Cork-based tech entrepreneur David Coallier is building what could be one of the most important IT security brands to emerge from Ireland. He is best known for founding Orchestra with Eamon Leonard, a pivotal turning point for Ireland’s start-up ecosystem.
When the dot-com bubble burst in March 2000, its effect on the rest of the tech and telecoms world was a slow trickle until the tragic World Trade Center attack of 11 September 2001 compounded matters. What followed was 10 years of the tech world slowly recovering, given the odd shot of adrenalin by pivotal moments like the launch of the iPhone in 2007.
As tech regrouped, few outside of San Francisco and even fewer in Ireland really talked about start-ups – except for when the Collison brothers of Stripe fame sold Auctomatic to Live Current Media in 2008. As such, it came as no surprise when the Collisons chose to start up in San Francisco rather than Dublin.
‘Ireland isn’t punching above its weight. Ireland is punching right on weight’
– DAVID COALLIER, BARRICADE
If I were to draw a line in the sand for when Ireland started talking realistically about start-ups again, I would suggest a balmy evening in late August 2011. That’s when news surfaced that a company in Dublin called Orchestra, which made platform-as-a-service (PaaS) for PHP support, was acquired by Engine Yard, and suddenly everyone was curious about founders Eamon Leonard, David Coallier and Helgi Þorbjörnsson.
That, to me, was the moment we started talking about an actual start-up ecosystem.
“I’m not saying we were a catalyst, but the timing was really good. It put Ireland back on the map and now we have a much bigger ecosystem,” he said.
“I remember just how hard it was to start a business then compared to now. There was no support at all but, not long after that, incubators and accelerators started arriving on the scene.”
Make the world your oyster
Raised in Canada, Coallier is an interesting figure who rarely seems to sit still. He moved out of home when he was 15 to attend university, even though he was too young. “I moved into one of my friend’s apartments and decided to attend McGill University in Montréal. I basically attended computer science and electrical engineering classes unregistered, and even had lab access.”
He sold his first tech company when he was just 16 and went on to work as a contractor for various governments. It was while living in Brazil doing consultancy work remotely for the Dutch government that he met his wife. After living for a while in her home country of France, the pair then decided to move to Cork.
“I was up in Dublin at some meet-up and a friend on Twitter said I should meet up with Eamon Leonard,” he recollected. “We met and, halfway through our first pint, we decided to start a company, which we called Echolibre, and it was from this company that we formed Orchestra.”
Coallier was at an interesting point, doing some contract work for a US tech company. “They were closing a funding round and, because I owned the IP, I sold it to them for 10pc of the fundraising. In the end, the company went bust and I was the only one who made any money.”
Echolibre started building APIs to interact with legacy systems and won and open source award, which was the catalyst for starting Orchestra. “We met investors and they kept asking us why weren’t we using it as a platform for deploying services to scale apps on the cloud super-easy, and on the plane back to Ireland we decided why not. It wasn’t a pivot, per se, but all we had to do was remove the top layer and it became a very useful PaaS for the PHP world.”
San Francisco-based Engine Yard, which was facing competition from rival players who were enabling multiple software languages via PaaS, took notice and offered to buy Orchestra.
Coallier was elevated to a director of engineering role with Engine Yard and found himself leading teams straddled between Dublin and San Francisco. While he was comfortable with travelling – having done the speaker circuit – it became a grind and meant constant separation from his young family.
“It was a great experience and good to see that day-to-day growth from being a small company to a bigger company,” he said. But, as Coallier recalled poignantly at a recent Meet the Founders event at Facebook in Dublin, the separation was taking a toll, coming to a head when his young daughter started calling him “FaceTime”.
“I am a pretty open and transparent guy and so I spoke to my boss and said, ‘I can’t travel anymore and keep managing a team with an eight-hour time difference, why don’t I become a security data scientist?’ He agreed.”
Coallier didn’t realise it at the time, but it was another turning point in his life. He began working alongside Engine Yard’s chief security officer, Jeff Rich, and immediately started recognising patterns that affected the IT security world. After a while, he decided it was time to go out there and start up because the IT security industry wasn’t keeping pace with the speed of technology change.
“I realised that the big companies were building products that were too big, too complex and too cumbersome. Their technology wasn’t born on the cloud, but was mostly retrofitted for the cloud. That was a mistake.”
Very soon, his former Engine Yard colleague Rich got in touch and asked: “When are you going to hire me?”
“That was the validation I needed,” Coallier recalled. “Because Jeff has the institutional security industry experience and recognised what I was trying to achieve.
“The traditional IT security industry was caught up in the innovator’s dilemma – trying to serve a tonne of customers with existing technology, not having time to leverage new technologies, and with all these customers to support [yet] no time to innovate.”
Barricade’s technology uses machine learning and performs as an early warning system against hackers and enables data breach and intrusion protection as a service.
“Businesses don’t need to be security experts to deploy it and they pay monthly rather than being locked into a contract,” said Coallier, deftly summarising the sales pitch.
Cork: an inspired choice
Coallier’s decision to locate the company in Cork rather than Dublin was also inspired.
“It was the logical decision,” he affirmed.“We are in a war for talent and I don’t want to be competing with Facebook, Zendesk, Airbnb or Google for engineers.”
‘The fact of the matter is that the market for weak IPOs and down rounds is changing conditions and that trickles all the way down to the seed stage’
– DAVID COALLIER, BARRICADE
At the same time, Coallier recognises that there are plenty of security companies in Cork, as well as risk experts working at big names such as Apple and Amazon. Yet, in this, he sees opportunity.
“There’s a good pool of potential hires and lots of people who are presumably bored with their jobs and want to work at a fast-moving start-up. Not only that, but office space in Cork is three times cheaper than Dublin and six times cheaper than San Francisco.
“Having worked in San Francisco, I realised that the tech world is not unlike Hollywood for actors. There are lots of bad actors. It’s the same for engineers. There are loads of good engineers in San Francisco, but there are a lot more bad engineers, and they are expensive. Cork was a logical choice and we are located in a floor below Pat Phelan’s Trustev.”
Fresh from the success of Engine Yard, Coallier went straight out to raise €1.2m in seed capital in just two weeks, an unheard-of achievement for an Irish start-up.
However, Coallier admits that this early success clouded his vision to the realities of funding and, a year later, when he was raising his next round, conditions had changed. “We were in New York and meeting potential investors and when we expected to sign the term sheet we were told that, because the market had changed, that investor was no longer doing seed or small Series A rounds any longer.
“What had happened was I had failed to reset my expectations. It was a tough lesson,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is that the market for weak IPOs and down rounds is changing conditions and that trickles all the way down to the seed stage.”
Happily for Coallier and Barricade, the company is on the verge of concluding a €1.6m funding round to take it to the next level.
The future of the start-up ecosystem in Ireland
Coallier’s view on the start-up ecosystem in Ireland is that, ultimately, it has never been healthier, but it is not without its problems.
“There are suddenly a lot of overnight experts on start-ups who have never even started a company themselves. The scary thing is a lot of these people [who] work in incubators come from a corporate world. And, while it is very encouraging to see a lot of people being interested in being part of the start-up ecosystem, I fear it could also be damaging for new breeds of start-ups. If mentors have never done a start-up themselves, how can they understand the pain? Start-ups are interesting for sure, but it is rarely about the money. We don’t talk enough about the emotional rollercoaster of start-ups and that is where most start-ups fail.”
‘We don’t talk enough about the emotional rollercoaster of start-ups and that is where most start-ups fail’
– DAVID COALLIER, BARRICADE
Indeed, if you haven’t personally failed or succeeded at something, it’s hard to tell someone else how to deal with it.
“There is always going to be something that will hit you in the knees. The day after the best news ever your whole world can fall apart,” warned Coallier.
“It’s incredibly hard to build a really good sales team or tech team. From my experience, 80pc of failures occur when founders fall out or there are people on the team that don’t have the passion for it. There’s no easy way to build a start-up.”
Coallier points out that the difference between start-up success and failure is not something you can put into an Excel spreadsheet or share on LinkedIn. Sometimes it is just down to blind faith.
“I call it ‘straight-up delusion’, you just have to have blind faith in your ideas that no one else can match. And that’s why I think it is a tricky line to walk between incubators and accelerators, and [to] receive damaging feedback from people who don’t empathise with the start-up journey or feel the same passion as you.”
Another thing that annoys Coallier is the tendency to ghettoise or funnel start-up ecosystems in Ireland to specific locations to support a real-estate agenda. “Instead of Silicon Docks or Rebel Valley, we need to cop on to the fact that we are a small country and we need to work together. Creating little fiefdoms will achieve nothing.”
That said, Coallier is overall positive. “Ireland isn’t punching above its weight. Ireland is punching right on weight. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland are doing their jobs. Sure, there is bureaucracy, but our STEM education system is very good. More importantly, that stigma of failure that has been so deeply ingrained in Ireland is finally beginning to disappear. People are not afraid anymore, not scared to fail anymore, which is extremely important for a start-up ecosystem.”
David Coallier will be interviewed by David Scanlon at Bank of Ireland-supported Startup Grind on Thursday 21 July, hosted at Google’s offices on Barrow Street, Dublin.