Ireland’s Alternative Finance Industry and the Coronavirus

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Grafton Street, DublinAs the effects of the coronavirus continue to slow down the American economy, around the world, many countries remain in lockdown, with their businesses having been halted. Be it to the north, south, east, or west, of the United States, the results are the same: money has stopped flowing. As such, we took the opportunity to follow up with some of the businesses that featured in our coverage of alternative finance in Ireland last Fall, hoping to see what differed and what was the same in their responses to the pandemic.

Despite differing in size and range of variety when compared to their North American counterparts, the Irish alternative finance and fintech industries have largely felt the same impacts from covid-19. Certain funders have stopped operations, others have become very cautious, and just like here, some businesses have turned to the government for help.

LEO, or Local Enterprise Offices, is an advisory network for small and medium-sized businesses, which provide guidance as well as offer capital. The Irish government has pointed to these as the point of contact for small businesses owners, with LEO providing microfinance loans of up €50,000. This figure being upped from the pre-coronavirus maximum of €25,000.

Rupert Hogan, the Managing Director of brokering company BusinessLoans.ie, explained that some businesses would be better going with LEO over banks and even some non-banks. Noting that non-bank lenders can’t compete with the rates offered by LEO and, just like in the US, banks can’t act with the speed that these business owners need.

Ireland lockdownHogan, who describes the current situation as “The Great Lockdown,” said that banks “aren’t too helpful, even in the good times,” due to the high rejection rates that SMEs experience when looking for loans. In regards to merchant cash advances, he’s expecting, when the MCA companies reopen, that they’ll be funding at reduced rates, some doing as much as 50% less than their pre-coronavirus amounts.

Jaime Heaslip, Head of Brand Marketing at the MCA company Flender, explained that before the virus, the company was experiencing a period of productivity, with lending activity and amounts deposited being up from previous years. And despite the virus disrupting commerce, the former international rugby player noted that business owners are still coming to Flender for funds.

“We provide flexibility for people, there’s a lot of people coming to us to get contingency funds together,” he said over a phone call, commenting that as well as this, many businesses are looking for financing to move their operations online. “We’re trying to help SMEs get through this and provide as much help as possible.”

Beyond merchant cash advances, business continues to run, says Spark Crowdfunding’s Chris Burge. Being an investment platform, Spark is still active with businesses looking to get off the ground.

“We’ve actually found that we’ve still got a large amount of inquiries coming through,” the CEO and Co-Founder said. “Our pipeline of companies wanting to go onto the platform is very strong, and we’ve been engaging with them all and they’re very keen. They all need money, which, of course, hasn’t changed from before there was a crisis. And they still are needing money, they need that to expand as opposed to survive.”

When asked about changes made because of covid-19, Burge explained that their investor evenings have been disrupted. Previously an opportunity for the investors and investees on the digital platform to meet up personally and pitch each other, these 100-person gatherings are no longer an option. Instead, virtual webinars and assemblies are what Spark has started using to keep up communication between parties.

And on the subject of fundraising, Trezeo’s Garrett Cassidy said that it has become a nightmare under the pandemic. Disrupted communication channels and the inability to pitch to someone in the same room as you have been hurdles, but besides that, Cassidy assured me that Trezeo is still going strong.

Covid-19Offering payment structures and benefit bundles to freelancers and the self-employed, Trezeo has seen some of its customer base drop off as unemployment sky-rocketed in the UK, its prime market. Despite this, as more and more people are beginning to go back to work, Cassidy says numbers are rising.

“Now we’re starting to see earnings pick back up again, some of them were the ones who were off work who are now coming back to work. So it’s been interesting watching that but the reality is that they’re also scared. They’re out working every day delivering parcels or food, depending on which, and just working really hard. It’s the most important ones who are paid the least and that have the least protection.”

Looking ahead, Trezeo has been working with the UK’s Labour Exchange to establish a new program that would see the creation of channels to help pre-qualify workers for certain positions. These workers would be pooled, and employers would be able to choose from them, streamlining the hiring process for both sides.

“They need money in their pockets, somehow, quickly,” Cassidy said of workers, whether that be by returning to work safely, or through some government assistance program, the CEO is adamant that people need to stay solvent.

Altogether, Ireland’s alternative finance industry, like others the world over, has been hit hard by the coronavirus’s economic effects. With the country’s phased lifting of the lockdown being plotted out over the course of the summer, the island nation may not see as quick a return to commerce as certain American states, but its fintechs and non-banks hope to stick around, by hook or by crook, as the Irish say, by any means possible.

Last modified: May 18, 2020
Brendan Garrett

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