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How a drive to beat cancer helped build a billion-dollar company

Qualtrics co-founder Ryan Smith dropped out of college to look after his ill father. Then both of them built a hit tech company which is rapidly expanding in Dublin and creating hundreds of jobs

Ryan Smith is the co-founder of Qualtrics, the booming US tech company that has just announced hundreds of jobs in Dublin.

Smith’s story is different to that of many other tech titans.

He co-founded the company when he dropped out of college to look after his father, who was diagnosed with cancer. Looking for something to do together, they came up with the idea for Qualtrics.

Fifteen years later, it’s a multi-billion dollar firm. But Smith has never lost his zeal for fighting ‘the big C’.

He spoke to Adrian Weckler about a special Irish executive, being at home here and why he’s determined to continue battling cancer.

Adrian Weckler [AW]: You started the company with your dad when you found out he was ill. How did that happen?

Ryan Smith [RS]: I started in the basement of my house with my father, who was battling cancer at the time and was coming through treatment and really needed a purpose.

So instead of fixing up a car we built a tech company. Fortunately, the cancer was on his throat where they could operate and it didn’t come back.

AW: What was your motivation at the time? Was it to try and build something? Or was it simply to look after your dad?

RS: It was to do something together. It wasn’t cool to build a tech company back then, startups were not the thing as we were in the shadow of the dot-com boom of 1999 and 2000.

He was an academic, he didn’t have a bunch of money to pay me. And so we kind of just split everything. By the time he recovered from cancer we had 20 academic customers that were giving us money and it started to spread.

I just thought that ‘Hey, maybe this is better than going to do an internship somewhere’. And then, three or four years in, I thought ‘Wait, this might be better, and I might like this more than doing that’.

But I never, ever thought, or would think, that this is going to be what it is.

AW: You first came here in 2013. How have things changed for Qualtrics in Dublin since that time?

RS: Back then, every interview I did asked me about tax. ‘You’re only going to Dublin because of tax reasons.’ But we didn’t have any tax problems, we were actually hoping to create one.

You see Google and Microsoft or Facebook come in, but they wouldn’t be here if they can’t be successful. And the second they can’t be successful here they’re out.

AW: Last year you announced a big whack of funding, $180m. Is there funding on the horizon?

RS: If we want to raise funding we can raise funding. I think we’re one of the few companies who have been sustainable throughout our history. I don’t measure our success in funding, that’s been something that’s really happened. But we’re trying to build the next Salesforce or the next Microsoft or Dell.

AW: What do you think when you see companies like Slack announcing that they’re topping up their funding by $470m?

RS: I know Stewart [Butterfield, CEO of Slack] well. We’re in the same portfolio and he’s a great friend. Slack has done absolutely great and they’ll continue doing great. But there are some markets you can’t tiptoe into.

You either need a running start where it’s going to take a long time, or you need to go really fast. In his world, they’re competing with Microsoft and a lot of other people. They’re not going to tiptoe into that and they’ve got momentum, so it makes a lot of sense. It’s the same with companies like Lyft and Uber. I think that shows a lot of momentum, a lot of people are interested in betting on the fact that they’ve built a company and a great product and that they’re investing heavily into expansion globally.

AW: Doesn’t it seem to you like there’s an endless pot of capital that is looking for a home right now?

RS: Yeah. The lines are a bit blurred. You’re seeing everyone become a VC. Celebrities are getting involved, everyone is raising a fund. But then you look out onto the horizon. I was just looking at the US stock market. Right now, we’re on the greatest home run ever.

But then you look at the turmoil that’s going on globally and you look at Brexit. And then you say ‘Hey, something’s not right here’. But there’s a lot of capital that needs to be placed.

AW: Because Qualtrics is one of the faster-growing tech companies globally, aren’t you getting calls from VCs who are desperately looking to place the hundreds of millions they’ve raised from sovereign investors?

RS: We’ve only raised money three different times and I’ve only done two presentations. So we’re in a different spot than a lot of companies, but we’ve just kept our heads down and we’ve never optimised for the highest valuation.

It always came down to relationships on who we wanted to work with.

AW: In cities all over the world, people are starting to get a little bit testy with tech companies, with some blaming them for driving up rents and property prices and helping to fuel a bubble. Is that something that you are conscious of here in Dublin? You are creating a few hundred more jobs here and have this new office building in the middle of the city.

RS: Look, it’s happening everywhere. This is the underside of the belly of growth. It’s the unintended consequences. Everyone wants the growth and they want the jobs. I remember when I made our first job announcement a few years ago, it was a really, really big deal and we had everyone here including the prime minister [Taoiseach Enda Kenny].

AW: As well as the company itself, one of the things you’re most interested in is fighting cancer. I assume that comes partially from your experience with your father, but you’ve also extended that into giving up your sponsorship space on the jersey of the Utah Jazz basketball team. How did this ‘5 For The Fight’ initiative begin?

RS: I’m a creator, I solve problems. But I’ve never felt more helpless than when you get the call for cancer. This is all of our fights. So how do we fight together?

We created a foundation called 5 For The Fight. What if ten million people gave five dollars? Or five euros.

The Utah Jazz sent out a jersey with Qualtrics on it and we were about ready to sign something and someone on my team said ‘Hey, if we’re really serious about cancer, why don’t we put 5 For The Fight on the jersey?’

I had to think about it for a second, we pay millions of dollars for that. And I do want my logo everywhere. But that was the point where I had to decide ‘Are we all in, as a company, on cancer?’ So we did it and the Jazz had a phenomenal season last year.

Here in Dublin we’ve backed researchers who were creating jobs. We’ve raised almost €200,000 in just a couple of months, just from our own employees and doing things.

We’ve hired immunologists, people who work on tumours, to have residence. With ‘5 For The Fight’ we want to put 400 new cancer researchers into the market. That’s what we would do in tech.

And I’m trying to get Elon [Musk] and all these other people interested, how do we get them working on cancer? I think it’s important to go to Mars and all these other things, but how do we get the best and the brightest in the world to take a crack at this?

My challenge is for every single company out there to grab ‘5 For The Fight’, put your logo above it, put ‘5 For The Fight’ in your colours, and sponsor a researcher. Do it for someone in your organisation that’s been affected.

AW: Qualtrics had its own inspiring figure here in Ireland who was deeply involved in this, right? The late Dermot Costello?

RS: Yeah, Dermot is one of the reasons why we’re here in Dublin. He was one of the true ambassadors for tech in Ireland.

He was our first hire here and he was our chairman. He was such a core part of everything that we’ve got here. A year into the job, he found out he had cancer. He came into the office until his last week. He was from Wicklow and it’s just been such a lesson.

I’ve never been with someone who was so lucid even though they knew that the time was running out. I don’t think people understand how great an ambassador he was. It has caused a whole wave of tech, like he is probably one of the biggest gifts of tech to Ireland.


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