Sean Headon: From Boxing To Google & Back Again
By Cameron Temple
“Boxing is one of those things, even when you think you’re stepping away from it, it always finds a way of creeping back into your life,” admitted Sean Headon, co-founder of Headon Boxing Academy, alongside his twin brother Paddy.
In Sean’s case, boxing had such a way of drawing him in that it lured him away from a potentially lucrative and high-powered job at Google, considered one of the ‘Big Four’ technology companies, alongside Amazon, Apple and Facebook.
Both twins, Sean and Paddy, were captivated by boxing at the age of sixteen, after realising that it was a sport in which being small could be used to their advantage, unlike in their first love, rugby.
“Our personalities are such that we’re ‘all in’ types of people. If we’re going to do something, we want to do it well and we want to put our time and energy into it.”
Their commitment to boxing lead them to success, as they both became Dublin, Leinster and Irish champions. Sean also believes boxing played a big part in forming the strong bond that the brothers share today:
“Paddy and I have always been really close, probably because we’ve boxed together. Boxing is hard, so you form bonds with whoever you box with, and we boxed together for years.”
However, it was not long before life got in the way, as the twins went off to university and their journey with boxing seemed to come to its natural end, as Sean explained:
“Boxing was always a hobby for us. Also, we were never at that level where people were saying we should go pro. We were good amateur boxers, but that’s all we were, we weren’t standout stars.”
At Trinity University, as is the case with most students, the twins realised they needed money, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Floyd Mayweather it’s that boxing can be extremely profitable, so they began organising charity boxing events. Little did the twins know these events would act as the catalyst for their now highly successful chain of box-fit gyms.
“We were at university studying business,” Sean said, “and we were working a few part-time jobs. I worked in this fancy restaurant, but I really didn’t enjoy it. Our dad’s always been a bit of an entrepreneur, so we thought there must be an easier way to make money. A concept that’s popular over in the UK is organising charity boxing events. They’re great fun and we saw other societies in the University doing things like pub quizzes and not raising too much money or awareness for the charities. So, we launched these charity boxing events.”
This turned out to be a successful venture, but not something the twins were considering long term:
“We mainly targeted universities across Dublin and doing white collar events with companies. The goal was never to turn that into a proper business, it was more to fund our college fees and summers. So, we’d pop up at different stages throughout the year, we’d maybe run five or six of these events in a short window of time and they would raise a considerable amount of money for charity.
“The average amount they would raise per event would be about 12,000 euros, and at the same time we’d take a coaching fee, so we were getting paid to do something we enjoyed, as well as having a social impact, by raising money and awareness for the charities.”
White-collar boxing is a tricky subject in the world of combat sports, with the events often being open to criticism from boxing purists due to their lack of regulation.
Although, Sean believes it can be done safely and that the onus is on those running the event:
“When there’s limited regulation, it’s up to the people who are putting on the shows to keep it to a high standard. Let’s use Eddie Hearn as an example, if there were no governing bodies for his fights, he holds himself and his business to such a high standard that he’s always going to go above and beyond what’s required. I would like to have thought that we did the exact same for out white-collar shows.”
Sean went on to say, “we take every safety precaution. We put twenty-ounce gloves on them, and we bring paramedics to all the contact sessions. All these things come with considerable cost, but boxing’s a dangerous sport, particularly when you’re just learning it, as you don’t have too much punch resistance. So, I think white collar boxing can be brilliant. We’ve probably taken hundreds of people to have their first ever fight, and made them fans of the sport and made them appreciate the sport, and it definitely helps to grow boxing. It’s just about making sure that the people running these shows are keeping safety at the forefront at all times.”
After University, the twins reached a crossroads, parting ways for the first time, having done everything together up to this point. Sean accepted a job at google, while Paddy made the decision to defer placements at prestigious companies, such as Deloitte, to set up and run a boxing fitness studio.
Sean’s time at Google was not lost on him, as he learned transferable skills that have since helped him running the business side of the Headon Boxing Academy:
“I worked at Google for twelve months and it’s a great place, you meet some really good people and you pick up a really good skill set. There’s a reason why people want to work at Google and why it’s so successful, so if you work there for a year and you didn’t pick up any good stuff, you probably missed an opportunity.”
“I always thought I’d join the business with Paddy.” Sean continued, “From day one my intention was for Paddy to grow the business and do a lot of the hard work at the start. But, throughout my whole time at Google, nearly seven days a week, I’d be working on the business, either before work, after work and particularly on the weekends.
“Six months into Google we opened up a boxing studio that was probably about a hundred metres walking distance from Google, so I’d be in a meeting with my boss or senior employees, and then sixty minutes later, they’d be in my gym and I’d be training them.”
Since Sean left Google and joined Paddy in running the business, Headon Boxing Academy has taken off, with three locations and over a thousand members:
“In hindsight it took off quickly, but at the time it felt like it was taking forever.” Sean admitted, “We were really naïve when we started, our goal wasn’t to have loads of gyms, it was just to make the first gym successful. Then when that started to get busy, we decided to move on to a second gym and so on.”
While that may sound like a simple business plans, the twins made sure to do their market research prior to opening, modelling themselves off box-fit gyms in London, like Kobox and Darren Barker’s gym. They also spent a few weeks at Tony Jeffries gym in LA, the former British Olympic bronze medallist from Sheffield, recognising a potential gap in the market in Ireland.
With the concept and business model sorted, the twins still had to overcome the perception of boxing as a rough and aggressive sport:
“Boxing as fitness just wasn’t a thing in Dublin.” Sean said, “So, the challenge for us was we were trying to carve out this product as mainstream, because people have a misconception that when they see the word ‘boxing,’ that it’s a hardcore, rugged boxing gym. We had to show that this was a boxing-based fitness work out. When we first started the business, it was at a miniscule level. I remember we had one class a week for about forty minutes, and we probably had about seven or eight people attending it. Our client base was mainly male, just because some of our friends would come down and we could pull on our social network.”
Fast forward a few years, and the business has taken on a wholly new shape, as Sean revealed:
“We’ve trained thousands of people and our client base is about eighty-five percent female, so it shows that we were successful in terms of carving it out as a fitness workout.”
As well as this, while the gyms are focused on fitness, Paddy and Sean have made sure not to allow their boxing calibre to be lost in the workouts, as Sean explained:
“Myself and Paddy come from a boxing background and all the coaches that we hire come from a competitive background as well. The gym is fitness focused, it’s female dominated and the classes are fun, but the quality of the boxing is very high. We know that by doing your technique effectively, it’s going to feel better and more natural and you’ll get a much better workout from it.
“So, if you walk into the gym, you’ll be surrounded by women who really know how to box, it takes people aback. There’s loads of good-looking girls and people here to exercise, but the second they start boxing, it’s real technique, real quality and it’s a great workout.”
Sean believes the rapid rise and success of the Headon Boxing Academy comes down to timing, in terms of boxing’s recent renaissance, as well as the nature of the sport itself:
“If you look at how a consumer makes a purchase, they often ask people around them. So, if it wasn’t for people like Anthony Joshua and Katie Taylor, who make the sport more mainstream, then maybe these people would’ve been discouraged and told not to do boxing, because it’s too rough and not cool or trendy. I think the fact that it is at the forefront means people want to be associated with these trends or at least they’re more willing to try it out and then it’s up to us to provide a good service from there.”
“We nearly think our secret weapon is that we’re in the boxing space.” Sean continued, “Anyone who’s boxed before can probably vouch for the endorphin release you get when you hit pads and when you’re learning your technique. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us, but having good, friendly, approachable, knowledgeable coaches really helps. All in all, boxing is so good for stress, mental health and anxiety, so it’s more just facilitating people to get into the sport and then boxing takes it from there.”
Most recently, Headon Boxing Academy, like most businesses around the world, have had to deal with the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Being in the service industry and considering the business relies on interacting with and seeing people every day, you might assume they would be struggling more than most.
However, Paddy and Sean have shown the initiative to take steps to keep the business thriving, steps which they hope to continue even after the pandemic has passed:
“All three of our studios are closed and the footfall in all of those studios has been zero for the last five or six weeks, like any other fitness studio. But it has also presented a big opportunity, because even today I was just teaching a live class from my driveway. It had about forty people in it, the majority of them were from Dublin, but I had some clients from America and New Zealand joining in.”
“So, it’s highlighted the opportunities of moving into virtual training and it has addressed issues that we faced around scaling our business and capacity, because we often have waiting lists for our classes, but online you can have forty people working with one coach, which is amazing. I think we’ve all been given a lot of additional time due to the coronavirus, so in order for me to gauge that we’ve used this time successfully, the only measurement that I’d be using is if in twelve months’ time I still want online to be a significant part of our business and I think it has potential to be bigger than the physical studios.”
To find out how you can get involved in their online classes click the link shown here: https://headonboxing.ie/trial-class/