I had the pleasure of interviewing Ian Briggs, chief designer and co-founder of Briggs Automotive Company (BAC). I wanted to understand how this company became capable of not only competing with both the motorsport and the luxury car market, but to do so in such a short period of time and with such a unique go-to-market strategy. It seems that the vast majority of new entrants into the automotive industry make it to the conceptual phase before the realities of manufacturing and developing a cost structure that can allow them to afford the production. This feat requires a great deal of guts and I have grown to truly admire Ian for his skills as both a professional automotive designer as well as an entrepreneur. I think you will find his story to be inspiring.
We began the conversation with a little bit of background.
Me: Ian, tell me a little bit about your years in industry, leading up to the creation of the Mono.
Ian: “As kids Neill and I enjoyed cars, something we got from our father. We went to school and I studied Automotive Design while Neill studied Automotive Engineering. We both held various jobs and had many different experiences before we both ended up in Germany in the early 2000s doing work for Ford and Mercedes.
“We formed a consultancy business, worked as freelancers, and started tackling bigger and bigger projects. We grew our little business and in a few years’ time we found ourselves still doing work for Ford and Mercedes, but we had also landed some projects with Bentley and Porsche. In 2006/2007 we decided to act on our childhood dream to both create and own a car that didn’t yet exist.
“From a professional standpoint we also wanted to demonstrate our capabilities starting from a clean sheet of paper, with no existing controls or budgets in place. We officially started our initial investment in the Mono in September 2007 when we put one of our designers on it full-time. It was the first time we were paying an employee to do work for which we couldn’t turn around and invoice a client.”
Me: “How long before that did you get the vision for what the Mono would look like and how it would perform? With it being such a unique creation I’m curious how long that idea was in the making.”
Ian: “I suppose it was in the late 1990s when we were having fun with go-karts on the track. We were speaking with the drivers who explained that there was very little difference between a go-kart and a Formula car, in that it responds to your commands as your body anticipates it would. All other cars have their own built-in responses to the way you choose to drive it.
“We loved the idea of creating a pure car with no legacy reputation or rules to follow. There were no external factors influenced the design or the intended performance. We were intrigued by the idea of a car that was not subject to any transport or motorsport rules. Just perfection as defined by the driver.”
Me: “So, how did you decide to move forward? I mean, owning your own consultancy and working for some of the most reputable car brands must have been comfortable. How did you manage to get out of your comfort zone?”
Ian: “It was just always something we wanted to do. The days and years were ticking by and we realized that if we didn’t start we never would. We didn’t know how long it was going to take or how much money it was going to cost. But it was the first step and we could always see where we were going to plant our feet, one step at a time.
“Think of it like climbing a mountain. You don’t know how long it will take, what kind of terrain you might encounter, but you want to experience the climb. Initially that first step was to create a concept and show off our design, and to simply enjoy what we built. As we got to that point we realized how doing something you love and dream of provides a calm sense of clarity around what it should be. Pursuing that has an effect on people and we could tell that we had done a good job and we were on to something.”
It was at this point where I could tell we were getting below the surface of the conversation. Ian’s vision was to create a car strictly for the driving experience. Power, comfort, control, all in a single-seat street-legal race car. It sounds cool, like every cardboard box turn racecar I got to play with as a child, but to go from an idea (ok, a really good idea) to an actual product is quite extraordinary. I had to understand more of the journey behind their success and how they got past the many barriers of entry that most others fall short of overcoming.
Me: “Can you tell me about the risk/reward aspect of this transition to a truly independent business model?”
Ian: (Laughter) “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? When something is really important to you and you have a lot at stake, when something goes well it feels great. Pure joy. But when something doesn’t go as you expect, it troubles you and you worry about the future.
“It’s like being on a rollercoaster with the highest highs and the lowest lows, and intense acceleration between the two. If you’re working a regular job you’ll experience good days and bad, but when your job is fulfilling a lifelong dream and you have all your cards on the table, you definitely have to learn to enjoy the ride.”
Me: “Were there any roadblocks that you thought could keep you from achieving your goal? What were they and how did you overcome them?”
Ian: (Some more laughter) “It’s hard to describe without sharing every example in our story but I will try my best to answer that. We had a sense that we knew where we were going and we’d get the ball rolling. It would get bigger and bigger, which was encouraging, but it also then took on a life of its own.
“Once it gets that big it travels at its own pace. We started to feel pressure. We went from taking on a dream project to investing the money, developing prototypes, and it became clearer that we were playing for keeps. The outcome was important and it mattered.
“When we got our first car ready for a show in March 2011, about three-and-a-half years after we dedicated staff to it, we thought we had just climbed a big mountain. So we sort of had this sense of relief. But then we realized that the next step was to develop a production car. Now that was a much bigger mountain to climb.
“The further and further you climb the more important it is to succeed. You realize you’ve come so far, too far to turn around and go back down. Your dream becomes far more important than the other projects or jobs you are working on. The biggest fears and the biggest triumphs in your life are stemming from this purpose, this calling that is all your own.
“Whatever your dream, your passion, don’t put it off. Say “Yes” to it, be enthusiastic, if it is important to you, it will become a huge priority. Days climbing the mountain will change, some will be blue skies and sunshine, others will bring wicked storms, but you have to keep going.
“I would have to say that moving into our new factory was that pivotal point for us – the point of no return. We simply couldn’t achieve the amount of throughput we needed to make any money at the old factory. So we were in agreement that by the end of 2012 there would be no more design and engineering business, we were going all in on the Mono.
“We took out a small loan and now have some minor equity partners but this way we could afford the machinery, and get properly set up to increase production and fulfill the orders we already had. We are quite proud of what we have accomplished so far and look forward to continued growth, expansion, and improved marketing and representation.”
Me: “Do you see many other designers breaking away the way you did?”
Ian: “In the past 15 years 10-20 car companies have come and gone, while only a couple have managed to stick around. What I hope is that we can inspire people to follow their dreams, whatever that may be. I do believe that with the internet, crowd funding, 3D printing etc. making new things in the future is a smaller mountain to climb than it used to be. We are grateful we had this opportunity to pursue this venture… after all we are just two brothers achieving something because we had a different way of thinking about the product we created.
“I will say this, I recently read An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield, which was a great read. It encourages you to act and think the way you would if you were already living your dream. If you truly are on the right path then you will see opportunities come to pass, you will be able to take that first, second, third step and begin to climb that mountain. And as you do so, you will know that with each step comes a sense of achievement which in turn boosts your confidence. When you stop to look back at where you started it reminds you of what you’ve accomplished and can be that refresh you need to keep climbing to greater heights.
“Challenge your status quo and really look inside yourself to determine what your passion and calling is. That is where you really start to live the life you’ve imagined.”
If you haven’t already seen the BAC Mono, it is indeed a dream come true, but not just for Ian and his brother, Neill, for any lucky driver who gets to call it their own. The Mono features a single-seat (customized seat that is) centered in the body with all the power of a formula racecar with the necessary lights and signals to make it legal to drive on public roads. This auto is designed for enthusiasts who enjoy a thrill and a challenge at the same time. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what else the Briggs brothers have up their sleeves. It is their unbridled creativity that has brought them to this point and I fully expect that they will continue to climb higher and higher, striving to satisfy that desire for the purest drive on the road (or track, if that’s what one prefers).