From Entrepreneur to Entrepreneur - #2 Robbert Rutgrink and Santos Bikes
"From love for mountainbiking to successful bike builder”
In this second From Entrepreneur to Entrepreneur article, Jeroen talks to Robbert Rutgrink, who he has been working with for more than 15 years. Robbert is founder and co-owner of Santos, who make custom-built, high-quality holiday, mountain and trekking bikes. For commuters and world travellers, but also for the police, BOAs (special investigation officers) and the military. Santos was born out of a love of mountain biking and the desire to build a bike that offers exactly what a user needs. Robbert is pragmatic, goal-oriented and not afraid to revise ideas over and over again. Because he believes, "the best thing about doing business is that you can always keep building!" With Santos, he is building his adventure: an endless search for the best quality and smartest solutions.
"Actually, I wanted to go into boat building or become an architect," says Robbert. "I grew up near a company that made beautiful boats for wealthy people. I thought it was fantastic!" Things turned out differently. Through his brother, he ends up in the hospitality industry, which leads to Robbert choosing to go to the hotel school. When he finishes, he knows it’s not his calling. At that time, mountain biking is his passion and his life, so he settles in Munich, where he does an internship and meets a girl. He enjoys cycling, with the Alps just around the corner. "Cycling as well as the object 'the bike'," he explains. Together with his girlfriend and friend, the Portuguese Henrique Frade Santos, also living in Munich, he started a mountain bike shop in 1991. "My life consisted of talking about mountain bikes and mountain biking in summer, and snowboarding in winter," Robbert recalls. "I was a fanatic, after five years I had a broken knee from all that snowboarding and no girlfriend, because she just didn't fit in that list. That was a good choice on her part."
Entrepreneurship lesson #1. The right way is different for everyone, but sometimes a certain way turns out to be the right way for many people.
The shop is doing really well, but there are several issues the shopkeepers are encountering. Like, weak parts in otherwise high-quality bikes, high costs when a customer wants something different from what is standard on the bike. Or the ever-new models, which means that bikes are made “old” by their own supplier halfway through the year. It's something that fellow bike sellers also complain about. Now only the shop is still tying Robbert to Munich, it’s time for something else as far as he’s concerned. He is considering Nice, home to the world's largest mountain bike festival, and Montpellier, but returns to the Netherlands, because of contact with an old childhood sweetheart. In Lisse, in 1997, Robbert starts his own bike brand: Santos Bikes.
"I thought, I'm going to start a bike brand in the way I would have liked to see myself in the shop, and that was just what everyone was waiting for," Robbert laughs. "But of course that last bit wasn’t true at all." Nevertheless, he perseveres. "I was convinced it was a good way." The way that is going full-on for the customer's needs. Mountain bikes without yearly models, with the best possible parts and assembled entirely to your liking. In short: a bicycle as a made-to-measure suit. As an example, Robbert mentions two customers: a former decathlete, a head taller than him and weighing over 100 kilos. And an athletic woman around 1 metre 55. “Everyone understands that these two people cannot ride the same bike, so what do you do? Then you're going to adjust one bike a little bit, so he gets what he wants, and then you're going to adjust the other bike a little bit, so that she gets what she wants." This makes Santos the first brand in the Netherlands to offer full customisation. Robbert “borrows” his brand name from his Portuguese friend. "I didn't want my own last name of course," he jokes. "I think that Rutgrink is difficult to pronounce myself."
Entrepreneurship lesson #2. Always keep asking yourself the why question.
Henrique is still in Munich, where he runs the shop. "That collaboration helped us all get started," Robbert explains. "But it’s normal for parties, people, companies to develop. That's not bad at all, then you do something else. It’s only stupid when you stick to something, because it worked well in the beginning." Robbert extends that philosophy to the entire company. "In the shop, there were lots of things I thought were strange. Where I wondered 'why are we doing it like this?'". He talks about how difficult it is to make a living as a bicycle retailer, with what he calls "the mores of the bike world". Yet, even now, he can’t escape it completely. "I had another supplier today, who said: can you let us know what you need for next year? I said: let me have a look in my crystal ball." He smiles. "Look, of course I quite understand that they want it this way, but it makes no sense, and it's not sustainable at all."
Besides using various suppliers, Santos also makes its own high-quality parts. It’s one of the reasons why Santos is so progressive. What happens when the team discover something that is not going well, could be better, or are there important signals coming from the market? Then the team goes to work on it. Sometimes this results in something small, like a new cable holder, other times it’s much bigger, like the belt drive. "Often, it is precisely these small steps that are so much fun. We don't make a construction kit, we make our own Lego bricks." Always asking the why question is essential, says Robbert. "It may well be that tomorrow we do something different from today. ‘Kill your darlings’, that happens all the time with us. But most of the time, it happens very slowly."
Entrepreneurship lesson #3. Work with companies that understand you.
Always keep asking why you do something is something Jeroen recognises. "Sometimes to the point of boredom," he laughs. It's an attitude that keeps you agile, especially if, like Robbert, you have to compete with whales. A why question is also at the heart of the collaboration between Santos and Harborn. "In 2006, a college friend of mine told me: 'My boss has something amazing: he builds completely made-to-measure bikes'. And he really wants software around this," says Jeroen. "When he told me that for the third time, I thought: why are they still doing that?" Jeroen visits Robbert, and not much later, Harborn builds the first customiser for Santos. A necessity, because each bike has its own price. "Customers said 'just send a price list'," laughs Robbert. "But we didn't even have that. Putting together a bike using the internet, at a time when mail-order companies didn't even exist, that was very innovative. Many customers didn't understand it at all." The latest version of the customiser has just been released, and the two companies are still working together. How come? "I think we make software the way you build bikes," says Jeroen. Robbert adds: "We didn't want a company that comes with 'we have a really good customiser', because that customiser is only 5% of what we do. It’s not what it’s all about, but it’s as essential as the front wheel of your bike. We’re looking for a company that understands what matters to us."
However, the way of working is not the only thing that Jeroen and Robbert have in common. It’s also the way of doing business. Robbert says: "I am very much into making agreements based on reasonableness and fairness, because I think that’s possible. Maybe, if you get very big that becomes a bit harder, but it allows you to change gear quickly. Of course, I have contracts, but I think making good agreements are the basis. Contracts are especially useful when you have arguments." It characterises his stubbornness, which is also evident in other processes. "Well, many companies solve something in one way, and we just solve it in a different way, while it’s the same issue. Why is that? I think it’s in our DNA." Robbert continues: "Ultimately, it's about doing something that makes all the stakeholders happy: my suppliers, ourselves, my customers and the consumer. Those four are all important to me. That doesn't mean you can't do business in any other way, but I like doing it this way. I use the system in business that I think everyone likes to use in their private lives too."
Entrepreneurship lesson #4. If you give, you can also take.
Privately, Linda, Robbert's wife, is of great value, he says. Because she gives him freedom and supports his plans, but also because Robbert put all the money into the company for the first eight years of Santos. "We could make ends meet on Linda's salary, but at a certain point she said, 'now it's enough’. Only then did I start taking money out of the company," Robbert says, laughing. "Meanwhile, we have bought a camper, and one of those real Volkswagen vans. I just think that's really cool." Still, he says, most of it goes back into the business. "Of course it makes some money, but if you see how many hours I put in... I do this because I like doing business."
"People sometimes say that we make bikes for the elite. And they don't always understand our choices. Partly, I feel obliged to explain that and partly I think: if you're a pastry chef, you're not going to sell factory-made rolls for 50 cents a bag. After all, that's what your neighbour does, the supermarket. That doesn't make you elite. No, you’re just doing what you are - hopefully - very good at." At Santos, every mechanic makes a bike from start to finish, and by hand. The brand's custom touring bikes start at seven thousand euros. Expensive? "That depends," says Robbert. "One person pays a thousand euros for a phone, and someone else, seven thousand for a bike that lasts a lifetime." Jeroen: "In that respect, as bike builders, you play in the Champions League." "That's what the customer wants," Robbert replies. "But then you have to be able to deliver that. We are not a middle-of-the-road bicycle company, and we don't want to be. That's why I put a lot of time into good collaborations. I certainly have confrontational discussions with partners and suppliers. I think it's important that you enjoy working with us, but I also think that as an entrepreneur, it's okay to think about why it's your turn to take and why the other should give once in a while."
Entrepreneurship lesson #5. If it doesn't make you happier, don't do it.
Robbert gives everything for his company. "Linda sometimes says that I live on adrenaline, and I think that's true," says Robbert. "I'm now working on that cargo bike, regularly till around three, four o'clock in the morning. It does get a bit much sometimes. But I wouldn't do it, if it didn’t make me happy. For me, it's an adventure. It’s the common thread in the business, but not always without consequences,” Robbert says. "I once turned down a deal: we were already well into the process, and I didn't think the terms were fair. So then I didn't do it. Yes, it cost me money, but I think that is less important."
Robbert explains how his first motivation is always to enjoy what he does. Likewise with the development of the cargo bike, which he describes as "making his own Christmas present”. He laughs. "Sometimes people say, 'you guys make holiday bikes, right?' But we also make electric bikes and now a cargo bike. As long as there is a market for it, a business model for it and as long as we can do it. And if we have a bit of fun too, then we have a very interesting mix."
His other driving force? Paying attention to every part. "Quality is not always important enough for other brands. I find that disturbing, so I do it differently. And preferably, beautiful too, of course. I always say: it must be good and may be beautiful, but I prefer good and beautiful to good and ugly. Because you fall in love with beautiful things." Robbert grins. "I don't like a pink frame with a pink Rohloff hub, but if that suits who you are, that's great, right?" Anyone who starts searching for reviews soon finds that this is indeed the case. Among the many stories from customers and bike dealers, it’s hard to find a critical note. Most reviews are about the minimal maintenance and good service. Robbert is pleased with where the company is today. "I'm quite a realist. Of course, not everything always goes well. That wasn't so handy, I say to myself. You shouldn't do that too often. But I don’t keep worrying about it." He also tries to pass this on to his twenty-one employees, whom he manages together with his partner. "I expect my people to follow the guidelines, or not follow them if they have a good reason. And I can then agree or disagree with that. If I agree, I’m very happy and hope that people grow in taking their responsibilities as a result."
"Actually, it's quite simple," Robbert concludes. "You just have to do the right things, in the right way and at the right time. And everything else... you definitely shouldn’t do."