Tuesday 24 April 2018

'Homelessness being exploited for business,' says Cosgrave

Homelessness is 'too profitable to be solved quickly' says Cosgrave
Homelessness is 'too profitable to be solved quickly' says Cosgrave
Paddy Cosgrave has announced new Web Summit partners. Photo by Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

This week, Paddy Cosgrave announced a further expansion of his Web Summit company as well as a host of new speakers, including Al Gore and Francois Hollande. He also reiterated that he might bring other conferences back to Ireland, to follow the 'Moneyconf' financial technology event that will be held next Spring in Dublin.

In all, the company he co-founded with Daire Hickey and David Kelly, now employs 160 people - with another 40 on the way by the end of the year. The vast majority of these are stationed in the company's Dublin office, putting Web Summit in reach of smaller multinational firms such as Twitter (which employs a little over 200 here).

But Cosgrave's interests don't end there. Although he has publicly denied an intention to enter politics here, the Wicklow-born entrepreneur still retains a strong interest in social and economic matters in Ireland.

Given his platform, some of these views threaten to transmogrify into political intervention.

Paddy Cosgrave has announced new Web Summit partners. Photo by Adrian Weckler
Paddy Cosgrave has announced new Web Summit partners. Photo by Adrian Weckler

Homelessness is one such issue. Cosgrave believes that the system in Ireland is stacked to keep the conditions around homelessness just the way they are. He also hints that the political status quo, where every government is dominated by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, is barely capable of tackling the issue.

"The homeless problem is a human tragedy but it's a great business opportunity," he says. "It's being exploited by people who are probably very favourably disposed to some of the more traditional parties. It's very profitable for people who probably don't vote for Sinn Fein. These people tend to own hotels and hostels and, I think, vote for another type of party.

"So when such a problem is just so profitable, it's unlikely that it is going to be solved with any great haste."

At a business level, some of the factors pushing homelessness, he says, are also contributing to a "challenging" rental market for people being hired into Dublin to work at the Web Summit.

"To circumvent some of the challenges of relocation into Dublin, we have a six-bedroom house which acts as a permanent crash pad for people when they arrive in Dublin so they don't have to worry when they're trying to find somewhere to rent. I've no doubt that other companies are doing something similar. It's quite a challenging climate."

Cosgrave thinks that employers' bodies here should refocus their efforts away from traditional concerns.

"Debates about the cost of wages re spurious," he says.

"That business organisations like Ibec should be focused not on the cost of wages but on the actual cost of living, including rent and insurance. This is pretty important for Irish companies' growth. When the cost of living, which is the single biggest overhead for your employees, is unusual, it makes it more challenging for companies to remain competitive.

"We still have another side to our economy, which is doing incredibly well. But if we want to continue to be ambitious and grow great Irish companies of the future, we have to think seriously about how we can remain competitive. And that involves helping to reduce the cost of living."

Cosgrave has other quasi-political activities under way. In April, he gave a press conference in Dublin pledging to push for stronger anti-corruption legislation in Ireland. At the time, he said that Ireland sits "at the bottom of the table" in tackling white collar crime.

His plan, he said, included co-opting senior executives to co-sign a letter urging the Government to pass anti-corruption legislation in September.

How is this progressing?

"That's something for me to come back to in late September," he says. "I think the last item on the order of business for the Cabinet before they went into summer recess happened to be a focus on the anti-corruption bill. That would seem to indicate that towards the end of September, there might be some movement on emergency legislation that was drafted five years ago but has until now been sitting on ice. So I think that's a very positive indication."

Despite these criticisms of the Irish political establishment, Cosgrave says he is now back on track with the Government and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

"We've a great working relationship," he says. "I was at the recent U2 concert with Leo and spent a good deal of time chatting to him. We're working in lots of different ways to help each other.

"We also have a very positive working relationship with the IDA who have become a partner with us again. They were with us in force at our US event in May and that's only going to go from strength to strength."

Does this mean that there might be more conferences to come for Dublin or elsewhere in Ireland?

"We're looking at the potential," he says. "I think there's ample opportunity to do other conferences in Ireland."

Cosgrave says that new conferences may not necessarily be strictly tech-related.

"If you look at the speakers we have for the Web Summit, it's obviously good to be getting the CEO of Oracle or Intel or someone like Al Gore and Margrethe Vestager, people who are obviously very important. But what's equally important to use is the diversity of speakers we're getting. We're now able to build world-class events across areas such as fashion within Web Summit.

"When we started doing that, people thought it was a bit bizarre. But now you have some pretty influential people such as the managing editor of Vogue coming. The same is true for sport and film and other areas. That's a testament to a great team here." At present, Web Summit employs 160 people, with at least 40 more expected by the end of the year.

Of this 160, 130 are located in Dublin according to the company's head of talent acquisition, Ronan Mooney.

The type of person being hired now is very different to two or three years ago, Cosgrave says. It's production design, data science and other non-support roles.

"We now outsource what you might call some of the more challenging drudge work," he says. "That reflects the change in the jobs we're now hiring for, most of which are much higher value-oriented. Ireland happens to have some good service providers in the support area. There are some very notable companies in Ireland like Voxpro that provide services that we previously would have provided."

Many of these higher-tiered roles, he says, are coming from companies like Oracle, Salesforce, Google and Facebook.

"As you begin to scale, you start to need to add some good senior leadership," he says.

Multinationals sometimes get a hard time in Ireland, but they're a great resources for startups like us."

Part of the upscaled job profile is associated with the Web Summit's increased commercial activity with 'partners'. Whereas these once included whoever was keen to get involved, the company's accredited partners now include high-paying blue chip multinationals such as Mercedes, Siemens and Airbus.

They also increasingly include city or country governments, keen to use the event as a platform for inward development.

"We've announced a bunch of new partners, including includes cities from Europe but South America and elsewhere," says Cosgrave.

"We also have country delegations from the Middle East, Japan, Korea, Alaska and lots of other places. We've come a long way in a short space of time. If you take a company like Mercedes, it does very little by way of conferences in the world and the events it partners with are of a certain calibre and usually have been established for a very long time."

Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business