Small Business: Why a business fails or succeeds - Grant Ryan

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Grant Ryan. Photo / Simon Baker
Grant Ryan. Photo / Simon Baker

Grant Ryan, multi-entrepreneur, the inventor of YikeBike and with four other companies behind him:

I want to emphasise a dirty little secret that some successful people don't like to mention about their start-ups. There are large elements of luck involved. To be successful, you've got to be "in the game" but if you are doing this sort of thing with any regularity, elements of luck and failure are inevitable, that's just life.

The one we had our most luck with was our first company, GlobalBrain. It was an internet search technology we founded back in 1998. It was when the internet was taking off, the first dot com boom and we struck it lucky in timing and technology.

We went from the idea to a multimillion dollar licence in a year and sold the business 12 months later to NBC's internet company. NBCI ended up tanking and the shares we got for the sale ended up worth nowhere near as much, but we learnt an awful lot.

We did a lot of the obvious things right you would expect, we got some great people involved, looked after customers well, focused on delivering, great team culture and so on. Then you have to get lucky as well. It bugs me when successful folks mention all the pretty obvious things you have to do but don't acknowledge luck.

We did buy the technology back from NBCi and now SLI-Systems employs 80 people around the world. It's become the largest independent ecommerce search provider in the US.

There is no formula - no quick way to do this. But like everything the more times you do it the better you get. The first time you do anything you are pretty clueless, I came across some old stuff we were doing at GlobalBrain recently and could not believe how naïve we were. As you go on, you are more likely to be more lucky, but there is still no guaranteed success.

One of my operational failures was RealContacts, which we launched In 2001. We were doing social networking before it was even called social networking. We failed on the execution of it, we thought people cared about privacy - ends up they really don't. We did have some great IP that we ended up selling that to a top 10 US tech company so the investors still actually ended up doing very well out of it.

In 2004/5 we launched Eurekster which was based on the idea that search results could be improved by using social networking information. We wanted to try the classic US model, we had a US CEO, we raised overseas venture capital.

Within a year we had more unique users than Trade Me and we had an offer from Google to buy it but our US investors turned it down and wanted to take them on - in hindsight it's pretty obvious this wasn't a good idea. You can look at that and go, that was a failure, but it was an interesting ride.

YikeBike is still at the very early stages and it certainly looks pretty promising. Tomorrow someone could run under a bus on one or Toyota could fall irrationally in love with the technology. We can't control these external extreme events that would have a huge impact on our success but at least we are in the game and heading in the right direction.

The only guaranteed way to not get lucky is to not be in the game. I'm certainly addicted to the start up process it and love the possibilities - way more fun than a normal job.


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