Carvalho Custom – cycling & tri clothing brand

As with so many businesses, Carvalho Custom was born more or less by accident rather than design. In 2004, I was running a cycling touring business with ex pro cyclist Fernando Carvalho for overseas road cyclists to train and ride in Portugal. We thought we should offer our clients some kit with our branding on it and offer a chance for groups to personalise their kit for their trip; within a few weeks some enquiries started coming in from various clubs and it rapidly became evident that this was a fantastic business opportunity. Now 8 years later, Carvalho Custom is the leading custom triathlon clothing brand in the combined UK and Irish markets and one of the top custom cycling clothing brands!

The key USP (Unique Selling Point) that we stumbled upon was that other companies selling custom cycling and triathlon kit in the UK and Ireland were either manufacturing it there or were distributors based there and importing it from a factory somewhere overseas. Our advantage was that we could make the kit in Portugal and sell directly to clubs and other groups without going through a third party, which made us pretty much instantly 30 to 40% cheaper than our competitors. We also decided early on that we would not invest in advertising, because we thought that the cycling/triathlon community would spread the word about us if our kit quality, prices and service were good enough. To this day, we have still never used a distributor or paid for advertising (other than google adwords). There was one other thing that it was obvious our competitors did unbelievably badly, which was to deliver on time, so we put a lot of effort into not making promises that we could not keep and guaranteeing delivery dates (a 2% discount for every day we are late) – we are still the only supplier in the industry that offers this!

In the early days of the business, we focused on producing mid quality kit at low prices, but it became evident that whilst there was a market for this, the real interest was in premium quality kit and that there were some top quality suppliers in the market charging unbelievably high prices for it. So we went on a very long journey to upgrade everything we produced to the premium end of the market – this involved completely replacing all of our fabrics (lycras, threads, breathable membranes, microfibres – literally everything!), changing the cut of all the garments to add more sophisticated panel designs so that they move more naturally with the athlete, new zips, new pads for the shorts – no stone was left unturned. It took until around 2010 before we could really say that we had moved from a mid range brand to a high end brand. So our new USP became a premium quality brand at mid-range prices and it has been clear that this was a very attractive selling proposition, particularly in the triathlon clothing market, where athletes typically want high-end kit and are prepared to pay more for it (cyclists are not always so picky!).

Our business model is now well established:
– do everything we can to keep our cost base down, primarily by running the whole business over the net and not using distributors or advertising
– focus on the premium end of the market and make sure we keep on top of product innovations
– deliver on time

As with the vast majority of businesses, our success has been based on doing hundreds of small things well, rather than having one great idea.