Monday 21 October 2019

The rising cybersecurity star aiming to spread talent beyond the capital

Skout Cybersecurity co-founder Aidan Kehoe tells Adrian Weckler why it chose Laois over Dublin for its EMEA HQ

Home front: Aidan Kehoe has helped Skout to establish a base in rural Ireland
Home front: Aidan Kehoe has helped Skout to establish a base in rural Ireland

Is THE decision to place your US-based, growing tech firm's EMEA headquarters near your rural Irish birthplace an emotional one? No, says Aidan Kehoe, who has just landed a $25m (€22.7m) funding round for the cybersecurity firm he co-founded.

Skout Cybersecurity is putting its roots down in Co Laois, close to the rural village of Killinard where Kehoe and his brother (who also works at the firm) grew up.

Kehoe says that the decision to locate around Portlaoise is more properly attributable to "inside knowledge" of the area's strengths, rather than emotional loyalty.

In an era where everything appears to be moving into cities - and Dublin especially - Kehoe is betting on long-term trends that favour alternative locations.

"It looks late here to be investing in Dublin when you have people like Google hoovering up talent," he says.

"It's very difficult to compete for that talent with companies like that. We've done our homework on it and we think we could have a competitive advantage by being in Laois when everybody else is pouring in somewhere else."

Skout, which sells cloud software services to small and medium-sized companies in the US and Europe, is headquartered in New York, where Kehoe has lived for more than a decade.

Last year, he sold a majority stake in the group to the US venture capital firm RSE Ventures for $30m. Kehoe still owns a sizeable chunk of the company and has stayed on as its chief executive.

Now, a new $25m investment from a cybersecurity specialist investor in the US, ClearSky, has been announced to help the company expand more quickly.

One of the outlets for that funding is the firm's European headquarters in Laois. Is there any romance in the decision to base its EMEA centre a few minutes' drive from his childhood rural Irish home?

"I don't get the benefit of being romantic when it comes to work," he says. "You just don't have that luxury when you have a fiduciary responsibility to your investors.

"So this decision was made for business reasons. But I want to use every advantage I have. And I think being from Laois is an inherent advantage."

At present, he has five people hired at the Irish facility, with another five to come by the end of the year, and a further 20 promised after that.

Skout's decision to choose a location outside Dublin or another Irish city is rare, but not unique.

Companies like CMS Peripherals (Kiltimagh, Co Mayo) and Nearform (Tramore, Co Waterford) show that tech firms can thrive outside cities. The pitch to potential staff is often wrapped up in a promise of idyllic communities for family-rearing, combined with breathtaking natural outdoor amenities.

But the companies choosing this option are usually homegrown startups, not emerging multinationals. And despite the surfing, hiking and large affordable homes on offer, filling out high-end teams is thought to be harder than in a Dublin market with thousands of potential recruits already working in the Silicon Docks, Sandyford, or half a dozen other places.

Won't Skout find it hard to get product engineers, cloud specialists and salespeople to work outside the big cities, where most of the opportunity is? "Actually, I think it's difficult in Dublin to recruit the right people at the moment," says Kehoe. "There's massive investment that's pouring into Dublin. On one hand, that's wonderful for the country. But it makes it very hard to compete.

"I've been dealing with talent shortages since I started. We've always had to think a little differently than other people."

So Kehoe and Skout are betting on the appeal of a different work-life balance to stressful hour-long commutes, high communal expenses and other trappings of big city competition.

"A lot of people are looking for more balance in their life," he says. "And it's not just about where someone is located today, but about how their lives are changing and growing. I think there are some really big shifts happening in terms of urban migration.

"I've just seen it before in other cities and I don't see why Dublin and Ireland are going to be any different."

According to the company, Skout collects information on customer devices, software and infrastructure with sensors that can integrate with "nearly any technology stack" and "work with nearly any device".

The sensors can also be used for a variety of monitoring purposes, such as network, log and endpoint monitoring, or can be configured to scan for vulnerabilities and detect intrusions.

Skout's main US offices are based on Long Island, an hour outside New York City and considerably further out from many of the tech giants (such as Google), which typically favour being in the heart of a metropolis. But Kehoe says that there is a healthy move of corporates to emerging 'hubs' outside congested cities.

"We want to be able to base ourselves here [in Laois] for the long term," he says.

"We want to take advantage of bringing some talent in that can scale with us as we grow. I think it's difficult to do that in Dublin today versus down the country, where I think there are a lot of fantastic people who are looking for a place to live as well as work."

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