The next in our series of Upstarts case studies is Paul Harmon founder of Electric Escapes, an electric bicycle tour start-up company, based in Westport, Co Mayo.
Originally from East London, Paul is an experienced traveller with stints working as a Sales Manger in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, two round the world trips, five years in Dublin in the construction industry finally settling in Westport, County Mayo.
What is Electric Escapes?
Electric Escapes gives bike tours around the beautiful Westport, Newport and Croagh Patrick region. In small intimate groups Electric Escapes aims to immerse you in the culture and natural beauty of the West, to become part of its everyday life, observe details that other tourists miss behind the wheel of a car and awaken your senses to the natural diversity of the landscape. Every Electric Escape trip is a memory made.
Electric Escapes features in The Guardian’s Top 10 Outdoor Activities in Ireland with its Kalkhoff Electric bike winning the Best Electric Bike from the Electric bike buyers guide.
What were you doing when you decided to set-up Electric Escapes?
I was made redundant from a construction company along with many others. I was getting over the shock and coming to terms with life without a job.
When did you start your business and what inspired you to do this?
Two years ago. I literally looked out and saw Croagh Patrick and thought “that’s why I moved here in the first place”. For the wildness, beauty and freedom the West gives you. I looked internally at things I am passionate about; environment, travel, technology and my family. I then looked externally at what the European markets were up to; particularly the Germans, I figured they would be first out of the recession and my research led me to electric bikes and tourism.
What were your start-up costs? How did you get the money, and what did you use it for?
My start up costs were approx €25k. I got €15k redundancy and match-funded that with Leader funding. It was a daunting process, but I got good practical advice from Leader and soon found friends in other businesses to help. The funding took four months to come through. It was a terrifying time. When I got the call to say the money was cleared I didn’t know weather to laugh or cry. I then bought the bikes and all of the equipment needed.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle was making the time to get the ideas into a practical business plan. Life was not going to stop for me to plan a business. The kids, family, home, bills still to pay and general living all took their precious minutes away from being able to plan a business. Things got started but…rarely finished.
Who supported you?
My family supported me and were amazing. Would you tell your wife you just spent all your redundancy money on electric bikes? Anyone with an eight and six-year-old will tell you that they are your best market research and sales team around. Every board room should have the honesty directness and humour of children ( some would say their executives are kids!). The local businesses and the people of Westport were fantastic. Fáilte Ireland, Leader and AIB have also been great with fantastic courses on everything I needed help with.
How long did it take you to get everything your business off the ground?
I think you never believe your business is off the ground. The pace of your own business gives little time to look back. It’s always the next stage the next project. Getting off the ground happens naturally when the right mix of forward motion mixes with the right processes. One day you look down and wooaah! You realise you’re airborn. This is not to say it occurs accidentally.
What do you love most about being your own boss? What are the drawbacks?
Being my own boss means I can immediately see the consequences of decisions made. No committee meetings! This gives me freedom and amazing satisfaction, in overcoming the fear of taking risks. I enjoy the spontaneity, agility and variety needed in everyday business. I love it when people tell me or I read on Tripadvisor that they have had a fantastic time with Electric Escapes or have cycled to France on a Kalkhoff . The drawback is, according to my eight and six year old marketing and sales managers is that I talk about and do nothing else!
Where do you work from and do you have employees?
I initially looked for an “office” or premises to work from, I thought it was the thing to do but rents were horrendous. After surviving season one without one and coming to terms with the “cloud” I realised my log cabin was ideal to work from and I didn’t need a “premises”.
We employ local guides, mix with other companies for other activities, kayaking, photography etc . We also have six shops selling the bikes throughout Ireland. Being from the wrong generation for Facebook, I also employ someone to help with the social media stuff & marketing.
Do you have entrepreneurial role models?
Role model? No traditional celebrity or guru for me. People that have inspired me have been those that have gone against established truth, rules or unbelievable odds in their lives. I won’t embarrass them, they’re not your famous business or celebrity people, they are people I have met who are normal people doing extraordinary things.
How did you learn and acquire the skills you use to make your business successful? How do you continue to grow and learn?
Born in east London and ending up being Sales Manager for Unilever in Dubai via Saudi, Yemen two round the world trips, Digifone start up to O2 in Dublin, 5 years in construction during “Tiger years” and finally the West gave me a broad business education. Being trained well in the corporate world helped but try launching Lux shampoo in a country where you can’t show hair, or finding your way out of Bolivian rainforest when your guide vanishes. These things can’t be taught on a course. Though having started the business I have been on every course available for every weakness I have. There is so much help out there if you just look.
If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I’d have followed my gut feeling further, trusted my instincts more and stopped more often to enjoy the fun of the start up experience. You can only be a start up once and it’s fantastic fun.
What is your best selling item/service?
Our best selling product is the Kalkhoff Electric bike, voted the best in the world, combining German design and Japanese technology its life changing, just ask our customers.
Our best tour is the Bangor Trial, combining good food, fantastic scenery, culture and the ease of a Kalkhoff electric bike. Check out Tripadvisor for what our customers say about us.
Are you a LookWester (previously living outside the Western Region) and if so why did you decide to move home or relocate to the West?
I worked a while in Dublin, Baggot Street, corporate world, but I had an unexplainable pull to the West. Everyone here is an entrepreneur. The energy to create a living out of nothing is incredible. Living on that surviving edge is vital and energising. It’s a far cry from Hackney too. Like many in the West I followed a woman and my heart here and now my kids, born here, are speaking Irish & playing the feadóg.
What advice would you give to anybody Looking West?
Just go West!! I have been given talks on regions, groups and people collaborating and joining together. It’s happening here and now! The kayaking guys are talking to photographers, who are talking to chefs, to mountaineers, to crafts people and combining it all! It’s amazing how awake the West is! Don’t come here to retire or get away, come here to live and fulfil your potential. Ever wondered, “what if?” well come here and find out!
Top Right: Paul Harman of Electric Escapes.