Why Would a Non-Equestrian Corporate Lawyer Ditch His Career? To Start an Equestrian Sports Data Company, of Course.

Why Would a Non-Equestrian Corporate Lawyer Ditch His Career? To Start an Equestrian Sports Data Company, of Course.

The evolution of technology is not only revolutionizing the way we care for our horses, but also the way we interpret, predict, and analyze equestrian events and results. But the road to the founding of EquiRatings by Irishmen, Sam Watson and Diarmuid Byrne, was one that happened by chance when the pair first met at boarding school in 1998. After a stint practicing law for “Diarm,” and the launching of a world-renowned eventing career for Sam, the duo put their brains together coding and planning to launch EquiRatings in 2015.

Today, EquiRatings is partnered with the FEI and SAP and is used globally to analyze risk management, fan engagement, and team performance. It’s well known that FEI World Equestrian Games silver medallist Sam Watson is one half of its founding duo, but who’s Sam’s “other half,” Diarm? Let’s find out.

NoelleFloyd.com: What piqued your interest in horses, and specifically eventing?

Diarm Byrne: I have heard lots of people describe eventing as a drug as I can really associate with that. It is hard to pin-point any one particular thing about the sport that makes it that way. The community of people, the history, the excitement of the sport, the stories. The highs are incredible, the lows are, too.

I didn’t grow up with horses. Strangely, it was not through Sam Watson that I ended up in the sport but through [Irish Olympic rider] Camilla Speirs, who I sat beside at Sam’s wedding. We were together for awhile and I learned about the sport mainly from holding her horses, picking up show jumps, and sitting in lorries listening. I grew up in a small town in Ireland and met Sam when we were in boarding school. We lived together in university.

NF: It's a big leap from going out with a horse-obsessed girl to starting a company focused on eventing. What made you take that jump?

DB: My father was a lawyer and I always looked up to him growing up. It looked like a fun job, and when I got accepted into one of the top firms in Ireland while still in university, it was too big an opportunity to turn down. There was lots of it I loved, I made great friends, and learned a lot. I ended up getting married to the girl [Denise] I used to admire from across the room back in those days, so there is still plenty of law in the house.

Meet the other half of EquiRatings, Sam Watson.

Life is funny, during a period where I was really evaluating if corporate law was what I wanted, I found eventing. When I was thinking about leaving, I wrote down three options on a piece of paper — stay in law, go back and study psychology, or start a company with Sam. I picked the last one. Lots of people thought I was mad but people around me, including my parents, were very encouraging. Thankfully, it has worked out.

NF: How has the team behind EquiRatings grown?

DB: The team is growing and we have a pretty solid group at the moment. Sam is still competing at the top of the sport so his schedule is hectic. He manages new product and dials into meetings from wherever in the world the horses have taken him.

In the office, we have two developers. Sean #1 [White] was our first hire back in 2016. He joined from AON and before that worked in IBM. He manages the data flowing in from federations around the world. Georgia [Patrick] joined in 2017 as analyst, but in truth probably should have about 10 more titles. Our clients love her as she is the one who turns a lot of the data into insight. Sean #2 [Murray] joined from Deloitte — he’s a data scientist who makes sure everything we do is properly backed by evidence. Harry [Condron] is our front-end developer who builds all the apps and interfaces that people see. We have a new member of the team joining late this year from the U.S. who we are all excited to work with. We each have our own skills, but there is a big focus on team and never being reliant on any one person. It’s important for the business, but equally it is important for our team.

When you run a business with your best pal. Diarm and Sam have fun on the job.

NF: How do you quantify the success of EquiRatings?

DB: Success for me is waking up beside someone I love, going to work with people I love, and spending the day doing something I love. I think EquiRatings has been a success, but I have never really thought like that. The minute you do, you are vulnerable. There are always milestone moments, whether they are based on users, contracts, finances, whatever. The milestone moments are just moments, then they are gone again. The people, and what we give to the sport, lasts longer. Equestrian sports are using data more and more and our team have played a big role in that. I am very proud of the team.

NF: What are your proudest moments for EquiRatings?

DB: The 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games were special. We were working closely with the FEI on the risk analysis of each competitor and each horse. We were working with quite a few of the teams on performance analysis. We were working with SAP on the fan experience and storytelling for the fans. I sat with a full team in the office — servicing a range of clients at a major championship watching the lad who dreamed it up with me win a silver medal. It was a career highlight for Sam on the field, and for me, off it. It is good to look back and think about these things, I think it is both a strength and a weakness that I don’t do it more often.

NF: How do you envision EquiRatings growing?

DB: I would love to create a business that leaves a legacy and makes a change in the sport. Does that sound a bit grandiose? I do think like that. We are really only getting started. Data and stats are pointless if they aren’t accessible or used. The next step is working with federations to make sure that people at every level of the sport can access some numbers around their performance, can benchmark themselves, and can start their own personal journeys to success — whatever that looks like. Hoping it will happen won’t get you there, so giving people the tools to take control of their performance is the next step. You will hear me talk a lot about ‘simple metrics.’

NF: What do you love most about equestrian sport?

DB: I have travelled the world, working in some very special places, and meeting great people. That’s the biggest thing. I got married last year and there were lots of people from the eventing world who travelled from around the world to a tiny pub, in a tiny village, in a very remote part of Ireland to be part of it. That meant a lot. I have gotten a huge amount from the sport, much more than I will be able to give back.

As someone who still can’t ride, the relationship between horses and people, and the power of that connection, fascinates me. I see it all across the sport. The bond. Horse and rider. Horse and owner. Horse and groom. Horse and man who was a lawyer but gave it up to be around the horses he can’t ride. It’s a weird thing. A powerful thing. I love being around it.

NF: If you could change anything thing about eventing, what would it be?

DB: All sports change and evolve with rules, and it is a constant balance for federations to pick out the rules which ensure the sport is both safe and exciting. Overall, I think our sport does a good job. I would be concerned somewhat that there is a slow but constant change in the sport which favors dressage training and breeding, which has knock-on effects. The dressage phase is the only phase where there is no lower limit in scoring. For example, a clear inside the time for cross-country sets you zero penalties, a clear round show jumping gets you zero penalties, but dressage allows you to get lower and lower. As a result, I believe we are seeing more horses, particularly at the lower levels, which do not have the right breeding or training to progress safely through the sport. I would love to see a lower limit of 75% (but could be moved for different levels) introduced. It would mean we bring some balance back into the way our “complete sport” is scored and would have long term positive impact on the quality of jumpers at the upper levels of the sport. Our proposal is called “The Z Line,” which we talk about on the podcast and on our website.

It’s never too late to pursue a different career, even if that means leaving a cushy job behind.

NF: How will EquiRatings expand into other disciplines?

DB: We have done some work in endurance and also in racing. The way our business works, we have never really had to force the issue. People know what we do, the value our team brings, the insights which are hidden within their data. We will move into show jumping, dressage, and expand our offerings, but with the right people, at the right time. No rush, nothing forced — we are in this for the long haul.

EquiRatings' data analysis has become a popular component of competition coverage.

NF: What are you passionate about outside of work? Can you separate your work life and your home life?

DB: Liverpool Football Club. Following the Reds is the escape and, after Denise, the all-consuming, enduring love of my life. I got into football when I was young and that’s what makes me happiest. Separating home life and work life is always a challenge when you work for yourself and when you love what you do. I don’t really see it as work. Every so often I ring Sam and start with “I’m calling you as a friend …” so we don’t talk business. Denise is probably best placed to answer this one. I would say I am not there yet, but I do recognize the importance of being able to leave work behind and enjoy the other great parts of my life. A work in progress? Does that work? I am lucky they are all so patient and understanding!

NF: What are you most excited about for the future of EquiRatings?

DB: Tokyo 2020 is going to be fantastic. I don’t think the fans are talking yet about how intense three counting scores from three [team members] is going to be. Even the top riders can have a blip, but now it will definitely affect the team score. I can’t wait to be part of communicating that. In work, I am really enjoying making the podcast. We work with Nicole Brown Media very closely on that now and we are all having fun as it grows. We have a new partnership almost agreed with a U.S. company which I am looking forward to. Still at legals so can’t say too much yet but should bring real changes for people. A fun time.

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Feature photo by Nico Morgan.