Saturday 3 December 2016

Web Summit co-founder Daire Hickey chosen by 'Forbes' as one of the world's top business stars under 30

Web Summit co-founder Daire Hickey has just been chosen by 'Forbes' as one of the world's top business stars under 30. Sarah McCabe found out why

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Cork native Daire Hickey says that the secret to Web Summit’s success has been motivation
Cork native Daire Hickey says that the secret to Web Summit’s success has been motivation

Another Irishman in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum was Web Summit co-founder Daire Hickey. Trinity College graduate Hickey was there to meet Web Summit partners and attend the IDA's annual Davos dinner.

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Hickey (29) has just been named by Forbes magazine as one of its international Top 30 Under 30 business stars, a list of the world's most powerful young people under the 30 threshold. He was recognised in the media category. Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan also made the cut.

"I don't think I'm in the same league as Saoirse and [previous winner and Stripe founder] John Collison," he says modestly over the phone from snowy Switzerland, "but it was nice to be recognised".

Cork-native Hickey started his career as a journalist, working for a variety of print titles as well as RTE, before Web Summit chief executive Paddy Cosgrave approached him to join a then tiny technology-events start-up. Hickey took over media responsibilities.

"When we started out five years ago, when Web Summit could fit in one room, we were solely focused on Irish press. I managed to get journalists from the Irish Independent, the Irish Times and RTE to come along to our first event, and we got traction from that."

As the company grew, Hickey began courting some of the world's biggest news brands. He cites securing an interview with Twitter-founder Jack Dorsey for Bloomberg as a turning point.

"I first started approaching international media around the same time the IMF came to Ireland. I used that - it offered a great narrative. You had a country on its knees financially, but at the same time, 19 of the world's top 20 technology companies were here, offering a way out."

Today, Web Summit's media relationships are the envy of companies many times its size and financial firepower. Like its conferences, those relationships span the globe. The days when it used press just for promotion are gone; in 2015 it pulled in a reported $2m from media partnerships. Those partners include the Wall Street Journal, with whom Web Summit runs a conference in Hong Kong - Converge - for some of Asia's top technology leaders. Hickey manages these relationships as well as the company's top speakers. Many of the world's biggest names in business and technology have spoken at its events; last year those ranks included Tinder founder Sean Rad and Ford Motors chairman Bill Ford.

The company employs 135 people and is based out of a relatively new office in Dublin's Rathmines. Employees travel regularly; while Hickey was in Davos, 25 engineers plus Cosgrave were setting up camp in Lisbon for a week. Despite doubling its numbers in 2015, the business is still recruiting, looking for a chief financial officer and senior data scientist as well as participants for its MBA programme. Its most recent hire was a new vice president of global sales, Giuseppe Vitulano, recruited from Google. As anyone who reads Irish business or technology news will know, its main eponymous conference has left Ireland, for now. Web Summit 2016 will take place in Lisbon. Preparations are going well, said Hickey.

"The city has been great for things like securing hotels; you can currently book a four-star hotel for about €80 a night in the week of Web Summit, which we just couldn't get in Dublin. And the venue of course is fantastic. We have sold more tickets for 2016 than we had at the same point last year. It will definitely be bigger this year."

Cosgrave publicly admonished the Government for failing to support Web Summit's growth in Dublin, stating that a lack of support on key stumbling blocks like hotel costs and traffic management was one of the main reasons behind its decision to move. The dust on that period has now settled, his co-founder said: "We have put it behind us. We work with and support the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, for example, and that will continue, and vice versa," he says.

Also on the agenda for 2016 is their first Indian event, Surge, which will take place in Bangalore. India is culturally miles apart from Ireland; how will that work with the big, brash, youth-oriented events Web Summit has become know for?

"I can see why you would think that; the same was said when we went to Hong Kong. But we took the pub-crawl model that had proved so successful in Dublin to Hong Kong and it worked brilliantly. I think the technology sector is international enough and homogeneous enough that our model works wherever in the world you are."

There are no plans to do anything else in Dublin this year, not even a smaller event. "But that's not to say we won't in future."

The secret to Web Summit's success, Hickey says, is motivation.

"Definitely motivation. A lot of people would have stopped building Web Summit when it reached 600, 800 or even 5,000 people. The other thing that I think makes us different is a constant drive to be the best; we survey thousands of our attendees before, during and after events, and constantly tinker with the product to improve it."

Irish start-ups who have exhibited at Web Summit and gone on to big things include Trustev, Soundwave, Intercom and Realex Payments.

"There are a bunch of Irish start-ups doing fantastically internationally. We are lucky to be a part of that," says Hickey. "It has been a great place to grow a business because the Irish technology sector in general is fantastic. Experienced people are always willing to give their support and advice to start-ups."

His advice for others just starting out? "I hope Web Summit inspires young people to not just follow the well-trodden past. It's not just about being an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor anymore - you can be an entrepreneur and carve your own path."

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