Entrepreneur tries to redefine business failure

Liam Ryan shares what he learned from his two “failed” companies

"Ireland has a weird way of defining what failure is," says Liam Ryan, an entrepreneur who has founded two companies and is now a sales executive at Boxever, another start-up.

According to the traditional definition of failure, he says, if you don’t make money, you’ve failed. “But if you’ve built something and people found it useful, then that’s a success.”

Although his companies are no longer operating, he considers them successful because he created products that people used.

He thinks success and failure need to be redefined.


Ryan founded his first start-up with friend Chris Rooney when he was 20 and studying for a civil engineering degree at Trinity College.

The medical compliance company, called Safe Text, helped people remember to take their medication via text message alert.

In two years, the company sent a quarter of a million text messages to its customers.

“We were very much just trying to identify a problem and build a solution to fix it and add value,” Ryan said.

“We were just two lads working on it, and we were very naive about what it took to build a company. If you want to build a product, that’s fine. But building a company is a different story.

“Building a company involves setting up a bank account, trying to raise money, figuring out how much money you should raise, determining your strategy to reach your customer base. They’re all pretty tough questions for a 20-year-old to answer, particularly one with no experience.”

Learned a lot

Even though the company failed, Ryan and Rooney had made a product that worked, and they learned a lot in the process.

“When we look back on our first start-up, we lost a bit of money but, overall, we see it as a success. We were able to bring a product to market, and people used it. We learned so many lessons about what didn’t work. We had to go through it to learn it so, really, it was a success.”

Ryan was 23 when he and Rooney founded their second start-up, GetHealth, which used mobile and online technology to help people improve their health. This time, they placed more emphasis on the team they put together and the advisers they took on board.

30 clients

The company employed seven people, built a mobile app and web platform, had 30 clients from around the world and set up offices in Ireland and New York.

While the company did generate revenue, with seven employees and 30 clients, it wasn’t able to scale up enough to sustain itself.

Also, GetHealth was in a healthcare-based accelerator programme in the US at the same time Obamacare was introduced.

It was a legal shift in the health insurance market they did not anticipate. After 2½ years, they had to wind down the company.

“We did a lot of successful things we didn’t do in our first company. You always learn every time you give it a go. You get a sense about what you could do better if you were to do it again.”

One of the main things Ryan learned was to surround himself with mentors who had started their own businesses and gone through the same things, people to check in with on a regular basis. Another thing was choosing the right team and being clear about where you’re headed as a business and what kind of culture you want to have.

Now Ryan has joined the team of Boxever, a travel-centric marketing platform for retailers to capture, analyse and act on large amounts of customer data, but he plans to start up again in future.

He and Rooney are putting together a “thesis” about what they’ve learned from their start-up failures at www.rooneyryan.com.

‘Fail fast’

Their thesis statement: “Fail fast and enjoy failing as much as you can.”

“You put a thesis together based on what you’ve learned in college. We’re doing the same thing for what we’ve done in business over the last 4½ years,” he said.

“You’re never going to get it right the first time. If you do, that’s great. But you should never just do research and wait and never do anything.

“Just start. Get something done, and come back around and do it again. You’ll learn way quicker than you will sitting and planning.”