Colin Mac Andrias is a former diving instructor and course director at Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Having previously been based in London and Egypt, Colin sold his house in London and moved back to their native Dublin to create First Swim, Ireland’s first purpose built swimming factilate built to specifically for babies and toddlers to learn how to swim
- What’s your origin story for being an entrepreneur?
Not many people are aware that drowning is the second biggest cause of accidental death in children. That is a staggering statistic and as someone who is an advocate for swimming & water safety, and I wanted to help to do something about that. Public pools and gyms are focussed on swimmers and competition training, not parents and infants. I knew what I wanted to see here in Dublin for baby swimming so the only way for this wish to become a reality was for me to take a leap of faith and build it myself.
My wife and I were living and working in London with 2 children, but she knew the passion I had for this venture. Mid pandemic we sold our house in London, moved back to lockdown Dublin and began this exciting entrepreneurship journey.
- To someone who is not aware what is First Swim
First Swim is a bespoke baby and toddler swim school based in South County Dublin, designed by parents of children who have a passion for swimming and water safety.
We will run swim lessons for children from 0 to 4 years old in our own onsite swimming pool, kept at a balmy 33°C. We really focus on the bond between parent & child improving their wellness, however, we also recognise the importance of the whole experience from the moment they walk in the door to the time they leave the centre.
- What was the spark for you to launch the business?
My wife and I lived in London for many years, and we took our children to swim lessons when they were very young. We experienced both sides of swim lessons, the large echoey crowded public pool and the lovely bespoke private pool facilities. The bespoke venues were incredible and made such a difference to the quality and performance of the lessons.
Rather than add our new swim business to an already busy market in London, we decided to return to Dublin to create First Swim here. I always wanted my children to grow up in Ireland, so it seemed like the perfect time to leave the UK and start a business here. We know the positive impact this business will have in the community beyond just making a profit and providing employment and that’s what drives us. Teaching swim lessons to 0–4-year-olds is an essential life skill and one that will, not could, save lives.
- What makes First Swim unique? How does it stand out from the competition?
We are unique in that we will be Ireland’s first purpose-built baby and toddler swim school with our own onsite heated pool and customer-only café. No other swim school in the country has what we offer. Open 7 days a week, we offer parents of pre-school children a warm and welcoming facility, completely designed around the needs of the parent and child. Our curriculum is also unique, incorporating new skills and techniques into the swim lessons, as we focus on parent and baby wellness. Comfort, safety and satisfaction are key, and the entire centre has been designed around these needs, making it unique in every way.
- Did you apply to any accelerator programmes or networks since you returned to Ireland?
We were selected for the Back for Business 2022 programme, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs, for start-ups with high potential. This 6-month roundtable accelerator was an amazing opportunity to have seasoned industry leads take an active role in developing the business. Their innovative approach along with the support and mentoring of KPMG, Enterprise Ireland and LEO was instrumental in opening the right doors here in Dublin.
- What are the three most difficult aspects about building a business in Ireland?
Investors understanding the concept was probably the biggest obstacle in launching First Swim. If I pitched a coffee shop business venture, people would have no problem envisioning the idea in your head and understanding the proposition. Pitching a baby and toddler swim school, that doesn’t currently exist in the country, left some investors scratching their heads to comprehend what we were trying to do. Luckily, we got the support we needed from investors who not only understood the concept but saw the huge potential for this industry and the scalability of it across Dublin and nationwide.
The second difficult aspect was insurance. With so little competition in this market, and trying to explain the concept to insurance companies, it was a difficult and challenging process. But I guess it should be. Difficult and challenging tasks make you question your reasons, to re-evaluate and improve on them.
Third was network. Having been in the UK since before the booming Celtic Tiger, I found the business landscape quite difficult to navigate. Knowing the lay of the land anywhere makes for an easier life and but thankfully we have surrounded ourselves with the right people at the right time. We are still looking for some more investment to develop the business but it’s more about finding an investor who is the right fit and believes in what First Swim can offer.
- How did the pandemic affect your business? Are there any benefits from this period?
We were still developing the business as we returned back Ireland in the middle of the pandemic so it did not have any affect on us. We learned so much from this period though as people really focussed their attention inwards and on their own health and wellness making changes that they might never have done before the pandemic.
Mental health finally got the full attention that it deserved with people being forced to close themselves off from family and friends. Everyone had to make sacrifices during that time but parents of pre-school children really did feel the pinch of this. Bonding with other children at that age is vital and many new parents were denied this with social gathering areas closed like creches, cafes and pools. Our venue creates a social hub for parents to connect with others.
- How long did you spend developing your business plan and pricing strategy? What advice would you give in this area?
The business plan took a few years to develop because we wanted to make sure that we offered the best possible service to parents with the best possible facility. I said earlier that things can always be improved upon, so we looked at some of the best purpose-built swim operations in the UK and incorporated a combination of the right elements into our design and strategy. There is no such thing as perfection and improvements can always be made but as a parent of two children, we know what we want from a swim operation and we refused to cut on corners on the style or safety of First Swim.
We have kept our pricing in line with the current swim school operators who use public pool and pools in gyms and hotels. We want everyone to be able to afford and enjoy our service.
The best advice I can give is to make sure that there is a demand for your business. Friends will always tell you that your business plan is a great one, and that’s lovely, but you need some independent verification. Polls, market research and surveys are the only way to engage with your target market.
- What marketing or PR have you done? What do you find is most effective?
We launched our website in April this year and the reach has been incredible. We did some basic Facebook ad boosts and have over 850 pre-registrations for our classes which shows the huge demand for this business out there. We have engaged with a marketing firm to increase our reach across Dublin.