Selling Ireland as the scale-up capital of Europe

7 May 2019

Image: © Radoslav/

The very heart of the digital economy is about sales and customer success. It turns out that Ireland is good at this, writes John Kennedy.

Critics of Ireland’s claim to be the Silicon Valley of Europe (often home-based) bemoan that many of the tens of thousands of ‘tech’ jobs aren’t necessarily core tech roles such as engineering or software development, and that a lot of the activity is in customer support, sales, and increasingly newfangled terms such as inbound, inside sales and customer success.

There is some sliver of truth to this, but it’s not a bad thing either. It is worth remembering that as well as the thousands of ‘business’ jobs in tech, Ireland is also at the cutting edge of engineering in electronics manufacturing (take Intel for example) and software development (Microsoft) as well as next-generation biopharma and biologics (Takeda).

‘Retention is the new conversion’

Bemoaning the sheer number of business roles and functions does a disservice to the fine engineering tradition, reputation and value-add created by thousands of Irish engineers down through the years. But it also misses the point about how Ireland has cultivated a crucial role at the heart of the global tech and internet world as the place to do business and hack growth.

As Brian Halligan, co-founder of HubSpot, put it once, Dublin is seen in leadership circles as the scale-up capital of the world.

When Google came to Ireland in 2003, it was as a sales outpost for a handful of Googlers. Today, Google employs about 8,000 people here and is growing across a plethora of roles and functions, including sales and engineering. Similarly, Facebook came to Dublin in 2008 with a small outpost in mind and today it is hurtling towards 5,000 people.

If you study companies such as HubSpot, which last year surpassed the 100-engineer mark in Dublin, it is clear that engineering is moving closer to the sales function because it is vital that products and actual customer success stories occur thanks to greater empathy by the people who make the products as well as those that sell them.

The 200 high-level positions recently announced by SaaS firm LogMeIn include customer success managers to help customers meet their business goals. Similarly, recruitment site Indeed, which came to Dublin in 2012 and currently employs 1,000 people here, has just announced 600 jobs in marketing, finance, strategy, operations, sales, client services, HR and business development.

Stop being snobby about sales

In late 2017 I met Intercom co-founder Des Traynor at Slush in Helsinki and he impressed upon me why customer success matters to not only tech businesses but every manner of business.

“In software, you used to sell something like an Adobe Photoshop licence for hundreds of dollars and that was it. The salesperson walked away and didn’t care after that. But now, these businesses want to have subscribers who pay $10 or $20 every month. Retention is the new conversion, and what we are about is building the bridge to finding that other half of sales, which is pretty much about finding the right person to sell to.”

It is interesting to note that much of the core product development and engineering at Intercom, a firm established in San Francisco by Irish founders that has gone on to epitomise the customer success movement, happens in Dublin.

It is also worth noting how Stripe, another company established in the US by Irish founders that is also growing in Dublin, last week launched a Billing product hinged around customer retention. It cited McKinsey, which said the subscriptions e-commerce market has grown more than 100pc a year for the past five years. In recognition of this, Stripe is establishing its fifth engineering hub with roles for 100 engineers as a remote operation precisely so that engineers can work more closely to and with customers.

As a country, we need to let go of this inherent snobbery towards sales and, in fact, embrace it culturally.

In a very interesting white paper produced by international aircraft leasing company Avolon, entitled ‘Project I’, the point was made that entrepreneurship needs to be taught earlier in life and that pitching should be a subject at third level.

“We are a small island nation but Ireland still plays a leading role in world commerce,” noted Avolon CEO Dómhnal Slattery. “We can all be proud of our impact and our influence, which is felt wherever global capital flows. Ireland’s economic advantages are many, but what differentiates us is our ability to adapt and be nimble. With a global reputation for business acumen, imagination and work ethic, we are uniquely placed to be a global start-up leader.”

Putting the customer at the heart of any business journey is a theme that will feature strongly at next week’s Inspirefest, where Traynor, along with HubSpot engineering lead Barbara McCarthy and AIB CIO Tim Hynes, will be among the advocates of customer success applying greater empathy to product development.

So what if all the tech jobs are not exactly core engineering or software development roles? The engineers we do have are among the best in the world and we will always need more of them. But, equally, having people who can apply empathy and a good dollop of ‘cop on’ and emotional intelligence to sales and to retaining customers is also making Ireland stand out.

We need to underpin it by getting over our snobbery about sales, understanding what customer success really means, and investing in entrepreneurial talent and language skills.

The reality of life is that everybody is selling or hustling at some point. You sell yourself at the job interview; you sell yourself to get that next promotion or higher grades in school by doing better work. In everything we do in life, we need to think like entrepreneurs. And always be selling.

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