The first time we met at the Jayanagar showroom of BumsOnTheSaddle (BOTS), Rohan Kini described himself and the shop as evangelists for cycling.
That was couple of years ago.
BOTS is now three shops big.
There is the old BOTS facility and two new ones – one in Bangalore and the other in Pune – devoted to selling ` Specialized’ bicycles. There is a new one planned for Chennai and Rohan was excited about discussions to open showrooms in Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram. “ The industry has grown from infancy to something bigger. I refer to the whole Indian cycling community with all the related businesses therein,’’ Rohan said.
BOTS is remembered as a pioneer in community-building. It used to be a single, multi-brand outlet with committed fan following. Specialized, which BOTS has elected to distribute, is among the top bicycle brands worldwide.
“ How did you pick Thiruvananthapuram?’’ I asked.
Even as it has changed, Kerala continues to carry the cross of erstwhile business unfriendly politics. It attracts less buzz than some of the popular investment destinations of this country. Not that Kerala lacks money. Thanks to traditional businesses, cash crops, tourism, a growing IT industry and a tonne of remittance in its banks from people working overseas, Kerala is wealthy. It has a literate, mobile population. It is a state with longstanding interest in athletics and sports, including cycling. Small still on the cycling map, its teams have nevertheless performed well at the national level. New bicycle retailers have opened shop in the state. Still, a shop there in the early stages of a brand’s growth In India is unusual. What gave BOTS the confidence to bridge that last gap; that bridge across the questions the state provokes?
Uniquely, it ties in with BOTS’s own story.
“ Why did you start a blog?’’ Rohan asked.
“ I guess it is to write as I wanted to; compensating for what I miss or am denied in the regular publishing space.’’ I said.
“ It is the same in business. As a company, I can achieve what I seek only by having my personal space. We defined that space developing a community around BOTS. Having worked on developing that exterior perspective, we are now growing the company from within. We are looking at the business from a long term perspective and building a strong foundation,’’ Rohan said.
BOTS began operations from a terrace in Bengaluru.
“ That did not stop Shiv Inder Singh of Firefox Cycles from allowing us to sell the Trek bicycles they were distributing,’’ he said, highlighting the importance of passion for what you are doing.
Shiv Inder Singh himself had been the outsider who authored a quiet revolution in the Indian bicycle market, introducing modern bicycles and proper bicycle showrooms where none of that sort existed before.
BOTS grew, eventually moving to larger premises. Rohan admits that even then, amid all the commitment and passion for being in the bicycle industry, BOTS was still nebulous when it came to long term business plan. They ran a multi-brand bicycle shop with a robust cycling community around it, the whole thing enveloped in evangelical fervour for cycling.
Some time back, much after other American brands like Trek, Cannondale, Mongoose, GT and Schwinn had entered the market Specialized came to India scouting for a potential partner. One of their halts was BOTS. “ We had no expectations. Specialized visited many people and various establishments but for some reason they came to this enterprise run by four people. They spoke mainly of their philosophy. That matched with our thinking. It was unexpected that they would make us distributors for their products and yet, somewhere, it wasn’t totally unexpected either. The reason we took up Specialized is because it would be more impactful in terms of what we wish to do,’’ Rohan said. To sustain a business, he said, you have to be passionate about it.
The first discussions between the two sides happened in December 2012. The new Bengaluru store devoted to selling Specialized bicycles commenced operations in August 2013. Pune followed. Both stores are 100 per cent owned by BOTS.
The two shops in Bengaluru have distinct character.
The Specialized store on Infantry Road caters to a customer who is buying a bicycle as a conscious option and not a necessity. The bikes are expensive. Specialized has been positioned as a brand to aspire for in India. “ What the Specialized store is good at is delivering the experience a rider is looking for with product and service to match. In the store cycling feels immediately elevated,’’ Rohan said. The store has a facility alongside called the Specialized Body Geometry Bike Fit program that addresses fitting the bike to the customer’s body size and his / her needs in cycling. The bike fit section is headed by Naveen John, who is the current national time trial champion.
The store was designed by Specialized. Store design, Rohan said matters, especially in India where retail is expensive and often not profitable. “ You need to be smart on how much less space you can have and how much more you can get out of it,’’ he said. The American manufacturer also has what is called Specialized Bicycle Components University (SBCU), with SBCU professors whose main job is to work with riders. They talk to the riders; the feedback goes all the way back to the design team. Vivek Radhakrishnan who owns, manages and races as part of the Specialized KYNKYNY Cycling Team is the SBCU professor in India.
Where does this place the old BOTS?
We are at the Jayanagar showroom; large, roomy with glass windows and bicycles of various brands within.
The chat with Rohan hinted at the following.
Retailing in India is not easy.
It is expensive.
BOTS, which is multi-brand, provides its promoters a pulse of the larger market for premium bicycles. The Specialized stores may likely be in comparison, a high end, low volume-game. But in that business BOTS is also distributor. That brings us to the community which has grown around BOTS – what about it? This may be viewed as an internal transferable competence for community-building, BOTS merchandise and cycling workshops. “ We could have a BOTS desk at every Specialized store,’’ Rohan said.
Like the Specialized stores in Bengaluru and Pune, the proposed one in Chennai is BOTS-owned. However, the showrooms in Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram will be dealer run-stores.
In the case of Kerala’s capital, Rohan said the enquiry for dealership had come from Thiruvananthapuram and while BOTS studied the case, the entrepreneurs in question went out and secured an initial order. “ They have signed on, are super stoked to be part of the Specialized India family and are excited about launching the brand in Thiruvananthapuram,’’ Rohan said recently in an emailed reply after this blog requested for an update on the new store.
According to him, the DNA of the story fitted in with how BOTS itself was considered positively by established players despite debut on a terrace and little to show for sustenance at start except passion and commitment.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)