Simon Cook and Charlie Lucas had a business idea that was pandemic-perfect: a cheaper, smaller, British version of the Peloton home exercise bike. They perfected prototypes, designed an app and were preparing to launch in March 2020, just as half of the UK wanted to buy a product like theirs.
“The market was going mad for what we were making, but we didn’t actually have bikes,” co-founder Lucas says mournfully. “For the few days in March when it seemed that the world is coming to an end, we had to decide: shall we shut down operations until this is all past us, or seize this huge opportunity as everyone’s stuck at home?
“We decided to crack on with a pre-sale campaign, where people paid a 10% deposit, and we guaranteed them one of the first bikes — which we hoped to be in summer, but in fact it was October by the time they were ready and here.”
A year on, the entrepreneurs are glad they hung onto their saddles. They sold 2500 Apex Rides bikes in their first year.
“It could have been a much bigger launch year — once the first batch of bikes arrived, we quickly ran out of stock again,” Cook explains. “And by the beginning of this year, when we were back in lockdown and demand went crazy again, our lead time was eight to 10 weeks — not very appealing. When people buy exercise equipment they usually want to get going immediately.”
Still, 2021 turnover stands at £2.8 million thanks to strong online sales, a retail partnership with John Lewis, and more than 95% of bike buyers subscribing to Apex’s online classes for about £30 a month.
Cook and Lucas, who are both 34 and live (separately) in Fulham, didn’t have any experience in the fitness business when they started out. Lucas was an investment manager at Killik and Cook was working at a fintech start-up, Divido. The pair were childhood friends who first met at their Surrey school aged eight. The idea for Apex came over a dinner of pasta and “a couple of bottles” of wine.
Cook explains: “We started chatting about how US tech was disrupting traditional bricks and mortar exercise set-ups and wondered: if we were going to do the same in the UK, how would we do it differently? It was 2018, Peloton was US-only, a premium, verging-on-elitist product. We wanted to make a [smart] bike that was available to a wider market.”
The pair raised an initial £700,000, led by Sir Rod Aldridge, founder of Capita. (“We knew he loved sport and just hustled for a meeting.”) That cash went on designing the bike, via an agency in Shoreditch, and building an app.
“We didn’t leave our full-time jobs for about six months — we’d pretend we had meetings and be hiding away, talking to a sourcing agent in China for an hour,” says Lucas. Their Chinese agent led Cook and Lucas on a factory tour on the east coast of China (“soup with chicken feet hovering in it was a strong memory”).
They picked the country’s biggest exercise-machine manufacturer to make the Apex Rides. A second fundraising round, this time £3.2 million, helped fund the initial manufacturing run. Backers included ex-Formula 1 boss Eddie Jordan.
Next year, the duo plan to expand internationally. “We’re forecasting 10,000 bike sales by 2022 on around £12 million revenue,” Lucas casually predicts.
Apex Rides claims to be “up to 40% cheaper [than Peloton] depending on your package”. It cut costs by asking users to connect to its classes from their own iPhone or iPad, rather than hosting a flashy screen on the bike. Subscribers can access eight weekly live classes and 800 on-demand ones hosted by instructors based at the Hammersmith spin studio of Boom cycle.
Peloton — which counts Lizzo and David Beckham as fans — is still a better-known brand but the Apex duo say: “We’re grateful to [Peloton] — we wouldn’t have been able to come to market without them.” Peloton “spent £20 million educating the UK population on what [a smart bike] is and how it works — they created the market for us,” Lucas says. “Now we’re going to make the most of it.”