Teaching rugby skills to toddlers
Dee Allan saw a niche for a business teaching rugby skills to toddlers, she tells Angharad Hampshire
Slim and glamorous, Dee Allan does not look much like a rugby player. But she's the driving force behind a rugby-inspired programme for preschool children. "We're rugby mad in my family - we've always been big fans of the sport. My husband, Tristan, plays for Kowloon Rugby Football Club. I often go and watch him, and we make a nice weekend of it. Plus, we like the social side," she says.
The idea came to her last year, a month before her daughter, Neeve, now nine months old, was due. The Allans were discussing what sports their little girl might follow.
"We asked ourselves, would she do rugby? Would she play tennis? We finally decided that it would be great for her to do something rugby-related," says Allan.
"So we did some research, and found a massive gap in Hong Kong for a rugby-inspired, structured play programme for preschool kids. There was a lot of football for kids of 18 months to five years. But there was no rugby."
The couple put the idea on hold for a while. The baby was nearly due, and they were busy running a construction recruitment company in Singapore and Hong Kong.
They had met in Southampton, Britain while Dee was working as a recruitment consultant.
"It turned out to be a marriage of skills as well. I am a construction recruiter by trade and Tristan is a project manager, property developer and surveyor. So we decided to set up a construction recruitment company in Singapore in 2008," says Allan.
The timing proved fortuitous, as Singapore was in the middle of a construction boom. The success of their company, 3C Synergy, led to an office in Hong Kong.
Three months after Neeve was born, the Allans revisited their idea for toddlers' rugby. After a thorough exploration of the preschool scene, they decided the venture was viable, and put a team together to work out a programme. The project was named RugBees.
"We've got really great coaches," says Allan. She's particularly pleased to have Christy Cheng, a member of the Hong Kong women's team, on board. In addition, they have recruited players from Hong Kong's first and second teams, as well as a few from Britain.
"Their skills are higher than we need for children," she says. "But we wanted coaches who are truly committed to the game.
"They needed to be good with kids, so all of them have worked with children in some capacity. Plus, they're trained in first aid."
Classes began last month, with the ratio set at one coach to a maximum of 10 children. Parents can book blocks of nine to 11 sessions. The programme is designed to equip children with a range of skills associated with rugby: team work, hand-eye co-ordination, spatial awareness, balance, passing, footwork, and colour recognition.
Parents needn't worry about toddlers getting hurt while tackling each other or forming scrums, says Allan: "Although RugBees is rugby-inspired, it's totally non-contact."
Each term is built around a fun theme designed to grab children's interest. The first term focuses on "jungle adventure", and the second, "underwater".
"The classes will be playful, but there is an element of discipline," Allan says. "The children are part of a team, they wear a uniform. It's structured, and all of the coaches are trained how to deal with disruptive children. So while it's going to be fun, there will also be boundaries."
The scheme has already won the endorsement of well-known Hong Kong player Rowan Varty, which Allan describes as "very exciting".
Flexibility is key to running the start-up while caring for a young child, Allan explains. "I can work from home or the office, and that freedom makes it possible. The way I make it work is by being very organised, having an excellent team around me, employing a very competent and supportive helper, and using iPhone apps to keep all the communication going."
Juggling two companies and a baby means that Allan's social life sometimes suffers. "But that's what I signed up for," she says. "I know I can't always go out, because I need to work when Neeve's asleep.
"Fundamentally, whatever the business needs has to be done first."
She's busy, but she likes it that way. "I have to keep going. I get energised through working, by building things and making them successful. If I am happy in that realm, then I am happy in all the other realms," she says.
Still, Allan confesses to feeling "incredibly guilty" that she is not able to spend more time with her young daughter.
"But I think all working mums feel that. I am very conscious of being a mother first, which is why so much stuff has to be done at weekends and in the evenings."
The couple plan to get Neeve on the RugBees programme as soon as she can walk. That way, Allan will have her child with her at work at least part of the time. "She has to be the brand ambassador," she jokes.
The Allans may be adding to their family before long.
"We're hoping to have a whole brood, a whole rugby team. What that would do to the dynamics of the business, I don't know," she says.
"If we throw another newborn into the mix, then maybe we'll be having a different conversation next time. More likely, we'll be running meetings from my house."