Why I chose to build a world-beating start-up in Waterford
Published 28/08/2014 | 02:30
In late January this year, I was sitting in the offices of Conde Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair (among many others), pitching for business. We were looking out over Times Square in New York. One of the executives drew a blank when I mentioned we were based in Waterford. I pointed out the window and said: "You know the New Year's Eve crystal ball? We made that."
While location is important in the tech industry, it is not everything. It is true that in the context of global tech businesses, being based in a small city like Waterford was once a weakness.
Paul Graham, the respected founder of Silicon Valley's premier incubator Y Combinator, (which helped AirBnB, DropBox and Stripe), has always been blunt about location. If you want to get on, he has said, the chief executive "has to live in the Bay Area". He didn't mean the coastline of the Celtic Sea.
And yet so much of starting a company is about turning weakness into strength. Waterford has produced an amazing number of successful software start-ups.
FeedHenry, where I was the first employee, is firmly established as a leading builder of enterprise mobile apps, with customers such as Telefonica and Diageo. They have offices in Boston, Dublin and Waterford.
Betapond, a Facebook partner, has built an advertising platform for the social network, and counts Marks & Spencer and Unilever as customers.
My own company (nearForm), which I co-founded with Cian O'Maidin (we're a classic builder-seller pair), has grown in two years to be the largest provider of Node.js solutions in Europe, with Conde Nast and Fandango (the US TicketMaster) on our books. (Node.js is a new high-speed software technology adopted by Walmart and PayPal.)
And that's just three of us. There are many other emerging Waterford technology start-ups, working in everything from tourism to communications.
How did these companies achieve such success in the international market? We turned a weakness into a strength.
With a small local market, with enterprise customers thin on the ground, we had to build businesses that would be exporters from the word go. We had to get out there into the big world or starve.
In a large home market, you can be tempted to play it safe. Reaching out to senior vice presidents of major international corporations seems way out of your league. But we just had to do it.
This doesn't mean that you can't be smart. In the second week of September this year, as last year, Waterford will host the biggest Node.js conference in Europe - NodeConfEU. Two hundred luminaries from this rapidly growing industry will be networking on Waterford Castle island for a week. When my co-founder (Cian O'Maidin) suggested we do this in our first year of business, I thought he was literally mad. But we took the risk. Now, Waterford is a key centre for a major new technology wave.
You might wonder how such a small city can produce even one technology start-up, let alone several world beaters. Don't you need a critical mass of entrepreneurs and technologists hanging out in trendy coffee shops in the hipster end of town? Don't you need a Google or a Microsoft to kick start things?
Not necessarily. Many would have called it a weakness that Waterford didn't have a high density of programmers. Yet we have collectively turned that around and created the density ourselves.
In 1996, Dr Willie Donnelly and Eamon de Leaster, two visionary academics, set up the Telecommunications Software & Services Group (the "TSSG" ) in the Waterford Institute of Technology. This group was so successful in its research output, that it eventually found its own home for over 100 researchers in a building on the new WIT West Campus in 2005. This building, Arclabs, also provides office space to start-ups. This creates the concentration of raw talent needed to generate new start-ups.
Waterford is Ireland's oldest city, with a population of barely 50,000. Yet we are punching well above our weight.
If you want to find some of the best start-ups around, come to Waterford.