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Styled for success

For London’s motorcycle and scooter riding community, the site at 51 New Kings Road has been supplying riding gear since the early ‘90s. Among those people who would regularly pass by the store on their daily commute was William Starrit as he drove into work as a digital marketer.

Too many hours sat in a car staring at the shop front of what was then called Bullet Motorcycles proved to be too much for William and he made the decision to get a bike and commute on two wheels. This in turn led to him stopping off at Bullet on a regular basis as he started to purchase riding kit from the shop. He also wanted to get more involved in the motorcycle industry, unsatisfied as he was with his current role. Before long he had offered to help in the shop, using his professional background to help the business’ online presence.

William’s timing could not have been better as in 2007 the current owner was ready to wind the shop up and move on to other things. Roy Boise, the owner of the property, had heard about William’s interest in the business and offered to let him take on the vacant premises if he wanted them. This offer came in spite of the fact that a franchised Vespa dealer with a proven history was interested in taking the plot on.

Aged just 25, William, along with his 22-year-old business partner Andrew Taylor, started Urban Rider. However, with start-up capital of just £20,000, all of which was needed to buy stock, it wasn’t an easy start as William explains: “Andy and I spent the first eight weeks we were here fitting the shop out ourselves, just the two of us doing everything. Things were so tight at the start we had a pen and a pad for writing receipts out, we didn’t even have the spare money to buy a computer to use in the shop.

“The bare brick wall at the back of the shop and the key clamp fittings may appear to be very fashionable now, and to an extent we were influenced by the look of fashion retailers, but when we opened that was all we could afford to do. We didn’t have the money for proper fixtures and fittings so we made use of what we could get as cheaply as possible. Now, that industrial look is very popular but for us it was born out of necessity.”

Starting a business with little capital is difficult at the best of times, but Urban Rider’s opening coincided with the beginning of the credit crunch. To survive those difficult times, William and Andrew had to put the new ideas they had about how a bike business should be run to the test in order to simply survive. The key principal behind the opening of Urban Rider was to supply London’s two-wheeled community with clothing that not only offered protection from the elements and crashes but would also let the wearer blend into regular society off the bike. This at a time when the only companies really catering for that market were Belstaff and Tucano Urbano, and so it was those two suppliers that Willian and Andrew took their idea for opening a specialist retailer too.

“We were very fortunate that Belstaff believed in what we were trying to achieve at the start,” says William. “On paper, we didn’t sound like a good proposition. We were pitching our ideas about how we were going to make money and how we envisioned the market developing and that was how we got people on board as suppliers. These days we can simply call people up and ask for an account and that’s it, no questions, we are well known now and a proven entity.”

The way in which Urban Rider works with its suppliers is not a traditional business model; from the very beginning William and Andrew had definite ideas about what would and would not stock. The shop only carries products that they know will sell in large volumes and they are willing to turn down suppliers who disagree with this or any of their other sales and marketing ideas.

“We refuse to have any manufacturer’s point of sale material in our store,” explains William. “When some have tried to insist on it, we have made the decision not to stock that product. We want to feel like we are curating the store and not being forced to do what other people expect or want us to do.

“It is reaching the stage now where we are being approached by companies that want to work with us because they have seen how successful we are for the brands we carry [Urban Rider became Tucano Urbano’s biggest client in the UK within two years of opening]. It feels as though we are perceived as the place the public will look to, to see what is new each season.

“We have a reputation now for going to the international trade shows and finding niche products and bringing them to the UK, sometimes without traditional distribution deals in place. When we were last at EICMA we saw Premier helmets, a brand that had been all but forgotten about in the UK, and the range was utterly unremarkable with the exception of one design – the Jet Vintage - a retro-styled open face made of modern material and with a detachable visor. We had to talk the distributor into bringing some into the country for us to stock and that’s now become one of our bestselling helmets and people are becoming aware of the brand once more and its heritage. We saw the potential and we’re fortunate that sales went the way we thought they would.”

While clothing is the driving force behind Urban Rider, the shop also carries second-hand scooters and sells custom motorcycles that are built by William. When questioned on this diversity, William is quick to explain: “We draw a clear distinction between our local business and our core brand. The scooter sales are there solely because there is a local market for them. We realised straight away that by offering second-hand scooter sales we could get more people into the store. Clothing remains our core business but we have other revenue streams like the scooters.

“The custom motorcycles we build are not done because we expect to make money on selling them. The first one I did was just for myself and then a customer came in saw it, liked it, bought it. So I built another and exhibited that at BSMC, which got a lot of press interest in us. The custom builds are done as much as a marketing and PR tool as anything else. The actual building of them is something I like to do anyway so why not spend some spare time on them and then use them to draw people into the shop and then at the end of the day sell them too? It is a win-win situation.”

In a similar vein, there is currently a Tomos scooter sitting in the store. It is not expected to sell very quickly, if at all, but what it is doing is drawing people into the shop. Older customers recognise it from their youth, while younger customers are simply interested to know what the retro looking ride is, and once those customers are in the store to take a closer look, the team can then talk to them about protective clothing and the options available to buy.

However, the area that Urban Rider has really exploited to market itself has been the internet, as William says: “Without new media Urban Rider simply wouldn’t exist. We would not have started it because that was where the growth potential was. The physical shop was a success from day one but growth has always been with online sales. Our sales are about 60% online and 40% in-store but the split varies with the time of year. Online sales are continuing to grow while the shop’s sales figures remain fairly static, albeit healthy, simply because there is limited floor space which affects how much we can retail in the shop.”

“A lot of our growth comes from what Andy and I both want from life. We want to be able to bring up our children and enjoy our family life. We are working backwards from there; what money do we need to do this? What do we need Urban Rider to do to fulfil that? We don’t expect to be millionaires but the opportunities are limitless: training schools for instance. It is up to us to make it what it is and what it can be. But we won’t do that by leveraging the business, taking on debt and risking losing what we have.”

Looking to the future William says: “We know we are in a niche market but we are aiming to be the biggest in that niche. We’ve had an average growth of 20% year-on-year, every year. It would be good to open a second shop in another part of London, but before that happens there is still so much growth potential with the online side of things. We are going to focus on that first. The key for us is to keep our growth sustainable.”

When asked to sum up why Urban Rider has been, and continues to be, a success, William simply says: “We want to bring a bit of John Lewis to the motorcycle market. We’re doing that by providing a good service. We don’t feel the need to discount just to make sales. We have the confidence to know that good service costs and that people should accept that businesses need to make a profit. We don’t undersell ourselves, but at the same time we don’t rip people off.”

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