The Magic of the Irish: Dublin’s Resurgence on the Global Tech Scene
I wrote this on my flight home from f.ounders & Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland late last year. I think I was too hung over to finish it, hit publish and move on. So here is attempt two now that the alcohol is mostly out of me.
The Magic of the Irish
Scenes from my counter-top on my last night in Dublin. I recently returned from a 5 day visit to Ireland, my first time back in 10 years and the start of what I hope will be a more regular travel schedule there. Between 1995-2002 I visited often – especially since I founded my first company there. My trip was scheduled around the annual Web Summit and the f.ounders conference, both of which have become the hottest must-attend event in Europe and rivaling any great conference in the US.
The roster of speakers was vast and just off of the top of my head, it included the founders of DropBox, Box, WordPress, EverNote, TrueCar, HootSuite, Charity Water, DataSift, Indiegogo, Huddle, oDesk (and many others) plus the usual cast of characters such as Robert Scoble, Gary Vaynerchuk, Dave McClure, Ben Huh, Shak, Shervin and many others. There were senior members from Facebook and Google. Oh, and of course Bono popped by for a little while. It was the best 5 days of networking I spent last year. It can't be underestimated just how influential hosting such an event can be on the future tech economy and jobs in Ireland. We heard first-hand just how close it was that Facebook had considered locating its headquarters in Switzerland, and how the Irish rallied and now host more than 400 jobs locally and growing. More on that in moment.
How did this event that didn't exist just a few years ago become such a smashing success, why was it so valuable and why does it matter for Ireland?
The Origins of Web Summit / f.ounders
As the world went through its economic shock fueled by the housing boom & cheap capital, Ireland suffered its effects a bit worse. Its banks has Lehman-brother-esque collapse situation on their head and rather than letting the banks go backrupt, or splitting the losses between the bond holders and the tax payers, the Irish government inexplicably agreed to guarantee all debt and restructure the banks at the expense of the Irish citizens.
If you're interested in learning more about how this happened as well as stories of what went on in Iceland and other places, there's a great book called Boomerang by Michael Lewis, which also serves as a cautionary reminder to all of us in the tech industry about assuming that our recent big boom in valuations will continue. It will not.
Paddy Cosgrave was a young entrepreneur in Dublin, and a couple of years after the crash was talking with a mate of his who had a brand new hotel opening but had no clue how he was going to attract visitors. Paddy got the idea to invite a bunch of founders together in an anti-conference that just focused on building founder relationships and sharing war stories.
The first year was just a few dozen people. One of those people was Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress. Having seen that this could be a successful format for attracting people to Ireland, Paddy hosted another the following year and called in favors to get the likes of Jack Dorsey, Chad Hurley and again Matt to visit. If you attract names like these you're bound to attract some media attention, and then Chad Hurley dropped the bomb that he was leaving YouTube while he was at the f.ounders event. Suddenly it was a hot ticket and many people started lobbying to get on the next year's agenda. It was then that I learned why Paddy is so good at his job. He is quintessentially "politely persistent," which I often describe as one of the most important attributes of an entrepreneur. He began messaging and emailing me to try and get me to come out to the event, which he was now turning into a conference called Web Summit. I had no idea who Paddy was, but I kept hearing his name from different people so I'm guessing he was politely persistent at scale.Getting names of marquee speakers would obviously draw a good crowd from across Europe. I knew it sounded like a good crowd but I was on the road constantly with fund raising and board meetings so I politely declined. Paddy never stopped.
The first year I felt ok about saying no. I had looked at Kayak and determined there were no non-stops from LA to Dublin, so that was a big strike for me. Connecting flights in Europe add on at least 5 hours to the journey and a whole lot more headaches.Year two I thought to myself, "I probably should go. But it's a long way. He seems to have a great list of speakers already – I won't be missed." Plus I had already committed to 2 European trips (one fund raising, one a DataSift board meeting) and neither coincided with his event. In year 3 he expanded to the US and started throwing events in NY, SF and such and started building up a lot more of a brand for f.ounders & Web Summit. Yet there he was again with his polite message, encouraging me to come. I thought by now he would have given up on me as a flake. Perhaps he knew that I've always had a fondness for Ireland and the can-do spirit their people possess. Through the years, I had spent time visiting all over including Dublin, Cork, Galway, Derry, Belfast and less well known places like Sligo, Donegal, Connemare, Westport not to mention amazing tourist spots like The Giant's Causeway and Ashford Castle. So this time, I fell prey to the charm of the Irish persuasion and had zero regrets. I imagine Paddy has done this with 100's of guests, which is what it takes to pull off an event of this magnitude. I have a hard enough time persuading people to fly from San Francisco to LA for an event let alone half way around the world.
Why Was my Visit So Valuable?
Paddy pulled off a master achievement. He was able to give a mass audience (7,000 people I'm told) what it wanted – access to some of the biggest names in the tech sector in the US – as well as create a private environment for these execs to interact with each other.
Whenever I present at conferences I try to talk with as many people as I can after presenting. I know that people want a chance to say hello to somebody they know through the media and when you have a checkbook even more so. So after my talk, I stood patiently for 2.5 hours as a big queue gathered to tell me about their businesses. Some were quite interesting and I have no doubt will cross my path again. I also walked the conference pit a little bit and let random people tell me about their startups. Boy, that's a tough job. However, for all of the speakers Paddy brought over, he also organized private events for us to network amongst ourselves. That was the brilliance – the crowd got a massive conference and the speakers got some high-quality networking time amongst each other. So when Paddy asked if I would come to a big event in the US they are now throwing called Collision (May 13-14th, 2014 in Las Vegas) I agreed right away. I am fairly public about my dislike for attending conferences. I don't have the patience to sit through a bunch of demos, panels or keynotes. So every event I'm at, I can usually be found in the corridor talking with people.
When you meet people at out-of-town events, you really get to know them as people versus stopping by their office for a cup of coffee. I wrote about that experience here after SXSW but now SXSW seems a pit passé. Sorry, Austin, Dublin is now where it's at. So I got to spend quality time there with people from Prezi, Zemanta, MoPub, General Catalyst, RRE, Zozi, Zepto Labs, Threadflip, Appssavvy (just to name a few – I hung out with hundreds).
Why Does it Matter for Ireland?
When I visited Ireland in the 90s it was home to the European tech center and/or call centers for many of the US tech firms including Microsoft, Compaq, Gateway Computers, Apple, Amgen, etc. and later attracted firms like Google.
A senior representative of Facebook welcomed us to a drinks reception at the House of Lords. She told the story about how Sheryl had put together a panel to determine where to base their European headquarters. Sheryl had given her an indication that Ireland wasn't the top pick and it looked like Switzerland was high on the list. The IDA (Irish Development Authority) sprung into action. They got Bono to call Sheryl and offer what he saw as the value of an Irish headquarters and he invited Sheryl and Mark to visit. Ireland rolled out the red carpet for the visit and Mark ended up extending his trip and staying on a bit as a tourist. Sheryl and Mark were introduced to all the top tech leaders, business leaders more broadly and political leaders. Ireland made them feel at home and that will translate into thousands of high-paying jobs for years to come.
Paddy Cosgrave and the Irish contingency did the same for all of us at f.ounders. We got to hear many stories of Irish tech successes, meet members of government and business and also have a chance to just chill out over a pint of Guinness or five.
I had drinks one night with my old pal Errol Daemelin, founder of the hot UK startup Wonga. He was telling me a similar story about how the Irish lured him and he now employs a large and growing team in Ireland versus having the whole team in the UK.
Ireland gains not only through the obvious growth in high-paying, high-tech jobs of multinationals. But it also gains by creating the skill sets and the ecosystem to see the next round of great companies that are capable of being built locally. As I said when I wrote about startup communities in the past – even one person can make a huge difference to a company or a city if he or she takes initiative, dreams big and is persistent. In Ireland right now – that person is Paddy Cosgrave.
I sure hope to be back again this year. I'm having serious withdrawals of these.