Mambo founder Dare Jennings joined forces with Action Motorcycles’ Rod Hunwick to create Deus ex Machina. They ditched corporate cloning, celebrated individuality, and paid homage to ‘the god in the machine’.
Why Deus ex Machina? What is it about the spirit or deity in the machine (the motorcycle) that you’re so passionate about?
Dare: Deus ex Machina has two meanings. One is a literary term that comes from Greek theatre: they had these free-form plots and if the plots were breaking down and not working well, they had a mechanical device that allowed them to lower a god onto the stage who would change everything. It was a convoluted way to fix a plot. But I like the name because it literally means “god is from the machine” or “god is in the machine.” So the second meaning is the reverence or respect we have for the machine.
It’s the most pretentious name for a bike shop ever, but it challenges people to work out how to say it. My theory is that it is better they are talking about it than not. It’s a great name: it means god, it has ‘sex machine’ in it, and it has all these implications.
Let’s talk about sex machines. What was the first motorcycle that you fell in love with?
Rod: A 1954 Triumph twin-speed that I used to ride to school back in the 70s. I bought it from an elderly man and I loved it. There are two versions of the SR: the TT500s and an off-road dirt bike. I can remember a mate at school bought one and my old Triumph would still beat it up the hill. It was such a great old bike.
Dare: When I was a rebellious teenager I read Hunter S Thompson’s book on the Hells Angels gang when it first came out, and I heard all the kids at school talking about these mythical WWII surplus Harley Davidsons you could buy. Then one day I saw this hoodlum riding down the street with ape hangers on a WWII Harley and I was so enamoured with it I bought it off him straight away.
So now you’re helping other people find that love. How did Deus motorcycles originate?
Dare: I was in my 50s and I wanted to learn something new. When I sold Mambo I travelled, and in Japan I saw an interesting bike culture of young guys referencing classic details from the 1950s. I used to stand on the street corners and see these bikes, and every one of them was interesting. It was a very Japanese obsession with detail. I came back to Rod and said, “I think this is interesting.”
Rod: Dare had always been an avid motorcycle enthusiast, and was a customer at my other shops for many years. Probably going back about three years, he said he’d noticed the growth of the custom bike market in Japan, and how different those bikes looked to bikes in Australia or anywhere else in the world. We went to Japan and spent three or four days on the streets looking at the bikes and poking around.
Dare: I had a huge respect for Rod, his business, history, and the stuff he knew, and I figured this was a short-cut to what he knew, and I could sit at his feet and learn about it. Equally, I said to Rod that he had great motorcycle shops but they could never be more than that. Rod could bring the motorcycle world to me and I could bring the idea of how to build a brand and put the elements together.
Rod: Then when we got back from Japan, Taka got involved. (Taka Aoyama runs the modification side of the business.)
Dare: Taka was amazing and through him we had a complete connection back to the Japanese culture. Because all the people we deal with are small companies, they tend not to like to deal with people from outside. But Taka could go and win them over, and we could get access to these things.
Rod: That wouldn’t have happened if we had just sent emails to these Japanese companies requesting parts. They would have ignored us and not taken us seriously.
Dare: Taka had lived in Australia and trained as an SR400 mechanic here. If we’d designed him, we couldn’t have found a better person.
In the early stages, I guess chaos played a big part?
Dare: In a lot of ways chaos is good, because people are excited about what you’re doing: you’re hitting a nerve and getting a response. Then the process must be to take that enthusiasm and follow through.
What are some of the things you do to channel that enthusiasm into something workable?
Dare: You must throw things out, allow them to be, and follow them through. Then you have to keep adding things to them as well so you’re not a one-trick pony. The good thing about Deus that we hear from our customers is that there is always something new, that we have challenged their preconceptions about what we do.
Rod: We reward our people for performance, for being part of the development and growth of the company. Everyone that works for us is here because they want to be part of it. We need the influence of the younger people to drive us forward.
What did you learn from previous lives – other businesses, other working partnerships – that helped you with Deus?
Rod: Just finding the right people. Business is a team effort, and it’s tough finding the right people in the right spots. The key people drive the enthusiasm.
How would you describe your business approach?
Rod: Dare’s background is totally different to mine. I have been controlled by suppliers, and everything is totally price-driven. Dare’s background is from Mambo, creating a product and having complete control over pricing structure. With the bikes we build, there is a little bike that retails at a Yamaha shop for $6000, and we sell it for $18,000 or $19,000 with the value-add and passion of the Deus brand.
Dare: There is a great adage that there are two kinds of businesses: there are those that compete on price; and there are those that compete on ideas, then you can name your own price. I think that was our conversation: “Let’s sell motorcycles, but infuse them with this whole other culture, so people will be happy to get involved and not be nervous.”
Deus ex Machina is very much about passion and individuality. How do you communicate that to your customers?
Rod: We’ve got to challenge the consumer, and that’s what we do downstairs in our showroom. People come in after being told about the store or the website. They look, and think, “What’s going on?” Then people explore.
Dare: It’s sad to say that this is a store you would find in Melbourne, not Sydney. Melbourne is far more passionate about what it does, and real estate prices are way cheaper. You can have half an idea, rent a shop for not much, and have a crack at it. Whereas in Sydney, if you aren’t making money in the first 10 minutes you’ll go broke because of the rents. On top of that, everyone in Sydney’s at home eating baked beans because they’re stuck with mortgages, but in Melbourne, everyone is out shopping.
Rod: And the building, when you walk into it, is warehouse style. There’s not as much retail space in Melbourne.
Dare: A PR woman I’ve known for years came in for the first time recently and said that the store was ‘real’. There were things going on: there was fashion, mechanics, food being cooked, kids…
Rod: Every day downstairs is a fun place to be in. It’s not like going to work.
We love your website too – what was the thinking behind it?
Dare: Carby has done that. Websites are essential, but the reality is the store is the place to come and the place to feel. It’s not the best website in the world, but it’s a great marketing activity. (Carby Tuckwell is Deus’ Creative Director).
What other websites are useful for your day-to-day work?
Rod: eBay. With the customisation of the bikes we end up with surplus parts, the original parts, and at the moment we’ve just started experimenting with offering those parts to punters on eBay.
What do you think are the good qualities you need to run a successful business?
Dare: Rod is incredibly open-minded and happy to look at new things. We are both happy to learn from each other’s strong suits and then get it to work. Closed minds in business are not a good thing.
What business skill would you most like to improve?
Dare: Concentration. You see lots of people who are enthusiastic about projects and getting things started, but don’t follow them through. The second half is making them work and making them financially viable. The skill is in having a good idea and then managing it through so that it works and makes sense and ceases to be an indulgence.
What is the most overrated skill poeple think is essential to being an entrepreneur?
Rod: Focus. It’s not focus, but dedication that’s going to get you over the line. It’s one of those things that drives you.
Dare: Entrepreneurs are a pain in the arse, so full of themselves. They believe they are geniuses, when they have just come up with a new good idea. I guess I fall into the entrepreneurial category in that I like new ideas. The thing about entrepreneurs that I dislike is the vanity they have, which is completely lacking in me (joking).
When you set up your first company, what belief did you hold that you no longer hold now?
Dare: In time, you just understand how things work a lot better: the reality of banks, the reality of capital and the reality of what the ingredients of the stew of business are that make it work. Your relationships with other people, partnerships, you tend to be a little naive about these things.
The scales dropped from my eyes on the value of the Myers-Briggs personality and aptitude tests. People have a personality: for example, if you need someone who is going to sell things, then you need someone who is highly extroverted. I realised early on that I was a ‘big picture’ person and I needed people who were good with the details. I had to realise what my strengths were and not beat myself up about what I was not. Try and work out your relationships and partnerships like that.
What was the best ride you ever had?
Rod: Hard to say.
Dare: Rod, just the one you designed and built!
Rod: We designed a bike called the Hunwick. It was more than a backyard operation, but it was portrayed as a one-man operation. We teamed up with mortorcycle engineer Paul Harrop, took these bikes to America, and actually won Daytona.
The idea was to take on investment from a Japanese venture capitalist. We built the bikes in 1999 and 2000 and got some orders, but we couldn’t get the money for the floats, and basically ran out of cash.
What is the single toughest decision you’ve had to make in business?
Rod: It was difficult to give up on the bike project, but we had no choice because we couldn’t fund it any further. It was years of work and $15 million. It was like developing your own brand name with the motorcycle, and it was incredibly hard to walk away.
Dare: For me, the toughest and easiest decision was to sell Mambo, and it was all part of my personality. I was never going to sell it until the minute I decided to sell it, then I couldn’t do anything but sell it. There’s an old joke that if you want to ruin a person’s business, make them an offer, go into protracted negotiations, then pull out at the last minute: they will be completely screwed because they would have been on a desert island. It was the same for me. The toughest thing was adjusting to life without all that.
When you were seven, what was your dream job?
Rod: My dreams were all to do with cars, motorbikes and speed. I never participated in a motor sport. I followed motor sports, but I was interested in the technical aspect: how to make things go faster and work better.
Dare: I was brought up in the rural wheat-belt in vineyards, and dreamt of being anywhere but on a farm. My mother was from the big city and filled my head with travel and other things, though my father wanted me to be a farmer. I didn’t want a specific job – or any job – I wanted to be in a rock band.
Lessons from the god in the machine
- Concentrate and follow through. Have a good idea, then manage it so that it works and makes sense, and is no longer just an indulgence.
- Know your strengths and recognise your weaknesses, then find people who have the strengths you lack.
- There are two kinds of businesses: those that compete on price, and those that compete on ideas, and can name their own price.
- Closed minds in business are not a good thing. Be open-minded, listen to others, and always be willing to look at new things.
- Websites are essential, but reality is the place to come and the place to feel.
Dare Jennings is the founder of Australian surf and streetwear label Mambo, which enjoys significant global success. Dare now applies his business knowledge and life long passion for motorcycles to developing the Deus brand.
Rod Hunwick has been riding around the coalface of modern motorcycling for the past 20 years. He built up a network of five motorcycle dealerships in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and was a member of the consortium that built the Eastern Creek Racetrack in Sydney.
About Deus ex Machina custom motorcycles
Deus ex Machina celebrates a custom motorcycle culture that first appeared in the 1940s and has recently been revived by groups of young enthusiasts. Motorcycles are the core of the business, but the brand also sells clothing, accessories and books, and displays hi-fi, cars and artwork. Deus aims to introduce a new generation of riders to the pure enthusiasm that kick-started a love of motorcycling in its founders.