HuKu Balance founder Cathal Sheridan tells ThinkBusiness how his love of surfing turned a hobby into a global business. Built by hand in Donegal and made from sustainable materials, sales of the boards rose during lockdown as water sports and fitness enthusiasts wanted a way to keep up their skills outside the water and the gym.
What led you to set up your company?
It started as a hobby. I was surfing a lot. Every second I could get I spent in the water. But living in Galway, it wasn’t that often. I needed something to help improve or maintain my level of surfing. I made a balance board for myself. I noticed a huge improvement in my surfing. I made a few for friends, within a week or two of using the board, they noticed improvements too, as well as improved muscle memory, balance and coordination.
“Anything that wasn’t natural was removed from our product line. Even small things like the packing tape is paper, the boxes are upcycled or recycled cardboard. All our products and the materials we use are biodegradable”
At the time I was designing products for other people and wondered if I could do the same. I went to the Local Enterprise Office, they were very impressed but I still didn’t believe in myself. A year later, I went back to the LEO and they suggested I go for a business Priming Grant. I got funding to work on a website and branding and we launched in October 2019.
What makes your company different?
I used to design in the exhibition and event industry and more often than not I’d be designing using plastic. The design would go up for a week and end up in a skip. It never sat well with me. I always designed with the end of life in mind but generally they were more expensive so people went for the more affordable plastic option. I thought if I’m going to start sending products out into the world, I don’t want to be part of that problem.
“The biggest challenge was generating cash flow. I had more ideas than cash at the start. With most start-ups, a lack of cash is going to hold them back. But then again, it teaches you to use what you have wisely”
Anything that wasn’t natural was removed from our product line. Even small things like the packing tape is paper, the boxes are upcycled or recycled cardboard. All our products and the materials we use are biodegradable. We also offer a lifetime guarantee. The boards shouldn’t break but if they do, we take them back. We’re also bringing in a feature where we will take the product back if it’s not wanted anymore and we’ll reuse the material to create something else. We want to create a circular economy.
What challenges did you meet and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was generating cash flow. I had more ideas than cash at the start. Sometimes I got frustrated because I couldn’t launch a product or, for example Americans are really interested in our product but the cost of shipping is too high until we can ship there in bulk.
“I did a few courses with the local Enterprise Office. One was a Northwest Export Programme. I was fortunate to be appointed a very knowledgeable mentor there”
With last year’s Christmas sales we were fortunate to have a cash flow to reinvest to help solve those problems. With most start-ups, a lack of cash is going to hold them back. But then again, it teaches you to use what you have wisely.
Did the pandemic impact your business and how did you adapt?
March 2020 came along and my freelance work stopped immediately. I was living in Dublin at the time and going back and forth to Donegal. The pandemic made me decide to move to Donegal and give HuKu a proper go.
“Now that we have proven ourselves, we are approaching Enterprise Ireland for help with the next level”
I started working with a PR agency and our sales began to grow. I employed a woodworker, which allowed me to step away from the workshop and focus on developing the business.
What supports did you receive to set up your business and how could support for entrepreneurs be improved?
I did a few courses with the local Enterprise Office. One was a Northwest Export Programme. I was fortunate to be appointed a very knowledgeable mentor there. She had grown her own business and worked all around the world. The LEO also awarded us a business Priming Grant in 2019. We used that to build our website, take on our first hires and get some capital together for marketing. It was invaluable. All that helped me grow in confidence and write a five year plan for the business. Now that we have proven ourselves, we are approaching Enterprise Ireland for help with the next level.
“Never let fear hold you back. If you’ve got an idea that you believe in, do everything you can to figure out if it will work”
Something that could be improved on is to make support available at a younger age – to increase confidence that the path of an entrepreneur is a viable one. It would be wonderful for people who have succeeded in business to give back and be part of a programme where young people can share their ideas and get feedback. Getting the confidence to trust in your business idea and go for it is the hardest part.
What was the most important thing you learnt and what would you pass on to other businesses?
Never let fear hold you back. If you’ve got an idea that you believe in, do everything you can to figure out if it will work. Do the research for every part of the business. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know everything, I don’t think you ever will. Lack of knowledge or fear aren’t obstacles if you’re willing to work hard and work with other people. Take advice from people who know more than you and don’t listen to the naysayers. Talk to as many people as you can who have done something similar to what you want to do.
What are your plans for the future?
Last year opened my eyes to what we can achieve. We have lots of support in Ireland, but also in the UK, Scandinavia and Western Europe, as well as America. There is a worldwide market available to us.
I’ve got at least 30 product ideas in my head. As the production team grows, I can develop those products for the market and make them. As we grow, we’ll launch more products, which will create more revenue to grow further.
Long term, I want to grow the team to take up various roles, be it production, marketing, management, and whatever we need. We want to grow the company to sustainable levels, where people know they can rely on this as a career. I want to keep the company here in northwest Donegal.