- Wayflyer has succeeded by creating a new kind of financing platform to underwrite booming ecommerce businesses, and Pierse puts its success down to his training as a chartered accountant (he is an ACA and a member of Chartered Accountants Ireland).
- Wayflyer has expanded across Europe and the US and into Australia, providing more than 1500 ecommerce businesses around US$900 million in funding along the way.
- “We’re in a unique situation, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Lots of people start businesses that perform very well and execute very well, but they can only get to a certain size,” Pierse says.
By Stephen Corby
Predicting that your company will be “as big as Amazon” might sound like hubris, but when Jack Pierse says it, he sounds deadly serious. He’s not even a little stressed about the prospect of such unimaginable growth.
Perhaps it’s his relaxed Irish manner. Born in Wellington, New Zealand to Irish parents, Pierse returned to the Emerald Isle at age six and his accent is definitely a long way north of Auckland.
Or perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that Wayflyer, the company he co-founded barely two years ago, has become a galloping unicorn – Ireland’s fastest ever – valued at $US1.6 billion after a $US150 million funding round in January.
Wayflyer has succeeded by creating a new kind of financing platform to underwrite booming ecommerce businesses, and Pierse, also the chief financial officer, puts Wayflyer’s success down to his training as a chartered accountant (he is an ACA and a member of Chartered Accountants Ireland).
Having gone, in short order, from a graduate position at PwC in Dublin to an executive overseeing a company that’s increased its staff in Europe, the US and Australia from 60 to 460 in a year, does he find his head spinning as fast as the numbers on his bank balance?
“It’s not spinning,” Pierse, 31, laughs. “But if you went back to the start – where we were [almost three years ago] – and you told me where we’d be now, then my head would definitely spin.
“Even at high speed, growth feels gradual,” he says. “Everything adjusts; things take off and, as they get bigger, your mindset and your goals just change naturally.
“It’s funny: basically we sell money and, as it turns out, money gives you a very good market fit, let’s call it that, because you’ve got something that people need,” Pierse adds. “I mean, you can say we’re selling painkillers rather than vitamins, effectively – one is nice to have, the other is something people need: that’s where we are.”
A tolerance for risk
Pierse has always been enterprising, his entrepreneurial drive on show selling Christmas trees while at school – not an easy job with temperatures falling to 3° Celsius. When studying accounting at University College Dublin he established a side hustle shifting mobile-phone accessories to service stations.
Even more important than that desire to make something for and of himself, however, has been his capacity for risk.
“I have loads of friends I went to school with – some of them are much more intelligent than I am – but I definitely have a higher risk tolerance and always have,” he shares. “When we played poker, my friends would want to play for €5 but I’d always prefer to play for €50. And it’s just something you need if you’re going to start multiple businesses.”
Pictured: Aidan Corbett (left) and Jack Pierse are the brains behind Irish company Wayflyer. Image credit: Daragh O’Neill
“When we played poker, my friends would want to play for €5 but I’d always prefer to play for €50.”
Pierse’s biggest roll of the dice came when he met County Cork-raised entrepreneur Liam Casey, the chief exectuive officer of design manufacturing company PCH International. Based in the US, Casey was visiting Ireland when Pierse pitched him an idea that didn’t come off, but still changed his life.
“I was trying to raise US$20 million to short ICOs [initial coin offerings], because that business didn’t make sense to me. So I was trying to raise the money to short it, but everyone figured it was too risky and that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about, as a 26-year-old.
“They probably made the right decision, but also the wrong decision, because I was right,” he says, only a little ruefully.
Backing the right horse
Casey, however, liked his attitude and a week later Pierse took another big risk and moved to San Francisco to work for him.
“What PCH [International] do is develop and manufacture products for big companies – Fitbit, GoPro, even Apple – using facilities in China. He got me to go and talk to new businesses and listen to their new product ideas, which was probably the coolest job I could have had, meeting entrepreneurs trying to build businesses,” Pierse says.
“People at that startup stage need about US$3 million to cover the first lot of manufacturing. With the time it takes to ship it to the US – and the fact that the Chinese companies people use for manufacturing don’t offer lines of credit – that’s where we would help.”
It was that role that led Pierse to spot a hole that needed filling, with money. Plenty of ecommerce businesses have great product ideas, but not the cash to get them off the ground.
“I spoke to a friend, Aidan Corbett, who had a business doing analytics for ecommerce, and we thought, instead of advising these people, why don’t we use the data we’ve got to underwrite them, to pick the good companies from the bad, and to get them the capital,” Pierse explains.
The data-analysis platform Conjura, which calculates potential profitability and risk, has been key to Wayflyer’s success, along with Pierse and co-founder Corbett’s ability to turn an understanding of data into consistently backing the right horses.
Initially, Wayflyer was borrowing money at high interest from “rich people and family”, but it became so successful “that we now borrow from JP Morgan, at much better rates, which means we can source more capital to help out more businesses,” reveals Pierse.
Wayflyer has expanded across Europe and the US and into Australia, providing more than 1500 ecommerce businesses around US$900 million in funding along the way. It makes money by adding a fixed fee (typically 2–4%) of the amount funded and takes repayments as a percentage of online revenue until the total amount is repaid.
Speaking to TechCrunch, Corbett said currently the company has “thousands” of customers who typically take out loans of between US$300,000–US$400,000 to cover things such as inventory purchases and shipping costs.
Wayflyer’s Australian arm was launched in 2020 and has 250 local customers including Emperor Champagne, Bhumi Organic Cotton, sunglass label Soda Shades and pet supplement company Petz Park, to which it has provided funding from A$10,000–A$10 million apiece. Its Australian workforce has grown to more than 30 in just 18 months, with plans for another A$100 million in funding earmarked to Australian businesses by the end of the year.
Earlier this year Wayflyer also entered the “under-serviced” New Zealand market, with Pierse reporting a rapid uptake of around 20 companies funded in the first four months.
Beyond the initial cash, Wayflyer gives businesses an opportunity to build on the partnership. Pierse explains: “Our customer is the person who’s the founder of the business, or the CFO, or both. When you’ve provided the finance, they really do value your opinions because you’re a big part of their success.”
“So when you start to sell them other products they’re very interested in what you have to say,” he says, adding he’s busying himself on creating a marketing product that will, among other things, advise businesses on how to improve the return on their Facebook ad spend.
Wayflyer launched into the ecommerce space at the perfect time, with the world locked inside and online shopping booming as never before. But Pierse says it’s been a challenging environment.
“We forget that the last two years have been the hardest, operationally, with people not being able to get containers, products being delayed, factories shutting down,” he says. “Also, competitively, everyone and their mother set up an ecommerce business in that time, so that created competition and increased costs. To move a 12-metre [shipping] container from China to the US would have cost US$3500 two years ago, but it went up to US$25,000 in recent times.”
With factories shutting down, products stuck in ports and other supply chain challenges, Pierse says businesses have had to become more agile. Through it all, Wayflyer’s incredible growth path has continued. Pierse puts the success down to his accounting background.
“When I think about why we’ve been good at underwriting, when we built it out, we fundamentally understood how businesses worked. And that’s about being able to understand a balance sheet, to understand a P&L [profit and loss] statement,” he says.
As with all successful businesses, it’s who you surround yourself with that can make or break a new enterprise. “We tend to hire accountants, always, because they have that ability to look at a business and evaluate where it’s going. It’s a vital skill.”
An accidental executive
Life has changed significantly for Pierse since his PwC days. He admits struggling when describing himself as an ‘executive’. “It just sounds too big, too grand,” he says, adding he still revels in the “early-stage stuff. New ideas.”
“Thankfully, I don’t have to do the month-end accounts anymore.” What an executive can do is create a successful culture, something he finds a satisfying challenge. He hires “young people who want to work their butts off, but also the kinds of people we’d want to work with: nice people,” he says.
“We’re in a unique situation, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Lots of people start businesses that perform very well and execute very well, but they can only get to a certain size,” Pierse says.
“With Wayflyer we started in ecommerce, which is gigantic. I honestly think we have an opportunity to be as big as an Amazon and that’s not something that happens very often.”
5 Unicorns of Ireland
Valuation: US$4 billion (June 2021)
Valuation: US$1.6 billion (February 2022)
Valuation: US$1.25 billion (January 2022)
Valuation: US$1.2 billion (June 2020)
Valuation: US$1 billion (June 2021)
Pivot for success: hone your vision, shift your energy, make your move
Discover what actions make a business successful or struggling in "Pivot for Success" by Amy S HilliardRead more
CAs who run startups
Financial skills give entrepreneurs the upper hand when launching a business. Find out how being a CA has helped six startup founders build successful ventures.Read more