ReFunk Upcycling – reducing waste by extending the life-span of furniture through upcycling and repairing.

Having met in Trinity College, the female founded and led company now specialises in repurposing old furniture Refunk Upcycling is now one of Ireland fast growing businesses in the area of Upcycling and Sustainability. Having been accepted into several prestigious accelerator programmes  such as LaunchBox Accelerator Programme, Circuleire and ClimAccelerator Programmes, and took part in Enterprise Ireland’s Starting Strong 2022 Cohort. The founders have been featured in The Irish Independents 30 Under 30 series and the brand has been featured in the likes of RTE and The Irish Examiner to name a few. I caught up with one of the co-founders Ellen Ryall to find out more about the company: 

  1. How did the Co-Founders meet? What led you to opening the business? 

Ellie, Meredith, Anna and I (Ellen) met doing our Masters in Trinity College in 2020. We immediately bonded over a shared passion for sustainability and second-hand fashion. In November, Trinity hosted a Hackathon Innovation weekend under the theme of Sustainable Cities, the four of us decided to enter as it was a way for us to get to know each other better given that our course was fully remote. When thinking about sustainable city-centric solutions, we began discussing things from our own experiences and realised that the four of us along with many of the international students from our course had to buy cheap furniture when moving into rented accommodation in Dublin, and unfortunately, the reality was that most of this would be thrown away or dumped when our lease ended. When we delved deeper into this area of “fast furniture” we learned that 10 million tonnes of furniture is discarded annually in the EU. So we decided to focus on finding a solution that extended the lifespan of furniture pieces and supported the circular furniture economy. 

2. What is Refunk’s mission? How did you decide on the mission before launching the business? 

Our mission is simple; to reduce waste by extending the life-span of furniture through upcycling and repairing. People throw out their furniture for two main reasons: it is has a defect, or it has gone out of fashion and the style/colours no longer appeal to them. Both of these issues can be solved by upcycling! We also want ReFunk to become another revenue stream for upcyclers and creatives, by providing them with a platform and access to sustainably-minded buyers. 

3. Did you join any accelerator programmes before you launched? What were some of the benefits of joining these programmes? 

Yes, and we are still taking part in some now. We participated in the Blackstone Techstars LaunchPad programme during our Masters and then in Trinity College Tangent’s Summer Accelerator last summer which allowed us to really develop ReFunk as we could focus on it full-time. Since then we have taken part in the Circuleire Programme and the ClimAccelerator which are two sustainability and circular economy-focused accelerators. It was fantastic to meet like-minded, impact-driven founders like ourselves through these programmes. Furthermore, accelerators allow you to access really valuable mentors and build a relationship with them. We met most of our ongoing advisors through accelerators. 

4. How did you go about launching the business?  Is there any advice you would give prospective entrepreneurs about launching their businesses. 

We actually tested out the demand for ReFunk through Instagram and used our social media as our MVP. This allowed us to build strong connections with our upcyclers and buyers and understand deeply the problems and challenges they faced in terms of furniture and upcycling. We launched our online platform in May, and already are making changes based on feedback we get. As a team we like to constantly iterate and relate what we are building and creating back to a real-life problem faced by our users. It’s so important for entrepreneurs to start with the problem, rather than their solution, and to always ask for feedback from users. ReFunk is so different now to what it was when we first started off and that all because we listen to what our community needs. 

5. How has the company grown since its launch? 

We have grown in so many ways, of course we have made sales and generated revenue. But aside from economic growth, our team has grown to include our full-time tech dev and our marketing intern. We have revised our business model and processes to become more scalable and tech-oriented which has created huge growth opportunities. ReFunk has on boarded and engaged with 80+ upcyclers around Ireland, and organically grown our online community to over 4000 members. As a team, we have learned so much over the past year, about financing, hiring, strategizing, networking, time management and measuring our sustainable impact. 

6. What were some of the main challenges you solved along the way during your growth? 

We have learned to use our time wisely, as an early-stage founder it is easy to spend your time attending roundtables, different events, accelerator programmes and online webinars. Of course, it’s valuable to engage with these opportunities, but it’s essential that they do not distract from the day to day execution of your business. The most important thing is traction and proving demand is there for your product/service, so that should be your main focus. Another interesting challenge for us at the beginning was being taken seriously as a business in the wider ecosystem. ReFunk is impact-driven both in terms of sustainability and social good as we aim to provide upcyclers with a platform, because of this we were often mistaken as a non-profit or a “little project” (our least favourite word). Having an all-female founding team has been an interesting journey too, as we have received lots of attention from the press, but this does not necessarily translate to interest from investors, etc. Every year approximately 2% of Venture Capital investments go to companies solely founded by women. We are a determined team, and we are ferociously passionate about ReFunk and our mission, and of course, about giving women in entrepreneurship more visibility. 

7. How did you go about getting funding for the company? What 3 pieces of advice can you give to a budding entrepreneur on how to get funding? 

We entered into so many pitch competitions, hackathon weekends and accelerators when we were first getting ourselves up and running. There is plenty of money to be found out there for idea-stage entrepreneurs and those 3k-5k cash injections build up and help you to sustain yourself for the first couple of months. We received our first angel investment in March of this year which has allowed us to hire our tech dev full-time and really focus on the scalability of our platform. Three pieces of advice for budding entrepreneurs on their funding journey: 

  • Enter all those competitions and hackathons, that prize money will build up! 
  • Make a list of every interesting mentor, speaker, or role model that you come across on your journey. Pop them into an excel sheet and send out a quarterly business network update, you never know if one of your needs or challenges may resonate with someone, or who they might forward that email to. 
  • Be brave, there is a tendency, especially among early-stage female entrepreneurs, to wait until your idea is perfect and 100% ready, it will never be! Just go ahead and put yourself out there and ask for what you want. 

8. What impact did pandemic have on the service? 

We actually started ReFunk during the pandemic, so we are used to working completely remote as a team. However, that being said, the energy we get from hosting in person ReFunk events like our pop-up shop and meeting our customers and upcyclers in person is second-to-none. I did my Masters dissertation on the “Revival of Craft” in Ireland and discovered through interview with upcyclers and consumers that during the pandemic people reverted back to basics and traditional activities. There was a focus on connecting with nature, growing things, baking, repairing and crafts. All of this plays into the upcycling and sustainable mindset where you consider giving something a new lease of life before throwing it out and replacing it with something new. 

9. What awards or recognition have you received since the launch? How has this helped grow the company?

 We have been very lucky to get lots of support from our community over the past year and a bit since launching. We were named in the Irish Independent’s 30 Under 30 list, placed 2nd on the LaunchBox Accelerator Programme, secured a place on both the Circuleire and ClimAccelerator Programmes, and took part in Enterprise Ireland’s Starting Strong 2022 Cohort. When we attended Web Summit in November we were also listed as one of their top-impact driven start-ups and given the opportunity to pitch at the sustainable start-up showcase. Aside from these, the most rewarding element of ReFunk is the feedback we get from our upcyclers and buyers. It’s amazing to hear that people get value from our service and are genuinely invested in our success, so it’s really through positive word of mouth from our customers and upcyclers that we have grown. 

10. Are there any other businesses in Ireland in the sustainability market in Ireland that you are big fans of? 

So many! There are lots of exciting sustainability businesses popping up around Ireland in recent times. Namely Thriftify for some excellent online charity shop thrifting, ByBorrow for renting and selling second-hand clothes, Agite Closet for some quality curated vintage clothes, Reuzi is a classic for any sustainable and eco-friendly items you may needs, and of course, the Useless Project are fantastic sustainability educators and so great at fostering a green community in Dublin.