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Hardwiring ambition into Ireland's next wave of tech talent

A global tech boom has kicked open the door for startups keen to follow in the footsteps of Stripe. Now is the time for entrepreneurs, investors and the State to build on this potential, writes Finn Murphy

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Apple boss Tim Cook with the WarDucks team in Dublin

Apple boss Tim Cook with the WarDucks team in Dublin

Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley

Finn Murphy

Finn Murphy

Patrick and John Collison of Stripe

Patrick and John Collison of Stripe

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Apple boss Tim Cook with the WarDucks team in Dublin

In the past decade, only one venture-backed software company from Ireland, Intercom, has reached a billion-dollar valuation. This is a sobering fact for any Irish venture capitalist - and it should also be a concern for all Irish founders. Success breeds success. Without a steady stream of companies launching, winning, exiting and exploding, there is no healthy pipeline of talent or available capital to build the next generation of breakout companies.

That said, the last decade also saw one of the greatest 'Irish' success stories: Stripe, which was founded in the US by two young brothers from Limerick.

Was leaving Ireland the right call for the Collisons in 2011? Absolutely. Would it still be the right call for the next young Irish founder looking to build a company that takes on the world? I don't think so.

Things are looking up. The winds are changing across this little island in the north Atlantic. Major structural changes, both locally and in the way people work around the world, have made this country a hotbed for the next generation of high-tech companies. Now is the time to be founding or investing in Ireland. There's more than Guinness brewing in Dublin.

Today, Ireland is the home of US technology companies in Europe. We know their names: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, Zendesk, Hubspot, Dropbox, Uber, Airbnb, Salesforce, Stripe, Docusign, Workday, Slack, Segment, Microsoft, Fivetran, and many more.

Back in the day (from 2003 to 2013, to be precise), there were no product or engineering roles in Ireland at any of the major tech companies. The country was used primarily as a sales office - one where software businesses profited from a highly educated and English-speaking workforce, a predominant cultural affinity for the US (which made it easy to transplant culture), seriously friendly tax policies (leveraged to astounding effect by Steve Jobs and Tim Cook at Apple), and frictionless access to the largest economy in the world (the EU).

These sales and operation centres generated amazing jobs and gave many Irish employees their first exposure to big tech.

It also became a self-reinforcing circle, where the junior hires at Google became the mid-level hires at Facebook, who then became the senior hires at Dropbox, who later became top execs at Slack.

I know what you're thinking: this is a great talent pool for companies already at scale looking to build their sales machines. Budding startups don't need senior sales engineers or armies of sales development reps with inbox ninja abilities when all they're searching for is product-market fit. What they need is engineers, designers and local customers willing to give them a shot.

Luckily, since 2013, these companies have gone far beyond sales in their hiring. As engineering and other highly skilled roles become hard to fill in the US, companies have used their European bases to build significant product teams where there had been none before.

They did this by hiring and training the local talent pool and by relocating top talent from across the EU to Dublin.

You can't be what you can't see. Up until recently, very few people in Ireland had seen the product engines of a billion-dollar software business. Once they did, they said - in typical Irish fashion - if they can do this, why can't we?

It's important to note that this is not a second class of employee when compared with US teams. Amazon did not lower its bar when it built a 1,200-plus-person engineering team in Ireland.

It kept it as high as the US, offering Irish teams great salaries, even if they were solving less interesting problems than their stateside colleagues. The new generation of Irish tech employees now have the skills, the will and the resources, even if opportunities and cool projects aren't always up for grabs. This blend of skill and will is creating the perfect environment to push a wave of hungry people looking to stop working on the last big thing, and start working on the next one.

One of the first firms to come from this new generation of founders is Tines.io, built by members of the Docusign security team in Dublin. Tines recently secured backing from Accel and Index. Not only were they their first investments in Ireland, but they were turned around in record time, at Silicon Valley valuations.

Some might say this was an anomaly. I'd strongly disagree. Tines is now part of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Announcements like this generate a great buzz and inspiration among the local community. In the past two weeks alone, I've had conversations with product leaders from Zendesk, Workday and others who have left or are getting ready to leave their jobs to start something new.

This snowball needs reinforcement, however, and the timing for some big Irish exits couldn't be more fortuitous.

Pointy, Decawave and one other yet-to-be-announced big deep-tech exit will bring a newly minted class of angel investors and skilled operators, which will help institutional investors believe Irish firms can produce great returns. All of this said, it always comes down to the founders: if they don't take the leap, nothing happens.

There are some new founders on the block. Shane Curran and the Burke brothers represent the first wave of modern examples of young Irish founders who could have built their companies in the US, but elected to stay and build in Dublin instead, without foregoing US investment.

Some of the top founders in the ecosystem are already coming out of the multinationals and the last generation of Irish startups. Nikki Lannen, CEO of mobile gaming company Warducks, learned her trade during the golden era of social gaming at Facebook from 2010 to 2014.

Dee Coakley was COO at two local startups that are doing great but didn't quite reach venture scale, Bizimply and Axonista. The lessons she learned there will no doubt guide her to success with her new remote-working startup, Boundless.

As repeat founders and local angels, Alan Coleman and Bobby Healy both came back for another swing at the fences with Sweepr and Manna.

Both have elevated the local scene on their sustained climb to the top, raising significant funding for deeply technical and wildly ambitious businesses.

Annrai O'Toole and Paddy Benson are from a different vintage. Veterans of the last Irish technology boom, which produced Cape Clear Software, Baltimore Technologies, NewBay and Iona Technologies, these founders ran the show at the European HQs of Workday and Groupon, until they decided to strike out on their own - and build something massive. They are certainly hard to find. But they do exist in Dublin and they're waiting on the right idea and the right funders to kick-start their journey.

But there are areas where Ireland still needs some work. Top-of-the-funnel access to funding is still heavily limited to support from State bodies, which can be very beneficial to early-stage companies. Two of our latest investments at Frontline were born out of the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers scheme (€15,000 equity-free, plus workshops and expert sessions). Vincent Lonij and Wendy Oke are some of the most capable and passionate founders I've had a chance to work alongside. These programmes lower the barrier to entry to entrepreneurship (a massive problem we should spend more time addressing in venture), by giving at least some sort of income in the early days of quitting a job and working on a new idea.

However, State funding supports often involve too much form-filling and too many legal headaches.

It's a tough problem to solve, but some of the teams in Enterprise Ireland are taking strides to make Government funding options more effective for this next generation of companies.

There is also serious work to be done on improving the legal and tax framework for early-stage companies. One example is that Ireland taxes gains from stock options as income and, therefore, employees pay a tax rate on their options of more than 50pc when a company exits.

Stock options are most assuredly not cash. They're often worth nothing. And yet you can't write off the losses either - if you motivate employees and make them equity owners, you improve wealth distribution and overall equality. Scale Ireland is a new group lobbying for change in this area and while it won't come overnight, I think the environment will be very different in just a few years' time.

It's not all just happening in Dublin, either. Belfast has an emerging class of highly skilled engineers and a supportive early-stage ecosystem, willed into existence by Techstart and pushed forward by the likes of the Ignite accelerator programme. DevOps and cybersecurity specialists make up a large cohort of the talent pool here, thanks to multinational engineering back-office functions and well-funded research institutions.

Look south and there's a really interesting story playing out in both Cork and Limerick. Companies like Workvivo, ToDesktop, Teamwork and Tracworx are all incredible product-led businesses. And the impact from the likes of Republic of Work and, most recently, Apple - which began placing software engineering and machine learning roles in Cork - has had a very positive effect on the ecosystem.

Check out Payslip in Westport, which is run by Fidelma McGuirk, an alumnus of the Taxback Group, one of Ireland's biggest under-the-radar success stories, if you don't want to miss out on the best of the west.

But for all of this, there is one piece that will never be here. Ireland is small. Like really small. Like there's a good chance I know the Irish people you've been thinking about while reading this piece to get a read on whether or not this is accurate.

Heck, the entire country is about half the population of London.

A function of being small is that while we now have the people, we'll never really have the customers. This is the magic of places like San Francisco, New York and London - and, to a lesser extent, Berlin and Paris. There are enough people geographically proximate to you that you have ample early customers that you can work closely with.

But this past necessity is changing rapidly. The importance of geographic proximity for strength of relationships is on a steep decline. Huge companies are being built without even meeting their early customers: Zoom, Slack, and broadcasting platforms like Twitter and Product Hunt allow you to get yourself out there without ever leaving your room.

While this was a hindrance for Irish companies in the past decade, it may be an advantage for the next generation. Like Israel, Irish companies are condemned to export if they want to be huge.

This means they must think international from day one. Israel got it right for the past 10 years and has produced huge winners in SaaS (Sisense) and deep tech (Habana). Ireland is looking a lot more like Israel now than it did in 2010.

What does this mean for the next decade in Ireland? More great companies. That's it really. I could write a neat paragraph tying this all together, but the point of this article is really simple.

So, if you're an aspiring founder, the message here is: get going. There's never been a better time to be building.

Are you an employee at a tech company or looking to work in tech? Get in early. These companies are rocket ships and the opportunity to learn at an exponential rate is better than any role in a large company. (Note: rocket ships are known to explode from time to time.)

An investor? Get yourself on a plane to Ireland. There's cool stuff happening here and you're going to miss out.

An Irish investor? Properly fund the companies that you back. For far too long, companies in Ireland have been drip-feeding capital, had their cap tables torn apart, and been in no fit state to scale and fundraise if they happen to find product-market fit.

We're trying to change this at Frontline by going early, writing bigger cheques, optimising for the upside and not getting too caught up in what could go wrong.

Finally, here are a few salient facts to keep in mind about emerging Irish startups and the growing funding ecosystem here.

Evervault, Inscribe, Utmost, BrightFlag, Bridge, WarDucks, Modulz, Teachkloud, Workvivo, ToDesktop, Tines, Flipdish, Glofox, Boxever, Swyg, Manna, Sweepr, Boundless, Payslip, TracWorx, Advisable, Siren and TandemHR are all great Irish companies founded or funded in the past 18 months and between them have raised over $125m (€115m). All of them have the potential to be the next Intercom. There are potentially a few Stripes in there too.

To add to this, in the past 18 months, Uncork Capital, Blossom, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia Capital, Index Ventures, Accel and Greylock Partners all made their first ever early-stage investments in companies based in Ireland.

Frontline invests as early as pre-product, with cheque sizes varying from €250,000 to €3m. My email is finn@frontline.vc. And if you're a founder in Ireland who I haven't met yet, please help me do my job and shoot me an email.

Finn Murphy is a principal with Frontline Ventures

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