Sunday 4 December 2016

'I'm sure we'll be back at some stage. It's just a matter of when' - Paddy Cosgrave on the Web Summit

After last year's fallout over exporting the Web Summit from Dublin to Lisbon, event co-founder Paddy Cosgrave is in bullish mood, saying the upcoming event will be 'about twice the size of last year'. Our Technology Editor meets the entrepreneur who won't rule out a return to these shores

Published 08/09/2016 | 02:30

'Most people who came to Ireland last year came through London anyway,' says Cosgrave. 'From their point of view, there's no difference in flying to Lisbon. So it hasn't impacted them in that regard'
'Most people who came to Ireland last year came through London anyway,' says Cosgrave. 'From their point of view, there's no difference in flying to Lisbon. So it hasn't impacted them in that regard'

Paddy Cosgrave is in a pretty good mood. After years of trying, he has just gotten hold of the internet domain websummit.com. And he did it for 1pc of the original asking price. "The first time I went for it, the person who had it asked for a million dollars," says Cosgrave. "I sent him a picture of Dr Evil with his cat."

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Cosgrave and his Web Summit co-founders shrugged off the ransom demand, defaulting to WebSummit.net, which has become the established internet address for the annual conference.

But he didn't give up on WebSummit.com.

"For a few years, their price stayed at €100,000," he says. "But there was no way we were going to pay that. Eventually the person started to relent. In the end, we got it down to €10,000. We got an incredible deal."

Snagging the web domain comes just as Cosgrave is gearing up to host his first annual Web Summit outside Dublin.

For many Irish people, the Web Summit bowed out of Dublin in high drama last year. Accusations and counter-accusations flew between the event's organisers and government officials as to whether the Web Summit was being supported or neglected by Dublin authorities.

Cosgrave said that the Government hadn't bothered trying to keep the event in Ireland, while Enda Kenny's ministers said that the event had simply outgrown Dublin.

"It's all water under the bridge at this point," says Cosgrave.

"I'm sure we'll see a number of Irish Government people there. Maybe the Taoiseach. Maybe a minister. There are ministers from just about other major European nation attending."

So no regrets about how it flamed up in the public sphere last November?

"No, I don't think so. For us, it ended fantastically. The actual attendees were very happy with it."

Nevertheless, when Cosgrave announced that the Web Summit was to leave Dublin for Lisbon, people queued up to say that the event "wouldn't work" outside Dublin. There would be no pub crawls, no cheeky Irish wit to charm international tech moguls looking for a 'fun' environment in which to do business.

"I heard there was going to be a great party," Tesla founder Elon Musk had said when asked why he came to the Web Summit in 2014.

So why would Elon go now?

As it turns out, predictions about Dublin's unique selling points over Lisbon (or anywhere else) have been tempered a little.

According to Cosgrave, there are already 36,500 registered attendees signed up for the Lisbon conference. He says that by November, the final number will "be capped" at 50,000.

What's more, he claims that there are over 1,000 "commercial partners" and exhibitors, including megabucks firms such as KPMG, Accenture, Cisco, McKinsey and BNP Paribas.

Meanwhile, speakers, which can be a barometer of interest in a conference, include the likes of Tinder's Sean Rad, Renault boss Carlos Ghosn, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a phalanx of senior public policy people such as the president of the UN Assembly and the director of the World Trade Organisation.

It seems that the move from Dublin hasn't put much of a dent in the event.

"We're already at about 30pc more attendees than last year," he says. "This year it will be about twice the size of last year."

But what about the lack of a direct flight from San Francisco to Lisbon? Wouldn't that hit visitors coming from Silicon Valley?

"Most people who came to Ireland last year came through London anyway," says Cosgrave. "From their point of view, there's no difference in flying to Lisbon. So it hasn't impacted them in that regard."

One irony of the Web Summit's increasing size is that it may now be more important for Ireland to sell itself there than in previous years back in Dublin. Cosgrave wouldn't be drawn on exact numbers of Irish officials expected to attend.

However, he said that his company is still working closely with the IDA, as well as organisations such as the ESB which has stayed on as sponsor of the Web Summit's 'Spark Of Genius' startup competition.

"I don't want to sound cynical, but now that it's on outside Ireland, there's a sort of perverse thing where people at home might now consider taking three nights to attend a big conference abroad," he said. "Suddenly, it's sort of legitimate."

The Web Summit currently has a deal with Lisbon authorities to host the event there for three years. But Cosgrave remains hopeful that the Web Summit, or another conference like it run by him, will return to Ireland.

"One day we'll be back," he says. "Maybe that will be in five or six years' time when we've figured out a way to use the Convention Centre, the RDS and the Aviva together for the Web Summit."

"I've no doubt that the Web Summit could grow to that size in Dublin. It's just limited by the space available."

The Web Summit was started in 2010 by Cosgrave, journalist Daire Hickey and David Kelly. According to recent Irish accounts filed by the Web Summit's parent company, Cosgrave owns the majority of the enterprise outright.

While no revenue or profit figures were disclosed in the accounts, the organisation doubled its cash pile to €2.5m in 2014 but has not published revenue or profit figures. The company reportedly turned down a takeover bid last year.

Cosgrave and co-founder Daire Hickey have previously spoken of an ambition to create a billion-dollar company.

One way of doing it is to try and broaden the appeal. This year, for example, the Web Summit is trying to reach out beyond its tech roots by styling itself as 20 different 'summits', including individual "city", "society", "fashion" and "music" summits. "It's taken a while to grow as big as it's already become," says Cosgrave. "But it now matters an awful lot in different ways to leaders around the world. This year will be the first time that we have a lot of mayors and officials talking about civic plans like autonomous vehicles. We have the president of the UN General Assembly and the director general of the WTO. This is happening as there's a huge amount of interest in new trade agreements such as TTIP being hammered out, perhaps not always in the open. A lot of these people have a big role to play."

Cosgrave hasn't been as hands-on with the Web Summit over the last nine months as in previous years. His company now runs five different global tech and financial conferences, from Hong Kong and India to the US, Spain and Portugal. He also recently got married and is preparing for family life. But he says that large parts of the organisation now run themselves, thanks to the staff of "around 150" working year round at the company's office campus in Dublin's Rathmines.

"We're still growing," he says. "At the moment, we're mainly focused on hiring."

Raiding multinationals is becoming one of the Web Summit's most pointed ways of doing this. Cosgrave harbours mixed views about the privileges granted to multinational companies (such as their complex tax-avoidance schemes). But he says that the global firms are, at least, giving Irish companies a boost in terms of the sales people they're cultivating for recruitment into indigenous firms like his.

"We've had a lot of success hiring sales people out of Google, Linkedin and Facebook in Dublin," he says.

"That's one of the things about multinationals in Ireland. You're starting to see people move out of them into startups. People don't realise how fortunate we are with Facebook training salespeople to a world class standard here."

This, he thinks, is helping an "unbelievable generation" of startups in Ireland find their way on a foreign stage.

As he sees it, the Web Summit is one of these startups. And while moving the conference to Lisbon has been straightforward ("everyone in Portugal speaks English, it's really quite easy," he says) he refers to Ireland as "home".

"I'm sure we'll be back at some stage," he says. "It's just a matter of when."

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