Creating a rich, authentic culture should be at the heart of any start-up. Jonathan Jackson speaks with Damian and Nancy Hancock about how they have built a genuine Italian lifestyle experience into their A’qto brand of clothing.
It’s that love for what you do that usually propels you towards success; an ingrained passion that drives you forward and holds you strong to the values and vision around which a business is built.
For Damian Hancock it was his love of all things Italian that inspired A’qto (pronounced ‘a-cue-tow’ and means acute or intense in Italian). Damian is a man who lives and breathes Italian; from the food, to the clothes and the way cyclists go about their cycling – riding hard and then stopping for a more relaxed bowl of pasta and a macchiato before rolling out for the ride home.
“There is a sense of freedom, speed and rhythm with cycling that I wanted to bring to the brand, but also to create a community of passionate cyclists who are bound by history, relevance and a rich culture,” Damian says.
Damian’s wife Nancy, whom he met at a cycling event and just happens to be Italian herself, says, “What Damian brings to A’qto is a deep knowledge and appreciation of cycling history and culture. He knows what the cyclist knows, and with this knowledge is developing a sub-culture around the cyclist ‘in the know’. There is a niche culture and community that we are building; a community of likeminded cyclists who appreciate the history and rich culture of the sport.”
Damian continues, “We researched the history and culture of cycling; who the main players were and their stories. We looked at the style and panache of the races of bygone eras and all of that fed into where we wanted to push the brand from a lifestyle perspective.”
As well as creating a cultural zeitgeist, Damian wanted to build a product that was high quality. The fact that he had production management, budgeting and timeline skills from his previous life as a Print Production Manager with advertising firm McCann meant he was confident in taking a more entrepreneurial path. He says without those production and project management skills, he probably would not have been able to take the start-up journey.
To begin the begin
Leaving McCann made for a refreshing change and freed Damian up to pursue his passions.
“I finished up at a job and was going on a five week holiday to celebrate a mate’s wedding in Guatemala. During that time I went to Cuba and feeling disillusioned with advertising and its ethics, I had a few mojitos and started writing a list of things I could do. I whittled it down to five and then found that the lifestyle clothing industry was the easiest thing to do on my own with the least amount of capital required. I had looked at a food focused B&B that combined weekend adventures for corporates, but I felt I could best leverage my design and production skills creating a lifestyle brand.”
The plan was pretty loose to begin with, but this has been an advantage as A’qto has been nimble enough to adapt with the explosion of the cycling culture the world is now experiencing.
The business does have its foundation however, and that is built on the idea that cyclists need their own lifestyle brand: sailors have Nautica, tennis players have LaCoste and Damian wanted to build the equivalent brand trademark for cyclists.
“I looked at where the competitors were and I could only find one other lifestyle brand,” Damian says. “I believed that this was something that was missing and I am fortunate that cycling has exploded the way it has recently in terms of participation levels.”
To build brand awareness in those early years, Damian went to bike races and shows and set up pop-up shops where he could directly communicate to customers. It was at one of these events that he met Nancy and the pair was married three years ago.
“I was actively involved in my marketing career, but over the course of our first year together we recognised we had complementary skills,” Nancy says. “I had reached a stage in my life where I wanted to find something different. I grew up in a family business and I wanted to emulate that experience.”
Of course there were challenges. There are always challenges when you spend so much time with someone, but their partnership in life and business has been for the best.
“Coming into the business was a key decision in our lives,” Nancy says. “We were two fervent people coming together with strong minds and opinions, but at the centre of it there is a core vision. We knew the point where we needed to get to and although we differ on occasions on how to get there, we work through the challenges and that delivers positive outcomes.”
The Pavarotti of the peloton
Damian and Nancy have worked one corporate deal at a time to grow the business, which is now expanding beyond online retail. In fact Damian spent six years cultivating the online experience, filling it with as much passion as Luciano Pavarotti sings La Traviata. However, with the evolution of the market, the business has expanded and is aligning itself also with clubs, corporates, events and charity rides, as well as the groups of mates who want to experience the authenticity of a community movement..
“On the back of building a high quality product, you need to be authentic to who you are and the message you want to convey. This makes it easier to bring personal service to each customer no matter whether they are a club, corporate or individual,” Damian says.
The growth of the custom business has thus mirrored the expansion of the industry and the advantage of the A’qto business is that both online retail and custom models feed into each other.
A’qto landed its first big Club contract last year and that has been a game changer because it has moved the business out of the niche market and placed them amongst some major brand players. They have sponsored an NRS team for the first time in 2015, which also takes them into the high-end performance racing market. Damian and Nancy see this is an advantage for both their technical and lifestyle lines because of the connections with Clubs, Race Teams and Sponsoring Corporates, all made up of large numbers of cyclists.
“In every b2b environment, there are also consumers,” Nancy says.
Days of wine and roses
There are other plans afoot to grow the business including a series of riding and food experiences to match the experience of riding in Italy. Damian has just completed his first test case and the response to this ride has been positive.
“We will introduce 10 one-day rides throughout the year and 4 weekend trips that will take us across interesting terrain and deliver an authentic food and wine/beverage experience for our customers and community. The future plan is to also extend this experience in Italy each year. It all amounts to great food, and great riding with a great bunch of people.”
It also stays true to delivering an authentic experience and building a community through the love and passion for this sub-culture. This is what sets A’qto apart and will no doubt hold them in good stead as the company continues to evolve, and Damian and Nancy live their dream.
Kizzi Nkwocha is the editor of My Entrepreneur Magazine and publisher of The UK Newspaper, The Property Investor and Gold, Oil and Diamonds, the net’s fastest growing wealth creation publication. Kizzi Nkwocha made his mark in the UK as a publicist, journalist and social media pioneer. As a widely respected and successful media consultant he has represented a diverse range of clients including the King of Uganda, and Amnesty International. Nkwocha has also become a well-known personality on both radio and television. He has been the focus of a Channel 4 documentary on publicity and has hosted his own talk show, London Line, on Sky TV. He has also produced and presented both radio and TV shows in Cyprus and Spain.