How a giant inflatable ball took the world by Zorb

How do you walk on water? Andrew Akers and his friend Dwane van der Sluis came up with the answer in 1994, in the form of the inflatable ball most know as a "Zorb".

"Initially we wanted inflatable shoes that you could walk on the water, but the problem you have with that is if you fall over then your shoes float to the top and you don't float anymore," said Andrew, now 45.

The OGO experience is found in Rotorua, at the original site the Akers brothers used for Zorbing.
The OGO experience is found in Rotorua, at the original site the Akers brothers used for Zorbing. Photo: OGO Rotorua/Youtube

They were "fresh out of uni", both in their early twenties, and spent a couple of seasons working on their invention in Auckland, New Zealand. 

Ten years later, the Zorbing business was cycling through 45,000 thrill-seekers a year - with Andrew's brother David Akers joined to manage operations. For 12 years they ran the Zorb group, developing the idea around the world, before cashing out in 2006.

Initially planned to be water-based, the giant ball turned into being rolled down hills.

Andrew Akers (left) and his brother David Akers (right) left the Zorb company and decided to compete with a similar ...
Andrew Akers (left) and his brother David Akers (right) left the Zorb company and decided to compete with a similar product, the 'OGO'. Photo: Supplied

"We did operate at One Tree Hill in the early days," Andrew said.

"The idea was that you would start running down the hill and do a big forward roll and hopefully you would stick to the inside just from your body's inertia."

When international media began to show interest in the Zorb, the Akers brothers looked for opportunities outside Aotearoa. They established a franchise network in Europe, Japan and Australia. 

"The weird thing was we were selling these franchises before we even had a site here... It was difficult to tell people how to operate when we weren't doing it ourselves."

Brands such as Nike and Coca-Cola used the product for their summer campaigns, which provided a cash injection.

While Andrew looked abroad, David kept the bread-and-butter business running at their Rotorua site - gradually developing the experience by hiring staff and refining systems. 

Shares were given to investors from Canada, the US, Singapore and New Zealand, and a Zorbing site in Tennessee opened in 2007.

Andrew became disturbed by the direction of the company once a number of professional investors got involved, leading to division between the Akers brothers and management.

The money coming in was not being spent on product development, safety or customer experience, in Andrew's view. It was being spent on administration costs such as lawyers, and accountants and consultants.

"We started having a really high overhead from head office and nothing was being invested back into the core business."

Andrew and David were bought out of Zorb for over $450,000, a much lower price than they had estimated.

"It was a pretty depressing time in my life, I spent a few years getting over it," Andrew said.

The brothers were back in business two years later - this time with the same product but a different brand: the OGO. 

On the 17 acre original Zorb site owned by a local Maori tribe, the Akers set up their OGO operation. To the layman, the OGO is the same as the Zorb, but the company has a more "grassroots" approach, explained Andrew. This was their second chance to "do it the way we thought it should be done".

Up to 30,000 customers OGO a year, with costs per person ranging from $35. The brothers were looking at potential sites in Queenstown to expand their operations.

- stuff.co.nz