A different kind of cloud drops upon Dublin

6 Aug 2013

Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, co-founders of Dropbox

It is one of the internet’s fastest-growing companies and on a Monday morning early last December, Dublin awoke to the news that Dropbox would be locating its international headquarters in the city. The move is expected to generate up to 40 jobs by the end of this year and places Dropbox among a veritable who’s who of the internet’s elite in Dublin, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter.

Dropbox is a free cloud service that lets users securely bring all their photos, documents and videos into a folder that can be accessed on any PC, Mac, iOS, BlackBerry or Android device across any variety of web browser. Simply put, Dropbox users have no reason to lose anything ever again.

Every 15 minutes more than 1m files are uploaded from computers and smartphones to Dropbox, and according to Palo Alto Networks, Dropbox is responsible for 0.29pc of the world’s internet bandwidth.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi began work on Dropbox in 2007, as a Y Combinator start-up. It emerged last year that U2 frontman Bono and guitarist the Edge took part in a US$250m second-round funding of Dropbox.

“Dropbox is one of the great tech stories of recent times. Meeting Drew and Arash is like meeting guys in a band,” Bono said at the time.

“Back in 2007, when it was just the two of us coding in an apartment, we never imagined that six years later there’d be over 175m people using Dropbox and more than a billion files synched each day,” said Drew Houston, CEO, at the company’s first developer conference recently.

Dropbox comes to Dublin

Spearheading Dropbox’s advance via the international HQ in Dublin is Johann Butting, a former Google director, who said more than one-third of Dropbox’s global traffic is in Europe.

Butting is no stranger to Ireland. He has been a frequent visitor since he first came to the country to sail around Schull in Cork in the 1980s and had been permanently based in Dublin for a number of years while he was a senior director in charge of Google’s AdWords and AdSense divisions.

“The first time I heard of Dropbox was after I accidentally deleted six months’ worth of photos of our kids and I was in trouble with my wife,” Butting said. “That was long before I had any inkling I would be working for (Dropbox). On that day I became a Dropbox user for the first time and when I was able to access it through various devices it was obvious what the potential would be.”

The potential that Butting refers to is that Dropbox could emerge to be more than just a place to store data – it could become a next-generation IT giant of its own, based on the intelligence and services that are constantly being added to its network.

Dropbox for Business

In recent months, the company launched Dropbox for Business to bring secure storage and cloud services to the enterprise market. Earlier this month, the company created new software modules – known as APIs – that will enable creators of apps to include Dropbox storage capabilities within apps that will appear on smartphones and other devices.

Every day, ordinary workers in thousands of companies across the world are using Dropbox as a way to share information, co-ordinate with each other, and communicate with each other on mission-critical projects.

“I would really think of Dropbox as a platform,” said Butting. “What is important is that we are enabling other companies to build on top of what we have built.”

Butting said one of the things that makes his role so exciting is how fast Dropbox has grown to 175m registered users worldwide.

“It is a unique opportunity to be part of arguably the fastest-growing company in Silicon Valley.”

Like many of the companies of Dropbox’s ilk that are growing fast globally, many are located in the midst of the bustling metropolis that is San Francisco, California. The city is miles from the office parks and campuses of Silicon Valley, and San Francisco is where Butting has been for the past few months preparing to ramp up Dropbox’s new international HQ in Dublin.

He said Dropbox is likely to exceed its initial target of 40 jobs by year’s end.

“My only concern is will I be able to keep up with the growth?” Butting said. “Basically, we are hiring the team that will build Dropbox in Europe. I think you will see some of the very aggressive strong growth that we have gone through in the US people-wise. We have no maximum numbers but if we see a person who fits what we are looking for we will hire them.”

Dropbox employee numbers

Already Dropbox employs 300 people in the US and about 15 in Dublin at a temporary office space in Dublin city centre while it searches for the ideal premises in the city. As it approaches the 200m-user milestone, one can only speculate on its eventual growth in Europe.

When Google came to Ireland in 2003, it intended to hire just 75 people but now employs more than 2,000 people. When Facebook came to Ireland four years ago, it intended to hire around 40 people and now it employs closer to 600 people.

“Our goal is to drive the growth in Europe and we’re actively looking for the people who will be part of the team that builds Europe. The remit of the Dublin operation will be serve the existing 60m or so Dropbox users in Europe and accommodate the growth we anticipate,” Butting said.

The staff in Dublin will be focused on outbound sales acquisition, user operations and marketing activities, said Butting. Those activities require Dropbox staff to understand the market, and to be close to customers, in their time zone.

Butting said that in terms of infrastructure – such as whether Dropbox will locate data centre and development activities in Ireland – he had no comment to make at this time.

“In terms of software development, not initially, because we are doing everything one step at a time,” he said. “Will we be continuously reassessing that? Yes, indeed.”

From California to Ireland

Butting said a core part of his job at present is bridging the culture of Dropbox in San Francisco with that of the new operation in Dublin. A key aspect of this will involve hiring seasoned and experienced technology executives but also provide recent graduates with a chance to work in San Francisco for awhile before returning to Dublin.

“Our Dropbox Associate Programme is dedicated to university graduates or people with at least two years’ experience where over a year they will train in Dublin and San Francisco learning the product and how to operate successfully in a modern technology company,” Butting said. “This will also decide where they ultimately will work in the company, be it in sales, operations or software. At the end of the year we will have invested very heavily in educating and training the team members and we see that as a good way to build the talent base we are looking for.”

Ideal hires, he said, would be people with strong analytical and communications skills.

Butting said Dublin faced competition from a number of other European locations for Dropbox’s international headquarters.

“We’re the kind of company that is happy to take a little extra time to make a decision because we want to get it right. We looked quite thoroughly at where in Europe we wanted to go. Dublin was a very straightforward decision in the end because it was the best place to get the talent we were seeking,” he said.

Dropbox, said Butting, is a highly scalable company and so needs access to an employee base that can help it scale, both on a junior level and on a senior level.

“You can only support the kind of growth we are looking for if you can get the people.”

Two decades of constant investment wins when it came to software, hardware and internet companies locating and scaling in Dublin, as well as its enduring attractiveness to young workers from all over the EU, had stood the city in good stead, Butting said.

“When it came to people who already know how to do this, in the end Dublin was clearly the place that we could get the best access to talent.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 4 August

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