Saturday 20 January 2018

'I fell in love with Dublin – and not for the tax breaks...'

Tech wizard Ryan Smith insists Irish talent is the reason he chose to have Qualtrics's European HQ here, says Tom Lyons

YOUNG SCIENTIST: CEO of Qualtrics Ryan Smith reveals the secrets of his success
YOUNG SCIENTIST: CEO of Qualtrics Ryan Smith reveals the secrets of his success

Tom Lyons

Ryan Smith, the 35-year-old chief executive of Qualtrics, the super-fast growing data collection and analytics firm, was enjoying himself.

It was March 2012 and Smith was in Dublin for F.ounders, the annual Davos-for-geeks which has attracted everyone from the head of Twitter, to the tech whizzes behind Angry Birds.

Smith, who runs his research software business from Provo, Utah, found the experience, mixing with Irish start-ups and international tech million-to-billionaires invigorating.

"We knew at the time that we wanted to go to Europe – but we just didn't know where," Smith said. "I fell in love with Dublin a little bit on that trip."

After F.ounders, Smith had a game of golf with John Herlihy, the gregarious head of Google's Irish operations.

The two men discussed the pros and cons of opening an office in Dublin, and gradually Herlihy won Smith over to Ireland, ahead of London, Switzerland – and the Netherlands – which he was also considering.

"John was phenomenal," Smith recalled. "We discussed a lot. The scar tissue and the knowledge he has of here made me think we should go to Ireland.

"Success breeds success, I was really impressed by the companies who were here already like Google, Twitter and Facebook," Smith said.

Smith said the speed at which the IDA had moved to help his business as well as meeting people like the Collison brothers, the mega-successful founders of online-payments business Stripe, and Connor Murphy, the chief executive of relationship-intelligence firm Datahug, had also helped him make up his mind.

Eighteen months later, Smith was ready to announce that Qualtrics was setting up its European beach-head in Dublin by hiring 150 people over a period of 18 to 36 months in a new European headquarters in Longphort House on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin's city centre.

Up until now, Smith explained, Qualtrics had sold into the European market, mainly by having some of its American staff go into work at 2am and start hammering the phones.

As it expanded rapidly, the company realised it needed to be in Europe full-time.

The Qualtrics story – which Smith co-founded in 2002, with his father Scott and the help of his brother Jared – is one of constant boot-strapping.

Smith declined to predict what Qualtrics' revenue would be in 2013 – but he did say that his business would grow its turnover at triple-digit speed this year, after turning in sales reported at close to $50m (€36m) during 2012.

"We have a $1bn (€740m) opportunity," Smith said, and Europe will be a big part of its future growth.

Qualtrics has 6,000 enterprise customers but only 600 of these are in Europe.

"In revenue terms, Europe is a tiny percentage," Smith said. "We're seeking [that] our growth [will] just skyrocket and expect to do really well here. Fifty seats are ready to go here," Smith said.

"But we will get out of there within six months [and open a larger office]."

Smith said initially the company would be hiring sales and support staff, but it was also looking at investing in an engineering team here.

"We are looking at a data-centre hub. We're running at full speed. We don't just want support and sales people," he added.

In April, Smith admitted that Qualtrics had turned down a $500m (€370m) offer for the company.

The offer reflected demand for its niche services that allow companies like Barnes & Noble, Toyota and Microsoft to conduct sophisticated research using its software.

Instead, Smith and his close management team chose to remain in control and take in $70m (€52) in investment from venture-capital giants Accel Partners and Sequoia Capital. Smith calls Qualtrics a "magic pony ride".

"There are not many that come along so you have to go with it," he said.

Qualtics, Smith said, had not chosen Ireland for tax reasons. "We didn't come here for taxes; we came here for the people who can help us grow. Making decisions for tax reasons? That is the tail wagging the dog.

"You won't be successful if you think like that."

Dublin, Smith said, was similar to Silicon Valley. "You are trying to find an eco-system that filters down. What happened before leads to things being better again."

Smith described Qualtrics' culture as "scrappy". "People didn't think we could do it from Utah but we did. Dublin is similar. No one has exclusivity on smart people. It is in our DNA to look for people who want to do things."

Smith advised Irish tech entrepreneurs not to sell out too fast. "Nail it then scale the model," Smith advised. "A lot of people get to the stage where they've nailed it but then jump out before scaling it. Scaling is a rewarding time.

"I've been waiting for this for 10 years or more. If you're building a great opportunity, you are always looking for the next offer. We think long term and doing what's right.

Sunday Independent

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