Adventures in Russia and learning from your mistakes

Written by Tom Fairey

14 March, 2022

Patrick Ryan studied Russian in college, and translated that into a career in entrepreneurship.

Along the way he became adept at import/export, got his hands slapped by Indiegogo, drank a LOT of vodka, and learned one very, super, critically important piece of business advice:

Read the fine print.

So, first of all, why Russian? As Ryan told me, he was curious about languages, was encouraged by his parents to follow his whim, and thought the act of learning something difficult in college would become his personal USP out in the real world.

But Russian was not the only language Ryan studied in college — he also studied French, and used that in his first job working for Irish Distillers in France, where he collaborated with local marketing teams to promote and sell a range of whiskies.

While he liked the work, he was seeking an intellectually stimulating job, which led him back home, where he sought something more strategic. He ended up a master’s program, where students were sent to foreign countries to work with small to medium-sized Irish clients to launch market strategies, find buyers and distributors, and generally promote domestic businesses.

And that led him to Russia for a year and a half, where he worked for the Irish food board, a whisky brand, the dairy board, and a craft beer company. That job grew into an effort to ship business the other way — find Russian startups that could be cajoled into moving their operations to Ireland, where the favourable business climate could work to their benefit.

But guess what?

The work wasn’t hard enough.

Yes, Ryan was seeking a greater challenge, which arrived in the form of the crash of the ruble.

The sinking ruble suddenly made it attractive to (i.e., cheap) to find products that could be manufactured in Russia and exported to higher-value locations.

This is where the vodka comes in.

Craft spirits were gaining popularity globally at the time, and Ryan realized there could be value in exporting cheap but high-quality Russian vodka. So he went to Russia, drank a lot of vodka, found one he liked, and set about seeing what sort of market potential it had.

Ever crafty, Ryan mocked up a bottle of water to look like fancy vodka, and launched an Indiegogo page to raise money. It worked — he raised about £11,000. Not bad for a bottle of water.

Unfortunately, this is where the Indiegogo part comes into the story.

Ryan had not read the fine print.

Turns out, he had offered the vodka to investors as a part of the fund-raising deal, but Indiegogo’s fine print forbade the trading booze. A coupon for booze was fine, but an actual bottle? Nope.

Ryan headed back to the drawing board, which in this case meant creating his own fundraising website, where he pulled in another £3,500.

Ryan named his vodka Ishka, which while it sounds Russian is actually the Irish word for water, which is ironic given that water was what filled his mockup bottles.

“Mostly it was just a cute word,” he explained.

And this is the part of the story where it should be clear that Ryan is honest.

“I made a ton of mistakes,” he told me. “I made some stupid assumptions.”

But there’s something important to know about making mistakes.

Making mistakes helps you grow.

“I probably should never have built that business,” Ryan said. “But I would never get to where I am if I didn’t make mistakes.”

The Indiegogo mistake was typical of the kinds of mistakes entrepreneurs make, really. We are excited, we want to move quickly, we are thinking big.

“You do fuck things up along the way, he said. “But this taught me to be more careful about things.”

Odin eventually sold Ishka and became a senior equity fundraising manager at Crowdcube, which relayed him to Crowdcube’s head of inbound. For 10 months he worked on the set up of Coca-Cola European Partners Ventures, which invested, collaborated, and built to create a future for the beverages industry. At the same time, he launched Bloom, a startup consultancy aimed at consumer and retail segments, and last summer became a co-founder of Odin, a community of creators and thinkers that invest together in European deep tech and impact startups. 

Ryan has listened to his fair share of pitches — perhaps more than his fair share, actually. What’s the most common weak spot that he saw?

“Blind belief in what you are doing,” he said.

Funny, but true, since he too once had blind belief in what he was doing when he assumed the world needed a craft, high-end vodka just because the ruble was cheap.

No matter what, though, you have to find a way to hustle.

I believe the worst thing you can say to an investor is, If this, then that. What you need to say instead is, I am doing this, I want to do it quicker, bigger, and better. 

“Money is fuel, not the engine,” Ryan said, agreeing.

Odin is an attempt to democratize the investment process. It was first hatched as a way to match VC with entrepreneurs — like a dating app for investments. The idea was brilliant but the technology was not there yet.

Amazing things are happening with VC, Ryan said, but VC is a hard game to play. “It’s the only asset class where the seller cares who the buyer is,” Ryan wrote in a recent blog. “Unlike other asset classes, where past performance is rarely an indicator of future success, past performance in the venture industry is a very good indicator of future success.”

Remember this, Ryan adds: VC is about deal flow and deal access, and to get both without a track record, you have to be good at telling stories, stories that explain why you are great and how you can add value. 

“Thus,” he wrote, “this is marketing, not finance.”

The Takeaway

Don’t set out to make mistakes, but they will happen. Make sure that when they do, you learn from them.

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