Sunday 19 May 2019

From tech to sports fashion...How these three Irish lads created cult brand Gym + Coffee

Co-founders Niall Horgan, Diarmuid McSweeney and Karl Swaine in the Gym + Coffee Pop-up shop in the Dundrum Shopping Centre Credit: Kyran O'Brien
Co-founders Niall Horgan, Diarmuid McSweeney and Karl Swaine in the Gym + Coffee Pop-up shop in the Dundrum Shopping Centre Credit: Kyran O'Brien
Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

Giving up a solid position at a billion-dollar tech company to embark on an online clothing startup isn't everyone's idea of the best career choice - but it just might prove to be a successful trajectory.

After completing a commerce degree in UCC, Niall Horgan spent a few years job-hopping and globetrotting before landing a job as the 10th employee at Twitter's new Dublin headquarters.

Four years later, messenger service Slack opened up its office in the capital enticing Horgan to lead their Sales Enterprise team. It was during his 18 months there that Gym + Coffee was set up as a side project with two of his friends.

"I always wanted do my own thing but was never sure what exactly that was. With Diarmuid [co-founder Diarmuid McSweeney] we'd had harebrained ideas over the years and even developed an app at one stage, but we never really followed anything else through, nothing substantial," Horgan said.

"Our careers were then going solid, going well, so that got forgotten about for a couple of years."

McSweeney had been working in advertising with creative agencies in both Dublin and Melbourne since his college years with Horgan, and it wasn't until his return from Australia, and the addition of Karl Swaine, that the entrepreneurial dream was realised.

The athleisure clothing company was created by the three lads who were essentially looking to encapsulate and promote the lifestyle they'd enjoyed from their travels in California and Australia.

"The genesis for the brand came directly from our experiences abroad, a lifestyle which is very much active and then you grab a coffee afterwards.

"This way of socialising was starting to become more apparent in Dublin and we couldn't agree with it more. We're not against the pub or anything, we like to have a drink, but it's nice to be able to meet up with your friends by doing a run or something too.

"So we thought about how clothing fitted into that, and looked at the big Australian, American and Canadian brands and saw that there was no real Irish brand looking at that side of things. This was a lifestyle that we were trying to encourage and looked at clothing as the opportunity to tie it all together. And then we gave ourselves a very weird name."

The rather unique brand name and logo - look for the plus signs on the increasingly popular stretch leggings - were, along with the website design, perhaps the easiest for the fledging firm to cope with.

The big financial outlay, and risk, of course, was stock. And it all started with a hoody. "As soon as we'd made the call to spend tens of thousands on stock to order some hoodies, which remains our flagship product, we thought that there was no going back. Either that or we'd have a life supply of hoodies. When we look back now we laugh, we ordered it all before the end of the year, we missed the Christmas rush, the timing was all wrong and we ended up launching on January 18, Blue Monday week, when everyone is flat broke."

The hoody was designed in-house, the logo was outsourced, and the full spec was sent off to a number of different manufacturers. Horgan said they were "very lucky" with their initial stock, but it was an introduction to a major Singaporean manufacturer that gives them complete faith in their existing and upcoming range.

"The group makes for Bodynits and Lululemon and Adidas and Puma so we met them in London and Singapore after we were introduced. We were as much pitching to them as they were to us as they're huge.

"Our agreement allows us to plug into their design and sourcing team, and they can give us minute guarantees on delivery times, product quality. We plug into the same systems that Adidas use so that's huge for us."

Read more: 'I gave up my job and life savings to start my Irish clothing brand' - Gym+Coffee CEO and co-founder Niall Horgan

It wasn't until the summer of last year, with the brand's appearance at Ireland's Wellfest event, that interest in and awareness of Gym + Coffee really began to take off. While still working full-time, the three founders ran a 10-week outdoor workout event in different locations called The Summer Stretch Series.

The popularity of the event grew so much so, the company partnered with Laya Healthcare for this year's Stretch Series, and actually opened it up to applications from cafes and personal trainers etc who wanted to get on board.

"We were looking at how best to get our name out there without huge budgets and we also wanted to collaborate as much as possible with the people who are the right type of fit for us. That probably started as a thrifty marketing ploy, but it has actually grown into a real pillar of our business now.

"We've now gone completely full circle where we're getting multiple messages each week from people asking if they can do one of our events."

It's now approaching the anniversary of when the trio decided that they were going to throw themselves fully into their brand, which had now built up quite a bit of credibility. "Giving up our full-time jobs was - and still is - a question we have. But it does drive you forward a bit. We see it as a short-term loss for hopefully a longer-term kind of game. It was a big commitment."

In an effort to make sure that they weren't sitting idly in their new roles, expansion efforts to the US began immediately, and the marketing drive began in earnest.

While Horgan agrees that they might not have had the perfect launch across the Atlantic, their timing at least was on point this time as they start selling at Thanksgiving. And they found their niche market.

"We weren't an overnight sensation or anything, but the US now is around 12pc of our overall sales which we are quite proud of. We targeted the fitness enthusiasts, the fashion enthusiasts, and the Irish diaspora, and this group by far performed the best. We learned from that and began to focus it a bit more, targeting New York, then San Francisco and Boston, learning and evolving the whole time. We're trying to play up the Irishness without being 'Oirish'."

Apart from consumers in Ireland, Gym + Coffee's online store is available in the UK, which accounts for about 20pc of the company's sales.

By mid-2019, the company plans to push further into the Canadian and the Australian market.

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