‘Dublin is the world’s scale-up capital,’ says HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan

10 Jun 2016

HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan

If Dublin plays its cards right, it could be second only to Silicon Valley, not for actual scale, but for the ability to scale-up. That’s the view of HubSpot CEO and co-founder Brian Halligan who, after only three years in the city, is expanding his Dublin operation to 500 people.

“What’s the story with radio here?” Halligan asked in a bemused tone. “I was listening to the radio in my hotel room and they were reading out death notices. When I came out of my shower they were still reading the death notices. Is this an Irish thing? They call the obituaries back in Boston ‘the Irish sports page’,” he quipped.

Halligan is a relaxed figure in a cashmere sweater and jeans and just about asks me more questions than I ask him.

‘One thing for certain is Dublin is the scale-up centre. All the companies are getting scale and HubSpot is one of them. Fast-expanding companies are crazy if they don’t come to Dublin, in my opinion’

We are sitting in what appears to be someone’s living room in a corner of HubSpot’s shiny new offices in the IFSC, next door to the Convention Centre, internally named DubSpot.

It is my second time talking to Halligan. The first time I spoke to him was three years ago when HubSpot, a specialist in inbound selling and marketing via online content and social media, arrived in Dublin to create 150 jobs.

As we talk, it is 10 years to the day since Halligan started HubSpot with Dharmesh Shah at MIT. Halligan, an accomplished tech industry veteran who excelled at growing revenues for software companies and enjoyed a brief stint as a venture capitalist, was studying at MIT when he realised that Shah was working on something that fixed a problem that was vexing him.

Companies were wasting lots of resources on email marketing, online marketing and PR but were failing to clinch vital B2B inbound deals. “The online marketing model is broken,” he lamented the last time we spoke.

Three years later and Halligan still believes marketing is broken.

And HubSpot’s Dublin operations are at the pointy end of the spear when it comes to nailing the problem.

Scaling up in Dublin


Inside HubSpot’s new offices in Dublin’s docklands

Today, HubSpot is a global inbound marketing and sales platform that is used by more than 18,000 businesses in 90 countries.

In recent weeks, HubSpot announced plans to create 320 new jobs at its European headquarters at One Dockland Central, which will bring total employment at the company in Dublin to 500 people.

“We looked at other countries and debated which city, but, gosh, it was one of the best decisions we made in the history of HubSpot [to come to Dublin].

‘There is a big shift happening across the social landscape’

“When we first came here, we sent six Americans and gave them three goals: get the revenue machine going, build a culture and replace yourselves. The last one is moving back to Boston in two weeks.”

Halligan said that the intention for the office originally was to be a sales and service office. Now, the operation hosts full engineering elements working on shipping core HubSpot products.

“We build a lot of our products here, a lot of the big stuff is being done in Dublin and we have expanded far faster than we planned to.”

But Dublin’s success in capturing companies like HubSpot comes with a price. “When we first came here three years ago, Ireland was cheaper than Boston, but now it is more expensive than Boston and finding talent is more competitive.”

Another big shift is how many global roles at HubSpot are now run out of Dublin, including global support, global conferences, global recruitment and product marketing.

“We keep giving our global promotions to Dublin because the people earn them. What is interesting about the people who have been promoted is that they have come from companies like Google, LinkedIn and Salesforce – big scale internet companies. We are based in Boston and it is very hard for us to recruit someone from Google in California or from Facebook or Salesforce with the scale experience we need, but here in Dublin you can find them just across the street.

“That expertise is hard to acquire and Dublin has acquired it. I’m very happy for Dublin, but it is getting competitive.”

Where AI meets marketing

Returning to HubSpot’s original mission and how the internet and social media are evolving today, Halligan said: “At first it was about search engines, blogs and social and our mission was to help marketers transform and match the way human behaviour really works, which was the exact opposite of what marketers were asking for. They were dismissing social – which back then was Reddit and Digg.

Brian Halligan_2

‘Five years from now artificial intelligence will be commonplace’

“We were right and they were wrong, but now social is changing again. There is a major change afoot where people are living in private social networks – when I look around at what people at HubSpot are using, I don’t see Facebook or Twitter open as much on people’s screens; they live in Slack, or Messenger or WeChat. There is a big shift happening across the social landscape.”

I ask him is content still king? “Yeah, but that has changed too. Less and less people want to consume written content and more and more want to see video content and listen to audio content.”

A bigger shift is coming to search engines. “We used to use Google and it was just a list of links. Now, in Google, it gives you the darn answer. There are new search engines emerging. Siri is not very good but I bet you in a year’s time Siri will be a really good search engine.

“Another one that is fantastic is Amazon’s Echo – you’ve got an AI helper called Alexa who I can ask questions all day long, so there are new types of search engines evolving.

“The other thing that has changed is that, at first, it was about the web, then apps and social, but now it is going to become bots and AI powering those bots.

“Part of our job is to take all that complicated crap and make it usable for ordinary humans. Everyone will. Facebook and Google will make AI accessible to mere mortals and developers will build it into products to make them smarter. Five years from now, AI will be commonplace.”

From a mobile perspective, Halligan says that 40pc to 50pc of a B2B buyers’ time is spent staring at a mobile screen vs desktop and plans are afoot to integrate HubSpot within Slack.

“Intercom is a really interesting company. I don’t see them as competitors – they sell to companies building technology, we sell to mainstream B2B companies. But I like those guys a lot and I am really interested in that company.”

Halligan has a keen interest in Irish start-ups and sits on the board of Fleetmatics, which announced 75 R&D jobs in Dublin this week.

“Another great company with Irish founders is Stripe, I met those guys and was really impressed. I would like to see more Irish-led companies pop up and get to scale. It’s too bad that they have to go to Silicon Valley, it would be nice if they could start here and stay here.”

After asking me if there are any young companies he should be aware of, he recognises the problem is tapping into the same venture capital funding mix as Silicon Valley.

“Dublin should be number two in the world. But one thing for certain is Dublin is the scale-up centre. All the companies are getting scale and HubSpot is one of them. Fast-expanding companies are crazy if they don’t come to Dublin, in my opinion.”

He has a point. Google came to Dublin to create a small office of around 80 people and now it employs 5,000 people, making it the city’s largest employer. Facebook also came to Dublin to create around 80 jobs in 2008 and now stands at over 1,000 people. The same rate of growth has been experienced by companies like Airbnb and Twitter.

Pondering the venture capital question, Halligan has an idea: “It would be cool if Sequoia or Andreessen or other big VCs from Silicon Valley opened an office here or hired some of the bright guys from Intercom or Stripe and got them to set up an office here in Dublin.

“If I were the IDA I would be petitioning Sequoia, Andreessen, Greylock and all the big firms to send people over and I’d put money in myself. London has Accel and Balderton, but I would like to see Ireland gain that kind of activity.”

For HubsSpot, the challenge is enabling people who sell and market to navigate the world of digital marketing.

As Halligan sees it, marketing is still broken.

“There are massive shifts going on and I think marketing is getting harder. We have done a lot but I feel we are just getting started. The first part was turning a stranger into a visitor, the next was turning a visitor into a lead and now it is about turning that lead into a customer.

“It still feels early to us, it doesn’t feel like we are done. I can still see myself doing this decades from now.”

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