Looking back now, Will O'Donoghue is glad that being in the middle of a pandemic didn't deter him and his sister from launching their company. "If you're waiting for the right time, there will never be a right time," says the Limerick hurler. "We just adapted and rolled with it."
O'Donoghue would like to say that FemFuelz was his idea, but it wasn't. It was his sister Kylie, the CEO and co-founder, who had the brainwave for the brand which now sells nutrition products, formulated specifically for women, online and in more than 100 stores around Ireland.
"She would be quite sporty. She was doing boxing at the time, she does crossfit," O'Donoghue, a PwC All-Star in 2021, who has again been nominated this year, tells Balls.
"I was just loosely having conversations with her being like 'You should be taking protein, you should be taking supplements'. She was kind of saying 'No, that's for you and the rest of the fellas you play hurling with. It's not for the likes of me'."
While on work experience for her business course at the University of Limerick, a stint which had her sitting in front of a computer most of the day, Kylie began reseraching supplements, and concluded she should be taking them.
Finding the right ones wasn't easy. She felt out of her depth. Rather than head for the shallow end, she waded further into the deep end with her brother in 2018 by creating the products she sought.
"That's the one thing we've probably learned from this process: Looking forward can be daunting, but when you're looking back it all kind of makes sense, and it's not as scary or intimidating," says O'Donoghue.
"It was a long process because we wanted to create good quality products. While that might seem like a daunting task to go and create that, it was very enjoyable, it was challenging. For anyone who has any aspirations of this far out thing that seems daunting, when you break it into smaller tasks, it can be very achievable."
They launched the company in October 2020 with nine products including whey proteins, pre-workout mixes, and multivitamins. Their line was created with the help of experts. Neither stood in a lab wondering if their vegan protein required a touch more broccoli sprout extract.
Being an inter-county hurler meant O'Donoghue had plenty of contacts with relevant knowledge. Joe O'Connor - Limerick's strength and conditioning coach when the county won the 2018 All-Ireland, and a man O'Donoghue calls "one of the godfathers of S&C in Ireland" - gave them pointers. So did nutritionists when it came to decisions like what sweeteners they should use. They also work with manufacturers who have more than 20 years experience in the industry.
"It took an awful lot of investment from both of us, basically everything we had to try and develop those products and buy the stock," says O'Donoghue.
"Once we had launched, within every few months, we just kept bringing out products. I think every two months after that we were bringing out something new.
"The range is close to 30 at the minute. That initial launch, obviously, it's very frightening in that you see all your savings, all your hard work, coming in on a couple of pallets, and you have no idea what's ahead of you.
"We were slowly building a customer base. Come January 2021 it just seemed to get that bit bigger consistently. It never dipped back down and held kind of a baseline.
"It just became very demanding to the point that me and Kylie both decided that we had to leave our jobs if we're to do this properly, and we're to run this like the business we want it to be and not a garage business. That's another daunting task. I was in an aircraft leasing company, Kylie worked in Dell.
"Once we did that, the company went from strength to strength because there was no longer a handbrake on. Things just happened much easier then because you're both in the room for eight hours a day. You're getting through stuff, coming up with better ideas, better solutions. Us leaving [our jobs] led to where it could be a full-time sustainable business that was on an upward trajectory."
Femfuelz is still just a two-person operation. Hiring their first employees is in the plan for the next 12 months. Will spends his mornings at their warehouse in Limerick picking, packing and shipping orders from their website before heading to a nearby office.
"From the very start, I wanted this to be Kylie's thing," he says.
"She sees the needs, she knows what it is that she wanted. Kylie is very much kind of dealing with customers, dealing with product development. She's the closest one to it. Kylie's the person who's going to be taking it, people like Kylie.
"I very much help on the commercial side of things, when we're trying to come up with pricing, margins, and I'm in charge of logistics and the retail side of things.
"We're in over 100 retail stores across Ireland: Super Valu, Centra, Spar, and a couple of Nourishes. It's mad to see the orders come in [through the website] and you're seeing all the different counties every day, to know that you've created something that's reaching all these places."
'We have brilliant people in our Limerick backroom team'
Though running a company does take up more time than previous jobs, it does have the advantage of flexibility, allowing O'Donoghue to incorporate hurling into his day, be that with Na Piarsaigh or Limerick. It also helps that the Limerick management team, led by John Kiely, are mindful players have lives outside the game.
"One of the most powerful things about our group is how much they do care and how much they probably are aware," says the four-time All-Ireland winner.
"We have some brilliant people in our backroom team who take great interest in what we do as people more so than in what we're doing as hurlers.
"I know every single person in the backroom team, if I picked up the phone, and I had an issue with FemFuelz, or we were trying to break into a certain market, they wouldn't be able to do enough for me.
"John, as the head of that backroom team, he wants the best for us in everything that we do. He doesn't just want us to try and excel in sport.
"He wants us to try and apply that same perseverance that we have in sport to every other aspect of our life. That's something he's big on too. He definitely supports us as people, as much as he supports us as athletes. I'm very grateful to be involved in a setup that sees us like that."
The future of FemFeulz is about continuing to expand their range of products. They've moved into probiotics, and have a range of clothing. Becoming more sustainable is also an aim. By the end of 2023, optimistically in the first six months, they want their packaging to be 100 per cent recyclable.
In early October, they announced their intention to sponsor a sports team. After just a day, they'd received nearly 100 applications from teams. It's part of a desire for FemFuelz to be a company which gives back to its community.
"We want to show that we're not just saying that this is about empowering females, educating females," says O'Donoghue.
"There are several multinationals who potentially don't try and engage with their community. We very much want to do that; Kylie wants to be a face that the community can engage with and that we can have that interaction and that personal feel. The response has been incredible.
"We want it to mean something. It's not that we're gonna throw a lump sum of cash, hand over a cheque, get a photo and be like, 'Oh, look, we did this'. We want it to be tangible for them, to make going training more enjoyable, better and just to show that we do that we do care about our community.
"To think that the idea generated in the spare room has now become this well-known brand. For Kylie to have been able to create the product that she was seeking, to have been able to deliver that and to be able to deliver it to multiples of young women, and women of an older generation is incredible.
"They are now saying, 'I need this, this is for me. I need supplements.’ They are no longer afraid to be seen in the gym with a bag of protein or a shake. What Femfuelz has done in terms of that is its most powerful effect."