Tales of Hope Technologies
They may not be the loudest brand on the stage, but British component and bike builder Hope Technologies is without a doubt one of the strongest and most unique performers in the mountain bike component industry.
After much fettling and fine-tuning, the company has now also ventured into the complete bike market.
Founded by Ian Weatherill and Simon Sharp (who has since sadly passed away), Hope was built on solid, no-frills, innovative, quality engineering. Starting in a family garage and now operating out of Hope Mill, the company forged its own way into the MTB marketplace.
We called in for butties and brews (sandwiches and tea) at the company’s Barnoldswick base in Lancashire, which is in an old mill (for which the area was once famed). The town is surrounded with rolling fells (moors), all trimmed with lush green forestry patches and sweetly embroidered with great trails. It’s this very terrain that has shaped every twist and turn in the fabric of Hope products over the years, including its new bikes, which we were particularly curious to find out about. We spoke with Ian Weatherill (founder) and Alan Weatherill (younger brother and head of marketing).
ST: What’s the idea behind moving into frame building?
AW: Ian and Simon (Weatherill and Sharp) decided they wanted to make a bike for themselves. Normally (for carbon), you’d make an aluminum “mule” with all of the geometry setup and test it to work it all out. But, that relies on welding frames together, and we don’t do fabrication welding.
It was actually easier for us to decide to use carbon, because we can machine a mold. It’s easier for us to make molds and lay up a carbon frame and test it. The first one we made we still have. The geometry didn’t change. It was spot-on, although the tube shapes have changed slightly.
We then made a larger one and tweaked the profiles and so on, and that’s the bike we’re selling now.
ST: How has the bike been accepted (being a premium machine), and who’s been buying them?
AW: We’ve used it as a way to showcase what we can do; there’s all of the machining in the molds, the carbon lay-ups, and we’ve also proven that we can make carbon parts. We made the handlebars after that.
The UK is our biggest market, but 10 just went to Australia. We’re using it as a brand-building exercise (to show people the quality of the products we make). We’ve sold them in the U.S., Germany, Japan, Mexico—all over.
Our production is only 4-6 a week—not a big number. We had a 10-week order backlog when we launched. Now we’re at five weeks.
ST: Where are they being used competitively?
AW: We’ve had our own team racing on them in the U.S. for the last couple of years. The original bike is a 160mm-travel bike; you need some big trails really.
We made them for our own use in the Lakes (UK) and the Alps, but as the development of bikes has moved on, slightly shorter-travel 29ers are more what people want, and what we want, so we’ve now developed the 130mm 29er.
ST: You’ve had one of the guys who built the Team GB carbon track bikes working with you on the project. How did that happen?
AW: It was a decision based around carbon manufacturing knowledge more than frame building knowledge.
Our background is in tool making, and toolmakers always have confidence that they can make anything. We’ve had to make tools in all different areas, so it’s natural to look at different materials and techniques. Carbon was something we knew we could do quite easily.
We brought in some consultants from outside, and then we designed the frame and got some help on the initial layup.
IW: We made it because we wanted to ride it ourselves.
AW: We’ve always made things based around what we want to use. We did lose our way some with the bike.
IW: We got carried away. We’re not a bike manufacturer (and don’t go with market demand and trends). We made the bike and geometry to what we wanted; otherwise, you can end up chasing other people around all of the time.
AW: The 160, when some of the journalists test rode it, they said the geometry was a bit outdated, but it rides really well.
It’s the fashion rather than what actually rides well that drives things. We do watch trends and what others do (as often things do get better), but it’s not always the be all and end all. It has to ride well first.
Hope also makes cranks.
ST: Hope has always had a reputation for producing honest, top-quality products at reasonable prices. You also buck the outsourcing trend and continue to manufacture in the (expensive) UK.
IW: Well, if you’re actually manufacturing product, it’s a lot slower on the evolution and growth path.
If (as many companies do) you outsource things and have a design team somewhere else, and maybe 10 different factories producing parts, it can be faster to do.
Also, manufacturing everything makes the whole evolution process slower. We don’t want anything to come back to us (because it’s a faulty product), so with the components we tend to make about 10 of them to use ourselves. Then they go through about 10 changes before they’re ready to go out.
Even once they’re out, there are changes; but, as we’re only producing small numbers at a time, we don’t need to go back to subcontractors. We can make those small changes easily ourselves for the next batch.
It sort of slows things down but speeds them up, too, if that makes sense; you can do more things (to tweak), but it takes longer (to produce).
Other people bring out new models all of the time. We don’t. We change colors, yes, but we don’t need to make new models.
Another thing that “does for us” is that we’re only just about $20 million turnover, whereas our next serious competitor is $800 million (SRAM, and Shimano around $2 billion), so we’re so small, minuscule in comparison.
For a company of our size to go against Santa Cruz or BMC; it’s crazy what we’re doing.
They’re stupid commercial decisions, but we’re doing it because we like doing it, and it’s been a lot of fun. It keeps it interesting.
What we do with componentry funds all the other stuff – like the bikes and carbon bars. It’s great. We’ve got a 3D printer now and are printing carbon parts. It keeps us busy and distracted all of the time.
There’s been over GBP 1 million ($1.32 million) put into building the bike, and now we’re ready to make our own machines to do the carbon. People just don’t do that (very rarely) for production, and we’re getting up towards six bikes a week now.
It’s mostly aerospace or F1 for composites, which means a ridiculous price. By making our own tools to do it, we’re trying to make it commercially viable.
We’re not going Chinese (on manufacturing); this is all made in Britain, with all of the controls and regulations that go with that.
We’re not dictated to by anybody. We don’t have shareholders to worry about, so we just do what we want to do.
Some people may say that’s £30,000 ($40,000) for a mold, but it isn’t. It’s costing us £1500 ($2000) in materials, and somebody spent a week shaving it—and then we probably scrap that and make another (as we did with the 160).
AW: Even before we finished the first frame mold, we changed the design.
IW: That’s the crazy thing about it. We can afford to write that off, whereas another company would go ballistic and stick with it.
ST: Has there ever come a point where you’ve had to consider OEM manufacturing and outsourcing to the far east?
IW: No, absolutely not. The rims yes (and light parts), as we’re not an extrusion company, and rims are effectively an extrusion, which is a totally different world. We could buy some stuff to do it, but it’s not our thing.
AW: We did once look at making spokes, which wasn’t that bad. But, we decided we had other things we needed to do before spokes. It wasn’t worth it.
IW: Composites are interesting; more our thing, and that’s what I used to do at Rolls Royce. I used to make molds for the front fan blades for the aircraft engines, so it’s a natural process for us and many of the people working here.
We also don’t make products for or sell to OE clients (just a couple of specific design parts), as we could maybe turn over 50 million and make nothing on 30 million of it.
For stuff like this, we could look at China or somewhere to make it, but we can make it here, so we do it. We’ve got the machines. We have one machine downstairs that makes nothing but shrouds (for cable ends). That machine was paid for six years ago, and we’ve had it nine years. Then we have maybe 12 people running four different machines, so what does it really cost to make that one part?
AW: We’ve also always done our own distribution in Europe along with most other things in the whole process.
IW: Lots of companies also subcontract design, and although we have worked with outside designers, we pretty much do everything ourselves. If we didn’t do everything ourselves, the individual aspects may not make a profit.
ST: What is the Hope Academy all about?
IW: Our company has designed a kid’s carbon bike, as there are options out there but they can be a bit clunky. It’s made out of fishing rods (there’s a company nearby that is owned by a fishing rod company, and they make carbon tubing).
We looked at just getting lugs and putting the frames together, but it was expensive, so we found cheaper ways. I reckon we can make a kid’s carbon frame for around £180 ($240), in 20/24 & 26 inch sizes.
We came up with a rental bike scheme and have about 220 bikes out at the moment, nationally. We put our bits on them. We tried to buy them off people at first, but they wouldn’t sell them to us, as it spoils their market. So, for around £10–30 ($13-40) a month, you get a beautiful £2000 ($2600) carbon kid’s bike.
My idea was to make 10–20 a week, but we have around 700 people on the waiting list. Then Mark Cavendish (top road pro) got in touch and asked us to make one for his daughter and tweeted it. Suddenly it went crazy, and we didn’t have the bikes.
They’re lovely bikes, and kids outgrow them in about 18 months, so they can just go to the next size. We take them in and refurbish them with OEM parts that don’t cost us too much.
It takes a couple of years to get the money back, but it’s not about making money; the worst thing you can do is put a kid on a crummy bike (you could put them off cycling for life). Now even bike shop owners are renting them for their children.
AW: We tried to hush it up (as we can’t keep up with demand), but people talk about it and it took off.
IW: We’ve been trying to put more money into it, but we can’t get the frames now. We had one company, but they cancelled on us. They do it because they want to sell their own bikes, which are £500–600 ($650–800) but are bad because they have junky components on them.
The next step is to look at making more ourselves. With the tubing and tooling, you just push them together; it takes about 15 minutes.
ST: Hope has always been rider owned. Has having your passion as your business diminished your enthusiasm for riding?
AW: We’ve always been rider owned; we just never really pushed it, whereas newer companies seem to make a big deal about that.
IW: We had a bit of a blip when Simon (Sharp) died, and I’d suffered for a couple of years before that, but that was personal stuff, not business. It did affect the company, but that’s all sorted out. Simon’s widow and I run the company now, and it’s just carried on.
Before Simon passed away I only worked three days a week, and we always made money. It’s a bit of an obsession (making money). You always have to make money on something—sell it and make money.
If you own everything and have paid for everything, it’s ticking over all of the time. It’s like with the kids’ bikes. It’s never going to make any money, but it pays somebody’s wages to do it, and it’s all publicity, too.
You don’t need to make a fortune, as long as it’s coming in all of the time. You don’t need to sell a business unless you’re really stressed and it’s really hard work, or if you need the cash.
We’ve always had money, since we were tool makers (at Rolls Royce) 32 years ago, and we’ve never lost it.
I don’t need any more money; we’ve never had a venture capitalist, never had a bank loan, just some asset financing in the past.
ST: You went from being an employee in the Rolls Royce factory to being a businessman. How did you handle the transition?
IW: Well, we’ve always done it, since we were kids. We had a paper route when I was a kid, and I was a newsagent by the time I was 14, as there wasn’t one in the village. I got to buy and deliver all the newspapers. I was too young to officially take the money, so I had to get mum to sign and take it.
I was earning £26 per week from the newsagents and earning £20 a week at Rolls Royce when I started at 16 years old. Then I passed it on to my brother.
AW: When I took over at 14, I remember dealing with the main sales rep from the local newspaper. We had piles of the cash we’d collected and paid him that way.
IW: Hope (when I set up with Simon) was my third company, and Simon was my second business partner. I was making and selling gym equipment before that.
I was motorcycle trials riding with Simon at the time, which is how we got together. Our plan was not about bikes then; it was trials riding. The idea was that we’d set up in business and when we’d made £200 in a week (what we were then earning at Rolls), we’d take Friday off and ride our trials bike on Thursday/Friday and compete on Saturday and Sunday (40 weekends a year).
I left Rolls Royce, and we set up (at the wrong time, as usual. I didn’t get any severance pay, which came shortly after following redundancies). I borrowed some money off my dad, bought some machines, and we set up in his 250 square-foot garage. We worked from 6 a.m. to midnight for 15 years, which wrecked the trials riding in retrospect.
We just worked so hard—ridiculous. We were 3–4 years in when we started mountain biking for trials training. Then Alan came back from traveling and worked with us. There were about six of us then, and making bike parts just developed from there, making our own components (late 1980s).
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.