Monday 17 December 2018

Paddy Cosgrave: 'Less than 1pc of our revenues are from here, I'm freer to upset people'

Web Summit chief Paddy Cosgrave is back in Dublin with fintech event MoneyConf and a global perspective on all things Irish. Adrian Weckler spoke to him about tech, the future of multinationals here, anti-corruption laws, politics and much more

Web Summit chief Paddy Cosgrave has warned on FDI future. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Web Summit chief Paddy Cosgrave has warned on FDI future. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

This week saw the launch of one of the Web Summit's fastest-growing conferences, MoneyConf, as it nears a return to Dublin. To be hosted in the RDS over three days in June, the 5,000-strong event will feature financial technology speakers such as Ethereum co-founder Joseph Lubin and Square's Tyrone-born chief financial officer Sarah Friar.

Ahead of the launch, our technology editor sat down with Web Summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave to talk about tech, politics and Ireland.

Adrian Weckler [AW]: You're about to launch MoneyConf in Dublin this June. What about the Web Summit, is it staying in Lisbon? Your deal there was for three years, with a possible extension. This will be the third year. Will you stay next year?

Paddy Cosgrave [PC]: Hopefully. But we always have our eyes open to every possibility. We'll do everything to figure out how to stay there, really forever. The constraint for us now is that we're building a lot of temporary structures. So in an ideal world, the UN Secretary General would be able to check in inside a secured building.

But, you know, we're building big tents and marquees. That's fine and we could decide that maybe that's the right decision to make, that we'll just keep the event at about 60,000 give or take.

But there seems to be demand to make it even bigger, to cover more industry verticals. We've added a car conference that's internal to Web Summit called Auto Tech. All the big German manufacturers, not just Mercedes, have become partners. And I'd love to do something in agriculture which requires more space again to have John Deere and these other companies participate. So it just depends on a number of factors.

But Lisbon is an incredible city. It's gone from kind of being off the radar for a lot of the world to becoming a really important tech city, almost overnight. Farfetch [luxury fashion website founded by Jose Neves] is about to go public, which is the first Portuguese unicorn to do so. Google also just opened up offices there and are going to build out.

AW: Is it that you've proven the Web Summit can be a movable event? Was that always a goal for you, especially when looking at moving from Dublin to Lisbon?

PC: Well, we've proven that more with Rise and Collision, [our] events in Asia and in the United States that are very similar to Web Summit. Both are growing faster than Web Summit did in the past and Collision may be larger than South by Southwest this year. So what the team - and there's 170 of us, almost all based in Dublin - has proven is that we can take this formula and scale other events anywhere in the world, not just move events around.

AW: You were on RTÉ's 'Late Late Show' a couple of weeks ago and suggested that when it came to the Web Summit, especially around the time it was moving from here to Lisbon, the Irish press coverage was more hostile and different than international press coverage. Why did you think that?

PC: Well, aside from it being a fact, there are lots of interesting anecdotes. There was this huge kerfuffle attacking the food at Web Summit and the expense of it. The BBC, a very credible organisation, went to investigate. They went over to the Food Summit and they couldn't replicate what an [Irish] journalist had reported. Instead they stumbled upon Darina Allen and the Ballymaloe Cookery School, the Burns Smokehouse and they had an incredible three-course meal which was represented at all in these reports about a €10 burger.

There was, of course, a sign that said 'quick and dirty', where you could just go and grab something that was quick and dirty from a small section of music festival, burger-flipping vans. But [the critical stories] had no mention of the fact that Darina Allen was marshalling all of these incredible chefs and food providers from all over Ireland under the umbrella of Good Food Ireland. That was just removed from even any mention in any of these stories.

AW: What was your perception as to why? Begrudgery? A blood sport?

PC: No, I don't think so. I think there are two components. We pay millions of euro a year to be propagandised by government spin doctors with their salaries of a hundred grand. And their job is to protect the perception of the party, the government of the day, at all costs.

On the other side, if you're a journalist in Ireland, you're focused on domestic issues. That means that your bread is buttered by access to either political sources or business sources domestically. So, if something is leaving the country, you're no longer going to be reliant on these people for access ever again. So if you've been around the block and you're getting pressurised by a government spin doctor to portray a story in a certain way, it's not illogical.

In fact it's very good practice, it's smart and mature of you as a journalist to take out a hatchet. There's nothing wrong with that.

AW: So you're suggesting the bad press was about protecting the future of patches and sources?

PC: Yeah, of course. I mean, to a degree. But you've got to depersonalise these things. You've just got to step back and say this was very normal. It was the right thing by the government of the day to do. I would have done it if I was in government and this had happened on my watch. And if I'm a journalist who relies day-to-day on access to government ministers and getting leaks for stories...

AW: I feel obliged to step in and defend my profession here. I can't agree with you.

PC: No, I see it as journalists having huge integrity in that they protect their sources in almost all instances.

But they're also realistic in that their sources in many cases are the lifeblood upon which they survive. And they look after them over time and they build up good relationships with people that they rely on to break stories. And then occasionally, of course, they might hang out the odd source out to dry. That's just the nature of the beast.

AW: There's another topic you've been bringing up quite a bit recently, which is corruption and legislation surrounding that. Why is this topic one you've picked to focus on?

PC: I'm 34. I grew up in a generation where most of my friends left Ireland. As to the underlying reasons why they left, some would maintain it was because the entire country partied too hard and we crashed the economy.

But I think a small group of insiders played a little bit too fast and loose and brought unimaginable risk on the country.

Then the entire country stepped in and bailed out the misdeeds of maybe 50 people for the most part and effectively none of those people have ever been held to account.

It really boils down to the fact that there are very few laws here that these people appear to have broken.

If the United Nations is to be believed, and the OECD, that's largely down to the fact that Ireland is the only western nation yet to implement some very basic kind of anti-corruption legislation which was ostensibly a requirement of the IMF bailout.

The legislation was supposed to be rushed through in 2012 as emergency legislation. It was drafted. Emergency legislation is designed as emergency legislation to be just rushed through and implemented but, six years later, we're still waiting for it.

That being said, I think there are some indications that this legislation might come to pass in the coming months. If you think 'Look, there's no corruption at all in the country', that's fine. Then you should also have no objections to at least just bringing in some basic rules of law in the event that some corruption might arise.

AW: A lot of people might agree with much or all of that. But they'd still be wondering why you're putting yourself forward in this role. Why are you taking this on?

PC: I don't think it's an issue on which I'm alone. There are many other people in the private sector who feel that this is a good thing to do. I'm unusual in that I and my team have built a business and less than 1pc of our revenues globally come from Ireland. It means that I'm freer, I think, than many other people to say things that do upset certain people in Ireland.

I appreciate it really rankles with certain people in, let's call it the establishment, that feel in some way I am saying that you are corrupt if you are anybody who is a member of the establishment in Ireland.

But that's not at all what I'm saying. I'm just more interested in implementing some legislation. And the legislation is good to implement even if there isn't any corruption whatsoever. You know, if there are no road traffic accidents, does that mean we need no rules of the road? No. We should have some basic rules of the road. You know, just because nobody's been killed using semi-automatic weapons doesn't mean that we shouldn't have legislation in Ireland against the ownership of kind of semi-automatic or fully automatic weapons.

AW: I remember asking you at a press conference when you first brought this up, whether you might be considering some sort of wider career in politics. You said no. But you still appear to be very interested in politics and civic life.

PC: For people that are politicians, it's amazing that they sign away their lives. But these are just things that I'm interested in. Maybe I just grew up in a generation where essentially all of my friends left Ireland, mostly because of the recession. For a generation of people in Ireland, it's very difficult to not be politicised by that experience and to not ask why did that happen or to see whether we have corrected things and put in place all the necessary kind of buffers to make sure that we don't go anywhere near that experience again. Because it's still hurting us. Our health system is still completely on its knees. So, yeah, I think I'm just political by circumstance.

AW: Do you think that by the time you retire that you will have stood for office at least once?

PC: No, I don't think so.

AW: One last issue on which you've had some interesting things to say recently is the prospects for tech multinationals in Dublin and Ireland. You've written that we may be putting too many eggs into one basket with regard to multinational firms. What's behind that?

PC: I think you can never know for sure whether this generation of multinational companies is going to do something that no generation of multinational companies has really done in the past.

Fifty years ago, a lone civil servant, TK Whitaker, pushed some very significant changes to how the Irish economy was structured.

We started introducing very competitive tax opportunities to multinational companies and over a number of generations, from textile manufacturing to electrical equipment assembly and computer assembly, these companies have come to Ireland.

We've benefited hugely, they've created vast employment and some have subsequently left to go elsewhere. It may be the case that this generation of companies might not do that. We just have to be certain, or at least in some way sure, that they're not going to leave and then we can continue to do what we're doing.

But the Central Bank for many, many quarters in a row have warned that there are significant risk factors to the Irish economy because of the huge dependence that we have on this singular sector.

AW: Do you see any warning signs that any of these companies might be considering it at some point in the future?

PC: It's very difficult for me to say. We do work with all of these technology companies at a global level. We have partnerships, at our events all over the world. People should at least look at the office openings of some of these companies elsewhere in Europe.

Look then at the roles they're hiring for. Ask is the fact that they are offering relocation bonuses to mid to senior staff in their Dublin offices indicative of something greater?

They should ask does the change in how Facebook and other companies coming down the road - which hasn't been announced yet - account for their tax on global sales?

Will the fact that they're changing that have a material impact on Ireland? Is the IMF and our own Central Bank correct in saying it will have a material impact or should we dismiss that? These are just kind of some of the factors.

AW: What about the narrative that we're a skilled work-base, English-speaking and all the rest of it?

PC: Yeah. These are the largest, most successful companies to have ever existed in the history of the world.

They're continuing to expand at such a pace that maybe it'll become almost kind of irrelevant that Ireland is used less and less for booking of tax on global earnings. Maybe they will just double down here and it's almost like a rounding error, that it's slightly more expensive to have a large office here than Poland or Berlin or Madrid.

AW: Did you ever get an offer to sell the Web Summit?

PC: Yeah, lots.

AW: Not one that you considered?

PC: Lots of offers. And no. I'm really proud to have, along with a really amazing team of people, built what we've built. And I still feel that we're only just kind of getting started.

It's kind of bootstrapped from the very start and we're really just beginning to find our groove. We had another 14 or 15 people join us in January. There are about 170 people now full-time, most in Dublin.

Moneyconf will be held in the RDS between June 11 and June 13. To hear an extended version of this interview, download or stream The Big Tech Show podcast from Soundcloud, iTunes or independent.ie/podcasts

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