Opening in March 2023, First Swim will be Ireland’s first purpose-built baby and toddler swim school. We talk to founder Colin Mac Andrias.
“The potential for baby and toddler swimming in Ireland is huge. Having identified the glaring gap in the market with no current operators having their own pool or dedicated venue, First Swim is confident that we can succeed in becoming a market leader in this industry”
What is the problem you are trying to solve and the size of the market you are addressing?
Ireland has no bespoke baby and toddler swim schools that cater specifically for young children and their parents. Current swim lesson providers share public pools or hotel and gym pools which are not baby friendly. Families are mixed in with the general public or members, both in the pool and in the changing rooms, which make the current offering unfit, unappealing and uninspiring.
“Drowning is the second most common cause of accidental death in children in Ireland. That statistic alone is staggering considering we are an island nation”
These shared public venues can also be stressful for new mums managing a lot of change in their life and many of whom are breast feeding. Parents deserve much more. First Swim, based in Sandyford, will be Ireland’s first purpose-built baby and toddler swim school to help solve this problem. We open in March 2023.
Drowning is the second most common cause of accidental death in children in Ireland. That statistic alone is staggering considering we are an island nation. Waiting lists for swim classes can be more than a year with public pools and gyms, focusing on swimmers and competitions, not parents and infants. Pools used are not baby friendly. They are loud, bright and have low water temperatures and high chlorine levels.
The potential for baby and toddler swimming in Ireland is huge. Having identified the glaring gap in the market with no current operators having their own pool or dedicated venue, First Swim is confident that we can succeed in becoming a market leader in this industry. This has been strengthened by the quantitative and qualitative research study that we undertook to test the demand for this venture. The growing demand for baby swimming has accelerated in recent years but customer capture is being frustrated by the lack of facilities and the low number of classes available.
“One in 10 parents do not take their children swimming because they cannot swim themselves. One in five don’t go because they lack confidence”
Swim Ireland, the governing body for swimming in Ireland, has identified the current demand in Ireland is similar to the demand in the UK back in 2012. The Swimming Teachers Association (STA) in England did a nationwide survey assessing the growing demand for baby swimming. Those findings 10 years ago highlighted some very similar obstacles that Dublin and the rest of Ireland are facing right now. These include long waiting lists, lack of pool venues and a perception from parents of pre-school children, that public and private pool facilities do not want their custom.
There are 320,000 pre-school children in Ireland with 120,000 of these based in Dublin and Cork coming in second with 47,000. One in 10 parents do not take their children swimming because they cannot swim themselves. One in five don’t go because they lack confidence.
Teaching babies and toddlers to swim and teaching parents how to be confident in the water with them, is therefore extremely important and the swim industry has seen a significant increase in popularity, especially during the recent pandemic with sea swimming more popular than ever before.
We believe that now is the perfect opportunity for First Swim to be introduced to Ireland, with its first test site based in South County Dublin, and to capture this growing and frustrated market of parents with babies and pre-school children.
What is your core product and service about and how does it work?
Our main product is swim classes for 0-4 year olds. There are two categories depending on the age of the child. ‘Little Dippers’ is for babies 03-23 months old and ‘Aquatots’ is for 2-4 year olds. Each category has 6 levels depending on previous experience and each level has 10 classes. Classes are 30 mins each and run once a week for 10 weeks after which you graduate up to the next level.
First Swim is a totally bespoke facility where parents arrive before their class to change in our warm changing rooms that have cubicles and open change areas. Our onsite pool is heated to a balmy 34oC and we use UV sterilisation which means we have ultra-low levels of chlorine compared to large public pool and this is great news for babies skins and eyes. The pool itself is a new eco design with its insulation panels from 100% PET, one of the many eco-design features we have built into the facility.
After their class and shower they can relax in our customer-only café and connect with other parents from their class. The café is a huge feature for First Swim as this allows customers to connect with other like-minded parents, creating a social hub, in a private and comfortable setting with a barista coffee and snack.
Other products that will follow are paediatric first aid classes, ante/ post-natal fitness classes and underwater photoshoots.
Who are the founders of the company and what are the experiences that encouraged you to become an entrepreneur?
I am the sole founder and owner of First Swim. I have been working in and around water for almost 20 years and I am passionate about water safety. I worked in London for many years and both of my children were born there and we experienced the good and bad sides of baby swimming lessons with public pools and bespoke facilities.
I was so surprised to see that no purpose-built facilities existed in Dublin and that friends of ours had to endure some pretty awful conditions when they wanted to take their children to swim lessons as nowhere was properly set up for babies and toddlers.
In 2018, I began to seriously consider a change in career having managed a scuba diving centre in London for 12 years. I always wanted to return to Ireland with my family and with First Swim I had the opportunity to start a company here that could teach water safety to babies and toddlers which was really exciting. We took the big step in early 2021, mid-pandemic, to return back and start this venture.
What are your impressions of the start-up ecosystem in your region and in Ireland in general?
We were very fortunate to be selected by the Back For Business programme, which is an initiative for returning emigrants, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs. This six-month programme was so valuable for opening doors back in Dublin.
The start-up eco-system seems to be healthy in Dublin and indeed Ireland with quite a lot of support out there through EI and LEO. There still seems to be a huge emphasis however on tech and manufacturing which are the preferred plays for EI and not as much support for local business or services which is the category that we fall into.
Having been away from Dublin for over 25 years, there was a lot of nervousness about returning to start up a new business, post pandemic, especially one that doesn’t currently exist. But the idea excites people and they see the real need for this type of business. This really feels like the right time to start First Swim and to scale this business so others can experience quality baby and toddler swimming more locally in a facility that is built for their needs.
Are you raising funding at present?
No, we have secured all the investment we need to launch site 1. We may look to further rounds of investment in 2023 as we look to scale the business beyond our Sandyford flagship location.
What are the biggest mistakes or lessons you have learned so far?
Perseverance. It’s the greatest lesson I can pass on to anyone looking to start something new. The ‘great’ idea you have in your head is not for everyone but keep at it, keep driving forward and do not give up.
There will be knocks and kicks. Some will hurt more than other but don’t wallow in them. Allow yourself to feel disappointed about something that didn’t go your way and then start again. Learn something from every set back and put that back into your calculations for the next pitch or the next phase.
What advice do you have for fellow founders?
To rethink your ‘time to launch’. I came back to Ireland with an idea of launch timings that turned out to be quite unrealistic. Things have taken much longer to get to where we are today. Not getting things done in a certain timeframe should not be seen as going backwards. Doing it right, not fast, is the only approach for a new founder.
What technologies or tools does your team use to stay agile?
We are a simple solution to a big problem here in Ireland but we don’t need a huge amount of tech or tools to achieve that. A simple but crisp online booking system that works off a live calendar shows our costumers the available class spaces. They click and purchase as they would for any online item. Our ambition is to be a cash-free business so our e-commerce website will be designed to accommodate a variety of payments.
Our customers, parents of pre-school children, are online quite a bit so will have a big presence on social media platforms as well as member login section to our website.