XING’s Bill Liao spells out Ireland’s digital opportunity

20 May 2010

Social networking entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Liao says Ireland needs to be better at telling its story and selling itself if it wants to grab an unrivalled share of the digital economy.

Speaking at this morning’s Irish Internet Association congress in Dublin, Liao said stifling European bureaucracy that gets in the way of firms forming and registering for tax that involves everything from tax audits to notaries is Ireland’s opportunity.

Liao, along with Lars Hinrichs, co-founded Open Business Club in Hamburg, Germany, in 2003 as a platform for business professionals and renamed it XING in 2006. XING was one of the first Web 2.0 companies to go public and has grown to become one of the world’s leading business-to-business social networking portals.

Recalling his experiences starting XING from Hamburg, he said trying to register businesses in countries like France, Germany and the UK was harrowing.

What could work as Ireland’s advantage

Europe’s fragmentation could actually work to Ireland’s advantage as a key interface for US companies targeting Europe.

“I hear a lot of talk about Ireland wanting to be the Silicon Valley of Europe. What Silicon Valley has however, is finance and a density to its network. It’s the density of the network, the creators and entrepreneurs that drew the capital to the Valley, not the other way round.”

Liao said the reason the venture capital industry started in the US was down to three scientists who set up Digital Equipment Corporation to make and sell computers. Those scientists, who got a 50,000pc return on their investment, had incredible networks of contacts that brought together the money.

“Europe is fragmented – there is a limited density because of so much difference. When you look at at that and wonder how to bring all that density of money and entrepreneurship together, you need a place that is friendly. That has the advantage of a social scene, the density and an optimism that is irreplicable. Why not Ireland for that?

“Ireland has the incredible heritage of being the interface to the US anyway – there’s so many Irish diaspora in the US. As an Australian in Ireland, Ireland is a friendly country – great place to come and interact and socialise. Ireland has a density to it, you can come here and meet powerful people quickly.

“There’s an ability to get things done here that is underutilised. Also, the educational system here is good in parts, you’ve the smart generation of Irish people. Why not use that to bring it all together. It has to happen and has to happen fast.

“It’s a little too slow here, it has to speed up.”

Looking at Delaware

Returning to bureaucracy, Liao pointed to the US State of Delaware that is integral to companies forming rapidly in the States. “There is no ‘Delaware’ in Europe – the UK has tried a bit, Ireland has helped a little, but why not some place Ireland can go and set up a business quickly? Why isn’t it here?

“Do you know what you need to go through to get a VAT number – you are deemed either a terrorist or money launderer – and you’re guilty until proven innocent.

“Ireland has enough density and knowledgeable people that systems that could be made fast. For young and small businesses, the bureaucracy of Europe is vast. Some 100,000 francs of capital needed in Switzerland to register a business.

“There is a regulatory and bureaucratic arbitrage opportunity to create a State change not just in Ireland or Europe.”

Ireland’s digital opportunity

Liao says he hears a lot of talk about Ireland’s digital opportunity and talk about the ‘knowledge’ or ‘smart’ economy but it’s just talk. “It’s also about listening. It’s about creating an environment to listen and get the density to get the mass so this critical mass can be unleashed. You just need to create a context

“Make it OK to be proud of what’s going on – make it easier to do business, not harder. What is stopping the Irish standing up and making the most of achievements in the digital world, you have Google, Microsoft and Intel here.

“In America, you are your own press release, Ireland needs that – it needs to be its own press release. The noise is loud out there in the world, make it easy to come here. I was told early in my career that if you want rock star performance, create a rock star environment – Ireland has everything it needs to be its own rock star environment.

“I know there are deep cultural reasons – humility is a good thing – but shouldn’t hide under a bushel, get out there. It’s a really global world and we’re all part of that world.

“In this incredibly connected world we are just one country, with an incredible density, with an openness to new people. That friendliness has to be advertised,” Liao said.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Social networking entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Liao

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