‘Internet’s power shifts to Ireland, and Dublin has a key role to play’

12 Mar 2009

According to the head of Facebook in Dublin, Ireland underestimates its impact on the online economy.

In their short history, social-networking sites have been maligned as a place only teenagers go to get into trouble. But there is nothing like a good recession to focus minds, and the importance of these networks as key marketplaces in a world focused on cost reduction is set to grow exponentially.

Social-networking sites have evolved beyond the teen scene. Some, such as LinkedIn, have futures as business communications channels to allow professionals to keep their contacts books fresh.

But one social-networking site is planning a future around mass-market advertising, and it has chosen Dublin to spearhead its global plans.

Set up in 2005 by Harvard roommates Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moscovitz and Chris Hughes to keep in touch with fellow students, Facebook now boasts over 175 million users worldwide, including 400,000 here in Ireland. The site has emerged as a focal point for students and professionals from 18–50 to keep in touch, and big brands ranging from Starbucks to Ben & Jerry’s see it as a key marketing channel for the future.

In October of last year, it emerged that Facebook was creating 70 jobs at its international headquarters in Dublin to drive its online sales business. In recent weeks, the company embarked on a campaign to recruit the first 40 workers for roles such as online operations, sales and online advertising campaign delivery.

Aside from job creation, the arrival of Facebook could also have ramifications for the local software industry in Ireland and, last week, some 150 local software developers attended a Facebook developers’ ‘garage’ aimed at finding ways of contributing software to the evolving marketplace.

At the helm of Facebook’s operations in Dublin is Colm Long, who took up the post in January. He was previously head of online sales at Google’s operation in Dublin.

Derry native Long believes that Facebook could emulate Google’s Dublin success. When Google arrived Dublin in 2002, it only planned to create up to 400 jobs. It has since grown to 1,500 and is still recruiting.

“The key lesson for me at Google was how strategic the company was about new products. At Google, I realised a hunger and motivation in building out and developing operations.”

According to Long, Facebook’s choice of Dublin as the centre for its European operations owes its origins to the success of Google’s European headquarters in the capital.

“The chief operations officer of Facebook is Sheryl Sandberg. Previously, while head of global operations at Google, she was instrumental in bringing the company to Ireland. As soon as she came to Facebook, there was no other place in the world she would set up.

“Sheryl already had a favourable impression of Ireland, having worked as chief of staff at the US Treasury under Bill Clinton, and IDA Ireland did a fantastic job creating the environment for Google to establish in Dublin.

“I lived through that experience with Google and saw the ease with which we grew swiftly. I see the same with Facebook,” Long explains.

Key to the success of online businesses such as eBay, Yahoo! and Microsoft (which is building a $500m data centre in Dublin) is the supply of people, and Long says Dublin’s ability to attract young, talented professionals to work and live here is vital.

While a doom and gloom atmosphere pervades Irish life at present, Long says the country is still consistently punching above its weight.

“The markets Ireland is competing with for foreign direct investment (FDI) are primarily European ex-communist countries with inherent bureaucratic infrastructures. Ireland doesn’t have that hurdle.

“The country has always managed to surprise and demonstrate resilience and entrepreneurship. We have almost no right to attract the level of FDI we have, but we do. When Intel came here, it was on a promise to just let us show you what we can do, and it’s still investing in Ireland.

“Another factor that is underplayed in Ireland is the sheer talent of the local software development community – I cannot underline how well- regarded it is internationally.”

The local Irish software development community, Long says, is renowned for being innovative and savvy, and could have a key role to play in Facebook’s strategy going forward.

“Developers have a huge part to play in the Facebook ecosystem. It is important for us that they are successful so we can be successful. If we all do our jobs well, Dublin could play an important role in Facebook’s global operations.”

In terms of Facebook’s internal operations, Long says the dynamic is different from Google in that the business is focused around branding and not straightforward advertising.

“The key is to help companies market in an unobtrusive way that enhances rather than denigrates the user’s experience. Brands look at Facebook as an engagement process with core audiences, and you have to be aware of striking the right balance.”

In terms of advertising, Long says that two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies are using Facebook as a marketing channel.

Long says that Facebook’s 25-year-old co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is hugely excited about the company’s Irish operations. “He is an amazing visionary who is open to sharing ideas. He tends to create forums of collaboration and consensus in the company, and has a strong vision for how he sees Facebook going forward.

“He gave the green light for the Irish operations, and has spoken specifically about the role it can play. Some 70pc of Facebook’s users live outside the US, and most of these are in Europe.

“The power of the internet is shifting in Ireland’s direction, and Dublin has a key role to play,” says Long.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: good news for these troubled times – spearheading the setting up of Facebook’s international headquarters in Dublin is Colm Long, who says that Ireland punches above its weight in software development and is respected as a good place to establish an internet business