I know it is really hard to sum up what the Glasgow Bike Station does but could you give me quick overview?
We have so many projects and activities! We sell refurbished bicycles and second hand parts for kids bicycles. We teach skills and give cycle training.
We also run a number of community projects in Glasgow. One of our programmes is called the Bike Station Academy. We deliver training to young people, especially those that are currently not in employment, education or training. We also have a project where 20 inmates from Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow learn how to fix bicycles. Every year, one of the inmates comes out as a day release to work for us for 12 months.
We also work in partnership with Cycling Scotland and CTC (National Cycling Charity). The initiative called Play on Pedals will ensure all 7,000 children across Glasgow have the chance to learn to ride a bike before they start school.
Do you also have a shop in Edinburgh?
The shops in Edinburgh and Perth are run by another charity (Recycle to Cycle). It was around before I started the Glasgow Bike Station. I really wanted to do something with them so I pestered the manager and he ended up accepting to work with me. We decided to use the same name and to share costs for the website and advertising for example.
You are originally from France. What made you chose to start your business here in the UK?
I came to Edinburgh through Erasmus, when I was studying Marketing and Business Management. I stayed to complete a Master’s degree in IT. After I graduated, I worked for a couple of big organisations including Macromedia (now called Adobe). At this time, they were getting call centres in India and making a lot of staff redundant. There was a lot of mismanagement and I didn’t like the way staff members were treated.
I started to look at reports from big companies such as EBay and realised that despite the huge profits they were making, none of it benefited their employees or the wider population.
At about the same time, cycling became popular in Edinburgh. I had a phobia about riding a bike! My dad tried to teach me as a kid but I fell off, cried and this is where it ended. I found out that the Edinburgh Bike Station taught adults how to ride. I thought it was very cool because back then, not being able to ride a bicycle as an adult was taboo. I went along to one of their classes and the teacher was amazing!
I used to get the bus and I would get stuck into reading the Metro and wouldn’t think about anything. When I started to ride my bike to work, I felt my mind expanding! Einstein said that he thought about the theory of relativity when he was riding a bike.
To cut the story short, I ended up giving my notice at work. It was at the start of the financial crisis and my boss said “Greg, you are crazy; you will not get a job again!” I said “Thanks, I don’t want to work again”.
My girlfriend at the time lived in Glasgow, so I moved there. I had no idea what I was going to do! I was good at running a business and making money but I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t really know much about social enterprises or charities. I started to volunteer in a small charity shop.
When I moved to Glasgow with my little bicycle, it was horrible. Everybody was shouting at me “Get off the b***** road” and worse things. I thought “You know what? I am going to do something about it”. I decided to start something similar to the Edinburgh Bike Station. This is when I started my journey to create Glasgow Bike Shed.
Why did you decide to create your business as a social enterprise?
I was driven by the disappointment that came from my past experiences working for private organisations. By creating a social enterprise, you put a system in place to make sure that there can’t be any abuse of power or money. A system that ensures it is social, fair and that the enterprise is looking after people.
It is not only about money. Money creates greed, greed creates power... If I hadn’t started a social enterprise, I might have become a mad entrepreneur myself.
In some way, was it also to protect yourself then?
Yes, that was the idea, protecting myself. Because of my background in business, sometimes, I felt myself getting greedy in the wrong way!
Only now, I know I have the skills to start a company which is not a social enterprise but which would be run like a social enterprise.
What support did you receive from Firstport along your journey?
They gave me contacts and free training. They also organised networking events with other social entrepreneurs, which really inspired me.
I also got a lot of support from Firstport when I was applying for funding. If they know that your idea is viable, they will support you through the application process and long after you get funding. I received a Start It Award of £3,813 in early 2011. They put me in touch with the right people and also encouraged me to apply for a Build It Award later on. When I pitched to the panel, there were some really tough questions but I felt it was good preparation for the future. I received my Build It Award in 2012.
You won “Social entrepreneur of the year 2015” by the Herald Society Awards in November 2015. How was the application process?
The application process was only a couple of written pages but it was difficult because I had to think of what makes my business so special and concentrate my message.
The Glasgow Bike Station was also awarded Environmental initiative of the year by PWC Social Enterprise Awards in 2015. Did you find that anything changed since you got these two awards?
Yes, it gave me and the company really good visibility. After I received the awards, the top man from Abellio Scotrail personally congratulated me. I hadn’t emailed him or anything, he came to find me! Since then, we have been discussing opening cycle hubs in every train stations in 2017/18. Big companies like Abellio usually give these contracts to big organisations and it is what they did in other part of the country. A lot of them think that social enterprises aren’t reliable because if the funding stop, the business will also stop. Winning these awards definitely made them take me and Glasgow Bike Station more seriously.
What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur?
Go and ask. Speak to people. Use as many free services as possible. I looked around, Googled all I could, met with the Glasgow city council, found out about free grants to start up. One person will say “go to Business Gateway”. Go there and attend all their free training, even if it is on a subject that you think you know all about (like business and marketing for myself). A refresher is always good and it will help you meet people. It is how I eventually met someone who asked me if I had heard of Firstport.
Another piece of advice is to work on your business plan right away. I put a really good business plan together and I worked on it for about six month to one year before I started. It really made a difference.
Was networking an important part of your journey?
Oh yes, very important. It led me to find a retail space in the Glasgow Barras Market where the manager gave us free rent for the first 6 months!
Networking is a really big part of being an entrepreneur. I am easy going and chatty so it was quite easy for me. If you are a shy networker, I recommend watching Amanda Plamer’s Ted Talk “The Art of Asking”. People say that if you don’t ask, you don’t get and she explains this concept very well.
Thanks for sharing your story Greg.
If you feel inspired by Greg’s story and would like to find out more about how a Firstport business advisor can help you start your journey, give us a call on 0131 558 2724.