Sunday 22 April 2018

Adrian Weckler: To scale €1bn level, Irish tech firms must face fears

Does that mean The Summit will follow in Stripe's footsteps?

Digital pioneer Marcus Segal of the Dublin Web Summit
Digital pioneer Marcus Segal of the Dublin Web Summit
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

In the tech world, the term 'billion dollar company' carries a cachet. Only one Irish company – the Collison brothers' online payment firm Stripe – has walked the walk in recent years.

But most start-ups have a dream of getting there. Does this include the company formerly known as the Dublin Web Summit (now called 'The Summit')?

Although no one is saying so out loud, a look at some of its recent hires leaves no doubt about its ambition. In particular, the company's new 'entrepreneur in residence', Marcus Segal, raises the prospect that the company built by Paddy Cosgrave, Daire Hickey and David Kelly wants to climb another level.

Segal brings a pedigree that is not common among Irish companies. Most recently, he was operations manager and casino manager for Zynga, the giant Nasdaq-quoted casual gaming company responsible for Farmville and other online games.

Now, he has plans to help The Summit reach a little higher.

"I'm helping this company to grow," he said. "And make no mistake, it's about to expand in a big way. It will have 20,000 people at The Summit in Dublin later this year. That's a different scale."

But why The Summit? Why Dublin?

"Because it puts out the best events in the world," he said. "You ask anyone in the tech space and they'll tell you that. That's one of the reasons I'm here. Also, Ireland is an A-league place right now. When I was thinking of leaving Zynga and I was looking around, it was a pretty easy decision to come to Dublin. If you're a global tech company you have to come here and have an Irish office. So I'll be here for the rest of the year."

Although The Summit's most recent published accounts (for 2012) show modest accumulated profits of €600,000, the firm is believed to have substantially increased both its revenues and profit levels since then.

Meanwhile, it hasn't taken Segal long to acclimatise to Dublin. The former schools American football star says that he has already been offered the chance to try out for Leinster rugby by Jamie Heaslip. He has also become sharply attuned to Ireland's strengths and challenges in sticking to its task as an emerging tech hinterland.

"One challenge that I find here is the attitude toward failure. Ireland is this amazing success story. But you're just afraid that it won't last. Or that it's going to be taken away from you. There is a mentality here that stops you from being able to enjoy it."

The country's founders, developers and policy makers, he believes, should take more pride in Ireland's newfound global status.

"Ireland is at the top table right now," he said. "The question is whether Ireland will be able to stay at the top table. Having the right availability of people is absolutely critical. Take data scientists. The reality is if you're a data scientist in Ireland right now, you are almost certainly already employed. Because they're hard to find. But if I can't expand my company due to a lack of data scientists, I will take my company somewhere else where I can find data scientists."

And Segal says that in the long term, Ireland needs to start thinking of competitive edges above and beyond taxation structures.

"To attract and keep top talent, what you really need are incentives for people to live and work here to sustain a permanent ecosystem. That means great schools. To be a long-term global powerhouse, Ireland needs to invest in stem (science and maths) education. Then it will absolutely become the place to raise kids. And that's important to founders and developers."

Segal says that there's an opportunity for a country to realise the competitive advantage that a high-end education system would give a country's bargaining position.

"Right now, if you want a top-class education in the US, you often have to pay $30,000 a year for it. If there was a place where that was available for much less, or free, you would see the smartest people move and work here. And that would mean the best new companies."

Aside from the structural and cultural challenges attached to this idea for Irish schools and teachers, it is surely easier said than done. But Segal says it is being done in other parts of the world.

"Actually, Israel is making good strides in this area," said Segal. "They back education and they back entrepreneurs. I believe that this is one reason why Israel makes billion dollar companies. There's also no fear of failure there. It's a position I'd really love to see Ireland get to. And I do think it's going to happen here."

Segal also thinks that mentality, including a fear of failure, is something we need to come to terms with in a more comprehensive manner.

"In the US, people can fail and it's not held against you," he said. "It's still a little challenging here in that regard. It's also not enough just to lean in. You need to lean in and push. I met a start-up founder last week who needed to raise €100,000. He had 75 customers. To be honest, if you can't raise €100,000 with an existing client base of 75 customers, maybe this line of work isn't for you."

Segal said that he intends to meet with between 25 and 30 Irish start-ups this year to help with advice and strategy. But he is also focused on streamlining the way The Summit does business.

"We're dividing things up into groups with leaders so Paddy doesn't have to focus on everything," he said. "In a small company, the CEO can be over everything. But it's much harder when you scale. And The Summit is about to expand in a big way."

Segal is cautiously bullish about Ireland's prospects in the short to medium term. "It's Ireland's to lose right now," he said. "And if you do lose it, well shame on you."

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