How to build a brand, collaborate, and why it has to be Hackney

James Kennedy makes bikes for people to ride around cities. He does this from a railway arch studio shared with Barber's Gym since winter 2014. Working with his hands half the time and a keyboard the other half, Kennedy balances entrepreneurship with a PhD. 

In a nutshell, what do you do? 

JK: I make bikes for people to ride around cities. 

How did you become an entrepreneur?  

JK: I was that kid who was always getting told off because I couldn't do one thing for more than a few minutes. As I grew up, I accepted that any job which doesn't change all the time is going to be very boring and unfulfilling. I wasn't pretending it was the job and not me!

It's not about quitting your job(s) again and again, it's about knowing yourself and finding the right environment to make you tick.

How was Kennedy City Cycles born?

JK: I started cycling as a way of saving money and getting around when I moved to London. My bike got stolen. During my search for a new bike, I kept thinking, "You know what, if I did this, I'd do it differently"

I had a clear idea of what I wanted and I didn't feel it was on offer - only approximations of it. So I started looking into it, the first thing was the frames, I made calculations and was stirred on.

I quit my job in trend forecasting (where I learnt that business is often about confidence above all else), found out all my calculations were wrong, and yet, a year later I was ready to go. 

Tell us about your journey...

JK: I grew up in Bath, studied Psychology and Social Anthropology and now i'm doing a PhD in Behavioural Economics in Bristol, it's invigorating aiming to create a piece of knowledge which doesn't already exist. What could be more interesting than people watching? 

Working with clients in the corporate world, there's a lot of 'how do we tell them what we want them to hear', with studying it's about looking for the thing which is the most true and that's the only aim. So many people roll into university without understanding it's a privilege, going back as an adult has been amazing.

It's cool to be able to move from building bicycles to studying, I'm fresher for both as a result. It works to have a bit of ebb and flow, to be tired in different ways, either brain or physical.

How do you build a brand?

JK: Around your own beliefs - that's true of most people I know who have made a fist of it. When you are a small business, whatever you believe will be reflected. You can intend to be someone else, but it won't last very long, there's too much thinking involved.

If you think something will work, that's half the battle. We all have that thing where we look back and think 'how was I that stupid?', starting your own business is a constant journey of discovery.

Put some effort behind it, sure you might be wrong, or everyone else might be wrong.  As it's just you, you have to learn about everything, it's extremely educational, extremely quickly.

When it comes to finances...You don't meet the guys who have a 50 person business and are suddenly relaxed about money. Work out how much you need to live on, make that your hard and fast rule and pay yourself that. If you're doing better, use it for other things, everything after that is a bonus.

Why Hackney?

JK: It couldn't really be anywhere else to be honest. Hackney is a practical place to have a business, lots of people, lots of cyclists, relatively low rental prices for London, lots of small businesses and therefore mutual support and interesting angles.

The respect with which businesses treat each other at this stage is a massively important part of how well they'll do.

If nothing else, it's incredibly interesting and actually really practical too. There's a degree of trust which comes with being in Hackney around so many cyclists. Plus I look the part, the archetype of a cyclist, with a beard and long hair. Oh, and the food is great.

Why is collaboration important?

JK: Imagine the most insecure worst case scenario situation, another business like yours / going down the same route, well, even in those situations it's never a bad idea. Being friendly and helping each other out is so crucial. When you're a small business, you're more like a person than a small business and people like helping people (not businesses). The more connections you make, the more likely that random connection occurs which is a catalyst, 'I saw this and thought of you'.

It's a) fun and b) practical.

From my perspective, I make bikes, I think they are good and I know a decent amount, yet you can't know everything.

We make a bag with Katie from Derek's in South London initiated by a tweet, bag making is something I don't know how to do, so you can learn about a whole new kind of thing. Now we're looking at doing clothing, not because I've trained in tailoring, because I've talked to people who know that sort of thing. I wear clothes, we'll make something fun together, explore a new bit of industry and it works out for all involved.

It doesn't need to be a zero sum game, it can be beneficial to everyone, there's nothing for either side to lose, collaboration equals an opening to a whole new group of people.

Don't protect yourself from competition, be better at it. If you're not confident enough, maybe don't do it - think again, change it, refine it.

My customers are starting their cycling journey, we're converting people and haven't spent a pound on marketing or advertising. It's all word of mouth.

If you ruled the city?

JK: I'd ban articulated lorries from driving during the day (especially at rush hour), like Paris they can drive at night. Construction is London's biggest industry yet people being at risk of their lives seems unnecessary. We have an old city, we can't build any new roads, so let's keep it safe.

Your wife Florence is also an entrepreneur, Founder of Petalon which combines flowers and bicycles. How's the work/life balance? 

JK: Constructive criticism is easier to hear from your spouse! We are each other's editor and critic, we pick up the slack for one another and have very different skills. For example, Florence will choose the frame colours.

We both live our businesses, that doesn't make it all encompassing, it just means it's always there. If I stopped enjoying it, I'd want to stop doing it. I don't know how much I work, i'm not particularly conscious of when I'm working or not but we sleep enough.

A favourite piece of wisdom?

Hugh Laurie says it well:
It's a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you're ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.

Perfectionism can be a dangerous thing. A healthy level of commitment, then move on.

Best thing about Hackney Downs Studios?

JK: I LOVE the breakfasts at The Russet and Barber's Gym is how I first found out about the community - I met Darren by going there as a client and now we share a studio! It's good fun sharing with personal trainers Sam and Stuart, especially when you have a 3pm slump. 

Barber's Gym is made up of nice people providing an excellent service and there isn't much better in this world than that.

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