At Future Human, Intercom’s Des Traynor shared his views on start-ups in Ireland, trends in European tech and the culture within his own company.
Intercom may be one of the first names that pops up in any conversation about Irish tech successes, but co-founder Des Traynor has a surprisingly counter-intuitive piece of advice for other founders hoping to follow in the start-up’s footsteps.
“Forget about the Irish part of your business and think of yourself as a global business. Don’t obsess about being popular in the Irish tech scene or thinking about yourself as Irish in any way, shape or form,” he told the audience at Future Human last month.
“At the very least you’re European, not Irish. But more generally, you’re a global company.”
Traynor, one of the Irishmen who founded the San Francisco-based SaaS company more than a decade ago, thinks that the whole point of the internet is that people don’t have to fly to Ireland to consume products and services from Irish businesses.
“You have a global market, you have a good product, and you should have a very credible ambition of realising hundreds of millions in revenue and those billions or tens of billions in value,” he said. “I think that’s well within the grasp of any Irish company.”
Is Europe hot?
Intercom, along with Stripe, was one of the earlier tech unicorns to come from Irish founders. But this stable is growing, with three homegrown tech ventures passing the $1bn valuation mark already this year: Flipdish, Wayflyer and TransferMate.
Though established in California, Intercom still has deep roots in Ireland and a large operation in Dublin. At the close of last year, it reported more than $200m in annual recurring revenue and revealed plans to nearly double its Irish workforce by the end of 2022.
The company, which has developed a communications platform to help businesses with customer relationships, now has more than 25,000 customers and employs around 950 people globally.
When asked if Ireland, and Europe in general, has become as a powerhouse for churning out tech unicorns, Traynor said that although we “lag a little” behind the tech scene in the US, particularly in Silicon Valley, we’re still doing quite well and the future is promising.
“I think it’s a lot more credible to stay in Europe and build a large software company now than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” he told the audience. Although we may lack people experienced in scaling businesses, Traynor added, we have a strong talent pool of engineers and designers.
It’s all about the SaaS
Traynor noted that a lot of successful Irish businesses today are operating in the field of SaaS, or software-as-a-service, a movement which he said really started in the early 2000s with Salesforce.
“What [SaaS] means is software that’s delivered online, where you pay monthly or yearly but it’s a subscription of sorts, as opposed to the old days where you’re buying DVDs or CDs and getting them pressed at a factory.”
This attraction towards SaaS, a sector that Intercom is also part of, is partly fuelled by entrepreneurs “realising that there are no barriers to entry” and there is potential for “unbounded scalability and massive margins”.
If you can code, design, engineer, market and sell, “you have a good chance of building a large business”.
But SaaS is not the only sector Traynor thinks has high potential. While he believes emerging spaces such as Web3 and crypto are “still figuring themselves out”, there’s something about the immersive quality of the metaverse that has caught his fancy.
“I do think there is something to that, the idea of immersive experiences. I don’t want to go full metaverse, but there’s just something in the space of a far more immersive way to engage in the internet and I think someone will build something impressive there.”
Intercom hasn’t just been a successful business in itself. Over the last decade or so, it has also nurtured a cohort of product-driven entrepreneurs. A large, growing community of ex-employees turned entrepreneurs convene in a Slack channel called ‘Outercom’ to share ideas, what they’re working on, and tips on securing investment.
Traynor said that he embraces this trend within Intercom, partly because it helps employees thrive when they’re in the company and focus on specific problems.
“We try to foster that sort of founder-y mindset of, ‘This is my thing, I feel a lot of pride in it and I really want it to work’”, he explained.
“And then sometimes when people grow that skill and that mindset and then they see another problem that is not in the Intercom landscape…they can’t get rid of that itch that is like, ‘Someone should build this and I’m someone’, so off they go.”
However, he joked that he hopes the ones who leave don’t take too many Intercom people with them.
“You take the rough with the smooth because the people are phenomenal when they’re here and we wish them the best when they leave,” he said.
“But there are also people who have that mindset who still work in Intercom and do amazing work and go on to have an insane career and get a lot more experience seeing things at a lot more scale as well.”
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