John Beckett, entrepreneur who built the first Ryanair website (video)

11 Apr 2015

Pictured: John Beckett, CEO and co-founder, ChannelSight

Fifteen years ago the then 17-year-old John Beckett built the first Ryanair website. Little did he know he would help ignite a revolution in aviation for millions of Europeans.

In 2000, Ryanair launched its website, with an online booking engine that management believed would only be a small part of its business. Within a year the website was handling three-quarters of all bookings. By 2003 passenger figures had grown to 21.4m, most of whom booked their tickets online.

That website was built by a 17-year-old called John Beckett and a school pal called Tom Lenihan for the princely sum of IR£20,000.

To get a sense of perspective, the advent of low-cost airfares connected people across Europe in a way just as potent as the internet itself, making air travel that was previously prohibitively expensive reasonably accessible. Today, people can book flights and hotels at a whim, cutting out the middle man.

Ryanair’s digital efforts are today an entirely different affair. The airline has revamped its web and mobile assets to make Ryanair a true digital-first organisation and the company last year announced 200 new digital and IT jobs.

A break in the clouds

But back in the late 1990s at St Andrew’s College in Blackrock, John Beckett was busy flunking his transition year business studies project for an accounting error in his paper. He was to have the last laugh, however. The same business studies project – a web design company called Adrenalin – went on to create 50 jobs and record thousands of times more profit than the pen-selling business project that came top of the class that year.

Around the same time, Beckett was holding down a part-time job at PC manufacturer Gateway 2000, where he built an extranet connecting Dublin with Kuala Lampur and Sioux City.

His efforts came to the attention of Gateway’s head of HR in Dublin, Eddie Wilson, who was to remember Beckett when he subsequently became director of HR at Ryanair

“When Ryanair went to build its website originally, they were getting quotes of ridiculous amounts – IR£3.5 million at the time – it was crazy and this was unacceptable and Eddie gave me a call and invited us in to talk about this, knowing I had some expertise in this area.

“They appreciated this kid coming in in jeans and a t-shirt as it was very much in keeping with the Ryanair ethos at the time. I talked with them about what they were trying to do, wrote them a proposal and quoted less than €20,000 (about IR£16,000) and they said yes. There was so little risk in it for them, it was a no-brainer. It was very good money for myself and Tom and it really served as a platform, and it was a big break for us. Here we are 16 years later still talking about it.”

Today John Beckett is the co-founder and CEO of ChannelSight, a fast-emerging e-commerce start-up that has already nixed global contracts with international companies like Philips, Mondelez and BSH to help drive their traffic through to partner retailers to increase conversions. 

“ChannelSight is an e-commerce enablement company working with large brands brands like Philadelphia and Oreo to e-commerce enable their digital assets with a ‘buy now’ button on their various Facebook posts. When the user clicks on that they see the retailers who have the item in stock. This shortens the buying journey, removes friction and generates really cool data around how the brand’s other advertising is working and how effective it is.”

He is also the co-founder of Eirtight Technology, an enterprise software engineering company that works with organisations that want to build new products, enter new markets or streamline their business using software and technology.

A Glimmer of Hope

Looking to the future, he hopes to get involved in social entrepreneurship.

“I have my plate full with ChannelSight and will for the future. But you know, I have a real love of start-ups and supporting and mentoring start-ups.

“I can see myself eventually moving into that area in a more formal role, supporting investment.”

Beckett says he is inspired in particular by individuals like Philip Berber, the Irish-born, Texas-based tech entrepreneur who, after selling CyberCorp to Charles Schwab in 2000 for US$488m, went on to found A Glimmer of Hope.

“I have a particular interest in social entrepreneurship – I love what people like Philip Berber have done – I’m huge fan of his – he built his technology business, made some money from that and took the idea of micro-finance and built a very successful organisation around that, Glimmer of Hope.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years