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UK Coaching Team
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Organising and Planning Self-care and development

Born Innovator: Meet the Founder of Our Parks

Born Barikor is the founder and CEO of Our Parks, which brings free coached group exercise classes to city parks and outdoor spaces in London. He explains to Blake Richardson that his long-term plan is to get a firm foothold in every major city in England

We live in a society driven by materialism. We worship money, are consumed by how much of it we have – or, indeed, how little – and when we are not chatting idly about the rotten English weather, our conversations are invariably money-related.

‘How much?’ is a favourite expression of us Brits. And yet we spend, spend, spend like there is no tomorrow, addicted to parting with our hard-earned money and equally addicted to moaning about how nothing is free of charge anymore.

Well, actually, that’s not altogether true.

Our Parks classes are all free. They cost nothing – zero, zip, zilch, nada – hence the Our Parks slogan: ‘Turn Up, Tone Up. Get Fit for Free’.

Opportunity for all

Born explains that this was never up for debate. Providing free classes led by experienced, qualified instructors was, from day one, a mandatory component of his Our Parks business plan, as he sought to harness the legacy of the London Olympics and create fitter, more socially cohesive communities.

“When I worked as a community sports officer I couldn’t afford to go to the gym,” says Born. “I would cycle 26 miles a day to work because I couldn’t afford the travel and, I thought, something needs to change.

“What about those people who haven’t got the money to pay for private gym membership or to go regularly to leisure centres? There aren’t any opportunities for them to get fit. A lot of people with no money have gone jogging around the park by themselves but it is a hard thing to stay motivated.

So, it had to be free, but free and not rubbish. A lot of people think that if it doesn’t cost anything then it must be a waste of time. I wanted them to keep coming back but, most importantly, to make them want to be advocates and champions of the programme and spread the word.”

Born grew up in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets – one of the poorest areas in the country.

Observing poverty and deprivation on a daily basis fuelled his burning desire to provide exercise for free, while his passion for sport – he is a former athlete who trained with Hackney-born, four-time British high jump champion Dalton Grant – was another motivating factor behind his dream to devise a pioneering programme that he could pitch to local authorities.

“Growing up in Tower Hamlets, sport for me not only changed my outlook on life, it enabled me to meet some great people,” explains Born.

“I jumped as a child with Dalton Grant. He made sure I kept going to training, and stayed clear of all the things people growing up on an estate would be involved in.

“When I think back on it, that was my first experience of appreciating what sport gave me, which was the chance to travel away from East London, up to Sheffield, Manchester or wherever, compete and meet new people. Having that opportunity through sport was a powerful motivation for me.”

 

The pitch

His experiences helped sow the seeds for Our Parks, with the idea slowly evolving over time until, after the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, he was ready to put his grand plan into action.

In London, everyone is a mile away from a park,” says Born. “There are so many green spaces for such a large city. I wanted to tap into our amazing parks and open spaces.”

It was time to pitch his idea to local authorities in a bid to clinch the all-important funding.

The idea was to go into the harder to reach parts of the community, like council estates, and target the inactive.

“The way we were going to do that was to make the people attending the sessions trackable via our own app and website,” he explains. “I wanted to make it all-singing, all-dancing for the user but, to secure funding, I needed to be able to make it easy to track who and how many were coming and analyse the demographics.

“I remember it was Christmas. I had left my job to set it all up and there were so many degrees of uncertainty over whether it would work. All I had was the idea and a few screen shots at that stage.”

Our Parks now has more than 150,000 parkers (users) and pays several hundred coaches to deliver exercise classes.

Clearly then, his pitch struck the right chord, with his brainchild coming to fruition in 2014.

For that he owes a huge debt of gratitude to Joyce Guthrie, the Head of Parks and Leisure at the London borough of Waltham Forest, who took a calculated gamble on the project being a success.

“Joyce is very innovative in her thinking, and a week before Christmas in 2013 she told me she liked the idea,” says Born. “I had to tender for it but that proved to be the first contract and that was the start of the journey.

There was lots of uncertainty at the start. There were a few times when I turned up, it was raining, and no-one came, but the important thing for me was to find out, when they did turn up, why they had.

“I asked them how I could make it easier for them. Everything we do is built on user-validated content. We don’t do anything based on what we feel; we do it based on either the behaviour of our users, or what they tell us. We say that, if 20 people like something, there needs to be a 10-stage approach to making it happen.”

The inclement English weather fed his fears in those early days but there was never any chance this would rain on his parade.

As a nation, we play football, rugby and hockey, go for runs or go for a spin on our bikes in our tens of thousands every Saturday and Sunday, whether or not the sun is shining. We Brits are a weather-hardened bunch; we will not be beaten by a few spots of the wet stuff. 

 

Spread the word

The first contract was for 40 hours a week in four parks, but the company was still a one-man band.

Born soon realised he needed help. And not just in terms of growing his workforce. He would also need to find a more cost-efficient and time-efficient way of selling the product.

Getting the message out there was not easy, he admits.

The idea was, I was going to deliver fliers to the houses around the parks and everyone would come. It was a steep learning curve. I discovered that wouldn’t work. I quickly jumped to social media and what I call user-generated content.”

Fully embracing social media coincided with a rapid growth in parkers.

Word of mouth through social media and through the use of hashtags, such as #TurnUpToneUp, #WorkoutWednesdsay and #TransformationThursday, continues to drive numbers in only one direction, upwards.

The enthusiasm for the programme ensures people are happy to recommend the sessions through social media, and when you have parkers like former Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Denise Lewis dropping in for sessions, it certainly helps to boost the brand.

“I wouldn’t change anything because you learn so much from overcoming barriers and working things out as you go along. It always keeps you on your game,” says Born.

 

‘Best coaches in London’

Another aspect of Our Parks crucial to its ongoing success is maintaining a high calibre of coach.

A natural exuberance is a must if a coach is to make the grade. You can have qualifications coming out of your ears, but if you fail to display a larger than life personality and abundance of enthusiasm, then you will not pass the Our Parks audition – something every coach must undergo.

“Our coaches have to be qualified in the area they deliver to Level 2 governing body of sport standard,” says Born. “But I don’t believe what qualification you have determines how good a coach you are.

There are lots of other attributes a coach should be able to bring to the table and we know what we are looking for from an Our Parks coach: bags of personality, extrovert, approachable – all those things that make sessions we deliver both fun and beneficial.”

You must also be willing to immerse yourself in social media, sharing what Our Parks is all about with your community through regular posts and videos.

“If they pass the audition, they will receive training on social media and be drilled on the importance of user-generated content before they take a session. Modern-day coaching is changing and I think this should be built into your session plans.”

Born says he believes OurParks has the best coaches in London, who possess individual areas of expertise.

There are more than 20 different classes covering every age range and offering all manner of activities, including buggy fit for parents, tots football for three to five-year-olds, the more traditional tai-chi and yoga sessions, and more intense basketball fit, skatercise, box-fit and skip yourself fit workouts.

“Our coaches are also there to help progress those who develop a keen interest in a specific area or sport,” adds Born. “If they find someone who is really good at netball, for instance, and they want to do a bit more than one class a week, they will signpost them into a sports club which suits their needs."

Cooperation not competition

I ask if there is any friendly rivalry with that other phenomenal sporting success story that has ‘park’ in its title, parkrun.

In fact, Born says the founder of parkrun, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, is his biggest mentor.

“We have talked in depth about how sport should be for everyone – how it should be for our communities, not for ourselves. We should not be competing with one another.

We are both mission-led organisations. For me it is trying to get 100,000 people fit for free by 2018. This can be anywhere in the UK, in any city, in any borough, in any park. I won’t stop until I’ve reached my goal.

“I think parkrun and junior parkrun are absolutely fantastic. We just see it as an extra group. Some of our parks aren’t big enough to do parkruns, so a ‘Parker’ can come down, get fitter and then go and have a go at a 5k parkrun, which they may not have done before because it was too daunting for them. And equally, parkrunners can also cross over.”

There’s nothing blurry about the benefits of park life in Britain in 2016. Exercise which is fun, sociable and boosts your health, well-being and self-esteem. And, of course, costs nothing. What a priceless combination.

Born Barikor Podcast

Born shares his experience of creating an engaging offer, the challenges he faces working outdoors and his success stories

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