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A Passion for Life

01 February 1999

Disillusioned with traditional business, their initiative and ideas strangled by the huge cogs of big-company management, Guy Wynn-Williams, Fraser Mclachlan and Steve van Dorsser came to the same conclusion at the same time: there must be a better way. "There is always frustration when you are working for someone else", says Steve. "You don't choose who you work with, you don't choose who your boss is, you don't even choose what to wear - you get to choose very little."

They now have a warehouse of their own, a pot-belly stove on which they heat their lunch, a system of mail order for their well-designed product and time to ponder on the quirks of life. "I have not worn a suit since I left Telecom in 1994," says Steve. "I have 25 ties and five suits in the wardrobe - and that's the whole point. I now have the choice: the suits are there but I could chose to wear this." He glances down at his purple cords and Ground Effect fleece top. "We wanted to have an environment where we worked with just a few people. Where you spend your energy doing things you enjoy doing, rather than keeping in touch with hundreds of people."

"Our vision was this - wouldn't it be groovy if we could hang out in a warehouse-type apartment with bare walls, drinking coffee and siting in front of a fire," says Guy. Months of planning went into setting up their new enterprise. They had their systems and their marketing philosophies, even had their office colour scheme, before they had decided on a product.

"We are all analytical by nature", says Fraser. "We began with pseudo meetings in bars fantasising about our ideal business. We eventually began making headway when we cut out the alcohol and structured the meetings."

People warned them about the dangers of working with friends, but they believe it's an advantage. "You need to be aligned, you need to have similar philosophies, you need to thrash those things out before you start. If you are going to work with someone it should be enjoyable," says Steve.We built up a document capturing the little things - like why we wanted to go into business for ourselves, where we wanted to do it, how and what we wanted to do. This became, and still is, a touchstone. "When we read it now, it's remarkably like what we have. We wanted everything out on the table so we didn't get halfway down the track and find ourselves in the wrong place."

With a business idea and a sturdy map to guide them, Steve Fraser and Guy left their previous jobs. Only then did they decide on their product, after assessing the market opportunities. "We ended up choosing to design and make cycle clothing because we were all really into biking," says Steve. They got some fabric, started making samples and set up a virtual organization (each working from home and linked by phone).They agreed from the start that they were going to use mail order rather than have a retail outlet. "None of us shop, it's not something we do for fun - the thought of having our own retail shop was not appealing," says Guy. "As we learnt more, we realised traditional retail would seriously limit us. Basically one of the things we figured early on was to trust our style of selling, which is kind of soft - based on building long-term relationships."

From a business point of view, Fraser says cycling gear was probably a bad choice, because it's a niche market and more difficult to make money in. But nothing else excited them like biking. "For the amount of effort we put in we could have done a hell of a lot better financially doing something else. But we are not bitter about this. We don't spend a lot of time working, we spend a lot of time out there having fun, so we have a huge reservoir of stories and photos for the catalogues and an idea of what cyclists want from their gear."

However, they say the business forecasts made in the initial stages of the business were somewhat optimistic. "We were deluded about how fast it was all going to go," says Guy. In October 1994 when the first Ground Effect catalogue hit the streets Steve was poised at his desk, pen at the ready, telephone beside him, waiting for the floodgates to open. Nothing happened.

Eventually, however, the orders did start to come in. When things built to the point where working from home began to encroach on their personal lives they shifted to a warehouse in the centre of Christchurch. Four years into it, they say life out on their own is good, but they have had their moments. "Setting up your own business is incredibly risky - not so much on the financial side but in terms of pride".

"We worked out how things could be done differently, could be done better. We knew what we were doing, we had encouragement, we put all this effort in creating the brand and if people had said it was crap it would have been soul-destroying." Now they have more confidence. As their catalogue says they're "keen as mustard for your ideas about how to improve Ground Effect products to better meet your needs. So write, call, beat drums or send smoke signals to us."

They all spent a lot of time on their catalogues and newsletters, which describe their bike gear, suggest good rides, offer technique tips and generally try to develop relationships with their market. In the office the ground is always changing as they try to improve, innovate and maximise efficiency. Every six months they add to the design of products and put out a new catalogue. There are always more good ideas than there is time.

"Naturally, we'd love the business to be bigger and more profitable because there are always opportunities that require money," says Guy. "But the workload needs to be kept under control. For us the lifestyle is the drive and we've already taken some growth-limiting decisions because of that".

"The longer we do it for, the better it gets. A while ago we figured out where we thought we were at, and we definitely knew where we wanted to go, so it's reassuring that we seem to be able to head ourselves in the right general direction."

Rebecca Wilson