Director of Mid Life Cycles, Michael Catchpole, has followed two passions in his life: motorcycles and media. Around the same time he earned a journalism cadetship, he got his motorcycle license. As he built a career in media and communications, he also raced and maintained motorcycles and cars. And eight years ago, Michael decided to take his passion for motorcycles to another level. Discover the early win that kick started their growth spurt, and see why this retail business continues to grow.
Michael opened Mid Life Cycles in 2010. He set out to create an experiential motorcycle store in Melbourne’s Cremorne. Two years ago, he built a new store from scratch and the dream of an immersive space for Michael and his staff to share their knowledge and passion roared to life.
“From my mid-teenage years, I was a motorcycle enthusiast. I got my learners license when I was 16 years old and rode motorcycles then moved to race cars for a number of years and raced them at a semi-professional level. I always maintained a passion for motorcycles and about 10 years ago, I became interested in the Cafe Racer movement, which started in the late-1950s in Britain and has had a huge resurgence in the last decade.
The style and aesthetic design element of vintage cafe racers appealed to me so I started building cafe racers based predominantly on 1970s Hondas. I worked with a friend of mine who was a very technically skilled mechanic. We started out as more of a hobby business operating mainly on weekends. Over the last eight years, Mid Life Cycles has grown into a dealership specialising in Royal Enfield, MV Agusta, and Benelli motorcycles.”
The leap of faith
Michael was working as an executive in a large organisation when he decided to turn his hobby into a business. At first, he continued working his day job. While they were finding the right mechanics to build the team and testing the business, they mainly operated on weekends. Quickly though, the business grew as demand for their unique customer service and offering resonated with Melbourne’s motorcycling community. So Michael took the leap of faith so familiar to business owners and in 2016 he started working on Mid Life Cycles full time.
“One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is how to manage growth in a small business. My experience has largely been running larger enterprises for private companies and not-for-profit groups. I’ve worked as a senior manager and CEO with a team looking after specialised areas such as finance or marketing. Whereas in a small business you end up working across every aspect of the business all at once. It’s challenging trying to stay across everything, especially all the detail of finance to manage cash flow in a retail environment, managing digital marketing and display advertising has all been a steep learning curve, particularly as we’ve grown rapidly. It’s been challenging for us to keep up with that growth particularly as we’ve grown from representing one brand to three brands now.”
Using inspiration as a headlight
Mid Life Cycles started out as a Royal Enfield Dealership. Even in those early days, Michael was determined to provide his customers with a unique experience. He built a custom fit out inspired by Royal Enfield’s iconic style.
“It was quite challenging because we moved into new premises. We built the fit-out specifically to match Royal Enfield’s classic 1960s style, but there were a lot of challenges with building restrictions and regulations. The challenge in that first year was about understanding the relationship of the dealer with customers, the national distributor, and the manufacturer too – there are a lot of stakeholders to satisfy. It was also important to develop strong relationships with customers. There were a lot of areas to understand beyond just the retail aspect of selling people things in the shop.”
Turning brass into credibility
As a new entity in the motorcycle landscape, Mid Life Cycles helped establish their point of difference with a strong result in an international build-off competition. Run by Royal Enfield for its Australia and New Zealand distributors, the competition was an opportunity to showcase mechanic’s creativity, style and building abilities.
“We didn’t win, but our motorcycle garnered a lot of attention for the quality and style of the build. In fact, our build for that competition was so good we’re still offering a limited run of it – the Brass Rajah RE350. That was certainly a big win for us only a few months into opening. And at the end of 2017, we received an award for dealer excellence from Royal Enfield, which was for service to the manufacturer and our customers.”
Building a team of bike builders
Building a team from scratch was another challenge Michael faced. He leant on his experience building bikes, and word-of-mouth recommendations to find the right people.
“We found a very talented senior mechanic who has brought a lot of skills and knowledge to the team and he has enabled us to take on service work for premium brands like MV Agusta. Our first staff started on a part-time basis working on repairs and builds. The biggest step for us was securing a full-time manager with experience in motorcycle service and workshop management. It made a significant change to how we operated. We’ve found most of our staff from word-of-mouth and recommendations rather than advertising for positions – this has been crucial to find the right fit for the roles we’re filling in this industry.”
Building on timeless style
Michael’s personal interest in the Cafe Racer movement has influenced Mid Life Cycle’s offering, which is a more customised and special experience for motorcycle enthusiasts.
“We recognised there was a strong revival movement back to classically styled motorcycles – not necessarily the true classics of the 50s, 60s and 70s, some of which can be difficult to maintain and ride, but we realised people were looking for that classic retro look and experience without the trouble of trying to maintain a classic bike. Triumph recognised this market in the late 90s and launched their new Bonneville range, and Royal Enfield has always been in that classic market and they’re releasing new models like the 650 Twin, which is coming out soon. There’s a big movement globally towards motorcycles that are fun, practical and reliable but also capture some of that 1950s and 60s design spirit, which people of several generations can look back on and appreciate.
Mid Life Cycles provides an alternative to the traditional motorcycle dealership. Whereas our focus is on classic styling and premium brands. The look and feel of the store, and the open layout is classically styled to match our premium motorcycles. So whether you’re young or older, you’re looking for a cafe racer or a sports bike, you’ll find that focus here on design and style.”
The pitfalls of monetising your hobby
Turning your hobby into a business may sound like the dream but commercialising your passion can often come at the expense of pleasure. Michael is glad he started Mid Life Cycles, but the rapid business growth has created six and sometimes seven-day work weeks for Michael.
“There are times when I think it was a mistake turning my hobby into a business. The thrill of the hobby is largely lost in the day to day pressures of running a business. Certainly, I don’t have a lot of time to participate in rides, events or builds because I’m working six and sometimes seven days a week. The work-life balance is heavily weighted towards the business at the moment.”
It may come as a surprise, but motorcycles are seasonal. As with so many other retail businesses, Mid Life Cycles experiences seasonal peaks and troughs. Melbourne’s riding season is in the warmer months, which creates some cash flow challenges in winter and autumn.
“One ongoing challenge with the business is that motorcycling is a seasonal industry in Melbourne. We have a relatively cold and wet winter, which means there is a riding season for most people in Melbourne. That means it’s harder to maintain good work flow and cash flow, and balance off the time that’s available with the work that comes in during the quieter winter months.”
A different kind of custom build
To help market Mid Life Cycles, Michael used his extensive experience of print media to form their initial strategy. More recently, Michael has shifted focus to more of a digital focus.
“I come from a print media background and initially when we moved from a hobby business to a workshop, most of our advertising was done through traditional print media channels like various motorcycle magazines. In the last two years, we’ve shifted our focus online. The cafe racer culture is more of a lifestyle than just a form of transport and social media is great for growing that audience and sharing that culture. My background in media has certainly helped me with the marketing side, but I’ve had to learn a lot about social media and building our website and the content marketing side of things. We still have room for improvement, but we’ve come a long way from those early days.”
Keeping up with turbocharged growth
Every business owner dreams of huge growth, but too much of a good thing quickly can be problematic. Mid Life Cycles biggest challenge has been keeping up with its growing demand.
“The biggest challenge we’ve faced in the last year has been the rapid expansion of the business. In a very short time frame, we’ve gone from selling Royal Enfield to MV Agusta, which is a specialist premium brand. MV Agusta comes with a different customer base, and they look for a high level of care and service, which we enjoy providing.”
Valuing quality above all else
Ultimately, Mid Life Cycles’ most powerful marketing tool is its steadfast dedication to quality. From its in-store experience, premium motorcycle servicing, and new builds, Mid Life Cycles puts its energy into quality and lets its products and services do the talking. And it has worked brilliantly well.
“Our focus on quality comes from our collective background experience – whether that’s technical or sales, we have a lot of experience providing a premium product and experience. We’re also trying to differentiate ourselves as a premium, niche market motorcycle store, and great service and a memorable experience is an important part of that. We want people to have such a good experience, they recommend us to their friends and fellow riders. We’ve had some excellent success with word-of-mouth referrals so far, which is important in the motorcycle industry. The same is true of online reviews.”
Advice for new retailers
While Michael is enjoying the ongoing journey of learning on the go, he has some advice for anyone planning to start a retail business.
“My advice would be to research your target audience and be aware of what online retail is offering in your space. Ask yourself: are your products better supplied online? Or is a physical store an important part of the customer experience? We invested a lot of time and money into our new store to ensure a special experience for our customers. And when they come in and say they’ve never seen a motorcycle store like it, it’s the kind of feedback that confirms all that investment was worth it. It’s nice to know we’ve achieved what we set out to do. It helps wash away the pain and cost of developing an empty warehouse into an experiential store.”
As we approach Melbourne’s motorcycling season, Michael and the team are gearing up for Royal Enfield’s launch of the new 650 Twin. And as the business continues to grow, Michael hopes to readjust the work-life balance and get back to tinkering with bikes outside of the shop.