I was introduced to Lewin via Stanley Wilson, founder of Factorylux lighting, who we featured a few weeks ago. I've always loved the concept of Look Mum No Hands, a combined bike workshop, cafe, and increasingly a retail space for their own branded goods, and so was really excited at the opportunity to meet one of their founders.
I caught up with Lewin to find out more about his personal journey that led him to opening the cafe six years ago, and how the business model continues to evolve.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and how you got here...
I moved to London when I was eighteen to study psycho-social studies. The choice of subject was really just to delay making decisions and to keep my options open. I left college and went to work for Pret a Manger. The business was in its early days with only 20 shops and they were keen to provide a career path. I did everything there, making sandwiches, working as a barista, training barista's, shift leader, team leader, working my way up to manager. Ultimately I enjoyed training and managing people. Then they paid me a big bonus so I buggered off and went traveling for a year!
I went to Australia and helped someone set up a sandwich shop, that was quite similar to Pret a Manger, in Melbourne. I realised I could do something pretty much from scratch given what I'd learned.
When I came back to the UK I worked as a courier / messenger in London for a couple of years, whilst DJ-ing in my spare time. I tried jobs like advertising sales, and working for Virgin Net in human resources, but I didn't like the office aspect and sitting down all day.
After that I went to work for a coffee start up called Progresso. Progresso was interesting because it was the first fair-trade coffee business. It was set up by Matthew Algie, a large coffee roaster up in Scotland, Colin Firth and Oxfam. They all put £50k in each, with the idea that the people who grew the coffee beans would get a fair price for the beans and would get a fair share of the profits. It was a big push to look after coffee farming communities. I was there from the beginning of the business, helping it to grow.
I did that for a year or two, and then a friend of a friend wanted to open a coffee shop that was part coffee and part kids play area, in Fulham. This was 8 or 9 years ago and it was called 'Coffee and Crayons'. I think it would have worked better if we were in an area that wasn't so affluent. We found that people in Fulham had so much money that in the summer everyone left! That continued to build my experience in terms of starting businesses from scratch, but also gave me the idea of developing two businesses in one.
We realised we were treading water with the business, and not really making money, just surviving. At the same time Sainsbury's decided they wanted to buy our lease, and take over the little parade of shops that we were on, which provided a way out for us, giving us the money back that we'd put in.
At that time I'd known Sam (one of my business partners) for a year or so, and Matt (my other business partner) since I was 9 or 10 years old. Matt was working for a Swiss bank and got made redundant. We'd been talking about the concept of a bike cafe for a while. There was nowhere in London to go and watch things like the Tour de France, and drink good beer and coffee.
We found this amazing space in Old Street, six years ago. It had high ceilings, nice floors, outdoor space, a great location, and we immediately realised that we were on to a winner. We had no contingency plan, starting the business on a bit more than £10k each. At the start all of the equipment we put in was domestic, the coffee machine I had from a previous business, and over time we upgraded and invested in better equipment. When we opened I was on the coffee machine, Matt on the till and Sam fixing punctures. It was nice! We enjoyed it, we did long hours, but never 7 days a week, having three of us helped in that respect.
We realised quickly that we needed additional help to serve customers. We now have 25 people working here. Last summer when we had Mare Street and Southbank as well we had 50 odd people working for us, which we never would have believed would have happened when we first opened, six years ago.
When did you open the other coffee shop locations and how did that come about?
We rent the Old Street location from Islington council, and we've always had a strange lease with them, in that effectively they can kick us out with six months notice. That's always been a driver for us to make sure that we open more cafes to give us stability and security. Three summers ago we opened the Mare Street (Hackney) location. We didn't have a workshop in there, so it was a risk, as we didn't know whether the brand Look Mum no Hands would work without the workshop part. Here you can smell the workshop, hear someone mending bikes while you're having a coffee, and it's a bit of theatre.
Mare Street operated for 2 and a bit years, and then the landlord decided to increase the rent for the whole building and so we were out. The crazy thing is I think the building is still empty, with all of our graphics in the window. It was like felling a tree that was about to blossom, it was starting to turn a profit, we had a strong team in there, a loyal customer base - so it was a real shame to close it. We're actively looking for another location.
Every summer we do a pop up beer garden by the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. It came about by accident. We had this crazy idea, through talking to Selfridges, to develop a bike / retail / events space. We didn't really know how we were going to fund it, but we had ideas and started conversations with an architect about the space. We worked with James Bowthorpe (The Hudson River Project) and a guy called Andrew Locke who was working with the Southbank.
The plan with Selfridges fell through, but we thought that given we'd had the idea we should do it somewhere else. We got introduced to the Southbank, did our first pop up there three years ago, and have been lucky enough to have been invited back every year since, including going back this summer. We sell amazing London brewed beer with a really nice beer garden.
The online shop for Look Mum No Hands was interesting in terms of how it started. We realised we needed to get T-shirts for our staff to wear when we opened and because the cycling community is quite a small world, we were getting emails from the US, Australia and all over the world saying that they loved our idea, and could they buy one of our t-shirts - it was unbelievable!
We set up a basic Shopify shop to sell the t-shirts, and added caps and the range grew organically from there. Now we even sell women's pants, I don't know how we got there, but we did! We're quite proud of the advertising for the range. We used real female cyclists with scabs on their knees. It was really well received and we sold lots of pants off the back of it.
We also host events. One of the most recent ones was for Rouleur magazine, a ticketed event with pro-cyclists where we did the food, bar and coffee. We do lots of off site events as well.
When you look at our business the rough splits are 20% workshop, 10% merchandise and retail, and the remaining 70% food and drink.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress when you first opened?
The moment we opened the doors and people started walking in and spending their money, we knew it was going to be alright. It's a real mix of people here. If you look around there are people in the room who ride bikes who are members of LCC, people who are here because they want good scrambled eggs, people who are here because we're in the London Coffee Guide and they like good coffee. We also have pilgrims who come here who want to visit Condor Cycles, Rapha and Look Mum no Hands.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Mare Street knocked us a little bit. The rest of this building (Old Street branch) is being vacated in two months time to do it up and we've been allowed to stay. If that hadn't happened, we could have been really screwed! I feel we're vulnerable which is why we're pushing on with the property search.
There are obviously lots of different opportunities arising for you all of the time. What do you find difficult about managing all of the multiple parts of Look Mum no Hands?
It's interesting that you mention lots of different opportunities as we are lucky as we get approached a lot - to host events, host cafes elsewhere. Sometimes it's good to understand your primary focus and when to turn things down otherwise you can sprawl and get distracted.
We have a business coach who is good at distilling down and clarifying. It's good to have a regular time where we all step out of the business, go somewhere quiet and get that helicopter perspective on what you're doing. When you're in the midst of it you can get lost in what's going on. We're getting better at analytics and planning as a result.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I hate sitting down for too long and I'm not great at writing formally and communicating in that way. Matt takes care of things like licence applications and dealing with solicitors as he did Law, and I hate all of that and I find it intimidating and unpleasant to deal with.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
The fact that there are people on the other side of the world who have heard of us and want to buy things from us is phenomenal. The brand is strong and people want to buy into that, and we're still working out how to tap into that effectively.
It's about striking a balance - making money but also keeping the heart and core of the business strong and alive. For example, we do a bike maintenance course that doesn't really make us any money, but it's wholesome and good to do. We're collaborating with Brixton Cycles as well. They're a co-operative that has been going since the 80's and they've been kicked out of their site. They've just completed a massive crowd-funding scheme to fund a new site in Brixton, and we're doing a pop up coffee shop there. Who knows if it will make us any money, but we really like Brixton cycles and what they do and it's a good brand and group of people to rub up against.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
I love reading our customer comments - we have a little box and people write lovely things. I like the fact that people like to come in, hang out and that they feel relaxed and happy and that they feel happy, and that makes us proud.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
I think it's more about the moment. When we first opened, I used to describe this business as a runaway train, with all of us holding on at the back, trying to steer it. When you're at that stage you're purely living for the moment and enjoying the ride.
How do you define success now?
I think success in the immediate future is to increase our security and stability, to have two - four sites in the next few years that all make good money and enable us to expand on our ideas. I like the idea of trying some new things out in some less obvious locations. Really security and stability is the main thing. We also think the online shop has massive room for growth and we'd like to expand the product range. None of us are experts in product growth, we've had some good ideas, but we need more of a strategy to develop the range.
How do you start your day?
I like to get in here early, as I have two kids who tend to wake me up at 6.30 anyway! Every morning at 7.15 we have a team briefing. We eat scrambled eggs, drink coffee, read the notes from the diary from the day before, and talk about the day ahead. It's a nice time and it's important for me to be there. I also like greeting our first customers as they come through the door. I'm definitely a beginning of the day type of person.
I like to be on the floor at lunch, seeing what's going on and thanking people when they leave. Then I like to be out of here at 4pm ideally.
What's the biggest thing that your way of working has changed about your life?
I have two kids, and I have the freedom to take a day off and work a different day, or leave here at a certain time to get them from school. If I was doing a nine to five office job that stuff becomes a lot more complicated. Sam is out riding his bike round Richmond Park right now, which he always does on a Thursday morning. Matt who comes from an office job still can't get out of a 9-5 routine! We've got freedom.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
I don't want to put too much pressure on them to make decisions too early, and for them to feel out what they're good at. Leaving things open as long as possible worked for me and it's good to have time to explore what you enjoy.
If you could do any other job in the world, what would it be?
Something that would enable me to work from anywhere in the world. I am quite envious of someone who has a laptop and can sit working on a beach in Portugal. One of the downsides of my job is definitely being tied to London, an increasingly expensive place to live.