&Open Unwrapped: Changing the Game of Corporate Gifting

&Open Unwrapped: Changing the Game of Corporate Gifting

8 mins to read

Oliver Pink
Oliver Pink
Enterprise & Saas

As office stationery cupboards across the land creak with monogrammed tat – a rubber here, a stress ball there – Dublin-based &Open is forging a path to meaningful corporate gifting. Here we speak with Ciara Flood, who co-founded the business after over a decade in the luxury fashion space, about freebies, sustainability and bringing joy to corporate gifting.

At the intersection of the corporate and the personal, the transactional and the relational, lies a company challenging the norms of corporate gifting. This is &Open, a firm dedicated to infusing joy, care and human connection back into a sphere often seen as impersonal and detached. &Open's mission statement resonates through its endeavours: "Lasting relationships aren’t built on wasteful freebies.”

It’s a smart message and speaks to the broader transformation of a traditionally staid business practice. Indeed, the corporate gifting market, valued at $242 billion today, is expected to reach over $300 billion by 2025. 

&Open’s technology represents several key drivers of this growth. Behind its commitment to offering sustainable gifts that can be aligned to a brand’s values, lies a smart digital platform which facilitates effortless, regular gifting at scale.  

I spoke with co-founder Ciara Flood over Zoom. Together with her husband, Jonathan Legge, and brother-in-law, Mark Legge, they have catapulted a side project into an internationally recognised brand, operating out of Dublin with ambitious expansion plans for New York City.

Family ties have proven beneficial for &Open, Ciara explains. "There's a shorthand between the three of us—particularly Jonathan and I can fully focus on &Open's growth without spending time explaining ourselves to each other which has proven to be a real strength.”

She’s very much the practical member of the crew, naturally leaning into the buying and merchandising roles but also taking a lead on product planning. Ciara is a bona fide ‘get-the-job-done’ type, interested more about what’s happening next week than next decade.

(In a blink-and-you-miss-it moment during our interview – which I had mistaken for quiet reflection or acknowledgment of an email – she briefly looked away from the camera. “I’ve just sent you a gift,” she told me coolly.)

And thus, dear reader, if you’re looking for lofty theories on the science of gifting, or the future of corporate relationships, move on. This is the story of a fashion buyer turned entrepreneur, whose eye for detail, quality and sustainability is helping turn a once tedious-sounding industry into an answer many CMOs, Heads of HR and Heads of Customer Success simply didn’t know the question for.

How it began

“&Open is quite unusual, as it came out of another business that Jonathan, Mark, and I had together called Makers & Brothers, a high-end online Craft and Design store,” Ciara tells me.

“It was very much a side project: Jonathan was working as a design consultant in London, I was a fashion buyer at Net-A-Porter, and Mark was in private equity in Berlin.” Then in 2015, the trio decided to consolidate their efforts and fully focus on the business and, when they did, discovered a critical gap in the market: up to 35% of their revenue was coming from corporate requests.

Before long they were taking on huge projects, supplying 30,000 whiskey glasses to Jameson. “Companies like Google were requesting gifts from us,” says Ciara. “They wanted something different they could give to executives visiting their HQ.” The turning point came in 2017 when, despite being smaller than the big US swag and merch providers, they won a global contract for hosts and guests gifting on Airbnb. "That was the start of what would become &Open. We saw an interesting problem that needed a technical solution," explains Ciara. They subsequently bootstrapped for a few years before officially wrapping up Makers & Brothers and focusing on &Open. In 2021, they secured seed funding, followed by an investment from Molten Ventures in 2022.

It’s immediately clear that Ciara's retail background, including her time as a fashion buyer at Selfridges and Net-a-Porter, has significantly shaped &Open's approach to corporate gifting. "Having experience in the field you're working in is always beneficial. With my background in retail, I was aware of risks involved in certain retail elements, especially stock risk,” she shares.

Risk aside, her experience also cultivated a sharp interest in the importance of brand experience— instrumental in building the tenets of &Open. “Having worked with Net-a-Porter, I knew the importance of aesthetics—having quality photography, presenting products differently from typical corporate merchandise, creating elevated descriptions, and ensuring that products were delivered within the territory to avoid recipients paying any duties.”

How it works

&Open has two core offerings. One is its &Open Marketplace which serves smaller businesses. It comprises a carefully selected and curated network of 200 local vendors – with initial focus on the US – to service smaller order quantities. “For this, we aim for the best in class,” says Ciara. “Our goal is to make it easy for senders, like finding the best florist on the East or West Coast. We have a dedicated team of buyers from various backgrounds in fashion and homeware, passionate about the space, always on top of trends, and searching for unique, quality products.” 

The second offer – its original business model – involves a more client-centred approach. “We spend a lot of time listening to our clients, understanding their values, and iterating on the storytelling of the objects,” Ciara tells me. “For instance, we’ve had immense success with simple, thoughtful gifts that align with a brand's values — wool socks for Airbnb, with the idea that you're most at home when you're comfortable enough to put on cosy socks.”

“What’s great with this model is that we really get to support local vendors, who wouldn’t ordinarily get this sort of business,” says Ciara. “We work with a small Irish chocolatier, Bean and Goose, to send out large slabs of chocolate with a hammer for breaking it into pieces. That goes down really well.

I'd love &Open to change the conversation around gifting, and to demonstrate that it's a vital part of maintaining business relationships"

Ciara Flood

Another example is their work for Spotify who were gifting their advertising partners globally during the height of the pandemic. Recognising that executives’ attire would have become more relaxed at home, &Open worked with them to send organic cotton trackpants made in LA, a Headspace voucher, and a donation to a cause that resonates with the brand.

I ask whether, all things considered, the pandemic was a boon for business in this respect. “It had a substantial effect,” says Ciara. In 2020, we were entirely bootstrapped, and a large part of our revenue came from Airbnb.”

For the many whose memory is unwilling to dredge that far deep into that unsettling year will remember, Airbnb was planning an IPO when travel ground to a halt.

Its CEO said to NPR at the time: "In this crisis, it felt like I was a captain of a ship and a torpedo hit the side of the ship.” But, after the initial hit, the brand saw a surge because people felt safer in self-contained Airbnb units. Then of course, they ran short of listings.

“We assisted them to reengage their hosts through gifting, which resulted in a 28% increase in listings,” remembers Ciara. “It was a key moment for us to see the tangible return on investment that gifting can bring.”

At the heart of their venture lies a clear vision; &Open is more than just a gifting company – they call themselves the world’s first happiness platform. What may have begun as “an interesting problem that needed a technical solution” has evolved into a genuine concern about bringing optimism and a sense of caring back into a sector often viewed as impersonal and transactional—not an antithetical notion for a business that came of age during a global lockdown.

There's a strong ethos of sustainability that runs through the company, borne out of the statistic that around 23% of corporate gifts end up in landfills. "Our aim is to reduce waste,” Ciara tells me. “It's equally important for us that people can choose not to receive a gift or opt to donate to a cause instead. That choice is central to our messaging."

People underestimate the importance of corporate gifting, Ciara tells me, looking for a moment toward the horizon. “I'd love &Open to change the conversation around gifting, and to demonstrate that it's a vital part of maintaining business relationships. I want us to be the leader in the market, to make it really joyful again, for the sender and the recipient.”