want to just have a shop, we want to have a range of bikes and sell those to other shops.
That was a paradigm shift.
For that, we needed to borrow loads of money to set up this whole different thing with distribution channels. We thought we could get funding, or we could partner with someone.
We chose to not sell equity and to partner up with somebody. That partnership endured for quite a few years and worked well - and that’s why we’ve got lots of products out there in the world now, because we went through those distribution channels.
But there was always this other chunk missing, which was selling direct to consumer. So we made the leap to sell on our website and just focus on that in 2017, which was another paradigm shift because we needed a lot of money to buy that stock - and, by that point, we’d grown demand to a point where we needed a lot of stock and a lot of space. So we thought we could sell equity or just borrow some money, and, by then, we knew we had a great product and the demand was there, so we just borrowed it.
And now we’re here and we’ve not sold a single share in our business, after all these years.
This means we’re still nimble, we can make decisions quickly, we can try stuff out, there’s no chain of signing things off… So, having this small, nimble team is working quite well for us at the moment, especially with Brexit!
Oh my god, the B-word! Has that impacted you at all? As we’re there, let’s briefly comment on that!
Yeah, let’s keep it short! It’s a massive challenge, who knows where it’s ending up, but it’s a pain in the arse - that’s for sure. Especially with imports and exports as a retailer of physical goods in contrast to the tech sector. Our currency is on its arse at the moment and we do buy and sell in different currencies so that’s had an impact. We’ve made forecasts but it only takes you so far, it feels like a new world order is upon us!
There’s actually a nice historical trend where cycle sales have increased during times of recession.
Oh, like the lipstick effect!
Yes, you’re saving money.
There’s the whole sustainability conversation too - which we haven’t even talked about - so it’s nice to see a resurgence in things when they were done properly (like cycling around, no petrol or fossil fuels!)
And if you look at many European countries the number of journeys by bike is so much greater. We’ve got a long way to go in the UK still, for short journeys.
Definitely. Top 3 pieces of advice to any new entrepreneurs out there. Go!
- Do not think that you are not working for the man when you become an entrepreneur. It is not easier than a PAYE job. I fantasise about a PAYE job with loads of holiday and bunking off sick. It’s really, really, really hard. You work 24 hours a day. You have to know what you’re getting into. This is serious business, and if it takes off it gets worse not better.
- Having said that, my second piece of advice is GO FOR IT. If you feel like you have a good idea and there is a gap in the market ad you’ve done the research because the world needs entrepreneurs! I’ve had phases in my long journey where I really felt like giving up. I’ve spoken to mentors and always had the same advice back - you’ve got to keep going - you owe it to the God of Entrepreneurship!
- Thirdly, be resourceful. I learnt this at art college going to art college is very useful not for getting a job! But you do learn that you can make something out of nothing. So no, you don’t need to pitch and get a tonne of money to start off, you just need to be canny and figure out how to do it, and be resourceful from the beginning sets very good roots for the business and makes a strong tree that will grow.
Love that analogy! Fun fact: I also went to art college too, and I actually started writing about all the non-obvious lessons that studying art taught me for my career (as opposed to business or finance or management) I firmly believe that certain lessons from art school have put me in such good steed, one of the biggest being an acute attention to detail - not only in terms of your output, but the skill of observation too. That level of care and attention has been a strength of mine, thanks - at least in part - to those years at art school.
And you’re only interested in the meaning of things. I’m amazed at how far people will go down the path of meaningless-ness!
So funny! Well. thank you so much for your time Sian. Before we say goodbye to you, is there any news from Bobbin that we can look forward to?
The land of Bobbin is expanding, which is very exciting. We are based primarily in the UK but we are starting to send our products out to Europe - with more things happening in France and in Germany, plus more products but that’s a secret for now!
Very mysterious! Thank you Sian, it’s been a pleasure, and all the best with Bobbin!
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