'I made the tough call to quit football. If I didn't, the chance for my business would be gone'.
FROM PLAYING PROFESSIONAL soccer in Ireland and Australia to owning my own fitness company, I’ve always been in the sport industry.
Being involved with high-performance teams is always something I’ve really enjoyed. I like looking at what sets teams apart nutritionally and mentally and gives them that edge.
But when I went to live in Australia, my eyes were opened to the opportunity to bring this attention-to-detail into a corporate setting.
I had signed for a team in Sydney, but the terms of the contract were semi-professional, so I was able to work as well.
I joined a company that specialised in delivering corporate wellness programmes. In that job, I saw the correlation between what the best soccer teams I played for did and what the best companies were doing.
The best companies had healthy lunches provided for employees, regular exercise programmes and team-building classes – they really put an emphasis on keeping staff healthier and fitter.
In the end, I only spent two seasons in Australia, came back to Ireland at 23 and stopped playing football to try and launch a business that could tap into this trend.
So I opened a training studio in Ballsbridge, which is our base, and soon after that we also got a gig with Primark. Now we also have an exercise and personal training studio at the company’s head office.
Since then, business has spiraled and we’re linked with Irish Life Health and are the main wellness provider for all of its companies.
I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur in the whole area of training. Even when I was around 17 or 18, I was training a lot of my teammates at Shelbourne Football Club.
I had a stable little business as a personal trainer in Ireland, so leaving for Australia was a big step to make. But I felt that every person at some stage in their life needs to experience what it’s like to live abroad.
Say for example you are in the tech industry, it’s probably important to try out Silicon Valley. For the fitness industry, my Silicon Valley was Australia.
It was great that I got to play football down in Australia, but the main reason I was going there was to see what the trends were in the ‘capital of fitness’.
When I was in Australia, there were things I saw which made me think, “I wonder in three years will Ireland be like this.”
Take protein bars in shops. In 2012 you couldn’t get one in a newsagents here, while every corner shop in Australia had them.
Now, you can’t go into a shop in Ireland without seeing one at the counter – even petrol stations have health sections.
The health and fitness trend was growing in Ireland when I left, and I thought if I can go to Australia and find something that works, I could bring it back and tap into a niche.
When you go over to Australia, you’re half-sold on the idea of staying. But when I ended up seeing the opportunity in corporate wellness in Australia, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try it in Ireland.
I knew if I left it another two years, the chance might be gone. So I decided to get the business established here as soon as possible and reach out to corporate clients.
I remember the day I actually stopped playing. I was getting myself fit again to start pre-season with Bohemians. I was down on the pitch, doing my own bits and pieces to get fit, but I came home, dropped the boots down and said, “I’m done now.”
I had got to a point where I was so motivated about the new venture that I knew it needed 100% of my commitment. I found I was always caught between giving 50% to soccer and the rest to my work life.
I knew I wasn’t going to play for Manchester United. I thought, do I really want to be committing five to six days a week to soccer and neglecting this idea and probably missing it?
It was tough, but I had to make the decision to quit football and devote myself to the business.
I could have launched something like ‘Mark O’Reilly personal training’, but I never wanted to be known just as a personal trainer.
I want to build it through a brand like Fitvision because, in the back of my mind, I want to progress the business into high-performance coaching and train some of Ireland’s leading businessmen and women.
We’ve built our base in Ballsbridge and we have stable business on the back of one-on-one training and exercise classes, but in the background I’ve always been contacting companies asking them could I come in and explain what I could bring to the table.
Corporate wellness has become a bit more widespread now, but it wasn’t an easy pitch when I came back from Australia. What I had to do was bring back some statistics on the trends of how health programmes were helping big companies.
I would explain how fitness can have big effects on staff attendance and job satisfaction and show off figures for before and after the wellness programmes started.
If you show this to an office manager or CEO, they take note because they’re constantly trying to make their employees happier and more productive.
For our first big client, I suppose we were just a bit lucky. We presented to Primark, and they were already at a stage where they were developing an exercise studio but had no idea what to do with it.
So basically we designed a timetable and monthly seminars for them, and developed our relationship from there.
We also have their staff using our app, which they can use to design specific nutrition or workout programmes for their needs.
It was tough for us to get the Primark gig because it was our first one, but now Primark is our case study. Whenever we go in to do business with anyone else, they see that we did it with a workforce of 700 – so it will work for them as well.
Advice for others
The best bit of advice I could give anyone in regard to running a business is to treat managing people as the most important factor in your business.
If you’re setting up a business, you should study effective ways of managing people because it is the hardest thing to do, especially as you grow and get more employees.
Also, a lot of people are hesitant about starting a business because they don’t know this or that, or they might wait until they do a course before starting.
However, there is nothing better than day-to-day experience and learning as you go. So I would say to anyone who is hesitant about starting a business, the only way you learn is by throwing yourself into it.
You’re going to make mistakes, of course – that’s inevitable. But it’s what you learn from those mistakes that will make or break your company.
This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.