Wendy McCaughan came up with a simple yet obviously sensible idea back in 2004 – to use the expertise developed to protect racing motor cyclists to provide similarly effective protection for horse riders. But she did not expect that it would take four years of determined effort to get her product to market.
Until Wendy came up with her proposal for the Kan body protectors, horse riders had to wear very stiff foam that made it difficult for them to breathe or move and even caused problems for riders to control their horses. Traditional protection equipment “is like wearing a carpet,” says McCaughan.
Wendy also believes that the Kan product is far superior in terms of safety and protection – a view shared by riders who have survived falls while wearing Kan equipment.
The secret of the Kan product is that it uses a different type of foam. Traditional horse riding protection has foam that relies on bubbles to protect the rider when they fall.
Working with leading motor cycle rider protection providers Knox, Wendy developed stylish riding suits that fit riders’ natural body shapes – unlike traditional styles, which can be very uncomfortable for women, in particular.
“Ours is shaped beautifully: the rider can draw a breath and be entirely covered,” says Wendy. “It uses a ‘smart’ foam that hardens on impact. It’s moulded so it holds its shape.” Because of this, it can also be reused after an impact – unlike traditional riding protection, which is recommended for replacement following a fall.
Despite the quality of the product and the experience of Wendy’s manufacturing partner, Knox, in related products, the Kan equipment hit a very serious problem – licensing. While motor cycle accidents are greater impact than those of horse riding, the safety equipment used for horse riding must meet a higher standard than those for motor cycling.
And the standards used for horse riding equipment were drawn-up on the assumption that manufacturers would use stiff foam – part of the requirement for standards compliance is the level of stiffness. This created a problem for Wendy as her innovative product differentiated itself by not being stiff. The foam had to be redesigned and re-manufactured several times to overcome the problems.
Worse still for Wendy and Knox, the standard specification is open to interpretation. Knox operates on a European basis and submitted its specially designed foam for standards approval in Italy. It was approved by the standards agency in Italy in 2007 and Wendy started selling the Kan products in Germany and much of Northern Europe in that year.
But it also had to gain approval in the UK if Kan was to get into shops in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Although the testing was against the same European standard, it took another year before the standards agency in the UK was satisfied and gave the necessary approval.
Sales in the UK grew fast last year and the County Down-based Kan Teq took on three staff, as well as Wendy, and the product quickly gained a healthy foothold in the market. But then the recession hit. “Last winter was very scary: retailers didn’t want to carry stock,” explains Wendy. “We had hugely reduced sales during the recession.” To survive, Wendy had to let two of her three employees go and cut back on non-essential costs.
Things are now looking up, with the recession lifting and retailers indicating they are willing to restock. Learning from her previous experience, though, Wendy has invested in website development and intends to sell direct online to reduce retailer dependence.
With new marketing plans in place, Kan Teq is ready to expand again next year. But let no one say that setting-up a new business is easy: Wendy can testify that it can require determination to succeed.