Growing a running crew into a business
Path #7: Your Friendly Runners co-founder Matt Horrocks
In this edition of Desire Paths…
Your Friendly Runners is a wildly popular East London running crew that’s exploded in size & ambition. Co-founder Matt Horrocks explains the plans for turning YFR into a proper business while retaining the magic of the community.
Other stuff before we get started…
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I’m Danny Giacopelli, an editor, photographer, traveller and small business fan. By day I’m Editor-at-Large for Courier magazine. This is my personal newsletter, Desire Paths.
Desire Paths is based on the idea that the most fulfilled, fascinating people in the world chase after risky dreams, change careers, make unconventional decisions, and cross oceans to start something new. I go deep with them—small business owners, designers, shopkeepers, farmers, billionaires, hermits, maybe even you—and share everything I learn.
Path #7: Matt Horrocks
“The idea of turning Your Friendly Runners into something serious genuinely didn't cross our minds for those first years. We were just like, This is fun, it's getting bigger, let's keep going. I honestly think that's part of why we've been able to have some success.”
I first met Matt at Courier in 2019, when he joined our (then) small but mighty mag and spent a few years doing awesome work on advertising & brand partnerships.
Back then, I knew Matt organized fun weekend runs around east London for a growing crew of people. I knew he had an Instagram page for the crew, a name and a logo, and a growing word-of-mouth following. But I wasn’t quite sure of just how big this ‘little’ side-hustle was becoming. (Sorry Matt…you know I don’t run for fun. I walk a lot. And now I sort of hike, but that’s another story.)
This carried on for a few years—me being aware that Matt was doing cool running stuff but not entirely sure of the specifics.
Then last year I opened the FT and read this piece by Grace Cook:
‘It’s 9am on a winter Saturday in east London and the sky is blue, the air crisp. Gathered outside a Scandi-style café is a large crowd of young urbanites clad in caps and sports gear. Some sidle up to newcomers, inducting them into the fold with easy, early-morning chatter. More than 40 people stand in front of me – and every single one is embroiled in conversation. This is the scene that begins my weekend, and has done since November, when I started making a 50-minute pilgrimage to jog 10km with Friendly Runners—a casual run club that has swiftly become my Saturday-morning mainstay…
In the past six months, the group—informally established three years ago by Oliver Hooson, a photographer, and Matt Horrocks, a marketing manager—has seen its numbers more than quadruple. “Every week it’s popping off,” says Hooson. “New people keep showing up. And they never come just once.”’
Oh. I should have been paying more attention.
After his gig at Courier and a stint at The Modern House, Matt has now gone full-time with Your Friendly Runners—a community of people united by an urge to hang out with likeminded people, have fun and, of course, run. And it’s ballooned in size.
As Matt explained to me over coffee at Ozone, YFR now hosts ~130 people for runs every Saturday (130!), plus additional runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. They’ve formed brand partnerships with the likes of Hoka, On and Selfridges. And they’ve found an investor who’s backing their move into e-commerce and even a physical clubhouse.
Super exciting stuff and it couldn’t be happening to a nicer dude. Below, the highlights of our chat. A sort of oral history of YFR.
Matt on growing up with sports
‘I’ve always been really active growing up and enjoyed investing myself in the culture of different sports. Skateboarding became a bit of an obsession. I loved the geekery of it, building your skateboard, and how close it felt to art and design, in a way that most sports at the time didn't, you know? My football team wouldn't hang around and listen to music and chat about design. Whereas my skateboarding friends would.’
How he got into running
‘I'm a newbie to running! Well, relatively speaking. I got into running late in life. It all started when I moved to Australia. Before we got married, Becca and I wanted to experience living on the other side of the world. So we travelled in New Zealand, Fiji, Asia, then got a working holiday visa and moved to Melbourne. I had no mates there, no community. I was rattling around our flat, trying to find work, friends and things to do. And I thought I’d give running a go. Everyone talks about the running bug—let's see if I could find it. I started going out once a week, then twice. It killed time and energy, and helped me learn the city. From there, it just stuck. I eventually got a knee injury and had to stop running for a month. At that point I realized I’d really struggle without this routine I've built: lacing up my shoes and running. That was my awakening. Like, shit, I need running in my life!’
On looking for running friends in London
‘When I came back to London, I wanted to find people to run with. I had that hunger—not to necessarily set up a crew, but to run and enjoy the experience with others. I’d spent eight or nine months running by myself. Sometimes running by yourself is lovely. But I wanted to find some likeminded people. And it's harder than you think! Despite the fact that 40,000 to 50,000 people run the London Marathon every year, it’s often hard to just find a buddy to run and train with.’
The origins of the crew
‘Okay, here’s the story. By chance, I followed this guy Oliver on Instagram. I saw he was selling some running shoes on Depop and I was looking for an extra pair. I bought them. He messaged me and said, Hey man, I’ve just seen your address and you're around the corner, I'll bring them around. An hour later, there's a knock at the door. It was Oliver on his bike with the shoes. We had a 20 minute chat on my doorstep and he had a very similar story to me. He'd recently gotten into running, really enjoyed it, but none of his mates were runners. We were just like, Should we meet up and invite a few other people to run? This was December 2018. And on 10 Jan 2019 we made a poster and put it on Instagram.’
On the name ‘Your Friendly Runners’
‘We never really said, Let's call this crew Your Friendly Running Club. It was just a tagline or stamp that evolved into a logo and then from a logo into a name. It’s pretty funny. I spent my entire life saying I need to build a brand and come up with a name, even before I had an idea. And it turns out the thing that finally gets traction is the idea that was never really an idea, and the name that was never a name!’
The difference between a ‘club’ and ‘crew’
‘It's totally open to interpretation. Those two words are completely interchangeable. A running club is a group of people running. So is a crew. For me, a club is just a little more traditional, structured, disciplined, and closely connected to the history of the sport, which is about performance, racing and competing. A crew, though, is a bunch of people from all walks of life who just want to hang out and have a run. It's not so much about time and performance, though there's an aspect of what we do that lends itself to that. It’s closer to skateboarding: hanging out, sharing ideas and experiences, geeking out about kit and style. It's not about running around the track really fast.’
The early years…
‘At the first run, there were four of us. We had an amazing time. If everyone's on the same wavelength, you don't need 100 people. We said, if it's four people forever, cool. And it was 4 people for a really long time! We'd spend the first 15 or 20 minutes just catching up, then we'd go off on our run. After we'd stop for coffee and breakfast. It's a format we still do today. It's not rocket science. We keep it simple and consistent. For the first two years, I might have missed only 2 or 3 runs. The idea of turning it into something ‘serious’ didn't even cross our minds for those first years. Genuinely didn't even occur to us. At one point we got sent some kit from a brand and we were like, Whoa! But we were just like, This is fun, it's getting bigger, let's keep going. And I honestly think that's part of why we've been able to have some success.’
Surviving & growing during Covid
‘When the pandemic happened we stopped for a while. But as soon as we had a ticket to go outside to exercise, and groups were allowed to get bigger… well, we were in Hackney already, with a community of people, and everyone was so desperate to get out again. Gyms were closed. We were like, come and run with us! We did our best to be really respectful. We kept our distance as best we could. By then, we were the go-to East London running community. We doubled in size in the space of a few months. We had around 35 people running with us every Saturday. And it felt big.’
On getting MUCH bigger…
‘At the beginning of last year, our community had grown, our Instagram had grown, and we hit a critical mass. We got really, really busy. We increased our schedule from just Saturdays, to Fridays, Saturdays and Tuesdays. So we’re now hosting three meetups a week. Tuesday night is a bit more of a workout, Friday morning is more an entry level 5K. And we've got the social run on Saturday, which is a 10K with a few different pace groups. We're trying to cater for different levels. We're getting about 120-130 people every Saturday, 50 every Friday morning, and about 40 on Tuesday nights. Over the years, I’ve always asked people how they found out about us. For a long time it was Instagram. But now it’s people saying, ‘I ran past you guys in the park and I saw someone wearing a T-shirt that said Canal Etiquette’—that's our little tagline—and I googled it and found you. We were also featured in the FT. I still get imposter syndrome seeing our name in print. It's mad.’
YFR’s commercial collabs
‘We get a LOT of interest now because we've got such a big group. But we're careful how we work with brands. As soon as we started to grow, we thought, how does YFR look in the world? Then On reached out. We’ve built a really good relationship with them. We also hosted a series of 5K runs from Selfridges and had a YFR x Selfridges collab which was crazy. That was one of our earliest partnerships. And now we’ve built a great relationship with Hoka too. We were their running crew partner for the Hackney Half. You might have seen my face on a billboard somewhere!’
Hitting a crossroads
‘Last fall, we took 50 people to Amsterdam to run the marathon. It was an amazing weekend, but pretty stressful. I was holding it down with my full time job at the time. I was working at The Modern House. Oliver and I were both like, This is great, but it's starting to feel stressful because we're juggling a million things. We hadn’t really delegated or relinquishing any control. It basically wasn’t sustainable running it in the way we always had been. We didn’t know what to do. And then out of nowhere, we get a message from a guy named Phil…’
An investor and an opportunity
‘Phil had been coming to the run crew for a year. A super nice dude. And he was like, “Look, I really want to buy you a coffee, I've got a couple ideas.” And he persevered. Every few days he was like, “Boys, that coffee, what do you say?” So after a run one day, we met up with him at a cafe. We had no idea what was coming. He said, “I've been coming to YFR for a year, I love it, and I want to help you reach the next stage.” Oliver and I had brands wanting to work with us, we had trips planned, the community was growing, but we were just struggling a bit. So we looked at each other like two kids in a candy shop. Phil asked, “What's one thing you'd love to do?” We both knew. To open our own space. We've crashed too many cafes. We're too big. We want a clubhouse! A place to hang, do our own coffee and food, run sessions and meetups. That's the dream. So we talked about it and over Christmas I wrote a business plan, then in January we registered the business, and at the end of February I left The Modern House.’
The next stage
‘There's so much going on now. Our community is growing, which is great. We want to keep growing it and become the most recognized open door and free running community around, covering the full spectrum of the sport. We want to bring in another layer of social events like supper clubs and trips; continue to produce regular merch and race kit; and also have our own flagship yearly event.
Here’s the potential business model: 1) A creative agency, which is a no-brainer. It's what we do and where we get most of our interest. 2) Our own online shop selling running merch and a handpicked selection of the best running gear. And 3) A physical clubhouse, which would be open-door and for the public. It's a bit counterproductive to launch a space that’s strictly just for our crew, so we’re thinking the space should be for all runners. It’ll be a retail store with a coffee bar and will stock all kinds of amazing running products.’
On the highs & lows of building things
‘Now that I'm in it, I get why it's bittersweet. It's a wild ride. One of the cliches of running your own thing is how excited you are to get up every morning. But no one tells you how excited you are to go to bed! I wake up everyday and I'm like, This is amazing, I get to think about running all day. But by 5pm my head is mush. I've got a life, a partner, mates and a dog too. I don’t want to be dramatic—I'm not running some big tech company here. I'm just starting to get a sense of how incredibly exciting this is. We're in it now. We're in the ring.’
UNTIL NEXT TIME,
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