Everywhere you look, everyone’s a founder these days – certainly if you spend time dredging through LinkedIn, fighting through the motivational messages, self-congratulatory waffle and posts starting with “I wouldn’t normally post this on a business forum” and proceeding to do so, in deeply irritating fashion. The number of new businesses that end up reaching the fabled “exit” stage is vanishingly small, but I travelled to Amsterdam to speak with Fintan Costello, chairman of BonusFinder, who is in the midst of its earnout having been acquired by Gambling.com Group. With a hefty price tag, it’s fair to say this is a success story in the world of affiliate marketing and, knowing how tough it is to get to this stage in a crowded field, it’s always worth a conversation to find out more.
BonusFinder is a pretty straightforward concept at heart – dissect the market for online casinos and identify bonuses worth playing for curious customers – avoiding the worst of the sector in terms of locked away funds and other dirty tricks some operators have been known to pull. A quick look at the site, however, and it’s clear that ease of use, plus some neat touches like allowing visitors to dictate their own budget, make the site all about getting best player value, not trying to facilitate bonus abuse (although there are plenty of sites for that).
I asked Costello about how the sale process – necessarily a complex one for a deal of this size – had taken shape. He told me: “The whole history of BonusFinder has been a case of teamwork, and everyone picking up tasks to which they’re best suited. For whatever reason, I have ended up as something of the public face of the company, and I peeled away from the day-to-day a little to focus primarily on the acquisition due diligence and associated work.” With a quick nod to one of the regular LinkedIn leadership meme culture staples – ‘distribute credit widely, take responsibility personally’ – Costello comes across as someone who knows the value of a productive team. As a team they’re widely spread, from London to Helsinki and plenty of other spots in between – Costello is the only employee in Amsterdam, with his family – there’s no debate over returning to the office with these guys.
That journey from idea to exit is a long, arduous one and it feels to me like the best way to learn how to navigate it is from people who’ve travelled the road (rather than from those LinkedIn memes). I asked Costello what it takes to be successful from his perspective: “It won’t give me LinkedIn guru status but any success we have is due to eight years of consistent hard work. We had our ups and downs along the way, but by showing up every day we put ourselves in a market leading position in Canada and a super fast growing business in the US.
"The second thing that is slightly more counter-intuitive is that we never had a plan to exit, the focus was always just to grow a great business that we’d all love to work for. This freed us up to make the right long-term decisions; for example when we launched in Canada, we were one of the few to focus on the market and when we entered the US market there was only New Jersey and Pennsylvania that were regulated. All of that combined in a way where it was an obvious great fit with the Gambling.com Group that meant we could turbo-charge our roadmap under their wings."
The other question I wanted to ask, coming from an offline perspective, was why do land-based casino operators seem to have, in many cases made such heavy weather of getting their online offers right? Developments in the US are of limited comparative value to the UK situation – everyone over the pond already knows the value of the online market, so there’s not the same first-mover advantage that was available 10-15 years ago here – but it does feel like there have been some misfires in the UK. What would he do differently?
“First thing is not to just slap a logo on a white-label casino and assume magic will happen, no matter what the sales rep promises you. For land-based casinos, I believe the true value unlock is really leaning into the multi-channel opportunities and joining the dots in a thoughtful way between both environments. For example: single wallets and loyalty programmes, using the casino floor for online live dealers as well as shared concierge and VIP management. An overlooked area would also be solutions that allow VIPs to play online from outside the UK.
"I also think there is a middle ground, with thoughtful use of digital within the land-based casino; food and beverage ordering, restaurant reservations, digital loyalty cards and all of it backed by hi-speed wifi. In 2023, it has never been easier to create these experiences and with a growing digital customer base it’s
at the point where it needs to be considered a bare minimum. I’d see the real challenge as creating an environment where the land-based and online work as a single team.”
Costello's last point certainly resonates from my point of view – there’s no ‘political’ angle with a pure online operator, but any time you have a legacy business which in theory meshes well with a new opportunity, territoriality rears its head and things get complicated. Common goals are clear to see from the strategic angle, but don’t always look that way when you’re on the ground with a subtly different agenda.
It certainly sounds like an exciting time for the group at BonusFinder – soon to be part of the team at Gambling.com – and of course for Costello himself. What is clear is that he wants to stay in the industry and continue to use his hard-won experience. So watch this space!