Salaso’s Gráinne Barry: ‘I just like building stuff’

18 May 2016

Salaso's Gráinne Barry

Before there was Tinder for lonely hearts, there was ,and still is,, an Irish-headquartered dating site that was led by Gráinne Barry and Kevin Greene. Today, Barry is the COO of Salaso, a fast-growing digital health start-up based in Limerick but with a global vision.

Barry, who will be the star of tonight’s Bank of Ireland-supported Startup Grind in Limerick, is a start-up entrepreneur who hails from a time when the word “entrepreneur” was exotic, unlike now where it is some kind badge of honour.

“The term entrepreneur was hardly used in 2003, you just said you worked for yourself.”

Originally from Newry, Barry got her first job in Limerick, where she met her husband, and has based much of her career in the city.

‘The best man at my wedding set up and asked me to join and that’s how it came about. We were one of the first dating sites to launch in Ireland’

She is currently the COO of Salaso, a Limerick-based connected health technology company founded by Aoife Ní Mhuirí in Tralee, where it also has offices.

“We are about amplifying the capacity of physical therapy, and what that means is simply getting people better, faster.”

Ní Mhuirí sparked on the idea of using multimedia and technology to enrich the connection between healthcare professionals such as physiotherapists and the sporting community of athletes and coaches. The company’s technologies are used as aids to help injured athletes get better faster and have since evolved to broader potential in the healthcare community and corporate wellness market with organisations such as the NHS in the UK and AXA Insurance.

“We have a strong base of private practice physiotherapists here in Ireland but our main business is in the UK in terms of healthcare organisations and corporate clients.

“We have also just started working in the US, where we are beginning to get traction. Looking ahead, the UK and the US would be our core markets.”

Salaso has taken on private investment and backing from Enterprise Ireland and, according to Barry, the company is aiming to take on substantial funding in 2017 to accelerate Salaso’s global expansion.

The Limerick start-up scene

Barry left four years ago and, prior to joining Salaso, consulted with various start-ups. She is still passionate about the start-up scene in Limerick and continues to mentor young start-ups.

“I’ve always been trying my hand at businesses. Before, I had my eye on the wellness space and had even set up a flotation tank business in Newry but that didn’t work out.

“The best man at my wedding set up and asked me to join and that’s how it came about. We were one of the first dating sites to launch in Ireland.”

‘It’s about perspective, managing your energy and state-of-mind and keeping a good attitude when it comes to getting past obstacles’
– GRÁINNE BARRY, SALASO predated Facebook and social media in general, as well as apps like Tinder, but it was among a pioneering coterie of start-ups focused on digitising what had been up to that point offline.

“There are businesses like and that are relationship-based, and they’ve stayed the course doing what they have always done. But Ireland is a very small market for that kind of business and we had bought online dating businesses in the UK, but the experience taught me just how hard it is to scale internationally.

“There are so many niches to dating sites, there are even ones for dog lovers or members of the Republican Party in the US, but they have the population mass to do that.”

Barry pointed out that at that time many elements of what were ads in traditional newspapers were going online and dating was part of that movement. “We often felt we had picked the wrong vertical because property, cars and jobs also went online as well as dating, or the lonely hearts or personals, as they were known.

“2003 to 2005 was a very different time because there was no social media, no Facebook.

“It was hard in the early years to get critical mass and also there was a bit of a stigma to online dating in the early years. But once it got critical mass what I liked about it was the feel-good factor when you received a letter or email from someone who met their soulmate thanks to what we were doing. That was a decade ago and now times are very different.”

Spurred on by a need for change, Barry left in 2012 and, as well as enrolling in further education, she worked with various start-ups on their minimum viable product (MVPs).

“I was lucky when I met Aoife and immediately clicked in terms of what she was trying to achieve. It was a combination of the right business and the right people.”

The next step for Salaso is the vital US market. “We will aim to raise a big funding round in 2017 and the aim of that will be to grow in the US. Our market development strategy, for now, is focused on the corporate wellness market in the US and that’s about helping employees to stay fit and well for work.

“We are in the process of establishing an office in the US at the moment and we have two members of staff in the UK.”

Barry is a consummate entrepreneur and says her passion will always be start-ups. “I like building stuff and getting stuff done. There are never enough resources in a start-up, there are always problems to solve and I bring the energy needed for that. I am quite calm, never panic, and see problems as a process of joining the dots, always looking for the next dot to get past the roadblock and move on to the next step in the journey.”

Her advice to other start-ups is manage energy, it is a marathon, not a sprint. “Career lifecycles are getting shorter, the days of spending 20 years at a business are done, the way of work is changing. It’s about perspective, managing your energy and state-of-mind and keeping a good attitude when it comes to getting past obstacles.”

We need more entrepreneurs to create sustainable jobs

Barry welcomes the start-up buzz that is evident in Ireland but says it is important to realise that the community will coalesce around cycles of winners and losers. A realistic perspective needs to temper ambition.

“What I’m really trying to say is it’s not just about entrepreneurs, it is about enterprising individuals whether they work in start-ups or multinationals.

‘We need enterprising individuals as well as entrepreneurs’

“You could be working in a large corporate as an intrapreneur too, and I think we need to work that dynamic a little more. We need enterprising individuals, as well as entrepreneurs. But ultimately we need more entrepreneurs to create sustainable jobs because we can’t be relying on multinationals alone.”

Barry is also adamant that you can’t codify the perfect route to start-up success. “Whether you are a first-timer or you’ve been around the block, it is very hard to learn,” she concluded.

“You can short circuit it a lot by having the right networks of people and the right mentorship network. Limerick doesn’t have a great incubation or accelerator scene like Dublin or Cork. But if you ask my advice today, get a mentor, get an advisory board and get enterprising.”

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