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Lockdown opens up opportunities for online Irish start-ups

Some young Irish companies have grown, and even secured funding in these tumultuous times

Buymie Technologies founder Devan Hughes. The Buymie app app allows users order from large online retailers and have their items delivered by a personal shopper. Photograph: Jason Clarke

While Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the global economy with a long recovery to follow, certain sectors have benefitted from its effects. Not just retail giants such as Amazon but small and scrappy Irish start-ups have experienced growth and even secured funding in these tumultuous times.

Lasting memories of lockdown will be grocery-related: queuing for hand sanitiser, booking a slot for an online delivery and stockpiling pasta. The supermarket was a lifeline and online delivery service Buymie has been at the helm.

“Our app allows users to order from large online retailers – currently Tesco and Lidl – and have their items delivered door-to-door in as little as an hour by their own personal shopper,” explains Devan Hughes, chief executive and co-founder.

Buymie has been in the market since 2016 but, as Hughes describes it, earlier this year it felt as if a large spotlight had been turned on to the industry as a whole.

“We signed our first flagship enterprise retail partnership with Lidl in 2018. We went from mid five-figure-a-month sales to six-figure sales in 2019, growing our weekly volume by 2,000 per cent in a year so we were coming into 2020 with a steep growth curve,” he explains.

Buymie was in the process of closing out a €2.2 million funding round led by ACT when Covid-19 hit and found itself funding 10 months ahead of their own business plan with a 300 per cent increase in app downloads. For Hughes and his team, lockdown wasn’t so much accelerating growth as managing it.

“You have to manage it carefully because overtrading can be as dangerous as undertrading, especially if you have a working capital requirement.”

Ecommerce software

In a related sector, Wexford-based Scurri is an ecommerce software provider catering to large Irish and UK retailers to ensure the logistical flow of deliveries.

“It’s a bit like Stripe but for shipping: we have an API platform that connects up all the different shipping and delivery options for online retailers,” says founder and chief executive Rory O’Connor.

When lockdown put the kibosh on in-store shopping, there was a surge in online retail resulting in a 55 per cent increase in Scurri’s operational volumes. Last month, on the back of this activity, the company raised €1.5 million to facilitate growth.

“Sometimes the cards just fall your way and when they do you need to run with it. We were doing pretty well beforehand, but the effects of the pandemic have opened up more opportunities,” observes O’Connor.

“We’re lucky in that we’re in the right sector at the right time. There are plenty of businesses that were doing everything right before Covid-19 hit but they just happen to be in the wrong industry.”

For those start-ups providing goods or services that tap into a Covid-related market, O’Connor says growth may be around the corner because investors are actively looking. “If you’re in the right sector, look for investment now. Maybe you have one product line that has been positively affected by Covid, double down on that.”

Those who are not in a position to double down are third-level students. Typical student jobs – shifts at the local pub, fast-food joint or high-street shop – were hit hard by Covid-19. This is why Dublin-based start-up Bowsy decided to fast-track the launch of its remote working platform designed to match students to businesses for paid tasks related to their area of study.

Supported by the UCD Smurfit Graduate School of Business and working with the high-potential start-up unit within Enterprise Ireland, Bowsy was recently shortlisted as one of the top 30 early-stage start-ups in Europe by EU-start-ups.

“We have been working on the platform for over 18 months and originally planned to launch in September at the start of the new academic year. We accelerated this because of the Covid-19 crisis and the disproportionate impact it is having financially on students in Ireland,” says co-founder and chief executive John Brady.

Brady says that the raison d’être is that all students, no matter where in Ireland they are located, should have equal access to companies related to their field of study.

“The technology to do this exists but it’s an integrated platform with project and calendar-management tools, video and chat, and a secure payment solution to ensure the company can pay the student directly through us,” he explains.

With Bowsy currently in pre-registration mode after extensive testing, Brady’s advice to start-ups in the current environment is: “Perfection is the enemy of good. We have learned that waiting for everything to be absolutely perfect isn’t going to work. The key thing is to seize the opportunity and for us the opportunity is now.”

Another opportunity for growth came along when new government legislation was signed early on in the pandemic to allow for digital prescriptions to flow smoothly from GP to pharmacy. Healthwave, an online digital pharmacy, delivers prescriptions directly to the patient’s doorstep and as a result saw its volume of users rise to more than 15,000.

Carebot

With new users came a large volume of queries. Healthwave founder and managing director Shane O’Sullivan got together with his team and, over the course of a weekend, built a chatbot to tackle volume through automation. Named Carebot, this interactive virtual care assistant was created with the help of pharmacists to triage as well as take prescription orders. It now handles 75 per cent of all queries.

“When lockdown was announced we saw a big surge in demand. We’ve been doing nationwide delivery since 2015 so we were well positioned but needed a way of handling this demand, so Carebot was created,” says O’Sullivan, who as a recreational coder was hands-on with the virtual assistant’s development.

Healthwave also accelerated plans to launch PillPods, a chronological roll of tearable pods that dispenses with the need for patients to sort medication in a “days of the week” pill box.

Although this is already used in the nursing homes sector, O’Sullivan says the average consumer hasn’t had access until now: “I think Covid has probably moved the pharmacy sector on more than it has moved in the last decade.”

Niche service providers

This shift to digital and online has also been typical of other sectors during these times. While many of us got used to working from home, it has meant a sea change for niche service providers who are used to working up close and personal with their clientele. From life coaches to dance instructors, they cobble together workarounds with a combination of Zoom, Instagram, WhatsApp and PayPal in order to keep track of clients, get paid and provide classes or sessions.

Fresh from the oven, start-up Quorum hopes to help these entrepreneurs with one WhatsApp-style app that does it all. And they are in the middle of their own success story having just secured €1.7 million in seed funding led by VC firms Adjacent and LocalGlobe.

“When we were building Quorum, privacy was an important consideration,” chief executive Patrick Finlay says.

“Let’s say you’re a life coach and you want to create a group where members hold each other accountable and chat about their success. If this is done through Facebook or WhatsApp everyone is exposed to each other’s social media profiles or phone numbers, which is a legal concern. Additionally, the life couch has no control over what kind of media is shared.”

Finlay and his co-founders looked at what was out there, what was missing for professionals who want to provide a service through chat, and they worked from there, creating a Shopify of sorts for service providers. So how did they go from idea to VC funding during a pandemic?

“We launched a very scrappy MVP [minimal viable product] on the ProductHunt platform just to see if there was any interest. We got some great feedback, it led to one of our now investors emailing us and it snowballed from there,” Finlay says.

As for now, Quorum’s shiny new office space will have to wait while the team works from home like the rest of us but it’s not holding them back. How many other start-ups can say they finalised €1.7 million in seed funding during lockdown from their living room by Zoom?

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