Pandemic boosts business for walking and fitness start-ups

Hiiker and HuKu Balance don’t put a foot wrong as they target healthy activity market


While the pandemic has made life difficult for many start-ups over the last 12 months, others have benefited from the unusual conditions it has created.

Those making “comfort” products from chocolate to sleep-inducing pillow mists have been inundated with orders and the walking trails company Hiiker and wellness brand HuKu Balance have both benefited from people’s need to stay active as the lockdown dragged on.

In Creeslough, Co Donegal, HuKu Balance founder Cathal Sheridan and his team of four have been flat-out meeting orders for the company’s range of fitness balance boards.

The boards, which are compact in size and can be used in a small space, are designed to improve core strength, co-ordination, motor skills and reaction times and are handcrafted in sustainable birch wood ethically sourced from managed forests in Finland, Latvia and Northern Russia.

Sheridan is a cabinetmaker who also trained in industrial design and his hobby is surfing. To stay flexible and supple during the colder months away from the water, Sheridan made and began using a balance board and saw a noticeable improvement in his post-winter fitness.

His surfing buddies noticed it too and began asking him to make boards for them. From there, the idea for HuKu grew legs and when the pandemic hit last year Sheridan decided to go full time into the business.

“The range is rooted in board sports and movement and was originally designed to aid surfers and snowboarders in their training. However, our products are now enjoyed by runners, cyclists, skiers and yogis as well as families and people working from home who want a fun way of staying healthy,” he says.

“We have competitors of course, but our advantage is that we produce a vastly superior product with a lifetime guarantee. Also, we use only natural materials whereas some of our competitors use cheap plastic imports.”

Commercial production

The HuKu range comprises boards, mobility wheels and a balance beam and the company’s Ulu board, which is aimed at children aged six and upwards, has been a big seller during the pandemic. It’s set up as a puzzle game with little wooden balls that have to be rolled into channels as the child balances on the wobbling board.

“In principle it looks simple, but you need good motor skills and co-ordination to win,” Sheridan says. “We’ve been hearing that parents have been unable to resist trying it too and it’s become a fun sport with a competitive edge within families.”

HuKu boards have been in full commercial production for over a year and are being shipped all over the world. “Balance boards are of interest to people everywhere because they are a proven way to regain and preserve body stability and to help prevent and recover from injury,” Sheridan says.

“Therapists often use them to help older people regain their muscle tone or to sharpen fine motor coordination in children with developmental problems. Even if you haven’t been injured, your body loses its stability as you age and the boards help tone your muscles so they don’t give way when you’re walking or playing sport. Balance boards can also help correct postural problems caused by sitting at a computer all day.”

It has cost roughly €110,000 to develop the HuKu product range and set up the manufacturing facility and ecommerce platform. The business has received priming grant support from LEO Donegal and is now growing steadily with three more jobs and four new products due to come on stream this year. Board prices start at €110.

Outdoor enthusiast Paul Finlay set up the long-distance hiking trails app and web platform Hiiker in August 2019 and, despite the current hiatus in international travel, the business is on course to employ nine people by the end of the year.

The app’s users may not have been able to jet off to overseas locations, but the company has done brisk business in Ireland and the UK since last March as people sought new places to walk within their lockdown restrictions.

Curated information

“Hiiker is a one-stop-shop for the world’s long-distance hiking trails and has all the information people need to plan a trip, from finding a camping ground or other accommodation along the trail to water and resupply points,” Finlay says.

“What makes us different to other trail apps is that our information is curated and comes from official sources, so these are safe, approved trails. The outdoor world is full of user-generated content and, while this content can be helpful at times, it can also be dangerous. We have very much taken a qualitative approach to the information we provide. We only work with trail organisations and will augment and improve their information based on our users’ experience as we collect it over time.”

Finlay first tested the water for his concept a couple of years ago when he launched a trail guide app for Ireland covering five routes. Based on the feedback, he cast his net wider and Hiiker now includes 1,700 trails in 32 countries and covers a broad mix of distances from the 4,200km Pacific Crest Trail in the USA to a 7km loop of Carrauntoohil, Co Kerry.

“We are really focusing on underserved segments as part of building our market position,” Finlay says. “In particular, we are building a resource for female and solo hikers. We want to help these fast-growing segments to explore the world by foot.

“I first became interested in the whole idea of trail walking when I was finishing my MBA in Trinity. To get away from it all, I walked a 114-mile loop on the Dingle peninsula and was fascinated by the experience of life on the trail. Since then I’ve walked about 15 different trails and have become passionate about sharing the benefits of being outdoors with others.”

Those signing up to Hiiker can pay €10 for information about a single trail, including a printable map, €30 for access to all trails or €60 for a three-year subscription. The bulk of the company’s subscribers so far are in the UK.

Finlay is currently focused on growing his user base but is already looking at additional revenue streams such as commission on accommodation booked via the Hiiker website. There are also plans to add more features to the app such as location tracking, which will be of particular interest to solo walkers.

Getting Hiiker up and running has cost just over €70,000 with most of this coming from founder equity with support from Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme at TU Dublin Hothouse. Finlay is in the process of raising €500,000 to expedite the company’s growth.

“We’ve been lucky in that we continued growing even with Covid,” he says. “People have been more inclined to get outdoors but of course it’s largely been local. Once the prohibition on travel is removed we expect to see a big lift in our business.”

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