Often described as ‘travel Tinder’ for the over 50s, The Freebird Club wants to start a seniors movement and become the world leader in social travel for the over 50s market. ThinkBusiness spoke with founder Peter Mangan.
How long have you been up and running?
I have been working on developing The Freebird Club for over two years. However for the first year or so I was still in a full-time job in UCD, so it was a case of moonlighting evenings and weekends – developing the business plan, prototyping and conducting a pilot project. Once we completed a successful live pilot, it was time to leave the day job and embark on this full-time.
“It makes no sense to me that there are so many of our elders struggling with loneliness and isolation. We want to do something about that.”
Where did the idea come from?
It was inspired by my Dad. I have a holiday home in my native Kerry, which I rent out on various accommodation websites. My father (who is a widower and semi-retired) was doing a lot of the meeting and greeting on my behalf, as I was based in Dublin. This was a positive and enjoyable experience for him, meeting new people. However, when some older guests came to stay, the level of social interaction was significantly greater. He would take them to the local pub or sightseeing; they might have dinner together or perhaps a game of golf. This all happened very naturally. Not only did he get great enjoyment from this, but the reviews from these ‘senior guests’ were exceptional, mentioning this social interaction as a highlight of their trip. In a rapidly ageing society, where the prevalence of loneliness and isolation among older adults is well known, it struck me that the new peer-to-peer ‘sharing economy’, and the Airbnb led boom in homestay holidays, had tremendous potential as ways to connect and empower older adults.
“We want to empower older adults to connect, travel, have fun and enjoy themselves and the world around them – regardless of age.”
How many members do you have now?
From the outset the idea has been extremely well received – we were lucky enough to win some big international awards and got very positive press attention, even before we went live. The website has been up and running for about seven months now (though we only officially launched the business in April), and we already see a very positive uptake. As of now, we have about 1,300 club members in 36 countries, and it is growing daily.
“Our aim is to go beyond the sharing economy, to be champions of a new ‘caring economy’, where the social impact is as important as the financial.”
The company is aimed at people over 50, why is this?
The whole idea behind the Freebird Club is to enable active, healthy, ‘connected’ ageing. Something I feel passionate about. It makes no sense to me that there are so many of our elders struggling with loneliness and isolation. We want to do something about that. We want to empower older adults to connect, travel, have fun and enjoy themselves and the world around them – regardless of age. There are not many available avenues to do this for older people, especially those who find themselves alone. So we are providing something bespoke for them, effectively filling that niche.
How did you fund your startup?
Our funding to date has been a mix of grants, awards, personal funds and boot-strapping. We’ve won two major EU awards of €50,000 each (winner of the European Social Innovation Competition and the recent Horizon2020 SME award) and have also received several enterprise grants here at home, mainly through our Local Enterprise Office. To date, we have not taken on equity investors, but that is the next step as we grow the business.
Landing EU funding of €50,000 must be a good boost?
It’s a huge boost. Obviously, the cash injection helps to fund operations, and it also gives us some breathing space to seek the right investment. More than the finance though, winning a highly competitive prestigious EU grant gives a great boost to our team morale, and convinces us (and others) that we are on the right track to succeed.
Where do you see your business in five years?
We plan to be a truly global business. Our aim is to go beyond the sharing economy, to be champions of a new ‘caring economy’, where people are at the heart of the business, and the social impact is as important as the financial. Initially, we will look to expand our reach in Europe and the US, followed by Canada, Australia and beyond. We plan to do this by working and partnering with the leading age organisations, and travel/tourism bodies internationally. This will enable us to build a critical mass of users, after which exponential growth becomes possible. Really what we hope to do is to start a ‘seniors’ movement, and in the process become the world leader in social travel for the 50+ market in the next five years.
International awards and recognitions for The Freebird Club
- Winner of the European Commission’s 2015 ‘European Social Innovation Competition’ (Nov 2015).
- Finalist in the European Investment Bank’s ‘European Social Innovation Tournament’ in both 2017 & 2016.
- Winner of Aging2.0 Global Startup Search event in London 2016.
- Freebird has also featured in major online and print publications around the world, including: Telegraph (UK); The Irish Times (Ire); Huffington Post (US); Le Soir (Belgium); Luxemburger Wort (Lux); Sabado (Portugal); La Regione (Switzerland); The Straits Times (Singapore); Estadao (Brazil); Haaretz (Israel); and L’Orient Le Jour (Lebanon).
Interview by Stephen Larkin.