Harry Harrison

Field Cycles
"Handmade steel bikes, from the Sheffield hills."

Harry Harrison is co-founder and engineer at Field Cycles.

What kind of kid were you?

I was the one on the tennis courts, fixing mopeds. I wasn’t particularly academic but I was really good at making stuff. So art, metalwork, woodwork. I did that all the time.

Where did that come from?

My Grandad was a sheet metal worker, my Mum painted and did Macrame. I’m dyslexic but didn’t find out until I was at University so looking back that’s probably why I wasn’t academic. I was terrible at maths but I was good at geometry because I could see it happening.

“Fixing and making things, I always felt like I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t.”

How did you first get into bikes?

I loved bicycles and cycling and making stuff and so it all just came together really. The bicycle is the most perfect contraption we’ve come up with. Most inventions solve a problem but then create a new problem but that’s not true with bicycles.

When did you make your first bike?

I was lusting over beautiful bicycles, crazy hand made things. I was always looking at them thinking that I’d like to make it rather than buy it. That kicked in and about seven years ago I just started making one for myself. I built a really nice shed in my back garden and the view was to build the environment and then build the bike. I’m a huge procrastinator because I’m a perfectionist. I dilly and dally and it all comes from wanting to do something perfectly.

“It was as simple as me saying to John; you learn how to paint them and I’ll learn how to build them.”

How did Field Cycles start?

At the time I had a reasonably healthy art career but I was getting slightly disillusioned with the part I found myself in. So I thought I’ll try making these bikes. There were a few bike builders about but it was a bit “Men in Sheds”. Quite nostalgic.

I wanted to do something different to that. Previously I’d worked in film and TV, building sets and props and I saw the value in collaboration through that. You’d build a set and it would look alright. Then someone would light it and it would look a bit better. Then the actors would come in and do their thing. All these skill sets would combine to create something bigger than the sum of its parts.

“I just had a feeling we could do it.”

You were just confident you could make it work?

No, I’ve never been confident. In anything. I think someone said “Great doubt generates great art” which sounds a bit grand but…

I think it’s a Northern thing that you don’t want to have to say something is good. Self promotion is quite painful. We kept our head down until we were satisfied with what we were doing. That reflects our personalities but I also think it’s a bit of a northern thing.

It’s a big mistake I see. People shouting about something when I think if it was cutting the mustard you wouldn’t have to shout about it. Different styles and personalities of course. Everything we do, we do it slowly, because we want it to be as good as it can be.

What were the early problems starting Field Cycles?

I was completely focused on the thing I was making. It’s a really dark art building a bike frame to a particular standard. You have to take your time. Getting to know how the metal moves when it’s heated up. You can read all day about it, but the only way to learn is to get stuck in and make a load of mistakes.

The biggest problems in terms of business were that I presumed running a business was common sense. But it’s not common sense at all. I just ignored the learning curve of running a business. Now I’m catching up to that.

You have to learn how to deal with the stress and pressure. I have to really try to get it from the front of my brain. I’ve not had that Friday feeling for ten years, but also I’ve not had that Monday morning feeling either. It’s satisfying and exhausting in equal measure.

Did you have any financial help in the beginning?

No. I built all my tools myself and I was still working while I was doing it so I didn’t need to. I don’t like the idea of owing money to people.

Where are you with hiring?

We’re just getting to that point now. There’s no shortage of enthusiastic people who want to work in the biking industry but it’s the skills that are the problem. I’d love to get to the point where we can establish a sustainable business and start to train apprentices. For me that would be hugely satisfying.

“The satisfaction you get from making anything, I know how important that is to me. I’d like to pass that on somehow.”

How do you market yourselves?

We’ve never taken an advert out, ever. Pure word of mouth. I often think the internet is cheating, almost. 25-30 years ago, if someone had heard of you in Leeds you’d be doing well. Now we have pretty much sold a bike to every land mass in the world.

Was the web a big change for the business then?

A little bit. I started out and made a bike for myself. Then I made one for a mate, and then another for a mate and that’s how it started. Then we had a bike turn up on a blog somewhere and a guy in Germany ordered two bikes off us. I was terrified.

So we made him his bikes and it started from there.

At the time I thought, “its easy this”. But with hindsight I think it’s an enormous task to go from selling bikes to your mates to selling bikes to people you don’t know.

The key to what we do is collaboration. Tom is brilliant at what he does, John is brilliant at what he does and I can’t say I’m brilliant at what I do (laughs). We’re all competing in a way. If I do something then John is thinking “right I’ve got to do this justice”.

Harry Harrison

What’s your favourite collaboration?

What’s helped us a lot has been working with bigger companies than us. There’s a company based in Utah called Enve that make the best carbon fibre bits for bicycles. They’ve built their business on having their bits on cool, interesting bikes and we are the only builder in Britain that are their partner builder. So we get good exposure from them.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

I jump into something before I think about it. I’m always enthusiastic and set off with something before I’ve sat down and talked with the other lads. It’s because I see the potential and race along without thinking.

What’s the most important trait for someone who is both a craftsmen and an entrepreneur?

For me, if what you’re making isn’t top notch. You’re going to struggle with the rest of it. So perfectionism, it is a double edged sword. I’m not a perfectionist in the rest of my life, my hoovering’s not great for instance.

If I’m making something though, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done it, I’m setting out to do it perfect. I’ve worked with people in the past who just make something to get it done. I go home miserable if I’ve had a crushing defeat. If you don’t want to stand next to something you’ve made then that’s a problem.

Being in the UK bike industry, to stand out we’ve got to do something completely different to Taiwan or China or Bangladesh. With those bikes people look at the price and decide if they want it. With us they decide they want it and then look at the price afterwards because it’s unique, it’s their bike.

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