Our Start-up of the Week is The Freebird Club, a travel-based social club for older adults, enabling positive ‘connected’ ageing via social travel and homestays.
“Operating as a global peer-to-peer members club, it enables older adults to travel and stay with each other in the context of a trusted community of socially minded peers,” said CEO and founder of The Freebird Club, Peter Mangan.
“In doing so, it offers a whole new way of travelling for older adults; a means to unlock asset value in their homes and earn extra income; and a fun, accessible way to meet new people and enjoy social and cultural interaction in later life.
‘While it is a niche market, it is a massive one, which at present is massively underserved’
– PETER MANGAN
“By enabling older adults to travel, socialise and earn money in new ways, we aim to address three significant social issues facing our ageing society: loneliness and isolation, financial insecurity in later life, and lack of travel options for seniors.
“A ‘beyond-profit’ business, The Freebird Club’s mission is to enrich the lives of older adults through meaningful travel and engagement.”
The market Freebird is targeting is mature adults, aged 50 and over, who are interested in meeting new people, either through travelling or hosting them in their homes.
“The whole idea behind the Freebird Club is to enable positive, healthy, vibrant ageing. It makes no sense that so many of our elders are dealing with loneliness,” said Mangan.
“Moreover, many are struggling on inadequate pensions, despite having mortgage-free homes. We want to do something about that. We want to empower older adults to connect, travel, make money, have fun and enjoy themselves – regardless of age.
“There are not a lot of 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.”
Mangan said the ‘silver economy’ is a high-volume, mass-market opportunity with global reach.
The main indicators of market potential are: the significant increase in number and proportion of older adults globally; people are living longer and remaining healthy and active longer; loneliness and isolation among older adults is a growing social issue; and many older adults live alone, often in large houses with empty rooms.
He said that most of the “spare-room capacity” is in houses owned by older adults.
“Many seniors would like to travel more but limited options exist, especially for independent travel. Many seniors are asset rich (mortgages paid off) but cash poor due to inadequate pensions.
“The peer-to-peer ‘sharing economy’ is revolutionising how society consumes, interacts and transacts. Homestay travel, especially Airbnb, is a modern phenomenon, but mainly targets and attracts younger people.
“Seniors’ relationship with technology is rapidly evolving – they’re the fastest-growing online demographic.
“This is a targeted, bespoke offering exclusively for older adults. While it is a niche market, it is a massive one, which at present is massively underserved. The Freebird Club harnesses the potential of the sharing economy and the homestay travel boom to deliver a new, customised, social and economic solution for the burgeoning ‘silver market’.”
From Killorglin, Co Kerry, Mangan is a passionate social entrepreneur who wants to use the sharing economy to improve the lives of older adults globally.
He has a BComm and MBS degrees from University College Dublin (UCD) and PMP certification in project management, with more than 20 years’ experience across diverse sectors including finance, the arts and academia.
‘We want to contribute to a world where people no longer find themselves lonely or isolated or disconnected by virtue of their age’
– PETER MANGAN
Following a stint in corporate finance, Mangan joined Ireland’s Music Network as finance and resourcing manager in the late ’90s. He then took up the role of business and finance manager at Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research in UCD. This led to more senior roles in the university – most recently, senior manager of research and innovation. He left that role in 2016 to work full-time on The Freebird Club.
“For older adults experiencing social isolation, the most valuable thing they could share is each other’s company,” said Mangan.
“We have built a bespoke, customised, peer-to-peer web platform to enable this. By creatively combining aspects of a travel site like Airbnb and an online companionship site like Match.com or Stitch.net – where people include detailed personal profiles using accessible age-friendly design – we facilitate the matching of people with people, not just places to stay.”
Through the platform, members can connect, converse, book and pay for stays with each other in a secure environment.
“Freebird always involves staying with a fellow member who is in situ, and the emphasis is always on sharing and enjoying each other’s company.”
The sharing economy
Mangan’s vision is to create a more fun, inclusive and connected world for older adults.
“We are using the sharing-economy model to achieve that. However, our vision involves going beyond the sharing economy to champion a new ‘caring economy’, where the social impact is as important as the financial.
“In a rapidly ageing society, there are more and more older adults dealing with issues of loneliness and isolation. Research now indicates that this contributes significantly to ill health in later life, [and] in fact is correlated with smoking over 15 cigarettes a day.
“There are also increasing numbers of people struggling with limited – and, over time, reducing – pensions. These are not just unfortunate situations on an individual or human level, they also carry significant costs for society and are not sustainable economically. We want to do something about that.
“We want to contribute to a world where people no longer find themselves lonely or isolated or disconnected by virtue of their age. We want to enable financial independence and economic sustainability for older adults. We want to empower and inspire older adults to enjoy the world around them, regardless of age.
“In that context, our overall business goal is to start a de facto ‘seniors’ movement and, in the process, become the world leader in social travel for the 50-plus market within the next five years.”
A global movement takes shape
Following a successful pilot phase, Mangan formally launched The Freebird Club in April 2017.
‘I think Ireland could and should become a world leader in the emerging social business arena’
– PETER MANGAN
“Already, we have over 1,350 members across 38 countries, with numbers growing daily. About 30 stays have taken place, with many more bookings in the pipeline.
“We have developed a partnership with Clubs Queensland to launch us in the Australian market, and we are collaborating with a number of positive-ageing organisations internationally who are bringing The Freebird Club to the attention of their communities. We see this as a great way to build awareness and reach the seniors market in a focused way.”
Freebird has won a string of major international awards, including: the European Investment Bank’s Social Innovation Tournament 2017, the EU Horizon 2020 SME award 2017, the Aging 2.0 Global Startup Search 2016 event in London and the European Social Innovation Competition 2015.
The start-up has also been featured in international media, including The Telegraph (UK), The Huffington Post (US) and The Straits Times (Singapore) as well various national newspapers in Ireland.
The biggest challenge for The Freebird Club so far has been funding, explained Mangan.
“Thus far, we have not taken on equity investors, but that is definitely the next step for us in growing the business. Suffice to say, we are open to offers.
“Our funding to date has been a mix of grants, awards and personal funds. We have now won three major European awards of €50,000 each and have also received several enterprise/start-up grants. Such success notwithstanding, funding growth and development is an ever-present challenge.
Dedication and creative thinking
Mangan describes the Irish start-up scene as thriving.
“We are currently based in the Guinness Enterprise Centre in Dublin 8, and the number of great start-ups that are in this building alone is hugely impressive. Every time I am at a networking event or workshop where I meet other founders, I am always impressed by the ideas, dedication and drive that’s out there.
“Coming from a social-impact focus myself however, I would like to see more social-impact businesses where start-ups tackle real-world problems with robust business models.
“In Ireland, there seems to be a real divide between not-for-profit social enterprises and straight-up ‘bottom-line’ businesses. Hybrid models are emerging internationally, like B Corps, that have double-bottom-line agendas, social and financial.
“That is where The Freebird Club sits – we aim to improve society and make a profit doing it. I like to describe us as a ‘beyond-profit’ business. It would be great to see the start-up ecosystem in Ireland embracing this concept. Given our strong tradition of giving and helping others less fortunate than us, I think Ireland could and should become a world leader in the emerging ‘social business’ arena.”
Mangan concluded by pointing out that there are problems and opportunities all around us that can be addressed by applying creative thinking and a real commitment and energy to change things for the better.
“The first step, however, is to identify them, so be perceptive – pay attention to the world around you. Problems present opportunities.
“Once you are clear on what you are trying to achieve, ask all the hard questions of yourself and others, especially clever experienced people who have been there, done it. But trust your instincts and, when you really know you’re on to something, then go for it.
“Be sure to check out and apply for any grants or start-up competitions that fit. Winning some early accolades and awards provides a huge boost in terms of validation, confidence, credibility and early finance.”
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