Think tech and one of the first things that will come to mind is Silicon Valley. It's synonymous with the industry for many reasons. The majority of tech coverage focuses in on this one area, startups relocate in the hope that investors there will take an interest and kick start their product, investors locate there in the hope of finding the next big thing and the culture surrounding it is both innovative and driven.
Very few areas in the world has such a concentrated focus of these things and as a result, it makes it a unique place to be. But not every startup has the means to relocate there which gives many other countries the chance to develop their own tech base and become a Silicon Valley outside the U.S. But what are the obstacles behind this, and could we ever see somewhere in Europe or Asia hosting a similar hub brimming with the best minds and startups?
Focusing On Ireland
[caption id="attachment_67355" align="aligncenter" width="765"] Image Via Dublin Web Summit Flickr
Considering it's been the focus of the Web Summit this week, Ireland is a good place to start. It has, for all intents and purposes, a good tech culture and is viewed favourably by the rest of the world. On the surface, many of the major technology and online companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, eBay, LinkedIn and Microsoft have set up European and international offices here and, of course, the country low corporation tax certainly plays a part, yet if they were the only reasons, these major companies would move elsewhere if a similar or better deal came up elsewhere.
The main reasons behind its growth lies in the country's reputation and its location. Ireland, as a culture, is viewed as a very warm and welcoming place to be, to the point where businesses like working and interacting with people there. Another advantage is its geographical location. Located within the midway point between the U.S. and Asia, it's the perfect middle ground for companies to interact with global clients no matter what time it is. Also, being an English speaking country certainly helps when interacting with American clients. There's a good reason why Dublin was named as one of the seven best cities for startups - mainly for its educated population, hardware and business friendly policies.
This time last year, Tommy Collison (the younger brother of Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison) wrote about how with the right changes and encouragement, Ireland could create its own version of Silicon Valley. While there's still a bit to go before achieving this ideal, there is a solid foundation to work from and how Stripe got started is a great example of how exactly you go about creating a successful startup and the amount of work that is put into it (Patrick Collison's intro and talk begins at 22:15 ).
One person well placed to comment on Ireland's international status is Cubic Telecom's founder, Pat Phelan. Having recently secured a major deal with Australian retail giant Woolsworth - with another major announcement expected to be revealed in the next fortnight - and developing a global business through Maxroam Global Sim Cards, Phelan regularly does business in the U.S. and has attended a vast number of tech conferences and events as well so
He also has a lot of experience attending major conferences, tech and web events over the last number of years. Commenting on the Dublin Web Summit, he said how its scale and success "brings our (Ireland's) social currency in technology up massively," giving both Irish and international investors and entrepreneurs the chance to network.
"I never thought I'd see anything like this in Dublin," he said "It's only three years old and the amount of people he (Paddy Cosgrave) is able to bring in is just scary." The fact that many big names are enthusiastic to fly over and attend the event is testament to the event and the culture surrounding it.
Another person who shares the same views is Sam Kidd, the head of marketing and sales for Teamwork PM. The Cork based company - which was one of the startups at the Web Summit - has grown steadily over the last four years and has many customers over in the U.S., all of which enjoy doing business with them.
"A lot of our customers are U.S. based, I'm talking to them all the time, and they love dealing with us," said Kidd. "Everyone has an Irish relation and they do say that we're incredibly friendly." The Web Summit itself is an extension of that, where the positive atmosphere and considering that TeamWork PM pride itself in its interaction and customer service, developing a 50/50 split between their own plans and the needs of the consumer. Interacting with potential and current customers is part and parcel of any business and it helps when you're seen as approachable.
This is a sentiment echoed by Donal Cahalane, a strategist and product manager who has years of experience helping over 45 tech companies get funding and launch their product. As his work takes him around Ireland, as well as the U.S. and the UK, he is aware of how much the international community like doing business wiht the Irish.
"Ireland is an extremely positive place to start a business," said Cahalane. "There is a tremendous amount of love for Irish people, we're generally seen as 'work hard, play hard' and that appeals to people who in other countries it's a case of 'work hard, work hard... That social element that Ireland is famous for, if the difference in the deal is 5% more, they'll still go for the Irish guy because they'll enjoy doing business more so the funny thing is, we have the right attitude towards it."
The Fear of Failure
[caption id="attachment_67356" align="aligncenter" width="765"] Image Via Dublin Web Summit Flickr
However, that's not to say that everything is perfect. While the Irish tech industry has made great strides over the last few years. For one, what separates Silicon Valley from the rest of the world is that not only do the people there accept failure, they embrace it. Looking at the startups that set up at the Web Summit this year, a significant number of them were startup number two and three.
The eventual winners of the Spark of Genius, SmartThings, may have received $1.2 million in funding from Kickstarter and became an overnight sensation, but that doesn't mean that this success happened straight away. It was the result of twelve years of experience between its seven founders. Essentially, success doesn't happen straight away, it usually involves years of hard work and maybe some failures along the way. Phelan believes that while the fear of failure is non-existent in the U.S., for Ireland it's a different story.
"I think we have two problems here in Ireland," said Phelan. "There's a massive air of failure, but there's also this type of begrudgement towards success, which is a very strange mix. We see someone who has a huge exit and people would say: "He was just lucky!" but the guy's been at it seven or eight years."
Also, he would like to see a lot more startups emerging from the country, as well as a focus on seeing more engineers coming out of universities as "we're definitely short, and there's a massive chase for every good engineer."
On the other hand, Cahalane refers to how there's isn't really a place for Irish-based startups to practice their business pitch. Considering that many investors are time-poor and first impressions are everything, it's an important area. Cahalane makes reference to the British tech community who hold open mic nights to help startups refine their pitch.
"What it does is it stops a startup from drinking its own cool-aid and believing everything it says is true because it exposes the idea," explained Cahalane. "It puts them on stage so that they have to refine and polish their idea. They have to keep adjusting little bits of it, yet in Ireland they might write a bad pitch and within the year, give it three or four times."
Working To Your Strengths
Despite the areas that the Irish startup scene could improve in, the positives greatly outweigh them and there's a lot of unique qualities that work in its favour. Kidd does mention that from his and the company's experience, the community is very positive saying "It is a small island nation, there's always good backup and I think if you're doing well, the guys here will always back you up."
Cahalane makes the point that Silicon Valley's biggest as its biggest strength is its authenticity. For anyone else to try and imitate that is pointless as each culture has its own unique strengths.
"People look at Silicon Vallley and what they forget is that its the reason why Silicon Valley is a hotbed of startups is because it's the net result of the big companies," explained Cahalane. "We need to keep the social aspect of Irish business at the forefront. We need to attract more venture capital, but Silicon Valley is a success is because it's authentic."
And authenticity is something that Ireland has in spades. The general consensus is that Ireland has a lot of things going for it and if you have major players like Twitter and Hubspot coming here and possibly Hootsuite hinting that it could be opening up a Dublin office, then you're obviously doing something right. As events like the Web Summit goes from strength to strength and Irish startups grow in prominence, the direction in which the community is heading will be worth keeping an eye on.