Posted: Tue 3rd Aug 2021
Reaching the end of his career, Bill McGowan decided not to retire to the golf course but to launch a social enterprise instead. He turned his love of bikes into a company that uses a stationary bicycle and a range of fun programmes to boost people’s health and wellbeing.
The Glasgow-based social entrepreneur shares the story of Fun and Fit Bike and how the Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme has boosted his entrepreneurial skills.
How did you come up with your business idea?
I was coming to the end of my career but instead of just retiring, I wanted to use my love of bikes and fitness to encourage people in a fun way to improve their health and well-being. So, I redesigned the smoothie bike concept to provide more fun activities and wrote several programmes for delivering the activities to people of all ages, from children to senior citizens.
In order to turn the idea into a business, I had to persuade my target market customers that a smoothie bike was a credible way to improve awareness of the importance of health and wellbeing amongst their stakeholders. Most people tend to see the bike as just a bit of fun, rather than a method of educating, but once they realised the extent to which the bike activities could impart the key messages they wanted to deliver, I got their buy-in. We now have customers from schools and colleges as well as corporates including Scottish Power and Marriott Hotels.
The original smoothie bike had a food blender mounted on the back wheel, so it didn’t have a lot of visual impact. We moved it to the front and added a computer to measure the rider’s calorie burn rate, distance travelled etc as a means of showing how much exercise they were achieving. Other activities I have added include virtual reality cycle rides (through places like a Californian pine trail and a Mediterranean beach promenade) to reduce stress/improve mental health as well as resilience. Building lightboxes and illuminating them using pedal-power is a renewable energy and climate awareness activity.
Why did you decide to run the business as a community interest company (CIC)?
At this stage in my career, I was not looking to build a business exclusively to make profit. I wanted to do something that was giving back to the community and helping people to improve their health and wellbeing. The community interest company model is a good way for me to do that. I still get a fair salary but the business can give some of its profit back to communities by way of free Fun and Fit Bike sessions.
It’s important to remember though that with a CIC, if the business closes, you have to give the assets to another similarly structured business, you cannot keep them for yourself.
What start-up challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Like all new business concepts, the challenge I faced was in getting commissioners to incorporate Fun and Fit Bike into their health and well-being programmes. However, I have been able to break through that with my enthusiasm and persistence, resulting in the business now receiving increasing bookings from schools, further education establishments, charities, community groups and companies.
Initially, I approached the education sector as I know health and wellbeing learning was an important part of the syllabus in primary, secondary and further education. Some people were a bit concerned that our programmes were not completely aligned with mainstream teaching programmes but after our breakthrough with primary schools, others followed, and we have now run courses for college staff. We have also moved into the corporate sector, assisting businesses to ensure their staff are being encouraged to maintain their health and wellbeing.
How has the Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme helped you?
The building a community and creating content modules have been very helpful because I wasn't sure about how to bring my potential customers from disparate sectors together and to get their attention for the Fun and Fit Bike proposition.
I learnt two very important lessons from the videos I watched:
First, the need to identify and develop relationships with potential customers who would see the value in my product, which I did initially by sending e-brochures.
Second, the importance of providing these potential customers with engaging and relevant information about the outcomes that can be achieved from using the product, especially in education environments where educators must demonstrate measure improvement in the resources they commission. I achieved this by researching the objectives educators were set in national education curriculums and showing how they could be achieved, and had been achieved with other customers, using Fun and Fit Bike.
How has COVID-19 had an impact on your business?
COVID-19 effectively stopped our business but I was lucky to have had some experience in buying personal protective equipment. We were kept busy assisting existing customers to source ethically priced and produced PPE.
Thankfully, as restrictions ease, we are seeing bookings come back. I believe post-COVID will see an even bigger demand for the health and wellbeing programmes we deliver.
What are your plans for the future of your business?
Growth. The health and wellbeing sector is only going to get bigger after the pandemic and my business is ideally placed to develop and own a niche in fun learning as it's a proven way to get better impact and outcomes. We are developing activities to help address issues such as confidence, resilience, anxiety and mild forms of dementia. We have a virtual reality headset that people can use while sitting on Fun and Fit Bike to simulate a therapeutic bike ride in places like Californian pine trails, the promenade in Nice and even around their home using Google Maps.
Which other entrepreneurs inspire you and why?
I am inspired by all social entrepreneurs, people who want to help others and the planet rather than just exclusively make money for themselves. For me that’s the best and most worthwhile type of enterprise. And, I believe, fortuitously, the new generation of healthier, more aspirational people of my age group who are not ready to fully retire and not necessarily needing to make money will lead to even more social enterprises being formed.
What are your top tips for business success?
Believe in yourself and your idea. There will be lots of disappointments along the way and it can be easy to get downbeat, lose confidence and give up so you need to be determined.
Second, it’s really important to be clear about who your target market is and to be good at fashioning your product or service into a proposition that is compelling and different from competitors and other alternatives.
Finally, it's crucial to communicate your proposition well and reach the target market. There’s no point in having a great product or service if your potential customers do not know about it!
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