Aran knits for dogs, mystery tours and fashionable kit for horse riders

Start-ups with innovative, market-ready ideas

In 2019, Tivoli Spinners in Cork closed its doors and Ursula McGrath, who had worked as a knitwear designer with the company for 27 years, found herself out of a job.

Two years on and McGrath has built a thriving small business around two of her big passions in life: dogs and knitwear. Irish Dog Designs produces a range of 100 per cent wool Aran knitwear for dogs (as well as accessories for their humans) in sizes that fit everything from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane.

Having decided she wanted to start her own business rather than work for someone else again, McGrath began teasing out different ideas. One of them was to check out the US market’s appetite for Irish-made doggy knits. She produced a test batch 50 and they sold like hot cakes. This convinced McGrath she was on to something and in November 2019 she launched Irish Dog Designs having completed a start your own business course with Cork South LEO.

Apart from finding employment for herself, McGrath had another reason for sticking to the knitting. During her time at Tivoli she had built up a team of skilled home knitters whose job was to produce samples of the company’s new designs. They too lost out when Tivoli closed and McGrath was very keen to start something that involved them.

“I’ve known these ladies, most of whom are now in their 70s, for nearly 30 years and they’re like family,” she says. “As things turned out with Covid, knitting the dog sweaters was a godsend for them as it meant they had something specific to do and visits from me dropping off the wool in their front gardens when they couldn’t see their families.”

The company has 10 knitters producing its garments which are sold online and McGrath says she has been on a steep but enjoyable learning curve with the business which she set up on a shoestring budget of €7,000.

“I knew nothing about building websites or using Facebook and Instagram commercially but I had great support and mentoring from Cork South LEO to get me up to speed,” she says.

“I’m still learning but we’re turning a profit now and I’m happy and my ladies are happy. I knew from experience that we needed to focus on producing small, high-quality items, as making money from something like ladies’ knitwear is really difficult. I’m working around the clock at the moment, but that’s okay and I wouldn’t change it. I’m just hoping St Patrick’s Day parades happen this year and that it will boost sales of our shamrock jumpers from January on.”

Mystery Trails

The lockdown also provided the push Pat and Karen Gillick needed to turn an idea they had been toying with for some time into a fully-fledged business. The couple set up Mystery Trails in July 2020 and the company offers themed walks built around murder mysteries, treasure hunts and spy missions at 85 locations around Ireland.

“We first considered taking the plunge when I was seriously hurt in a workplace accident in 2018 and since then I have been plotting routes and photographing locations with the intention of doing something with them on the ‘never, never’, but the lockdown turned the never, never into now,” Pat says.

Mystery Trails was launched with 20 trails on a tight budget of €23,000 in October 2020. Each trail is basically a self-guided walk on public thoroughfares with an easy to follow route and a set of clues to solve along the way. The trails are aimed families with children aged six and upwards and at adults who like a walk with a purpose.

The treasure hunts work well for younger kids, while teens like the spy trails and adults enjoy the whodunnits. Downloaded versions of the guides cost €9.99; printed and posted versions, €14.99. There is a free text service to help those who get stuck on a clue and the service confirms if a trail has been solved correctly. The company also prepares school trails for transition year students and bespoke trails for the hospitality sector.

“We have trundled our way somewhat blindly into the worlds of business and marketing, learning every day, burning our fingers and making mistakes. What keeps us upbeat is that our customers keep telling us we have a great product and how much they are enjoying it,” Karen says. “The lockdown restrictions hampered our growth, but when they were lifted we saw interest increase and we’ve had over 100,000 visitors to our website. We haven’t yet had a summer where people can move freely so we’re looking forward to that. We’ve met a lot of hurdles along the way, but we are now starting to make money.”

Equieire equestrian

A far more casual approach to dress codes is fast becoming a feature of many sports and Equieire co-founder Emma Keogh has set her sights on replacing the traditional clothing favoured by the equestrian set with something more fashion-forward.

Keogh has been involved with horses all of her life and following a course with the UCD Innovation Academy in 2018, she began looking at alternative designs and fabrics for jodhpurs, breeches and tops with a clear focus on fashion, comfort, and sustainable sourcing.

“There is a definite move away from the formality of equestrian clothing, especially among younger riders, and I felt there was an opportunity there to be tapped,” says Keogh who recently completed the New Frontiers programme at the TU Synergy Centre in Tallaght.

Equieire was set up in June 2021 following extensive market research and product development. Its first range of products, which are for women, were soft launched in November.

“The trousers are a sort of hybrid between jodhpurs, tights and leggings and are figure flattering and more like shapewear,” Keogh says. “We launched with five options all made from sustainable fabrics and we will be offering a range of styles at different prices. A pair of jodhpurs from a top brand can cost up to €450. Our top-end version will sell for a great deal less. Sourcing sustainable fabrics and manufacturing was a big challenge and finding the right combination took a long time.”

Keogh estimates her start-up costs at about €16,000 and says the real push starts early this year when the company’s online and pop-up shops will be fully functional. In the meantime Keogh is using social media, trade shows and equestrian events to showcase and sell her products with pre-orders being taken on the company’s website. Ultimately Keogh sees the real growth for Equieire coming from sales on international markets.

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