TWO Cork friends, and a Dubliner they ‘picked up along the way’ are the seemingly unstoppable trio behind lifestyle brand Gym+Coffee.
And now they’re bringing the brand — which is known as much for high-quality gym gear as it is on having a balanced life of work and play — to their home county when they open a pop-up store next month in Mahon Point.
Founded by Diarmuid McSweeney, of Ballinhassig; Niall Horgan, of Kerry Pike; and Dubliner Karl Swaine, they’ve been on quite the whirlwind journey since, as they say themselves, they scratched their ‘entrepreneurial itch’ back in 2017.
Diarmuid and Niall became friends in UCC while studying commerce and both moved to Dublin for work after graduating. Niall worked in US tech companies, while Diarmuid worked in the advertising industry.
Niall later met Karl through a gym in Dublin and his background is fashion merchandising.
Health and fitness has played an important part in all their lives since they were youngsters. Niall played with Glen Rovers from U-12 right through to intermediate, picking up some significant medals along the way, and joined Faughs GAA club in Dublin when he moved to the capital.
Likewise, Diarmuid played with his local club growing up and went on to join Parnells in Dublin. After he moved to Australia, he switched his focus to running, cycling, and triathlons.
Diarmuid explains: “An important part of our story is that we all spent time abroad. I was in Melbourne, Karl in Sydney and Niall in California and San Francisco, and what we all saw was very similar — a lifestyle and social life that was taking place around exercise and coffee shops. Back home we saw it taking off here and we wanted to be part of it and to create a brand and community that represents the growing active lifestyle in Ireland.”
Diarmuid and Niall had mulled over previous business ideas over the years but had always found some reason or other not to go for it. This time round was different.
Diarmuid said: “It all happened very quickly. We made some key decisions such as the name, and the logo, all in a matter of days, and we launched in January 2017.”
Initially Gym+Coffee (read it as gym plus coffee, not gym and coffee) was solely an ecommerce business starting with their signature hoodies and the lads all continued with their day jobs in Dublin city centre.
And while they admit that first year was ‘mad’, having those day jobs gave them a safety net and took the pressure off as they felt their way forward.
Niall said: “It helped us understand if the brand resonated with people and gave us that year to figure out how it would all work and to build momentum.”
However, very quickly they realised they had tapped into something that the public identified with and by the end of 2017 they expanded their catalogue into the now hugely popular beanies, t-shirts, tank tops and leggings worn by the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Cork influencer Lisa Jordan and Joe Wicks, The Body Coach.
By the end of that first year, all three saw a sound enough future in their ‘side hustle’ to allow them leave their day jobs and by July they had opened their first retail space in Dundrum Town Centre.
They admit that was ‘a big step’ and Niall said: “I suppose we do bite off more than we can chew sometimes, but we decided to just get things moving and figured we’d learn things along the way. We actually went in thinking it would be short term thing for two weeks, a marketing and sales exercise, and to give our ‘community’ a place to come and interact, but we were so surprised by the reaction that we made it a permanent location.”
That was quickly followed by a pop-up store at Dublin’s Arnotts department store which launched in September.
That ability to react to situations as they happen, to stay fluid, is their key strength, they believe.
“Opportunities like Dundrum don’t come along too often and our ability to respond quickly to that is what got us in there,” said Niall.
Although fashion is at the forefront of the Gym+Coffee brand, their mission is to encourage people to #MakeLifeRicher by adopting a lifestyle that balances healthy living with an active social life.
To do that, they focus very much on creating a ‘community’ and their website is bursting with events and information designed to mobilise its members.
With that in mind, the shop, with its trademark recycled pallet furniture, has very much a café vibe and is designed to be both a space to shop in but also to gather.
And while all of this could potentially reek of a certain ‘arsines’, instead there’s a wonderful authenticity about it — perhaps it’s the Glen Rovers association that’s keeping it real or the fact that no one has mentioned wheat grass.
Either way, the lads say they’ve always had a huge Cork response when they hosted events and now they’re looking forward to hosting a range of community events over the coming months with instore talks, yoga classes and outdoor HIIT sessions planned in Mahon Point.
The brand has also just launched a range of sustainable back packs. In collaboration with Irish cycling bag company Vel-Oh, they have introduced Coffee Bag Collection — high-end, Irish-made range of urban bags designed using upcycled materials.
The collection is designed in Dublin, made in Galway, and created drawing on the skills and materials of local merchants.
They had contemplated a UK retail space but Brexit has put that on ice for now. They have a growing US customer base and they say they’re constantly being asked to have a presence in Australia, but for now the focus is to grow the international presence through online sales.
Their team, full- and part- time, will reach 23 when the new pop-up opens on Saturday, April 13.
Their plan is to keep it going for a few months at least, but in their typical style it will be a case of playing it by ear.
But if their track record is anything to go by, expect them to be sticking around for a while — with lots more surprises up their hoodie sleeves.
Diarmuid: “I’ve a very annoying phrase and I know Niall cringes when I use it; it’s ‘it’s easier to keep a ball rolling then to get a ball rolling.’ We made huge decisions in the five or six days after our initial chat about the business which wouldn’t have been our track record at all and which just got it going.”
On top of that, he stressed that most tasks are not as daunting as you might imagine, such as building a website, sourcing merchandise, etc.
“The most important thing is to give an idea a chance and to let it breathe,” he said.
Niall added: “Just get started; you’d be surprised at the momentum you can build it you commit to a decision and a lot of it can be done at a low cost.
“Also, remember you don’t have to commit to something full time straight away; you can keep your day job with your side hustle, which is a good way to reduce pressure at the beginning.”
And if you’re still in any doubt that these guys don’t know what they’re talking about, they’ve won two notable business awards already this year. At the Small Firms Association Awards Gala at the RDS, they won the Emerging New Business Award, and they were also named the LEO Dublin City Enterprise Award Overall Winner 2019.