Saturday 14 December 2019

Amid the Brexit vote unease, Dublin's been a match made in heaven for Boston's HubSpot

Tech services company co-founder Brian Halligan had a choice of London, Amsterdam or Dublin for a European headquarters. And locating here has been one of the company's 'best decisions', he tells our Technology Editor

'The thing Ireland seems to be missing is that it's a scale-up place rather than a startup place,' says Brian Halligan.
'The thing Ireland seems to be missing is that it's a scale-up place rather than a startup place,' says Brian Halligan.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

HubSpot co-founder Brian Halligan is relieved he picked Dublin over London as a place to hire more than 300 people and locate the booming firm's European headquarters.

The Boston-based tech multinational had been mulling over both locations for major investment. But with the Brexit referendum getting too close to call, Ireland looks a whole lot more attractive to US companies now.

"If we had picked London, I would now be worried, yes," says Halligan, who is also a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Today, if you want to put a headquarters in Europe and you're looking at London or Ireland, it [Brexit referendum] makes Ireland more attractive."

For Halligan, Brexit is just one of a long line of factors he lists off for being satisfied with putting his company's chips into an Irish base.

"One of the best decisions we've ever made has been to come to Ireland," he says from the firm's just-opened north quays European headquarters which is to house 300 new staff. It's awesome. We are the beneficiaries of some inspired policy and some real surprises in terms of people and product-building."

For the unacquainted, HubSpot is the pre-eminent company specialising in 'inbound' marketing software. It basically makes it easier for sales teams to find, pitch, sell to and keep track of customers. And it's going pretty well.

"The thing that's happened to us in Ireland, which we didn't expect, is the product piece," says Halligan.

"Sure, we expected to sell and to service customers from here. But we actually now build lots of our product here. And I mean major pieces of it. For example, all of our mobile CRM apps are now built here. And we have a brand new product that's just out called Lead In that's doing really well. And it's all built here."

Most financial analysts have touted the company as a strong bet for continued growth.

This is partly because HubSpot is one of the few companies that is trying to get over problems that most sales people have when they try to reach new prospects.

"It's almost impossible to reach a human now if you're a sales guy," says Halligan. "Fewer and fewer people have phones on their desk. With caller ID, those that have a phone are unlikely to answer it anyway. Everyone now has spam protection or filters on their email. We've been working on products that help sales people transform the way they sell to match the way people want to buy things or learn about them."

While business types are using HubSpot's services in increasing numbers, the company has received some unflattering attention too.

Earlier this year, it briefly became an object of mockery when veteran US tech writer Dan Lyons published a book about the year he spent working at the firm's Boston headquarters in 2013. Lyons, a former 'Newsweek' journalist and contributor to the satirical television series 'Silicon Valley', is known for lampooning tech companies and figures. In the book ('Disrupted'), he didn't spare HubSpot.

"Nerf-gun battles rage, with people firing weapons from behind giant flat-panel monitors, ducking and rolling under desks," he wrote. "Teams go on outings to play trampoline dodgeball and race go-karts and play laser tag... A group of bros meets in the lobby on the second floor to do push-ups together."

He also wrote about the lack of diversity and a cultish corporatism in language and hiring practices that the tech sector is often accused of.

Halligan says that the episode was "not fun".

"It was very rough," he says. "Some of the stuff he criticised us for is true. And we're trying to deal with it. Diversity is definitely an issue for us, the way it's an issue for a lot of tech companies. And we took it to heart. We are trying to improve it. Other stuff in the book we took with a grain of salt as others should.

"The bit about the push-ups wasn't an exaggeration, though. A group of developers decided they were going to do push-ups in the lobby every day.

"I tried to join them one day but I just couldn't keep up."

Halligan says that while the episode was "distracting" for HubSpot, it hasn't hurt recruitment at the company.

"I wish it never happened, obviously," he says. "Some people say all press is good press but I don't buy that."

However, a walk through HubSpot's gleaming new headquarters at the very east side of the IFSC doesn't show any signs of Nerf gun battles or bros doing push-ups. The building is a fairly airy, modern set-up with conference rooms and some nooks and crannies to bring a laptop when things get a little hectic.

In any case, it may be unlikely that the Dan Lyons book would have impacted too much on the company's Irish recruitment drive, as US tech companies' fripporous tendencies are usually more muted In overseas offices. This is just as well for HubSpot. Getting the best people in the door is one of the reasons that Halligan says the company has doubling down on its Irish venture.

"Other than making new products, another thing we didn't expect to come out of Ireland has been the high number of global roles we're now filling from here," he says. "Recently, we keep giving the big company roles to Irish people to run global functions."

Halligan reels through a list of senior global positions the company has recently filled with Irish staff, including heads of support, conferencing and recruiting.

"We do more of that activity in the US than anywhere else, but we keep giving the top roles to Irish people. My theory on why this is happening goes back to why we're here in Ireland. We keep getting to hire people here who worked at great companies who we admire, like Google and LinkedIn and Salesforce. Those people are very hard for us to attract in Boston, because they're all based in California. But here we can attract them from literally across the street."

EU membership is a key asset here, he says. When HubSpot looked at where to pick its European headquarters, it came down to a choice between Dublin, Amsterdam and London.

With the Brexit referendum getting closer, Halligan says that picking London may have given the company cause for concern.

Recruitment, he says, is the lifeblood of the company's success. Ireland, like all booming trench markets, is now getting competitive when it comes to finding people.

"But EU membership opens things up so enough people from Europe can come in to fill in the gaps," he says.

"For us, the first hundred people were Irish and the second hundred were still mostly Irish. But now that it's getting really competitive, we're seeing talented people from other countries coming in here. This is really good for Ireland. If Ireland can keep going the way it is, it really can be like Silicon Valley."

As enthusiastic as he is about Ireland, Halligan sees the country's current limitations. One of these is that we still lag significantly behind some other European countries when it comes to successful home-grown tech companies.

"The thing Ireland seems to be missing is that it's a scale-up place rather than a startup place," he says. It's great for companies who are getting big and want somewhere to scale.

"But what would be unbelievable would be if one of the big venture capitalists from the US came and put a pile of money here with some folks to invest it. And that would take [Ireland] to the next level."

The cost base is another creeping concern for companies like HubSpot. Natural market forces for hiring the best staff push wages up.

But housing and capacity constraints are also issues expected to become more acute in the coming years.

"I haven't heard too much about [housing problems] but it wouldn't surprise me at all," says Halligan.

"It's like San Francisco. I suspect that will happen here. I think in a couple of years that Dublin will be more expensive than Boston for us."

But it's still worth it, he says.

"It comes back to the people," says Halligan. "The people you can get here are well educated and come from other great companies. When we were deciding between London and Amsterdam and Dublin, it was not clear that Ireland was the right call. But it is absolutely clear. It was a very good call. We are beyond thrilled with Ireland."

Indo Business

Also in Business