Belfast Telegraph

How using our entrepreneurial spark helps to create clever solutions to our everyday woes

This week, Lisa Smyth speaks to a retail specialist and maker of a new sports helmet about the challenges of turning an idea into a business

Hurling is a thrilling and dangerous sport and the players are universally admired for their nerves of steel.

It is little wonder, given the fact that the ball - known as a sliotar in Irish and hard as a baseball - can travel at speeds of up to 100mph.

So, Evan Wagner has set up Bua Ltd to bring a new hurling helmet to the market, combining aesthetics and safety for players in what is widely regarded as the most dangerous field sport in the world.

The 29-year-old from south Belfast has spent four years developing the helmet and now needs finance to bring his product to the market.

It has been a labour of love and he has paid tribute to family and friends for their support while he has worked on developing the helmet.

In fact, it was while chatting to a friend that he came up with the idea of creating a new hurling helmet.

Evan was born in Canada after his parents met, fell in love and married there, before moving to Northern Ireland when he was six.

The traditional hurling helmet design is based on the helmets used by ice hockey players.

Having an interest in ice hockey as a result of spending his early childhood in Canada, Evan decided to look into developing the hurling helmet into a piece of safety equipment that looks good and also meets the needs of players as much as possible.

"I love to design, my parents are both artists," he said.

"That was how they both met in Canada, so I have always had that artistic and design influence.

"When I left school I took a gap year.

"I couldn't bear to tell my parents I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to university, that I was going to conquer the world.

"When I came back I decided I had to get a real job, so I worked in a bank and then I ended up in retail, which was absolutely fantastic.

"I worked as the assistant manager at Ted Baker in Belfast and I really learnt the trade and I learnt about customer expectations.

"Essentially, it all comes down to how a thing looks.

"Believe it or not, on this journey, I have discovered that no-one cares about the safety aspect of the helmet - they take that as a given - but they are interested in how it looks and whether it meets their needs."

While Evan is aware that customers aren't necessarily concerned about the safety of the helmet, he has still taken this area seriously.

His helmet includes a feature which means that it is not attached to the chin, so the jaw does not absorb the impact if a player is hit in the face.

The helmets also use a number of layers of padding inside.

Evan has also worked closely with hurlers to find out how they would like the traditional helmet to be improved.

"The biggest complaint was the rivets coming away from the helmet," said Evan.

"We were being told the players were having to fix their helmets at home.

"It was scary to think of these sporting professionals sitting at home fixing their helmets, which are ultimately for safety, so we use a one-piece shell, which removes the rivets altogether."

In addition, the material used inside the helmet does not absorb sweat, meaning it is more hygienic.

Developing a product to ensure it meets stringent safety standards and appeals to potential customers takes time and has been a significant challenge.

But Evan has refused to give up."I really believe in the product and I am passionate about it," he said.

Once again, he has drawn from his experience working for Ted Baker.

"I am using the philosophies from Ted Baker," said Evan.

"The first thing the retail director said to me, was that the three most important things are people, people, people.

"It is all about the relationship you have with the staff, your customers and your suppliers.

"If you have happy staff, then they give great customer service and then you need great suppliers and product coming out at the right place at the right time.

"You have to engage and talk to people, you also need to listen to criticism, but make sure it is constructive.

"Also, don't come to me with the problem, come to me with the solution.

"And don't worry about money you will need, work as far as you can until you need the money and then work out how you are going to get it.

"There is always a way."

Looking to the future, Evan wants Bua Ltd to design and create equipment for GAA sports.

He plans to supply directly to the customer and hopes that he will eventually sell his helmet as far afield as Australia and the US.

For now, however, he just wants to see his helmet on the market.

"Hurling is a fantastic sport and there is great potential for growth," said Evan.

"I will be happy when I see one player in the All Ireland final wearing my helmet; I couldn't really ask for much more than that."

Unique new app will monitor shopping habits

We all know how frustrating it is to get home after shopping for groceries only to realise we have forgotten that all important loaf of bread or pint of milk.

But one Northern Ireland businessman is hoping to bring to the market a technology-based data solution that will help customers get the best out of the shopping experience, as well as supporting retailers to better understand and target their customers through increased profiling.

Gary McDonald (46) set up Limitless, which is based in Belfast city centre, just over six months ago with the idea of helping retailers and customers by drawing on his two decades of experience working with one of the biggest supermarket chains in Northern Ireland.

An architectural planner by trade, Mr McDonald worked as development director with Musgrave for 10 years before moving on and opening his own Supervalu store in Lurgan.

"This is how I picked up all my commercial knowledge in terms of how to develop a store and build a business to make sure the customer is happy," he said.

Mr McDonald sold his SuperValu store to Henderson Group last August after receiving "an offer too good to refuse". "I was considering retiring but after a month or two I got bored and started to look at areas I think we could make improvements to retail.

"I wanted to work in an area that I knew something about.

"I had worked in Wellworths when I was a student. On top of that I had spent 10 years running my own supermarket and working for Musgrave.

"I had spent most of my life working in retail."

Mr McDonald said during his time running the supermarket, he had increasingly used social media as a way of advertising the business and monitoring his customer profile.

"We definitely saw serious growth in store because of our online presence," he said.

"My biggest issue, however, was that we didn't have all the information of our customers.

"I would have spent most of my time working on the shop floor but I didn't know the names of my top 100 customers, I didn't know how much they spent or how often they were in with us.

"I definitely feel like there is an appetite for what we are developing at the moment.

"We have been working with the likes of Tesco and Dunnes and retailers can see the benefit of using our technology.

"There are loyalty cards out there and shops think they are doing it, but in actual fact they aren't making best use of the information available.

"We're making it possible to make the best use of the information by creating data software that will give retailers a single view of the customer. There are huge benefits for retailers in terms of increasing sales."

The technology, which tracks shopping habits, will be available to be used both online and in store using mobile triangulation.

Retailers will be able to monitor where customers went online or in premises, they will be able to tell which products they looked at and what goods were purchased.

It will even be possible to create a typical shopping list and send a text message to a customer reminding they have forgotten a usual product before they leave the shop.

Another component will alert retailers to the presence of a customer in an area when there are no staff in the vicinity.

Mr McDonald explained: "It may be after 5pm and you don't have anyone at the meat counter or at the off licence and a customer is there.

"We can send a text to the supervisor to let them know there is a customer there."

Marketing material can also be specifically targeted to individual customers.

"It is going to be personalised and relevant," explained Mr McDonald.

"There is no point sending out information on a deal on Harp for a football match to someone who doesn't drink."

As the company is relatively new, Mr McDonald said they are initially targeting retailers, such as high street shops and supermarkets, however he plans to roll it out to different sectors.

The technology could also prove invaluable to the hard-pressed health service.

"You have people missing appointments with their GP and doctors' surgeries spending time sending out letters for appointments," continued Mr McDonald.

"Our technology will be able to target patients in a certain age bracket, for example, to invite them to come for their flu vaccination."

He also wants to target Northern Ireland before expanding to a global market. Mr McDonald said he is currently concentrating on building the best possible team. "I'm looking for a chief technology officer because I am not a technical person. For me, knowing your business and getting a good team are key to success.

"I spent the last 10 years working with more than 50 employees and I know the business inside out and I also know that you need the right fit when it comes to your team."


Belfast Telegraph