The journey begun by the founders of Rotorua downhill ball rolling venture Zorb has come full circle, with the founders recently buying back the company they launched 25 years ago.
Andrew Akers and his brother David reached an agreement earlier this year with owners of Zorb. They have now amalgamated Zorb with OGO (Outdoor Gravity Orb), the downhill ball rolling company the Akers set up in 2010, four years after they left Zorb.
“We’re looking forward to clearing up any confusion in the marketplace,” said Andrew Akers.
The original idea for the invention, by Andrew Akers and Dwane van der Sluis, came from wanting to walk on water. They created the double skinned inflatable sphere with no previous experience or knowledge – they used plastic and glue, starting from scratch to continually improve the ball.
However, the problem was the finished sphere couldn’t be controlled on water, so they started rolling people down hills instead. The sphere was initially called The Orb, then NZorb, finally settling on “Zorb”, with trading beginning in 1995.
Global franchise network
Bringing on board two investors, Zorb Limited was created, and the team commercialised downhill ball rolling, later setting up their own franchise network around the globe.
In 1999, van der Sluis left the company to return to his career as a software engineer, while Andrew continued to run the company. But unhappy with Zorb’s direction once professional investors became involved, Andrew and his brother left the company.
“As happens reasonably often, entrepreneurs end up not quite seeing eye-to-eye with the more corporate-oriented board members,” Akers told Bay of Plenty Business News.
“That’s exactly what happened with us. And because I started the business when I was quite young, having senior business people get involved, I thought maybe they were right and I didn’t really know what I was talking about.
“I thought if I have this level of disagreement, there’s no point in carrying on. I wasn’t having a lot of fun. I sold out and really didn’t intend to get back into it.”
Akers has always loved creating something that no-one else has considered. For example, he and his brother developed a range of games, including one picked up by Hasbro USA, which featured on the Ellen DeGeneres show.
After exploring other ventures, he and his brother decided they wanted to get back together and redevelop the downhill ball concept under their own terms. They did well with OGO and became in a position to approach Zorb’s owners and buy the company back.
“We’re looking forward to clearing up any confusion in the marketplace.”
– Andrew Akers
Akers said he had been talking with Zorb’s owners about potentially reacquiring the business over the past five years, and had a good relationship with a key shareholder, so were eventually able to work out a deal.
The Zorb site has been closed and operations consolidated on the OGO site, and the company plans to focus on the Zorb brand.
“We have purchased the entirety of the Zorb group of companies including all patents, international trademarks, assets and opportunities,” said Akers.
He said the addition of Zorb to OGO would allow the business to reinvest further in the infrastructure of the OGO site, enhance the customer experience and cement the site as the premier ball-rolling park in the world.
They make 30 or so balls a year, about half are exported to the US, Japan and other sites, the balance used for replacements at the Rotorua site. Each ball lasts around a year or so, but with general wear and tear, scratches and UV light, they slowly deteriorate.
“They are all recycled and made into playground equipment,” said Akers, who added the company would be making a big push over the next five years on sustainability.
Akers said he was excited about the fact he and David were reunited with the brand they created.
“In a strange way, the Zorb brand has always remained with me and despite being in competition since we left the business and launched OGO, I’ve always been attached to what we created all those years ago.”
And what had been especially gratifying, he said, was that OGO had just won the Tourism Export Council (TEC) Small Business Operator of the Year Award.
Akers said the journey with his invention has taught some life lessons.
“Have passion for what you do, enjoy every element of what you do, make your job into the most fun thing you can do and have the courage of your convictions.”