“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.