Featured startup: Aidan Duff, Fifty One Bikes
Aidan started his career as top level amateur cyclist in Ireland, going on to race in France for over six years. When he returned to Ireland, he naturally started working in the cycle industry, initially in retail and then moving into distribution.
The early beginnings of Fifty One, Aidan’s startup, can be traced back to a trip he took to some of the most reputable bicycle manufacturing facilities in Italy and Germany. Despite their reputations, Aidan came away somewhat underwhelmed by the standards he saw in the processes and finishing involved.
Despite the lack of manufacturing facilities in Ireland, Aidan was convinced that he could do better. With his solid industry background – Aidan had already established one of the largest distributors on the island of Ireland – manufacturing his own range of world class bicycles was the logical next step.
Custom-made in Ireland
In early 2015, Aidan started Phase 2 of the New Frontiers programme, at the Synergy Centre in Tallaght. With the feedback and validation processes that the programme takes entrepreneurs through, Aidan decided that while his concept was strong, the delivery itself could be improved on. He needed to establish a real niche, a truly unique selling point. The programme is not for the fainthearted, and you need a lot of drive and motivation to take part. Market research, and trial and error, are both vital parts of the process. As Aidan put it:
“My idea was a really, really good concept, ticking a lot of the New Frontiers boxes, but when I put it out to people within the industry, the feedback was a little bit muted. People I trusted were saying: look, you can do that better than this, you need to go back and redesign it. On paper it looked good but the feedback from industry mentors and contacts was that it wasn’t enough. I felt a little bit embarrassed, because I was developing something within an industry that I knew, and here I was, a third of the way through New Frontiers and I literally had to rip it up and start again, so I started to feel a little bit of pressure at that point.”
Aidan cannot stress enough how much respect he has for his fellow New Frontiers participants. It’s a great mix of people with very diverse backgrounds, tackling projects that are sometimes very far removed from their previous experience. In many ways, Aidan was working from the safety of a known industry and well-established relationships, but he was also aware of the competitive and ruthless nature of the industry. Aidan concentrated on the elements he felt were the most important, and which would add to his core competencies:
“The great thing about New Frontiers is the unbelievable network you have at your fingertips – you come into contact with specialists you would never normally meet and certainly couldn’t afford as a startup. The New Frontiers programme is a fantastic tool for anyone wishing to start an export-oriented business. The benefits are too long to list but the course content and the structure it gives you are remarkable. It’s also a potential gateway into Enterprise Ireland CSF (Competitive Start Funding) and HPSU (High Potential Startup status), which is very useful for scaling companies.”
Following a clear plan
Aidan says the early stages of startup are vital to get things moving. He recommends creating the best network you can as early as possible. Although no one is going to grow your business for you, you’d be surprised at the help you will get if you reach out. Define what the overall goal or mission is, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Break jobs into bite-size chunks, define a road map and tick the boxes along the way. It takes time and you will go off course on a number of occasions, but a concise plan forces you to regroup and regain focus regularly.
Aidan reiterates how ideal the structure of New Frontiers is, as it essentially sets out this roadmap and helps you overcome the challenges that every startup is bound to face at some point. It’s structured around milestones and prevents you going around in circles. Sometimes, it can be hard to keep on top of the programme work AND keep your own project progressing. Aidan says, inevitably you derail from time to time, but that’s where your support network comes into play. The course managers have seen it all before so they can advise you on where to go from there. The consultants giving the workshops are all very experienced, too. Aidan worked closely with trainers such as Alan Costello, who helped put potential problems and issues into perspective. Aidan’s accountants, solicitors, trade marking, etc. all came from people he met on New Frontiers. Aidan says the best way to overcome inevitable challenges are with skilled, passionate people by your side.
Bringing it all together
Last year, Fifty One secured substantial investment in Ireland and from an industry-specific source in Germany. This will facilitate entry into the German and overall European market and give them a little more weight with suppliers. Fifty One is also an Enterprise Ireland HPSU (High Potential Startup). The carbon fibre framesets for the bikes are manufactured here in Ireland – instead of opting for lower-cost mass production in Asia, frames are custom-made to the precise specifications of the customer. The result is a completely bespoke bike that allows the owner to be part of the design process, which ironically is how bikes used to be made when Aidan first started out. The company is also developing a customisation tool that will allow customers to design and order their perfect bike online.
Aidan has a clear long-term plan for his startup, and with the right use of technology and customer focus will achieve his ambitious scaling goals.
“In short, to scale for the first phase of our growth plan, we will need to hit our revenue and employment numbers and establish a brand in a niche premium segment. From there we will have the credibility to leverage the brand image and add additional products, territories, and revenue streams.”