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In conversation with James Lenehan, CEO WIN|WIN Group

This column is a platform for Irish companies who have had success in the Nordic markets to share their stories. Our aim is for it to uncover how these companies have achieved that success, offer insights into why they chose this region and provide advice to other Irish founders looking to grow their business abroad. The hope is that this will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

For the first interview we caught up with James Lenehan, CEO, and founder of WIN|WIN group, the award-winning loyalty rewards and customer and employee engagement agency based in Dublin. WIN|WIN are celebrating 25 years in business in 2023 and we got the chance to chat with James about the journey they have been on in the Nordics and their experience of taking their export journey North.

What was the motivation behind setting up WIN|WIN and how did the business get started? 

The thesis behind WIN|WIN has always been about bringing multiple parties together for mutual gain. The concept I came up with originally was a discount club, catering for middle class female market. We all know that people love a bargain and of course businesses are always looking for new customers, so I wanted to match the two.   

 I have always felt that the idea of negotiating a discount and using a large organisation as our distribution channel made sense. It reduces costs and provides value to all parties. The model serves 3 parties – firstly you have your brand partner (the store/brand that wants to attract new customers) they provide the deal or discount, then you have the corporate partner who brings a valuable customer base (your route to market) and finally, you have the consumer (the person receiving the bargain). Everyone benefits. The corporate is giving a discount helping them attract and retain customers, the customer saves money, and the brand partner increases their sales and gets people in the door when they need them. We have applied this model very successfully across a whole range of areas from hotels and restaurants to cinemas and holidays. That is the thesis behind WIN|WIN.  

 Congrats on 25 years in business! How has the business grown over this time and at what stage did you decide to target the Nordic markets?  

 For many years we have supplied a suite of rewards to different companies including high street vouchers, holidays, cinema passes, and hotel stays. Along the way we built a sophisticated hotel reservations system that allowed us to contract discounted hotel offerings on the premise that we were going to only sell through closed user groups. So, think pricing, less 20%. Our bookings were going very well with telcos, banks and retailers using the discounted hotel deals as customer rewards. In 2014, we started discussions with SuperValu (one of the largest supermarket chains in Ireland) around the possibility of taking over their Getaway Breaks programme and in 2016, they agreed to move over to our platform. Securing SuperValu was a great win for us. They had a very popular short breaks programme in Ireland and the company who was managing their Getaway Breaks was an American owned business, Affinion.   

 Between the jigs and the reels, we ended up having a chat with the guys at Affinion and by 2018 we had agreed terms to acquire a similar business that they operated in the Nordics, offering discounted hotel stays to supermarket chains in both Norway and Sweden. Our performance with Supervalu had seen us dramatically increase the programme’s “look to book” conversion ratios and overall programme performance so it justified the expansion. That acquisition gave us a springboard to expand up into this territory and set up an office in Stockholm. It was at this time that we decided to spin out the reservations business from the WIN|WIN agency into its own entity which we called Digibreaks. 

 Since coming to the market, what has your experience been of the Nordics? Would you have any advice for other companies looking at this region?  

 We have been active in the region for about five years now. In that time, we have expanded our offering in Norway and Sweden substantially and, in addition to our hotel breaks offering, have also launched a restaurant platform. The concept behind it being again, discounted offers that are only available through a closed user group. Coop, one of the largest supermarket chains in Sweden, have partnered with us and are promoting the restaurant offering to their membership base.   

 Reflecting on our experience in the region I think that the ease with which you can do business is an enormous positive. When I tell people we work up in the Nordics, I get wide eyed enthusiasm from people saying they hear it’s a wonderful place, but they are now aware of the vast opportunities that exist commercially in the region.  In my experience most Irish businesses tend to look East, West, and South when expanding. They rarely look North, and I cannot explain it.  By spending time in the Nordics, you realise just how sophisticated the societies are and how efficiently everything works, you see why it is a remarkably good place to consider as part of your global export journey. In addition to this, the ease of access with daily direct flights and how widely and fluently English is spoken means it is an easy place to do business, you can build relationships and an understanding of the markets relatively quickly.    

 I’ve found that while the Nordics are incredibly sophisticated, there are market opportunities to fill, and gap in these markets. If you present an innovative product or solution, they are very receptive. In our experience there are some markets that are hyper-competitive and need careful consideration before entering them. Obviously, the USA is one, but likewise the UK is a dog-eat-dog market, and can be a graveyard for some exporters. It’s highly competitive because of its global reputation and is regularly a Top 5 market for multinationals. Whereas looking at, say, Sweden or Norway you’ll likely find that there are more opportunities provided you are bringing something with value add. So, I would encourage companies to take a look at it because you’d be surprised how your product will fit.  

 Finally, can you share how you have worked with Enterprise Ireland, both in the Nordics and elsewhere?  

 In recent years we have developed a strong relationship with the Enterprise Ireland team – all of whom have been highly supportive and helpful.  We have enjoyed their assistance with market research and their invitations to events like the Tech BBQ in Copenhagen last year which was good for both networking and business development. EI provide a great opportunity to network and share learnings with local business executives and other Irish companies. We love having these opportunities – it’s what makes the world go around, isn’t it?  At the end of the day, when you travel to a new market, you get a chance to press the flesh, experience a new city, meet new people, and get ideas and inspiration. We always welcome the opportunity to do more of that. We believe Enterprise Ireland have an important role to play in helping Irish companies like us expand Northwards and like I said earlier, the Nordics present a remarkably strong opportunity, so it is essential businesses start thinking that way.   

 Learn more about WIN|WIN and Digibreaks by visiting or connect with James Lenehan via Linkedin here.

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