Becoming the internet capital of Europe

1 Nov 2010

Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy says the arrival of the technology world’s elite, including Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom, YouTube founder Chad Hurley and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, shows that Dublin is ready to claim its title as Europe’s internet capital.

As I made my way gingerly up the stairs at Bewley’s coffee shop on Grafton Street last Thursday afternoon, Skype founder and Atomico CEO Niklas Zennstrom’s words were ringing in my ears: “The technology revolution today is not dependent on Silicon Valley, there’s no reason why the next Google or Skype can’t come from Ireland.”

I had just come from an interview with the very man and while memories of long winter evenings in the old Bewley’s coffee shop during my college years zipped through my mind, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud at the irony of what I saw before me.

The royalty of the tech world

Unknown to shoppers bustling down the country’s main shopping thoroughfare below and in the midst of people sipping languidly their cups of tea or coffee was an assembly of the technology world’s royalty and between them worth billions of dollars. Sitting there were YouTube founder Chad Hurley, founder Brent Hoberman, Bebo founder Michael Birch and Divyank Turakhi, co-founder and CEO Directi. Also present was the accomplished Dylan Collins, founder of JOLT Online and chairman of Gruupy and the organiser of the Web Summit, Paddy Cosgrave.

Personally, I was overwhelmed. I write about these guys all the time. The entire scene, if you painted it, is a metaphor for Ireland and the technology opportunity. Ordinary people need to realise just what this country has amassed and what we have to play for.

The country, I believe, needs to finally recognise the sheer firepower of technology companies and the opportunities the industry presents for school leavers, entrepreneurs and the economy at large. Dublin, in my opinion, is already the internet capital of Europe – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Zynga, Amazon, Yahoo, IBM, Intel and HP are here. Other cities like Cork boasts Apple since 1984, Limerick and Dublin still have important functions for Dell and Galway has had Nortel, now Avaya, in the city for more than 30 years and now has landed a major operation from EA Games.

Ministers, politicians, parents, teachers and students need to make sure that not only do we have the smarts – ie, technology skills, science and maths – but also the broadband to make sure that not only the aforementioned companies thrive, but our people too.

I consider the accomplishment of the Web Summit to be a blaringly obvious sign post to the future for this country. Here were the most important people in the technology world in little old Dublin prepared to talk candidly of the future and its opportunities. They know very well the international reputation Ireland has in the technology world.

Now it’s time for the people of this country to feel the same way. Like the shoppers bustling down the street below Bewley’s, unaware of the presence of brilliance a few meters away, the same could be said for this country in its approach to technology.

I am happy to say I think that’s about to change.

Before interviewing Hurley that evening, I made a point of congratulating Cosgrave for bringing 100 of the tech world’s leaders to Dublin for both the Web Summit and a parallel event called Founders. I told the 700 people assembled that it is one thing to dream up something genius like this, it takes sheer willpower to put it together.

Shifting tech boundaries

It was easy enough to see that the boundaries of the tech world are shifting constantly and I detected an exasperation even among top venture capitalists like Sean Seton-Rogers of PROfounders that people around the world need to realise that Silicon Valley is no longer the centre of the technology universe. Countries have every opportunity to field disruptive technology companies and raise their economy’s future.

Before Hurley spoke, Trinity College graduate Collins, who at 26 sold his company Demonware to Activision for around US$17m, made the point that the Irish people are among the smartest in the world. We need to play to that strength.

Hurley’s words not long after that exemplified the strength of good people: “Surround yourself with great people. I think you need people you can trust to do their job and sometimes the product or idea can die if someone is too controlling. Be prepared to adapt. Also, being lean and mean helps you build something more efficient. You may have initial thoughts or ideas on how something will work but you need to observe how you and the community are using it. Don’t be afraid to change direction mid-course.”

Going back to my interview with Zennstrom, there is a common theme here. It’s about people believing in themselves and of course being believed in. He said European countries, especially Ireland, have every reason to believe they could one day field a company that could reach the stature of Google or Skype.

Zennstrom, who now runs his own US$165m European venture capital firm Atomico from London, said: “Encouraging people who are thinking about starting companies but are holding back is the greatest challenge.

“In general, across Europe people are afraid of failure. A lot of people who are smart and have the right idea are afraid to leave their job or afraid what people will think of them if they fail. But in the US, if you fail, people would say ‘good on you, what did you learn?’”

Last week, people learned many things about what drives these people; they learned many things about current and future internet and financial trends. Now the greatest task is learning the value of what we have around us, what is inside us and recognising the better road that lies ahead.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years