Mike Mellor and Chris Pengilley are the team behind Quella, a British Bike brand founded in 2012. Eight years on, and we sit down with them (socially distant of course), to talk about everything from budgets to broken toes, and find out what it’s really like to start a cycling business on a shoestring in a market dominated by one of the most competitive markets.
Tell us a bit about Quella.
Mike: At Quella, we design and manufacture stylish, practical single speed and fixed wheel bicycles that look great and won’t break the bank. We like to think that we have a wide appeal, from students on a tight budget to the more serious bike lover seeking their ‘N+1’* bike to use for the daily commute, milling about town or simply heading to the pub for a few swift ones without the need to roll-out a £5K carbon machine!
Chris: We are a growing British company who pride ourselves on great bike design backed up with great customer service, I suppose we could be described as a disruptor brand in the market and are definitely building a bit of a following of people who want something a bit different.
*N+1 explained – The correct number of bikes to own is n+1, where n is the number of bikes currently owned. A well know rule amongst the cycling fraternity!
What made you take the leap and start your own business?
Mike: A passion for cycling and a bit of spare cash to get the wheels going, I met the original founder at a Street Velodrome (a mini-velodrome event on single speed bikes) and fell in love with the idea and the bikes straightaway, it was clear the business needed investment if it was to go anywhere and I decided to give it a go.
Chris: I joined in 2017 and took over the day to day running with the clear aim to achieve growth and get the business into profit. I loved the brand and have always been into bikes so it was a perfect opportunity for me. I wanted to be a part of something not just another employee and after one hour long conversation with Mike on the mobile on his way back from Cambridge, I was pretty much hooked and we shook hands on a deal a few days later.
You entered the cycling market, a competitive landscape with some really big players. How did you get started?
Mike: We thought we’d take them head on initially from an old chicken shed in Cambridge! What could possibly go wrong?
Joking apart, the aim of the business has been always been to remain focused towards single speed, classic design. Whilst many of the big boys have gone super-technical expanding their muscle across all bicycle genres from road to mountain bikes they tended to fall-out of love with the simplicity of the single speed bike and we saw this as our opportunity.
Chris: Our customer demographic is expanding rapidly, a Quella is no longer just a hipster toy, our bikes are increasingly being used by all kinds of riders to get from A to B, especially since lockdown when more and more people are turning to cycling to avoid public transport. We have sold over 200 discounted bikes to NHS staff in the last few weeks.
What’s been the most challenging part of growing from a small business into a lifestyle brand?
Chris: There’s been loads of things! Putting in proper systems, sorting out the website and back-end systems, getting stock funding, and creating an efficient and reliable supply chain when you’re a minnow in the bicycle world. There is a lot of plate spinning and small companies don’t have the resources to just outsource all these things, they have to be done on a shoestring by the same people that are trying to run the business through the changes. We’ve had plenty of minor setbacks but have become very resilient to closing doors, I find that eventually some open if you keep your foot in the gap long enough, although I have suffered a few broken toes along the way!
Mike: The tricky part has been turning a cottage industry, lifestyle business that had taken a few wrong turns into a proper, organised business that can supply great bikes in volume across the UK and Europe. The step from hand building a few lovely bikes to supplying consumers and business across the continent has been our greatest challenge without going bust! Chris has been key to that change and the last two and a half years has seen us turn that corner. We have always been proud of the product but we now have a proper sustainable business that delivers on every level.
What milestone for the brand are you most proud of?
Mike: On the pure financial side, I had some dark times in the first few years and was extremely worried about my investment so for me seeing a set of accounts after Chris’s first year that said we had just about broken even was a big moment!
Relocating the whole business into new premises in Gloucestershire from a very dodgy building in Cambridge with a leaky roof was massive for me at the end of 2017, it brought it close to home and I felt we could really get a hold of it and start to make it work.
Chris: We’ve have had a lot of fun and in a business as small as ours there are milestones every day from selling someone a really special custom bike or getting a thank-you note from a customer who follows up with a five star review.
On the strategic side, the re-organisation of the supply change from design through to production and shipping has been massive. It’s taken a few years to get this process fully efficient and there has been some very painful moments in the early stages when the supply chain was unreliable. We now have the relationships and capacity in place to see us through our next phase of development with the ability to comfortably ramp up production volumes and deploy a global distribution strategy.
If you could go back and tell yourself three pieces of advice, what would they be?
- Don’t invest in product alone, you need a team and strategy that can make it happen. Coming up with a good idea in the shower is very different to making a business work.
- Insist on proper, accurate reporting from day one, especially around the financials. Woolly information that turns out to be full of holes doesn’t lead to good decisions.
- Split investment capital down into smaller chunks and make sure the money is spent in the agreed way and monitored closely.