Having admired how the Aussies seamlessly work fitness into their social routine, Niall Horgan could see the trend starting to take hold in Ireland.
Together with his co-founders and fellow returning expats Diarmuid McSweeney and Karl Swaine, the Kerry Pike native developed Gym Plus Coffee, an Irish athleisure clothing and lifestyle brand.
After a rocky start (a timing issue saw their first collection launch on Blue Monday, widely feted as the most depressing day of the year), two years on, the business has hit its stride.
Now the trio now employ a staff of 20 across two stores, with a third, their 1,231 sq ft store at Mahon Point Shopping Centre, opening on Saturday, April 13th.
As well as cosy hoodies for humans and animals, the brand’s newly launched leggings and the Gym+Coffee house roast, the Cork outlet will also host a range of community events over the coming months with talks, yoga classes and outdoor HIIT sessions planned in the near future.
Here, Niall tells us how he’s working it:
“We had been living abroad (Australia and California) and we really loved the lifestyle people lived there. People are health conscious and passionate about their fitness, they use exercise as a way to socialise. When we moved back to Ireland we could really see that this lifestyle was becoming more prominent here. We wanted to create a brand that encouraged it further.
There is a large number of big international brands in this space but we felt there was an opportunity here for an authentic Irish brand. We saw clothing as the first step to connect us to an active audience.
I grew up in Kerry Pike in Cork and went to school in Ballincollig, followed by a BComm in UCC and a year traveling around the world. I spent four years at Twitter where I was responsible for setting up international sales operations and building sales teams across the EMEA region, all while working with brands and agencies on their digital marketing strategies. I joined another tech company called Slack in early 2016 and spent 18 months there before I went full time at Gym+Coffee.
In the beginning, myself and my two co-owners all put in our savings, which allowed us get off the ground and cover things like websites, logos and our first stock orders. But once you start really increasing your stock you need a bigger cash flow, so after 18 months we received some seed investment to help get us to the next level.
There’s so many tough things about starting a business. There’s so much risk and chance involved. I think what I found the toughest (and still do) is just how emotionally attached you become to everything in your business. It’s very difficult to switch off and you feel the pulse of the business much more than anything you have worked on before.
The businesses I really admire are the businesses that not only have a great product, but have an incredible brand too. A few of the large brands like Apple or Virgin are obvious examples, in our industry it’s hard to look passed Lululemon or Nike but brands we really admire are brands like Toms, Warby Parker, All Birds, Rapha, Brewdog.
We made loads of mistakes. In fact, our business launch was a complete mess. We planned to launch in time for Christmas to take advantage of all the Christmas shopping. However we mis-timed our manufacturing so our products didn’t arrive until January. We launched Gym+Coffee on January 18th, 2017 which was Blue Monday week, the worst week of the year financially for people. It’s safe to say that there is not a lot of shopping done that week.
The important thing is not to let mistakes get you down. Starting a business is tough and emotional at the best of times so don’t be hard on yourself when you mess up.
We were pretty confident early on that we had a fantastic product, we also had a really clear focus on the brand we wanted to build. We felt we have a really strong business foundation but our biggest challenge was how do we tell people about it, how do we get our name out there. Through our website and social media we continuously try to create engaging content and highlight our community. That helped our brand connect with the right type of people for us.
Events and experiences played a big part in our promotion. We wanted to create opportunities for people to exercise and socialise so we arranged physical meet-ups where people could gather on a Sunday, do an hour of training and grab a coffee afterwards. In two years we’ve done over 40 different events and introduced people to Gym+Coffee in this way.
Just because something isn’t going exactly right doesn’t mean it’s going wrong. There’s so much grey area in between so don’t panic when something isn’t “just right”. As long as you know you’re moving in the right direction, even slowly, then you’re doing okay. This advice has helped me to keep somewhat level headed at the good times and bad.
The three things in my working week I love doing are: weekly reporting (it’s definitely not the coolest part of our business but it’s really motivating to see how we’re steadily making progress to achieve our ambitious company goals). Secondly I love our weekly community #PicsOfTheWeek that we share on social media every Monday. These are pictures that are community members have taken while wearing G+C gear.
And thirdly I love our daily team 10:30am coffee runs. It’s become a real ritual now for us in the office to all go get a coffee together at 10:30 every day.
What I’m most proud of is the team that we’ve built. We have 20 amazing, energetic and enthusiastic employees now across our office and two stores. I feel very proud that they have chosen to work at Gym+Coffee.
My advice to another entrepreneur would be; just start. There will always be reasons not to do something – just ignore them! It’s much easier to keep the ball rolling than to get the ball rolling.
We started as an online only business and we still are an online first business so social media is a really important channel for us. It’s the main way we interact with our community so we focus a lot on creating high quality content purposely made for our social media. What’s worked best for us is:
- Video content – we have a fantastic videographer and we try to use videos as much as possible. Video content has much stronger engagement rates than just images.
- Highlighting our community – I think it’s more interesting for people to hear about our community than our business.
- Being fun and authentic – we feel that the Gym+Coffee brand is fun so we don’t take ourselves too seriously on social media and we try to engage with people in an authentic way.
It’s always very frantic behind the scenes – that’s just the nature of start-ups – but there are some things we do that help us stay on top of things. For internal communications we use a mixture of Slack and Google Drive which makes us much more productive than emails could. We also have a structured weekly team meeting that allows us all to align on what happened last week and what’s coming up in all parts of the business.
Personally I think there’s huge value in networking. For us we have tried to collaborate with as many local business owners as possible. For the events we run we always try collaborate with a local trainer and a local cafe. For the coffee we sell we partnered with a small coffee roasters in Dublin and even our new Coffee Bags we’ve partnered with an amazing small Irish company called Velo. We even hosted our own business networking night where we invited small businesses in the fitness and coffee industries to come together and share their stories, challenges and plans. It was a great event that helped us and others build up some valuable business connections.
Believe it or not I find exercising and socialising the best way to switch off! So for me going to the gym, going training or going for a run are great ways to distract from work. And on the social side of hanging out with my wife and friends is always entertaining so that keeps work matters off my mind.
It’s all go at the moment at Gym+Coffee so there’s a lot of nervous excitement in the air. We launch our new Mahon Point store on April 13th so the countdown is on right now. We’ve been working on this for months so we’re delighted to see it all come together and personally, I’m really proud to have a Cork store launch.
We also are just about to launch our new Spring/Summer 2019 collection. This is the biggest collection of products we’ve ever launched together and the new items are absolutely amazing. Our team has done an incredible job.
Our plan for the rest of 2019 is to open two more stores, one more in Ireland and one in the UK (Brexit depending!).”