Is Dublin a ‘real’ tech city? When talking among American and European acquaintances, we insist that it is. Of course it is, right? Sure isn’t Dublin the home of Google and Facebook?
Quietly amongst ourselves, though, we’re less sure. Some of us insist that Dublin is still a glorified outsourcing centre for multinationals which come for the tax and stay for the customer support or sales.
Others revert back to the ever-present elephant in the room: tax.
Partly out of curiosity (though maybe also out of a sense of nationalistic narcissism) it’s a question I now routinely put to tech founders, both home-grown and from abroad, during interviews.
Is Dublin a real tech city? I usually get two answers: ‘yes’ and ‘sort of’.
The ones most likely to be lukewarm about Dublin’s tech credentials are almost always those from a finance background. This includes several country managers of multinationals here. Though we rarely comment on it, relatively few of Ireland’s tech multinational country managers actually have a tech pedigree themselves – they’re usually from a sales, marketing or finance background.
By instinct and by appointment, they often approach their roles as accountants. (Enthusiastic project accountants, to be sure, but accountants nonetheless.) It also might be because the mandate they’re given in Dublin is simply to project-manage a set of specific goals or priorities handed down to them by a higher-ranked person in the US or London. (Because they’re financial or sales managers, few have ever honed the instincts of a founder or CEO themselves.)
Conversely, the most positive advocates about Dublin’s tech chops are founders and CEOs, people who actually start or control the companies. When you talk in depth to such people, you start to get a much better insight into Dublin’s actual strengths (and weaknesses) than middle managers or officials.
Last week, I sat down with Ryan Smith, the Qualtrics co-founder and CEO. Qualtrics is one of the fastest-growing tech companies in the world. Its most recent valuation was $2.5bn after a $180m funding round last year.
Smith told me that tax was always an irrelevance for him because they weren’t yet in a taxable (or profitable) situation.
But he also insisted that there isn’t anywhere else in Europe with the particular mix of engineering, operations and other talent they can relocate to.
“If you look at Facebook and Google, the minute Dublin stops being a productive place for them to be, they’ll leave,” he told me. “They’re here for a reason, the same as us. Dublin is a great place to be with incredible talent.”
While the first part of what Smith says (about tax, Facebook and Google) is specific and to the point, the latter part could be interpreted as a little plamas-ish, especially in conversation with a local journalist.
I recently asked the same question to the Dane Mikkel Svane, another high-profile tech founder, who started the software firm Zendesk.
“There are so many things about Dublin that are attractive,” he said. “The biggest one is the sheer amount of international talent here. This really counts a lot, as does the fact that it’s easy to recruit international talent to come to Dublin. We have operations in Copenhagen, where I’m from, and operations in London. But Ireland became our headquarters for good reasons.”
What about the argument that this ‘talent’ attraction may still largely be one used by an outsourcing operation?
“First of all, I wouldn’t belittle the fact that you have a lot of experience as an outsourcer,” said Svane. “You have a lot of experience working with American tech companies and being a bridgehead into Europe.
“That experience is super relevant for us and lots of companies like us, it has made our operation so much easier. We have offices in other parts of Europe, but we don’t think about them in the same vital strategic way that we do about Dublin. There’s no doubt that the gravitational centre of our operations will be here.”
Svane then went on to gush about some other oft-repeated themes: language (English), culture (pro-tech and pro-American) and access (direct flights to many major US and European cities).
But Qualtrics and Zendesk are medium-sized tech companies worth billions.
What do small-time startups think? Is the pro-Dublin hype really still an instrument of multinational projection?
Sergey Lyubka is co-founder and chief technical officer of Cesanta, a Dublin-based ‘internet of things’ tech firm.
Lyubka, together with Cesanta co-founder Anatoly Lebedev, came from Ukraine and Russia to Ireland over a decade ago. Both worked at Google. But when they decided to branch out themselves with a highly-technical startup, they chose Dublin instead of a US city, where most of their market now is.
“Dublin is fantastic as a tech city,” Lyubka said. “There is nowhere else I would want to be. It has issues to be sure, but so does every other city. And we’re just as able to grow our company here as somewhere else.”
A more recent arrival is Austin Spivey, head of operations for a small Dublin tech startup, Wia Technologies. Spivey has only been here six months, but says she was lured to Dublin by the “buzz” and “energy” of its tech scene.
“Finding an apartment is really tough,” she said. “And there are couple of other things. But there’s a great community here. I’m definitely staying for the foreseeable future.”
Not everyone agrees with this upbeat assessment of Ireland’s capital as a bona fide tech city.
Privately, some very senior investors and entrepreneurs moan about the role of state bodies and multinational firms, claiming that Dublin’s position is hugely overblown.
However, some of the building blocks that were previously missing are starting to fall into place.