Saturday 21 April 2018

Ireland can create its own Mark Zuckerbergs

Dragon's Den star Sean O'Sullivan believes we should try to attract more serious talent to these shores, says Tom Lyons

SEAN O'Sullivan, the veteran tech investor, sits about 24 rows back from the front of the stage. In front of the Dragon's Den star, three young entrepreneurs from Notes First are pitching their idea to develop a new tablet and application for doctors to capture and manage patient information.

Unassuming and dressed in a brown sports jacket with open-necked shirt, O'Sullivan listens with interest among the 300-strong crowd at the close of Dublin's first Startupbootcamp for new tech-entrepreneurs. The programme has attracted support from influential international backers like Martin Kelly, a partner with IBM Ventures; Gerald Brady of Silicon Valley Bank as well as local backers Mason Hayes and Curran, the law firm -- and O'Sullivan.

Afterwards O'Sullivan mills around clutching a coke and happily chatting with some of the the 10 new companies who have just completed an intense three-month programme in the Factory building on Dublin's Barrow Street, equidistant from Google and Facebook's European headquarters.

O'Sullivan, who made his fortune in California investing his own start-ups and making timely investments in Netflix and Apple, enthuses about the prospects for start-ups in Dublin. "Irish companies instantly think global because of the size of its market," he tells the Sunday Independent.

"Ireland has this tremendous base of IT workers that are being trained up and drawn to Ireland from all over Europe by companies like Microsoft or Google or Intel," he says, "we are getting this smashing together of all these cultures that all speak English."

The Cork-based Irish American entrepreneur -- who is credited with inventing the term "cloud computing" -- says, however, that Ireland will need more engineers and programmers if it is to really establish itself as a start-up hothouse. "Engineers are like oxygen," he says. "Look at Openet (the Irish telecom software company backed by Barry Maloney) -- they are trying to hire 50 engineers but can't get them in Dublin so they are looking at Galway, Belfast and elsewhere. If we don't do something [to attract or train more engineers] they'll go elsewhere."

O'Sullivan as a result is campaigning to encourage the Government to make it easier for tech graduates to get working visas in Ireland whether they are starting their own business or working in an existing Irish or multinational firm. "With design engineering jobs there is a huge multiplier where every new job creates many more," he says. O'Sullivan's own firm Avego, which develops real-time information and management systems for passenger transport, is also constrained by its ability to attract new talent or "gold dust," as he describes it.

Despite the pressures of finding good people, O'Sullivan advises young Irish tech firms not to overly worry if they hit difficulties. "Realistically most start-ups the first time out won't have a great success rate," he says, "but the entrepreneur will keep going until one succeeds. Or the one company that does succeed will suck up all the companies that failed and they'll work together."

The success of Storyful, the social media news wire founded by former Prime Time presenter Mark Little, is an example, he says, of how Irish businesses could scale up. O'Sullivan invested in the firm last year on the advice of Bill Liao, the European partner of his $180m (€140m) investment fund SOS Ventures.

"It is such a hot little company that people may try to buy it before it's fully grown," O'Sullivan says. "I hope it can grow and grow and grow without having to sell out too early ... It shows we can and do produce world-class products that the world will consume." Not that investments always work out, O'Sullivan adds.

"It is the nature of technology and start-ups that you have to be able to live with uncertainty and find joy with that chance of making a difference. It has to be your passion ... you can't come to it from the point that this is a safe gig and the commute is not bad.

"We choose to do meaningful things and to try to make a difference or we're wasting our time." O'Sullivan adds. "What being in a start-up does is give the individual a chance to make a huge and disproportionate difference not just to them but to the community and society."

There is also the chance to make money, but O'Sullivan readily admits: "Financially if new technology is compelling to the market place then everybody gets wealthy but it is also fulfilling to say I did that."

The popularity of Mark Zuckerberg's story of creating Facebook, the mega-billion social network which floated last week, O'Sullivan believes, will encourage more people to take the plunge to start their own tech business.

"What Zuckerberg has done is he has put a young face on this. It is a face you can identify with and a role model for a generation of young and budding entrepreneurs. A guy in a hoodie!" O'Sullivan laughs. The Facebook story, he says, allowed people see "the opportunities of throwing yourself passionately into an alternate reality, a magical dream of a new and bright future that is not like the past.

"Engineering and software development is one of the most creative things that people can do. When people see the unique things that are created by software developers, the unique benefits. If people get passionate about technology and love the products that they are using that makes them more likely to want to do it.

"It's like Eoghan Jennings [the co-founder of Startupbootcamp] says 'You can do so much with so little money'."

While start-ups may be able to survive without money, O'Sullivan says, having technical skills is essential. O'Sullivan says this was one of the things he always looked for when considering making an investment on Dragon's Den, the popular television show.

"The thing that kills me on Dragon's Den is [contestants] say have got a website and I want to look at whatever the website does. When I am talking to the promoter I always want to know who is your technical co-founder? They don't have that! They're like we outsource that to India ... I'm like you don't get it!

"This is not some sort of business school plan -- you need to have the capability inside your organisation. You need to be good at technology and marketing. You can't outsource that! It's a core competency. That drives me nuts!"

If Ireland is ever to create its own Zuckerbergs, O'Sullivan maintains we need our own code wizards and tech know-how.

Sunday Indo Business

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