Cresting the summit: In conversation with Le Col’s Yanto Barker

Successful racing cyclist and founder of Le Col Yanto Barker tells me about designing the Le Col kit, selecting retailers, and attaining success in business and cycling.

How did your cycling career lead you to found Le Col?
I left school at 16, without any academic qualifications. When I got to the age of 25, I started contemplating doing something else, and when I looked at options available to me, I saw that starting a business would be the most viable. At that time, I’d had a few jobs, but none of them were right for me. It took about three years to start the business, and then took three more years to bring it to market. I registered everything in 2009, and started trading in 2011. It feels like a long time, but it flies by really quickly with sampling and setting up all the aspects of the business. I started racing again in 2009 – since then, I’ve worked both jobs in parallel.

Do you design what you want to wear when you’re cycling?
It’s a delicate balance between what I want to wear and what I think are essential features that are integral to cycling. It’s also important to cater to a demographic that doesn’t look exactly like me.

What else do you take into consideration?

We have to crosscheck sizing against other brands, and also crosscheck every product against its medium size. Everything has different fabric, stretch, weight – you have to tailor the range to be consistent with itself. There are also size and shape differences between every customer.

You can’t satisfy everyone. I normally take height and weight off anyone who asks me what size they should buy. You can predict the size quite accurately that
way. Men shop differently from women. They don’t order three sizes, and send two back. There are definite trends – men aren’t generally as keen on shopping, the shorter the experience the better.

Is the kit aimed at pros?
Not really. I’m always looking for endorsements from pros, though, to demonstrate that if you want to push your physical boundaries, this kit will look after you. Some people have done 3,500 kilometres in a week in the shorts I’ve designed. I know guys who’ve been down to -10°C, -15°C in my jackets. They double really well as ski wear.

You launched a crowdfunding campaign last year, and raised 115 per cent more than you had set out to – what are you doing with the excess funding?
We’ve got an aggressive expansion plan, and finance helps accelerate that. It means we can move a bit more quickly; it’s very nice to have a bit extra to work with.

The gear is made in Italy – does that mean that everything is made in Italy?

Every single thing comes from Italy – it’s all made under the same roof. The very first person to manufacture my first jersey is the same person manufacturing my most recent jersey.

Have you found market saturation to be a difficulty in sustaining the business?
No. We’re also looking at gaining market share off other brands. So there’s a long way to go before we hit any ceilings.

What’s your route to market?
We are a distributor in the UK for our own brand, and have a distributor in the US who we work closely with. We’re about to expand into other countries, mainly Australia, Denmark, and Japan. A lot of research went into choosing where to target next. We could quite easily sell to any country; it was about making sure we hit the popular ones, where I had good contacts. That’s something that we researched very carefully. We’re an interesting business, because we’re also a manufacturer. I’m not supplied by somebody else, I’m supplied by my own business.

How does Le Col differ from other high-end cycling gear on the market?

There are some important key differentiators. One of them is the consistency and quality control of everything made in Italy. This definitely sets us apart from other brands that don’t do the same. There are definitely quality benefits from doing that. I’m also able to have a very close relationship with all the products. The quality control gets distorted over time; a new jersey may have an updated fabric and because the stretch is different, you have to keep checking and rechecking. That’s my job because I ride the kit – up until 2016, I did 25,000 kilometres yearly. I was always making improvements and thinking “how can I keep this industry-leading?” There’s no brand with someone like that inside the business. No one is living it every single day. We sponsor pro teams and ask for feedback from other people, so it’s not just all about me and my own preference.

We have a very tight pricing model, which means retailers can rely on a margin, so they’re not all competing with each other in a race to the lowest price. In undercutting, everybody loses but the brand. All of a sudden it’s just a price war, which is just stupid. I try to eliminate that. You can’t fix pricing – that’s against the law – but you can select your retailers based on their ability to sell the highest proportion of products at full price – that’s what we do. That’s just because I’m protective.

With how many retailers do you currently work?

In the UK, we have 25 to 30. We hand-pick them. It changes, when you’re a young startup brand, you can pick them, but they quite often say no initially. Finally, you convince them, service them, and provide them with a good product. Since crowdfunding, it’s slightly different, because there’s attention. We will be quite visible in the market this year. We’ve never had as many resources as we will in 2017 – that makes people think: “They’re going somewhere, I want to make sure I get a slice of that pie.” We’ve already had a few people approach us. I expect that to grow quite a bit in 2018.

What are your biggest clients?
In terms of actual size, I would say, Café Ventoux, which based in Leicestershire. It’s a beautiful destination store, an old barn conversion, all bespoke. It’s the Boardman test centre for the UK. That’s our biggest store. But our biggest clients are actually two small shops, one in Richmond – Bicycle Richmond – and one in Watford, Cycle Right, which is a newer business. They have a beautiful shop and a nice community of avid cyclists. They’re really behind our brand. We look after them, they look after us. We only took them on last year.

How do you support retailers?
There are lots of ways that we support them. We provide them with point of sale, and help manage their stock for them. It’s not old-fashioned sales, as in push, push, push. As a brand owner, you have to accept an element of responsibility until the stock has been completely sold. If you sell too much, what happens is that it goes on the sale rail, and people think it’s not premium, then you fall down a slippery slope of just going into sale all the time. We’ve been very protective of that because it’s a premium product and it’s important that it stays that way.

What is the expected gross margin on the products?

40 per cent, which is industry- standard. We don’t deviate, we don’t do minimum buy-ins or big order discounts. Occasionally we do up-front payment discounts, but generally it’s just a flat rate.

Under what circumstances might prices change?

I would say that’s very rare. There’ll be international exchange rate price fluctuations sometimes, but in the UK, not very much. We may look at a few things, but the business operates under a value system that is very strong, and I don’t see it changing very much. For example, Brexit didn’t really affect us. Our pricing strategy had built-in safety mechanisms. Custom pricing is the most sensitive, so we put that up a tiny bit.

Is there anything specific that you’re pushing this season?
We’ve got a new brightly-coloured disruptive anti-camo pattern. The idea came from the camouflage patterns in cycling that are quite popular. I like the way they look, but I don’t like not being seen. We designed a set of patterns to use the camouflage element in reverse, using a pattern that is disruptive and colours that are not your standard background colours. As a concept, we thought it through carefully, and it was very purposeful.

I would say we’re very function- led – it’s about performance and technical proficiency, as opposed to leading on style. Style is trendy, and will come and go. With style, you can never please everybody. With functionality or performance, when it comes to cycling, performance is right for everybody all the time. It’s not going to come and go in the same way.

If you were to give advice to an up-and-coming cycling business, what would it be?

Anyone who says “It can’t be done” is wrong. I heard that a lot at first. “You can’t ride a bike and build a business.” I couldn’t come up with a good answer as to why not, so I thought, “I’ll try”.

I pick people to work with more on their “fit” than their qualifications. I like team dynamics, because I was a cyclist, in which a well-functioning team is a dream to be part of, and a poorly-functioning team is a nightmare. I consider everybody who does any kind of business with me – whether that’s supplies or buys – part of my team. That way, if I’m doing a good job, you’re doing a good job, and we’re all doing a good job. It’s about asking “How can I help this person, engage with them, and communicate with them?”

You have to remember that when someone gives you feedback, it’s his or her personal view. They represent a certain number of people who think like that. Some people represent a small or large part of the spectrum. You have to get away from subjective opinion to get closer to objective feedback. Two key areas that give me the best insight are shops, which distil the feedback they get back from customers and pick out the most relevant responses to share with us. This is consistently very useful. The other one are teams, which go out on their bikes every single day. They can give very valuable feedback about durability and fit. I have a close relationship with all our teams and shops so they know there’s a direct channel of communication. With individual feedback, you have to map them on the spectrum and take that feedback relatively to how you feel the group they represent is. I’ve already compromised the product in the performance side to make sure it caters to people who are bigger, or heavier, or not riding as often as pros. I think it should be very tight, but we can’t just do that.

I love cycling, and I think it all comes down to time management. I’m obsessive about time and punctuality. I plan my day, and work in a very modern way. I could do 95 per cent of my work on my phone. I have a zero-inbox policy. I’m obsessed with efficiency. I’m also driven by compulsion. Cycling was the first channel through which I was able to create something extremely positive out of potentially negative characteristic. Because of this, drive has never been an issue for me. I’ve never thought “Oh I won’t bother anymore”. Intensity goes a long way in getting results. It’s not just about taking the right approach, that’s just five per cent. The other 95 per cent is just sheer, dogged determination.

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