Your Business: On course for outdoor profit
Peadar Niland tells Sean Gallagher how sports events firm Alive Outside has overcome obstacles of its own
In recent years, the growing demand for fun ways to get fit and stay active has led to an explosion in the number of people taking part in running and cycling activities as well as duathons, triathlons and even extreme adventure sports. This week I caught up with Peadar Niland, co-founder and managing director of Alive Outside, Ireland's largest outdoor sports events company. Set up in 2010, by Peadar and co-founders Aidan Walsh, Simon Bewley and Craig Bewley, the business employs 10 staff, five full-time and five part-time and has an annual turnover of more than €1m.
"Last year, we had more than 45,000 people take part in our events, including our best known Hell and Back event - Ireland's toughest physical and mental endurance challenge," says Peadar as he shows me around the grounds of Killruddery House and Gardens near Bray in Co Wicklow, where many of the company's events are now run.
"This event is held over two days with an average of 3,500 to 4,000 people taking part each day. Consisting of distances ranging from 5km to 12km run, participants must make their way over a series of challenging but fun obstacles, some man-made and some natural, including everything from forests and bogs, to 10ft-high walls, rope climbing frames and ice water baths.
"Given the Irish weather conditions, rain and mud only add to the sense of fun and adventure," he adds.
The company's target audience is both males (55pc) and females (45pc) aged typically from 25 to 45 years. While these events are competitive, with early finishers entitled to progress to European Championships, for the most part those who take part do so for a personal challenge or as a fun activity with friends and colleagues.
The founders also run a separate but related business, Irish Tag Rugby. Weekly games take place throughout Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.
It's certainly been an interesting career journey for the chartered accountant from Sligo. He grew up on a small family farm near Collooney. After school he studied commerce in University College Galway where he met and became close friends with Craig Bewley.
"We bonded in the beginning largely because of our shared love of sport," says Peadar.
Peadar went on to study accounting in the Michael Smurfit School of Business as well as completing his chartered accountancy exams. A number of accounting roles followed, mostly in the food sector, the last one of which saw him move back to his native Sligo in 2002.
All the while he kept in contact with Craig and when the business Peadar was working in wound down in 2007, he joined Craig in a business which he and his brother, Simon, a rugby coach, had by then set up - Irish Tag Rugby. The firm continued to do well until 2009, when the downturn in the economy led to a significant fall-off in revenues.
"We realised then that if we were to survive, we needed to come up with alternative revenue streams," says Peadar.
At the time, triathlons were all the rage and so, in 2010, Peadar, Craig, Simon and Aidan Walsh who had by then joined the team, set up Alive Outside, with a view to organising a series or duathlons (combined running and cycling events) and triathlons.
While they succeeded in running a number of very successful events in places like the Phoenix Park and Slane Castle, they quickly realised that they were too late into the triathlon market, as it had already become a crowded space.
"We decided to pivot again. But this time, we decided to focus on developing challenging obstacle course adventure races. We had seen the original of these, the Tough Guy endurance event, in Wolverhampton in the UK, and thought that there might be an opening for something similar in the Irish market - and so Hell and Back was born," says Peadar.
"Having previously organised a mid-summer trail run through the grounds here on Killruddery Estate, we thought that this would be the perfect location for it. When we held our first one in October 2011 and more than 600 participants turned up, we knew we had hit on something special," he adds.
Peadar and his colleagues expected that it would be those most into fitness who would sign up. Instead, most of those who entered were looking for a personal challenge, a goal to help them get fit or were using it as a novel way of fundraising for their favourite charity.
"In addition, they found that instead of individuals signing up, 60pc of participants were doing so as part of some type of grouping - either a fundraising group, a gym club or a corporate firm using the event as a team-building exercise for their staff."
Word began to spread of this new event, driven largely as a result of participants posting pictures of themselves taking part in the event on their Facebook and social media platforms - usually covered in mud but obviously having great fun.
"This then gave us the idea to upload online videos of our next event and within days of that, we had over 30,000 hits," says Peadar.
"Enquiries about future events came flooding in. So much so that we were soon up to over 5,500 entrants which meant that we had to add a second event on the following day in order to accommodate everyone who had signed up."
Business is now thriving and this year, the company is planning on running three separate Hell and Back events - in June, September and November, which will take place at night-time. In addition, they are also working on developing bespoke corporate events directly for companies looking for team-building activities.
"We also see the children's market as having huge growth potential. Having trialled a Hell and Back event for juniors last year, we got over 3,000 entrants and so we are planning on running more of these throughout 2017," says Peadar.
The firm will also hold its first summer camp for children between eight and 12 this summer.
Youngsters will be able to tale part in outdoor games and scouting-type activities including hiking, orienteering, navigation skills, forest first-aid and search and rescue.
"Our pitch to parents is to unplug their kids from technology and give them the opportunity for outdoor fun and exercise. This is something most parents can identify with and many tell us they would like to see their kids develop a similar love for the outdoors that they experienced themselves growing up," he adds.
Still living in Sligo and travelling to Dublin most weeks, Peadar tells me he loves what he does.
"Sport is my passion. Through Alive Outside, I now get to combine my love for sport and my love for business. You can't get much better than that."
Peadar's advice for other businesses
1 First, test and measure
Before investing in rolling out new concepts on a large scale, try out your idea first on a smaller scale or pilot-type basis first. This will allow you evaluate your idea, see if it has potential to be profitable while at the same time mitigating your risk of losing money if it doesn't work out.
2 Invest in building meaningful business relationships
Many people now think that time spent meeting people in person rather than by email or phone is inefficient or wasteful. However, investing time in face-to-face meetings can help build loyal and meaningful relationships with key customers and suppliers. And that's priceless.
3 Embrace social media - but only if it fits
Everyone today thinks they need to be spending huge amounts of time on social media. This is not always the best use of your time. Before investing too much time on this, you have to first consider if social media really fits your business or business model. It doesn't always.
Company: Alive Outside Ltd.
Business: Organising sports events
Set up: 2010
Founders: Peadar Niland, Aidan Walsh, Simon Bewley and Craig Bewley
No of Employees: Five full-time and five part-time
Location: Patrick St, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin
www.aliveoutside.ie and www.hellandback.ie
Sunday Indo Business