Jamie Heaslip on start-up life and his ambitions for Flender

18 Feb 2020

Jamie Heaslip. Image: Flender

Former Ireland rugby captain Jamie Heaslip discusses why he was drawn to a career with a fintech start-up and how he plans to strengthen Flender’s brand in the coming months.

At the end of January, former Ireland and Leinster rugby captain Jamie Heaslip announced that he was set to join Dublin-based fintech start-up Flender in a full-time role as head of brand marketing.

Prior to taking on the role, Flender was one of a number of start-ups that Heaslip had invested in, along with Kitman Labs and Pointy, which was acquired by Google at the start of this year.

Siliconrepublic.com recently caught up with Heaslip to chat about what drew him to Flender as an investor, his objectives in the new role, and how he’s transferring his skills from a hugely successful career in professional rugby to the world of business.

‘There has to be an alternative’

Launched in 2016, Flender offers flexible, multi-purpose loans to Irish SMEs. In 2019, the company funded more than €13m in SME loans and secured an additional €75m funding line to provide loans to Irish businesses in 2020.

When we asked Heaslip why Flender, of all the fintech companies in Dublin, stood out as an attractive investment prospect, he said that the move was inspired by his own experience setting up businesses in Ireland.

In particular, it was related to the opening of Lemon & Duke in Dublin 2 and The Bridge 1859 in Dublin 4 – the two pubs he set up with former teammates Seán O’Brien and Rob and Dave Kearney.

Heaslip said that at the time of applying for a loan, it would have been hugely helpful if a service like Flender could have let them know within a day whether or not the loan was approved. Shortly after he opened the pubs, Heaslip met the team from Flender and realised that he may have found a solution to that problem.

‘We punch above our weight in general, but when you look at Ireland you see that SMEs are the beating heart of this economy’

“When we opened the pubs we were lucky with the banks, but they took their time and this could have potentially caused us a lot of problems. I thought, there has to be an alternative to this.

“Speed is often of the essence for SMEs, in terms of capturing the opportunity. You can’t wait six to eight weeks just to hear that the banks are going to say no in the end. At the core of it, that’s what really interested me in Flender as an investor.”

Besides seeing this kind of value for individual businesses, Heaslip also saw the potential benefits for the start-up and scale-up community.

“I looked at Flender and realised that their main aim is to empower business in Ireland. With any investments I’ve made, those investments have been in companies that solve a problem at scale or enabled someone at scale,” he said.

“It’s kind of like sports. In Ireland, we’ve always punched above our weight in terms of how we’ve done as a sporting body and as a business body. All around the world there’s Irish people peppered throughout the C-rooms of companies across all kinds of verticals. We punch above our weight in general, but when you look at Ireland you see that SMEs are the beating heart of this economy.”

The former rugby captain said that with Flender, he wants to make SMEs “fit and healthy” while enabling future growth.

A man in a grey suit in front of a green wall.

Jamie Heaslip. Image: Flender

Heaslip’s role at Flender

After learning more about the start-up, Heaslip began working as a brand ambassador while still playing rugby. “I couldn’t really spend much time on it while I was playing, but I was trying to help them with campaign ideas that they had, while working as the face of the business. It was quite light-touch,” he said.

But after retiring from rugby, and spending a stint working at Google, Heaslip decided it was time to move into Flender full time.

“They’ve grown the business. We’re about to hit €20m in business loans given out since our inception in 2017 and in Q4 of last year, we secured a €75m credit line from an asset finance company, so that kind of changed the game a little bit.

“Flender needed someone to come in and look after their brand, helping it to become more well known in the marketplace and to curate it a little bit. That really interested me, as well as the appeal of being part of a team that’s growing and scaling. We have about 20 people now, so it’s really exciting.”

With the lending industry, Heaslip said that there’s “a whole narrative about debt being a bad thing”, which makes people “almost ashamed” to take out a loan rather than seeking VC funding. “Plenty of companies are just fine taking out loans and paying them back over a couple of years. That’s how you have to scale sometimes,” he added.

Now a month into the new job, Heaslip said that things have been extremely busy, especially as he is determined to get a good understanding of the ecosystem as Flender crosses multiple verticals. He has set himself 30-, 60- and 90-day plans to meet some major objectives, related to distilling exactly what Flender’s brand should look like going forward.

Coming to Flender from Google, which he described as a “really processed environment”, Heaslip said he has all the freedom in the world to try new things out and, although there’s definitely a learning curve, it has been very enjoyable so far.

Transforming the landscape of lending

Heaslip’s main goal with Flender is to make sure that people know about the company and what it can do. “I’m just trying to let people know that there is an alternative out there,” he said, adding that the number of people receiving loans from non-pillar banks is relatively low in Ireland compared to the rest of the EU and the US market.

“I recently read that Amazon and Goldman Sachs are looking into creating an offering for SME lending, and it shows that people don’t feel as though pillar banks are servicing SMEs well, globally. We’ve gotten accustomed to going to these big pillar banks that have a monopoly and take forever, and you could miss your opportunity because of their old-school approach.”

When asked if Flender would ever partner with a pillar bank, Heaslip said: “Well, I’m not going to say that’s not a possibility, but our technology is attractive to a lot of big companies and a lot of big pillar banks. Right now we’re focusing on our business but there’s always different conversations going on.”

A man in a grey suit stands outside of a red brick building in front of the Flender logo.

Jamie Heaslip. Image: Flender

Heaslip added that part of the problem is the massive legacy issues that traditional banks tend to have. He said that with “thousands and thousands of staff” and “systems upon systems upon systems”, traditional lenders are like large ships that find it very hard to turn. Meanwhile, start-ups like Flender can be “nimble, fast and flexible”, making it difficult for banks to compete in this space.

Heaslip mentioned the possibility of Amazon potentially entering the SME lending market, but added that it’s not something that particularly concerns Flender. “Personally? I’m not afraid of a big company like that,” he said. “Just go talk to Pointy, which I have also invested in, in regards to their thoughts on taking on big companies!

“Everyone has blind spots. Big people coming into the marketplace, they make you up your game. If they want to come into the Irish market, they want to come into the Irish market.”

Heaslip’s career outside of rugby

Having moved from sports to fintech, we asked Heaslip about the skills that are transferrable between the two industries and if he learned anything from Joe Schmidt’s excellent management during the coach’s six years at the helm of the Irish rugby team.

“He knows how to run a team,” Heaslip said. “I suppose with Joe his approach is like, ‘What can you control? Well, manage that and don’t worry too much about the outcome.’ He was also all about preparation and the process of how you go about learning.”

And although Heaslip is now making his mark in the world of business, if he hadn’t gone into rugby, would he have ended up going down this career path?

“I studied medical engineering and I’m guessing that without rugby, I would have ended up in some form of engineering,” he said. “It’s mad how things have panned out. I came out of college in 2005, during the Celtic Tiger. Who knows what could have happened during the financial crash?

“Rugby let me stay in Ireland, let me stay in Dublin. I wasn’t affected like some people, when you hear stories of what was going on at that time. So many of my friends had to go abroad to find work.

“I’m not going to play the whole ‘what if’ game, but I do know how lucky I am to be here and this is not what I expected – to eventually be investing in a couple of companies and spending time working with a company like Flender – but here I am.”

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic