“I knew nothing about bikes but I took that risk. I worry, sure, because I’ve a family to feed. But I do take risks.”
Londoner Paul Harmon met his Tipperary-born wife when he was working as a sales manager for Unilever in the Middle East. He then moved to Dublin in 2000 as corporate account manager for Digifone just as the mobile phone brand rebranded to O2.
A love of the outdoors prompted him to relocate with his family to Westport, Co. Mayo, where he began working as a project manager with a construction company before being made redundant in 2010. He used the redundancy money and LEADER rural development funding to set up Electric Escapes that same year, providing electric bike tours for tourists.
He subsequently secured distribution rights to a German make of electric bicycle called Kalkhoff, which he now sells to other electric bike tour companies across Ireland. He has also formed a marketing group, Electric Escapes Ireland, as a way of jointly promoting electric biking holidays nationally.
What is your business’s elevator pitch?
We provide an authentic adventure experience that mixes cycling, food and culture, all across Ireland. Electric bikes allow people of all ages and abilities to take part in the same adventure tours. That matters because the great outdoors isn’t just for fit people.
What do you regard as your business’s greatest achievement?
To have established a business in a recession, survived and grown. Also, to have successfully collaborated with other e-biking tour operators to create Electric Escapes Ireland. Doing that meant bringing together a varied grouping of people, getting past initial suspicions about what my angle was, and getting us all to work together.
That has allowed us to share the cost of producing brochures, attending international trade shows and promoting Ireland as an ebiking tourism destination internationally.
What was the lowest moment?
Realising that a lack of funds was going to put a stop to my growth. Large orders for bikes started coming in early on, and I realised I didn’t have to cash to buy them to sell on.
When you first secure money from a bank, you come out skipping with joy. But I didn’t realise how much more money growth would require, and how much the seasonality of the business would impact on cashflow. That only hit me a year in.
“I acted purely on a gut feeling that these strange bikes with batteries were going to do well”
How have you coped with setbacks?
In that case, I started looking for alternative sources of finance, and secured crowd-funding. When I got it my bank called to ask what the unexpected €30,000 in my account was, and I told them. They asked what crowd-funding was, and I told them, “You need to find out because it’s going to be a huge help to businesses.” The publicity value alone of securing crowd-funding has been fantastic and that, in turn, led to some angel investment.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Coping with seasonality. It’s why I moved into the sale of ebikes, which now accounts for 50 per cent of our revenues, though we’re still first and foremost a tourism business. I’ve managed to extend the season from around Valentine’s Day to October, but then you have to weigh up the cost of that too. Is it worth spending €50 on diesel to deliver bikes for a tour that will net you €40?
What is your attitude to risk?
I knew nothing about bikes but I took that risk. I worry, sure, because I’ve a family to feed. But I do take risks.
“We provide an authentic adventure experience that mixes cycling, food and culture, all across Ireland”
Who has inspired or motivated you and why?
Rob Rankin of Vagabond Tours. He started out in the early noughties with one adapted Land Rover. He told me that, during the winters, he used it to deliver fridges to make ends meet. By 2013 National Geographic had awarded him Top 50 tour status worldwide.
What do you do, if anything, to switch off from the business?
I play over-35s football – I’m in my 50s – and I coach the local Under-12s. I’ve two kids.
What would you do differently if you were starting your business today?
I’d think bigger earlier, and look for more money early on.
What lessons have you learned in business that others could apply?
Keep your customer at the core of the business and have faith in your vision, but the courage to change it. Don’t think you are smarter than everybody else. Business is not about being smarter than other people, it’s about listening and asking customers what they want.
Also, realise that having an amazing unique service proposition isn’t everything. There is huge scope to take existing ideas and products, and just make them better. Bikes have been around for a couple of hundred years. Electric bikes are just an improvement.
Finally, if there was one piece of business advice you’d like to give to another business owner, what would that be?
Don’t be afraid to go with your gut instinct. I did all the due diligence and all the research but, in the end, I acted purely on a gut feeling that these strange bikes with batteries were going to do well.
Specific details about Paul’s ebikes business can be found on the website for Electric Escapes