S2E9 The Motorcycle Culture and Club Level Service Edition with Dutch Van Someren
James chats with Anthony “Dutch” Van Someren, who after 25 years in the media industry leading creative brand and marketing in companies like MTV, Bravo, Cartoon Network, Extreme Sports Channel, Harper Collins Publishers, and then an advertising agency he changed direction and created the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club.
It started in 2011 as a blog about motorcycle culture, which launched into an annual exhibition retail and then in 2015 opened as a full time destination venue in Shoreditch under four huge victorian railway arches, offering club level hospitality, retail, events, a barbershop, galleries, and lounge spaces to a global audience of people who love motorcycles, and people who love people who love motorcycles, and their friends, their dogs and kids.
The club, which doesn’t require membership, but has about 800 members, welcomes 2400 people a week through its doors and reaches 2.4 million people a month on social media, globally. And in 2020, they’re opening a 30,000 square foot venue in Los Angeles.
They discuss motorcycle culture, building tribes, mucking in and being a good parent, hiring the right people, evolving business and Captain Kirk.
Instagram @bikeshedmc @partsandlabourbarbers
You Tube Bike Shed Motorcycle Club
James Nathan 0:55 Hello and welcome to The Only One Business Show with me, your host, James Nathan and my guest today, someone who I think you’re going to really enjoy hearing from and someone that I’ve admired from a distance for quite a few years, although he doesn’t know it. After 25 years in the media industry leading creative brand and marketing in companies like MTV, Bravo, Cartoon Network, Extreme Sports Channel, Harper Collins Publishers, and then an advertising agency he changed direction and created the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club. It started in 2011 as a blog about motorcycle culture, which launched into an annual exhibition retail and hospitality event in 2013, which celebrated its 10th event last May at the Tobacco Dock in London with 17,000 attendees. And then in 2015 opened as a full time destination venue in Shoreditch under four huge victorian railway arches, offering club level hospitality, retail, events, a barbershop, galleries, and lounge spaces to a global audience of people who love motorcycles, and people who love people who love motorcycles, and their friends, their dogs and kids. The club, which doesn’t require membership, but has about 800 members, welcomes 2400 people a week through its doors and reaches 2.4 million people a month on social media, globally. And in 2020, they’re opening a 30,000 square foot venue in Los Angeles, which just sounds awesome. Please welcome Dutch Van Someren. Dutch, how are you?
Dutch Van Someren 2:30 I’m very well. Thank you. That was a very nice intro. Thank you.
James Nathan 2:33 You’re welcome. Everybody sort of says that, you know, when you when you sit back and listen to your own intro, or the intro read about you, you often sit and think Well, I’m not too bad a person really am I?
Dutch Van Someren 2:42 It does sound like a whole bunch of achievements. I’m not sure I can claim full responsibility for but it’s fantastic. And when you describe it in that way, it does sound pretty awesome.
James Nathan 2:51 Well, it is pretty awesome. I think, you know, as a big motorcycle fan, if you talk to anybody about me, they’ll tell you that I’m always happiest on two wheels. The Bike Shed’s a fabulous place, tell me about it, how it came about and what it’s become.
Dutch Van Someren 3:06 It came about by accident, really. I didn’t realize there was such a huge sort of gap in the market for looking after what I think of is maybe the 99 percenters in motorcycle culture. I mean, the whole of the motorcycle industry is wrapped around this kind of top tier of people that either go racing, or they dedicate their lives to being quite geeky bikers. And the whole of the sort of development of motorcycles is either sort of commuting and transport or it’s sport, Moto GP. But there’s a whole bunch of motorcycle riders who love bikes, they consider it a lifestyle proposition. And it probably has more in relation to maybe wearing a nice watch or playing a guitar than it does to the transport industry. And those people weren’t catered for, and the industry hadn’t evolved. And if you go to motorcycle destinations, if you go to motor, events, they are usually down and dirty spit n sawdust. They’re either trade fairs or their dodgy roadside cafes. And I think what happened was by writing about the sort of the, I guess, the creative side and the cultural side of bikes as a blog, I discovered a huge audience of people that were, really weren’t being served by the motorcycle magazines or the motorcycle shows. And that prompted us to create this annual event. And so we rented some arches in Shoreditch in 2013. And 3000, people turned up on the back of about 20,000 Facebook followers, from all over. I mean, you know, people came from Thailand to come to this event that we put on. And it was such a big success for us in these two railway arches that we did another event that same year, and 5000 people turned up. And that was such a big thing. And so many people felt as though we were speaking to them for the first time as motorcycle riders and aficionados and people who just liked bikes and thought they were cool. We’d created this inclusive, hospitality focused, curated event. And the way it turned into what we have now was, you put all of that effort into a weekend event where you create bars, and you know, you have sort of coffee pop ups and curated motorcycles on plinths, and you have tattoo shop pop ups, and barber shop pop ups, and all these people come. And on a Monday, you don’t want to pack it away. And most people’s reaction was when they came for our weekend event was, why do you have to close? Can you just not leave this here, and will come every weekend. In fact, hell will come every day. If you’re going to serve really good food like this, really good coffee like this, and really nice beers and I can get a haircut and look at some stunning bikes and art and photography, please could you do this every single day. And we were persuaded to do that by people that were willing to invest in us, literally invest in us. It took a long time to come around to that. I mean, I spent about a year trying to write a business plan for someone else. Because I had a grown up job in advertising as a creative director. I was quite comfortable doing that I had a nice four day week and a five day week salary. So, I was quite happy where I was. But the more I put the business idea together, and we looked for venues and we worked out what the possibilities were, the more I realized that I wanted to run it. And that’s how it came about was, you know, discovering a tribe of people that felt the same way I did about motorcycle culture, not biking, not bikers, but riders, and then realizing that there were enough people like me to create a business.
James Nathan 6:48 You talk about club level hospitality or club level service. What does that mean?
Dutch Van Someren 6:55 I think what it is we live in a very commoditized world in terms of retail and hospitality, where you’re, you know, you’re wallet walking in the door. And and I certainly think in London, you know, there are a lot of businesses that operate on the fact that they’ll only ever see you once and if you don’t come again, it doesn’t really matter. And I think that’s a bit of a shame, really, I mean, I understand that businesses business, and that we all need to a degree to look to commoditize, what we do and, look at margin and GPs and make sure that we’re controlling our costs. And that, you know, we’ve got the right level of staffing for the amount of turnover we have. But I think one of the things that’s really intangible is how you treat people. And making people feel welcome is a really big thing. I mean, I’m a very big fan of the brand Deus ex Machina, which is originally in Australia branched out into the rest of the world and, I was very disappointed to going to one of the venues in the US where, when I turned up having made my pilgrimage to this motorcycle destination venue. When I got there, no one seemed to care that I’d arrived. I was there with a motorbike on my T shirt. I turned up in a convertible rented Mustang, which is what you do if you go to Los Angeles. And I walked in on a Wednesday afternoon with my wife to ogle the motorcycles and look at the gear and check out all this cool stuff. And out of the four stuff in the venue, no one cared that we were there, even though we were the only two customers. And I was a bit blown away by that. And it’s the opposite of the experience I had as a customer when I joined many years ago, Soho House. When it was just one club destination. What I loved about that was they you know, whenever I went there, they greeted me by name, they were glad to have me back. And I’m sure it was just, you know, when I swipe my card, my name came up on a terminal, but they treated me like somebody who was part of the furniture. And I always felt that if you ride motorcycles, and you’re in a club, you know, there’s that thing, you go to a wedding on a table full of boring people. And then you discover the guy at the far end rides a bike, and suddenly that’s it you two are best friends for the rest of that wedding. And it’s like, yeah, you’ve discovered something about that person. And I thought that the difference between offering somebody a burger or a T shirt or a beer or a cocktail or a coffee that makes you feel special is the welcome that you get. It’s how people treat you. It you know, if you treat people as they you, you care that they turned up. It’s a completely intangible, cost free bit of behavior. But we tell our staff when someone comes here, make their day, because they’ve chosen to come here. And we don’t know whether they’ve come here all the way from Italy, or Singapore, or whether they’ve just walked in off the street in Shorditch because they want a coffee, treat them the same. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re a member or not treat them like they’re a member. And I think that’s really, really important. And I think it’s why we get such amazing reviews on Google and TripAdvisor?
James Nathan 9:49 Well, you do and you get, you know, you punch well above your weight as far as as TripAdvisor is concerned. One of the things I noticed about the place, which I absolutely love is is how the staff look after people. How do you hire people that fit with the culture that you’re looking for?
Dutch Van Someren 10:06 And it’s difficult hiring good people full stop in any kind of hospitality industry, you know, as we know, turnover’s high and most people in the hospitality industry, really, that’s not their industry, they’re busy doing something else. And it’s just something they do for a short while. But I think the real key is having the right managers, it’s about creating a top down culture, where they can see that the managers behave in a way that they’re then expected to behave. We have an amazing team, really strong GMs and AGMs who look after the business, and they make sure that culture goes all the way down the food chain. But also, as owners, we’re very much in the space. And when we’re busy, you know, Vicki will dive in there and she’ll be washing up glasses behind the bar and clearing tables. And, also we have hosts, and we’ll act as hosts and seat people and make sure they’re comfortable. And, I think if you’ve got an ownership and a management structure that is prepared to muck in, and leads by example. I mean, it’s good parenting, you know, kids grow up to mimic their parents. If you create a culture in a business, where you give…. you care about staff, and you care about customers, and that’s visibly apparent, you will pass that culture down. And when staff don’t fit, they don’t pass their probation. It’s that simple. Especially hosts and key staff, you know, if they’re not going to act as though they care about the people that wander in, you know, with their eyes looking around trying to decide if they’re going to stay and take a seat or not, they’re not the right people for the business. So you’ve just got to really think, does this person I’ve just hired represent me, and my vision for this business and the culture we’ve created? And if they don’t, don’t keep them.
James Nathan 11:51 Or don’t interview them even? I guess?
Dutch Van Someren 11:54 Yeah, I mean, you’re looking for a connection. Yeah, I mean, we have a lot of transient staff that are here because really they’re graphic design or web developer or an actor, or they want to work in media, and we end up keeping them for a really long time as waitresses, and waiters and door hosts, because we treat them well, and they have a good time, and the culture here is really nice. I mean, it’s great actually to have a business, where loads of our staff after their shift, stay after work and have a drink and invite their friends or they bring their other half here and have dinner. And we encourage that. We think that’s great.
James Nathan 12:29 That really is cool. And there’s very much a feeling of people wanting to be there. Which when you when you told that story about Deux, and it just, it irritates me to my core that you know, you should go somewhere you’re so excited about going to and when you get there you disappointed by it. Especially in the States where you expect service to be very good. Walking into a…. mate of mine asked me to pick him up a Harley t shirt in Orlando recently, and although I have a vehement hate of Harley Davidson, which are mainly because I find it amusing to hate them. The service in that place was absolutely phenomenal. You know, they were so keen for me to be in there, you know, and then helped me choose what he needed. It was wonderful.
James Nathan You’re going to take this to America. And you’ve got this fantastically huge venue to open in San Francisco, San Francisco, Los Angeles?
Dutch Van Someren 13:20 Los Angeles, first yeah.
James Nathan 13:21 Los Angeles, how are you going to do that? Because I get how you can lead from the front in your own business, I get how hands on you can be in hiring and choosing the staff that you choose. But when you scale this overseas, how does it continue to be the same thing?
Dutch Van Someren 13:36 I think physically we have to be there a lot. I think we can’t get away from that. Vicki and I have, I think in the last 18 months, we’ve been to LA 16 times. And in the first year of operation, I fully intend us to be there half the time. Also, we have an amazing….I mean, we have the guy Stuart Fairbrass, who was our GM then became our operations director and is now the COO. He’s also amazing and brilliant, and a kind of motorcycle aficionado through and through, one of us will always be there. And we’ve also found great people in LA. I mean, the great thing is that when you add riding a motorcycle to other areas of business, whether that’s media or hospitality or retail, you find your tribe. And so that means when we’re out there looking, we’re not just looking in the normal kind of world of sort of human traffic looking for a job. We’ve got amazing editorial director who’s a rider and writer. And, also, we’ve got somebody who’s going to be looking after partnerships for us. And all of those people out there, they’re people like us, we’ve found our tribe, and they will be the leaders who lead by example.
James Nathan 14:48 So if you’re talking to people who are running other types of businesses, you mentioned the word tribe a few times. And it’s a lovely word, because it certainly encompasses what you’re talking about. How to other people identify what their tribe is, and how do they then seek to, to, to serve that?
Dutch Van Someren 15:06 It’s a really interesting question and a difficult one to answer. I mean, I have a lot of people who have asked that question in various different ways and say, well how do we find what you found? And I still some, you know, do quite a lot of brand strategy and marketing consultancy for people. And you get some really odd brands that will say to me, Well, how do we create community? And it’s, it’s kind of like, well, if you haven’t got a community, you can’t magic one up, it’s got to be wrapped around something authentic. And sometimes people are looking in the wrong direction. I’d say that you’ve got to find who your aficionados are, who are your natural champions, and try and work out what it is that, you know, that makes them care about what you do. I mean, if you’re a place that specializes in amazing cocktails, who are the people that come to you because of those cocktails, and think that that’s an amazing level of service? And, you know, could they be your ambassadors? Could they be your advocates, could be that could they be the people answer questions on your behalf when people ask a question on Google, or TripAdvisor, which happens all the time for us. I mean, we’ve got a membership club that started out as a reward scheme, and has ended up being a really social thing, based on the customers who come here, because of all the different things we do. But it doesn’t have to be bikes, it might just, you know, it might be a lot of other things about the business that you run, it might be the art that you’ve got on the walls, or it might be the events you put on. But you go looking where things are already partially there. Don’t try and invent something that doesn’t exist, I think that’s where a lot of brands go wrong. And there are a lot of really kind of horrible commoditized brands out there that provide really boring services, who then try and create community by doing things that don’t make sense. You’ve got to stand on the shoulders of the things you’ve already done. I mean, I’ve worked for some brands that have done really weird things. And they try and break into communities that I have no relevance to what they do. And I’m like, stay closer to home, and you’ll find something real.
James Nathan 17:07 What’s the feature of a business like yours? Because you mentioned, also you talked about community and it does feel like a community. One of the things that striked me the last time I was down, I met someone for for lunch who was, as a business meeting. Now I rode down because I could he turned up in a suit and didn’t look at a place at all, because the mixture of people there was wide. You know, you’ve got the very tattoo, you know what, typical sort of biker, I guess stereotypical looking biker guy, and then everybody else who loves bikes and the rest of it. But how does the business develop in the future because I guess the community changes over time.
Dutch Van Someren 17:50 I think the real key to any good brand businesses is evolution. And we’re all sort of, I think what a lot of people do is they set something up, and then it’s kind of carved in stone. And I think you can have principles carved in stone, but you’ve got to allow the execution of those principles to evolve. I had a very interesting experience as creative director for Bravo, and the TV channel aimed at men. When I got there, they said, look, we’ve lost our way and we’re losing market share and people are watching other channels. We don’t really know who we are anymore. And their brand message was unapologetically male. And I said the problem was when you launched you launched in the time of Loaded magazine, when unapologetically male meant burping and farting and drinking beer, and being a bloke’s bloke, and it was all about funny captions under magazine photos. And since then you’ve missed out on, you know, sort of yoga man, ponytailed man, GQ Arena Homme man, and now men do yoga and hold doors open for ladies and eat vegetarian food, you forgot to evolve. Now that’s still unapologetically male. But now it’s less of an alpha male, it’s much more of a kind of spiritual male and you forgot to evolve. I think, you know, motorcycle culture is exactly the same. You know, the culture around us is evolving all the time. But the principles of what motorcycles stand for are exactly the same. They, you know, it’s a very pure expression of community and experience. Motorcycles are a metaphor for being part of something, they mean adventure, they mean speed, they mean sport, they mean, you know, being a sort of a slight outsider. You know, any, you know, you look at a cool commercial, they stick a guy on a motorcycle, if you want to be the inappropriate boyfriend in a movie, you arrive on a motorcycle, if you want to be chased by dinosaurs, you run away on a motorcycle. Or if you’re the slightly naughty Captain Kirk, on the new Starship Enterprise, you turn up on a space motorcycle. That phenomenon of what two wheel stands for, is always got a truth behind it, it’s always got this core of rebellion and individuality and independence and freedom. But the expression of that evolves, one day it’ll be electric. And it’s going to Americana and it’s gone through being Japanese, it’s going through being British right now. and European, again is cool. And it’ll always have these evolving iterations. And the people who like bikes are also evolving, you know, what they wear, what they ride, how they express, that changes all the time. But the core idea of two wheels, and freedom will always be there. So as long as we evolve our menu and our service and the retail product we sell, and the way we look after people I think will stay relevant. And that’s the key and you know, right now our look and feel, I would say we’re a little bit Soho House circa 1996. You know, we’re kind of old leather sofas and turkish rugs. And, you know, we’re a bit man cavey, but I think, you know, going forward into LA we’ll evolve a little bit more move forward. And, you know, we’ll try and evolve that concept. And, you know, and I’d also say to the guys, here, we have this, the Japanese idea of Kaizen, constant improvement. So I’m always saying to the people running this business, you know, in a year, I want everything to look completely different. But if you come here every day, I wouldn’t want anyone to notice.
James Nathan 21:12 A bit like Prince Charles’s haircut.
Dutch Van Someren 21:14 Exactly.
James Nathan 21:15 Exactly that and tell me about the mistakes you’ve made on the way through because you can’t get, you can’t just produce something as excellent as you’ve got without having made a few mistakes.
Dutch Van Someren 21:26 I certainly think we made loads of mistakes. I don’t know how I would have fixed those, even with hindsight. I mean, I think it took a long time to find the right managers in hospitality, we went through quite a few people. Before, I think we thought we had to compromise more than we really did. When we when we set up the hospitality part of our industry, part of our business, which is such a big chunk of our revenue. And we thought we just had to hire sort of hospitality people that wouldn’t be part of our culture as an event based motorcycle business. And we were wrong. We were happy at the beginning for it to feel different. And I think for a long time, our restaurant felt like a bolt on business. And it felt like someone else was running it as though we’d offered it up as a franchise. And I think we shouldn’t have compromised, we should have waited, in fact, until we found the right people for that. And I think the other thing was I didn’t realize what a cash hungry monster, the hospitality businesses is. We should have had a lot more money in the bank for cash flow. And we could have done, we could have made our lives an awful lot easier if we’d raised more money in the first place. But even with hindsight, I don’t think we’d have been able to raise more money, because the project was so ambitious. And I think it was such a risky venture for our investors, that I don’t think that if I’d gone out there asking for as much as we needed, in the end, I don’t think they’d have given it to us. So what we had to do was raise money, and then raise a bit more. And then when we found that our only problem was cash flow, rather than establishing ourselves, then we were able to go back and show the numbers and show that we were trading well, and we needed to raise more to manage cash flow. And so I think that was… they were mistakes we couldn’t really avoid. But other than that things went relatively smoothly. I mean, we’ve managed to sort of meet our intended forecast targets almost from day one. Which is pretty surprising to be honest. So I think, yeah, raising…. making sure you’ve got enough in the bank is a major thing.
James Nathan 23:31 The retail side of your business is quite interesting because it does…. you said do with the with the hospitality side not feeling like a bolt on, it does feel like a combined area, a community. How does the the online side affect the the shop and how does that develop?
Dutch Van Someren 23:49 I mean they’re two sort of quite different things in a weird way. Certainly from a business point of view. Our physical shop, is there to attract people to the venue. It’s a foot fall, it’s a worm on a hook to get people here who ride motorcycles. Because you know, to be an authentic motorcycle place, you need to sell crash helmets and gloves and boots and protective wear. So I need to know that if someone comes here on a motorcycle, and they can buy everything they need to ride a bike. And it’s a genuine motorcycle store. Now online, we don’t try and do that at all. Online we are a Bike Shed Motorcycle Club apparel business, and we sell a lot more t shirts and sweatshirts and hoodies and caps and jackets and jeans that aren’t protective, because we’re a retail brand. So our online presence is really about Bike Shed Motorcycle Club gear and apparel, some of which is protective, but you can’t buy everything you need for a motorcycle on our online store, you have to go to Urban Rider where we’re hosted to buy the things that we don’t sell it. I mean, we do one pair of Bike Shed gloves. That’s it. So if you don’t like those gloves, then that’s no good to you. So they serve slightly different functions. And so and then the other part of the store here is it’s a lot more of a souvenir merchandise store as well because a lot of people come to a tourists who just want a T shirt with Bike Shed London written on it. And so we also have a big part of that store that is just this gift by or you know kids walk out with kids t shirts with Bike Shed written on them because their family came here off the Columbia Road Flower Market. So on the one hand, we’re a proper motorcycle store selling third party products who will sell Shoei helmets and and we’ll sell sort of, you know, loads of brands that we don’t offer online. And then on the other corner, we’re also this kind of souvenir, I’ve been to the Bike Shed, I’ve bought the T shirt shop. Whereas online, we sit in the middle, where we’re much more about more considered apparel.
James Nathan 25:54 Okay. It’s very interesting to talk around, because there is a distinct difference. But also you talked about Nathan very early on. And you’ve certainly done that within the retail space. You say you can buy everything there. But you can’t buy anything cheap there, it’s all very high quality and very interesting stuff is different to the kind of things you can get elsewhere.
Dutch Van Someren 26:15 Yeah, I mean, the thing about cheap is cheap only works if you have scale. And we’d rather sell quality product, which matches the rest of our brand values, which always been about do something properly or not at all, whether it’s an event or anything. And so, you know, if you start looking at pricing, and you start trying to get volume of products out the door, then you suddenly set yourself up with loads of really awkward problems in how you operate your business. And I think it’s much easier to really believe in what you do and do a really good job of it and get people to buy into it. As long as people have value for money. I don’t think people want cheap. You know, as the cliche goes, good things ain’t cheap and cheap things ain’t good. And I think it’s often it’s often a real truth, unless you’ve got massive, massive scale, and you can buy 100,000 t shirts in China, you’re not going to get the pricing that some people expect from some of those big brands.
James Nathan 27:13 Absolutely. And sure, I wasn’t particularly thinking about it being too expensive. It’s just that it’s obviously focused at a particular economic level for the kind of clientele I guess you want to attract.
Dutch Van Someren 27:27 Yeah, I mean, it’s not, it’s not sort of hugely strategic in that we don’t sort of go, we want to be up market. So we don’t sell cheap stuff. I think what it is, we’re I mean, we’re in a very privileged position that we are our own customers. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of my time as a guardian of various brands, where I’m not the target market. When I when I was creative director at Cartoon Network, my target market was a 10 year old boy. So you spend a lot of time trying to not be you, to think like someone else. In this case, you know, where the target market. So we simply make and buy and sell what we like, and we try and price it fairly. So you know, we go is that a fair price? Would I pay that? And then we go well is there enough margin in it for us to buy it and sell it or make it and sell it? So it’s an outcome of a behaviour rather than a strategy? I mean, if the strategy is, you know, does this suit our target market and is the price right? But it isn’t up market or down market or anything. It’s just Is it right?
James Nathan 28:27 Well tell you what it gets me every time I don’t think I’ve walked through your place without taking something home with me.
Dutch Van Someren 28:32 That’s good news.
James Nathan 28:33 And I’ve always, well, I’ve always enjoyed it, though. But he doesn’t like getting themselves something nice when they can
Dutch Van Someren 28:38 Please come often
James Nathan 28:39 Dutch I’ve really enjoyed the conversation with you. It’s been fantastic. And lots of great bits and pieces there that people can take away with them. What I’d love you to do is leave us with just that one thing, your one big thought, your golden nugget, something that people could do in their businesses today to make them benefit today and better for the years to come. What would that be?
Dutch Van Someren 28:59 I think maybe there’s two things, not one. I think that the easy first throwaway thing on the way to the big thing is this idea of evolution, always evolve. And if you don’t evolve, you will end up finding yourself at a certain point in time, left behind and irrelevant. And then you’ll have to have a revolution, evolution’s so much cheaper than revolutions. Revolutions mean a lot of blood on the carpet, and big refurbs and getting rid of people. If you’re evolving all the time, you won’t have to do that. I think the other thing is to always be, you know, be on the outside of your business looking in. I think people are very, very bad at that. We all know what we do and how we do. But we don’t often step back and go, why are we doing it? And why would a customer come into our door and spend money with us? And if you can walk outside of your venue or your space or your channel and say what’s going to make me as a customer walk in and participate and part with my money. You’re in a much better place for making business decisions.
James Nathan 30:04 Absolutely fantastic. Dutch thank you so much for your time. It’s been great chatting with you.
Dutch Van Someren 30:08 Yeah, absolute pleasure. Thank you very much.