Roads’ Danielle Ryan: Building A Brand With A Difference

Danielle Ryan

The Big Read, powered by Vodafone: Danielle Ryan is a businesswoman, philanthropist and the CEO of Roads, a unique contemporary lifestyle brand encompassing publishing, film and fragrances.

The granddaughter of Ryanair founder Tony Ryan, Danielle pursued an acting career before taking the helm at the Cathal Ryan Trust, established in memory of her late father; the trust’s projects have included partnering with UNICEF to fund health and education programmes in post-conflict Sri Lanka, and founding Dublin’s National Academy of Dramatic Art, The Lir. These days, Danielle oversees the burgeoning Roads empire from their Dublin headquarters.

What was the original concept with Roads?
When I started Roads, the concept, the holistic vision in a way, was to create a cultural brand that had a lot of ways of expressing itself, one that could tap into a lot of different types of people, and there would be this sort of cross fertilization. I knew it was going to be films and publishing – and then the fragrance thing kind of came along, so that surprised me in a way.

How did you move from publishing to perfume?
We were developing The Lir and looking at research around what was being done in theatre training at the time – and a lot of the big companies were using fragrance, but in an atmospheric sense, so they could create a sense of fear or a sense of comfort or whatever from the smell they put in the room. And no one would actually notice it. I thought, “This is cool” and looked into how they did it – questions, questions, questions. I met with perfumers, then got into it, got into it, nearly just for fun – well, nothing’s really just for fun. Then I started developing things. I feel like I’m quite good at spotting opportunities, and I researched the industry and felt that my fragrances were very good and very different. And I was like, “Okay, well there’s definitely an opportunity here. Why don’t I just have conversations with distributors?” No money’s being spent, yet. This is all just meeting with perfumers and having conversations and my own research from my computer.

This is the work you have to do, though, before you commit to product…
Exactly. Sometimes when you’re developing something, like I find even with theatre, you can develop a script without really feeling like it’s ever going to go anywhere. You don’t really do it for the endgame, you kind of go because you want to see where it goes. It might be a hit or a dead end. I don’t know, I just want to see what happens. That’s where a lot of the best ideas come from.

There’s no model for what you’re doing. How would you pitch the Roads brand?
I’ve always sort of described us like curators, actually. We pick and choose from loads of different things. I’m like, “Oh, that’s interesting. That artist is amazing. Can we contact them and see if any if anyone’s done a book on them?” Or, “It’s the anniversary of the moon landing in two years’ time. We’d love to do something on that.” Or I read something in the newspapers, or there’s a fantastic film that I’ve seen and said, “Okay, who is the DOP (Director Of Photography) on that because it was beautifully shot.” All the time, I’m making lists of people.

Ultimately, it’s about curation…
Everything is curation. And with everything that I do, it’s very much about, “Would I like this?” Going with your gut. And knowing when to take a risk. Someone once said to me in regards to choosing the name Roads that I know the paths, but sometimes I just like to know that I can go off-road a little bit and then come back to it. You’re not taking a completely different route, necessarily.

A side road, as opposed to a serious detour…
You should always push the boundaries where you think it’s appropriate. It’s a balance. With retail, for example, because of the visual merchandizing nature of retail, people are like, “Let’s put all three things together, make sure there’s the book sitting there, and then the fragrance, and a video…” And I’m like, “It kind of looks like a weird, morphed version of all my children squashed together.” You have opportunities for cross pollination sometimes. But generally, I think that you can’t force it. The only company that I’ve ever been able to compare us to, just in the structure of it, was Virgin. Who knows how many companies they’ve had? He (Richard Branson) makes it personal. No one questions why they’re doing a cola and an airline. It’s all Virgin, and works under the Virgin ethos. And I do feel like the way I’ve structured Roads means that it could open another company if we come up with the right idea.

What are the fundamental things that you’ve learned along the way?
Taking a punt on yourself is a big thing. I just don’t allow myself to dwell on negativity too much. I’ve had a full board here of people doubting my decisions. At the end of the day it comes down to you having to make a call. So you always have to take advice on board, but still have faith that you can make the right decision. Another big thing that I learned is that it’s always two steps forward and one step back. On a normal week I’ll have two big successes and then some drawback. It’s never just smooth. You have to learn how to deal with failure and not let it crush you. And I think it’s all about that ability to pick yourself back up, pick your team back up, and move on.

That’s what makes the difference.
A huge difference. You need to learn fast and think fast. You’ve got to be flexible. That said, you have to have a very good corporate structure. We always treat our company as a big company, even though we’re small. So we have a very formal corporate governance, but we’re flexible within it as to what we can do. So we will hold our board meetings, even if it’s two people, and every quarter we will review our budgets. Everything is done very carefully and in a considered fashion. I think it’s that mindset of not being flippant about things that are important. What else… Oh yeah, I think you just have to give it a go. (laughs)

On a practical level, why do you run your business from Dublin?
I didn’t mean to necessarily start my business from here. I came home because of my children and because, well, this is home. But then I started realizing just how exciting Dublin is these days. And that’s got to do with a lot of young companies that are doing amazing things, especially in the startup sector. They’re small. They’re like us, they’re dynamic, very ambitious, very trendy. (Design duo and frequent Roads collaborators) Conor and David are a perfect example. I get complimented about their work all over the world. So, I’m always proud to showcase Irish stuff, and use a lot of Irish talent on various things we do. I also find that because it’s smaller there’s less distraction, in a way. I can concentrate in Dublin in a way I don’t think I’d be able to do in London, or New York.

Also, I think our attitude to things is unique… People really see us as creative and smart and enjoyable to be around, and that makes for good business. I’ve dealt with every country at this stage, particularly with the fragrances, and everyone loves us. Everyone’s interested. And it’s up to us to capitalize on that.

Where do you see your company ten years from now?
I think if we were respected as a big cultural voice, and had collaborated each year with the people that were relevant and interesting, then I would be very happy with that. In the end, that’s what it’s all about: finding the people that are changing things, the artists that are growing. So for me, it’s all about collaboration. And if those collaborations start becoming really big in scale, then that’s exciting for me.

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