James Mitchell: His way or the highway

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After a shaky start, James Mitchell built up the biggest online motorcycle accessory store in the UK with a current turnover of £14 million.

It all started in a friend’s spare bedroom and now SportsBikeShop Ltd is aiming for a £30 million turnover by 2018. To top off his success, James is celebrating the signing of a new deal where he will build up a second empire in Germany over the next three years.

Having always been competitive, even with himself, the 35-year-old Managing Director of SportsBikeShop Ltd knew that he wanted to go out on his own and follow his path to success. As becoming a triathlete and an Iron Man didn’t pan out due to a knee injury, when he was introduced to web design in 2000 at the age of 20 he did everything he could to learn all about it.

Whilst working at Tong Engineering, web design started off as a hobby. He bought book after book and mastered design skills until he was in a position to start thinking that he could create a business out of it.

In 2003, James left his job to run his own web design company. “I was just a one man band, building websites for local businesses,” James explained. “My time was limited by how many hours there were in a day and how many websites I could build. So I decided I wanted to build a website that made money while I slept, rather than me sitting at my desk all hours.

“I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to start selling something online. I’ve got a motorbike, I’m going to get into bike sales’. But then my bike went because of the business. The first website launched in 2004 – and it was awful,” James laughed. “When I look back at our competitors, which there weren’t many of at the time, they all look horrible now but that’s just down to fashion and the way that things move on.”

Determined that he was going to do it his own way, James wrote the coding for SportsBikeShop.co.uk from scratch. “I was told by someone that I was reinventing the wheel, quite condescendingly so. I said, ‘No. I want to do it on my own. I want full control over it’. It was a bit of a challenge but I did it.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Stuck in a jam

Starting a business that makes money while you sleep is no easy task and when James first started calling suppliers, he met no end of problems. “No one wants to supply someone sat in a spare bedroom operating a website who can afford to sell things for a few pound on top of the cost price. This was never our intention, but that’s how they assumed it was going to be operated.”

James approached a local motorcycle accessory shop to try and get a foot through the door. They worked together with James providing the website for online sales and an address so that he would be able to sell suppliers’ products, splitting the profit 50/50.

By 2007 he realised the potential that SportBikeShop had to really succeed. James decided he wanted to focus solely on the site, giving up his business in website design for other companies. He entered into a discussion with his partner to take the business in a new direction but was met with opposition.

“My business partner had his own shop that he didn’t want to quit. I said, ‘Look, I’m going to give up everything here to run this business full time’.” James discussed with his partner that they needed to look at the possibility of amalgamating the business or look to go their separate ways in order to grow their businesses separately.

Hostilities persuaded after the mention of a buyout for James’ partner. This ended up becoming part of a lawsuit and James buying his partner out for much less than was originally offered.

“It was horrible. You’ve got lawyers prompting us to do ruthless things, you’ve got to send all of these letters, we had meetings, we had a fight! It was horrible. It detracted from the business, it’s not who I am. I like to get on with people. I don’t like confrontation and we had to work in the same building while all of this was going on.

“When I look back on it now it was a blessing because I didn’t have to have a business partner, meaning that I got full control, which was great. I put my full efforts into it again and I got my passion back for it. But that year was horrible. It was a very flat year for sales as well because it just completely detracted from the business.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Speeding to success

In 2008, James was on his own. He had managed to get the suppliers to provide the products to him directly rather than to the store, which in turn saved him money. At this point the business was approaching a turnover of £1 million.

Seven years later, James is able to boast that he is the largest provider of motorcycle accessories in the UK with around 15,000 products and 150 brands, looking forward to a £14 million turnover at the end of the year.

Due to the growth, James has acquired several of the units around his original base of operations in Boston, but it’s no longer enough. With an investment of £2 million, it is just a matter of time before SportsBikeShop moves into a new 25,000 sq ft space in Kirton, which will allow for up to 60 staff, amalgamating all of the products under one roof.

“This is the best stocked shop in the country. There isn’t one other motorcycle clothing retailer where you could walk in the door and have this level of stock behind the scenes. So no matter what size you are, what colour or product you want, generally it’s in stock and you can walk away with it today. The new shop will help to convey that message.”

He has even started to make waves in Germany, signing a new deal with Polo – the biggest motorcycle retailer over there. The deal has resulted in SportsBikeShop becoming its sister company, paving the way to additional security for its staff and the future of the store.

“What I am tasked to do now, as well as continue to run the UK company, is to help build the German e-commerce operation. As well as Polo’s website, they want us to launch SportsBikeShop.de and get that up and running.”

Now James is aiming to more than double his turnover to exceed £30 million by 2018 and continue down the road to success.

“One of the earliest things that I learned when I was starting out in business was to try and build something amazing, don’t just follow everyone else or look at what everyone else is doing. Just build something that is going to amaze the customer and delight them.”

Growth and expansion will continue for SportsBikeShop as James has no intention on holding back. But he will do it in his own sustainable way.

“There is still a huge amount of business to do in the UK. We are the biggest at what we do now in the UK, but when you look at our market share, there is still a huge chunk to go at. Then if you take Europe, there is so much to go at there, I think it would be foolish to do it all at once.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 56 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.