The first ever, last ever DublinBeta interview

7 Dec 2017

The banner on the stage at the first ever, last ever DublinBeta event. Image: Gene Murphy

An important chapter in Dublin start-up history came to a close this week.

DublinBeta represents an important institution in the city’s start-up lore. It was where a then 12-year-old Shane Curran (this year’s BT Young Scientist winner) tested his mettle against older start-up founders to debug his earliest projects.

It was where dozens of today’s best-known Dublin founders learned how to pitch before expectant crowds.

‘Corporates and multinationals now play a big role and see the value in the tech start-up community in Ireland, and things are good. But things can always be better and that’s what we all need to keep in mind’

Sadly, earlier this week (4 December), the last ever DublinBeta was held and, in customary fashion, it was business as usual as a plethora of start-ups were put to the test in front of an exacting crowd.

The overall winner of the last ever DublinBeta this week was Vaasco, which gives your content a voice by allowing you to easily add lifelike speech to your WordPress blog and turn posts into podcasts.

Second place went to Geodesign Hub, creator of software for collaborative geodesign. It enables teams to create and share concepts, design collaboratively, and receive change assessments instantly.

Hublio and Anadue came in joint third. Hublio is a free digital insurance and finance assistant that stores policies, financial information and subscriptions, and finds out if you’re overinsured. Anadue creates connected car analytics by combining real-time knowledge of a vehicle’s location with data on location transactions, such as fuel card spending.

The end of the DublinBeta era

The last ever, first ever, DublinBeta interview

DublinBeta event in 2013. Image: Gene Murphy

I asked the three main organisers of DublinBeta – Russell Banks, John O’Rourke and Gene Murphy – about how DublinBeta came about.

Banks said: “It was summer 2011 and I was working with John in WiniCabs, a travel tech company. The Web Summit was going from strength to strength and the start-up events scene was beginning to really liven up. I was beginning to get ‘involved’ in the start-up scene and, one afternoon, myself and John got talking about what type of event we felt was missing. We thrashed it out and ultimately decided that what was needed was an event that was aimed at early-stage start-ups that you hadn’t heard of before, where they could exhibit for free and simply get feedback on their idea from as many and as wide a group as possible. In my memory, it feels like a day or two later we got wind that Christian Perry of SF Beta (one of San Francisco’s biggest start-up events at the time) was in town and it turned out he was looking to get an event going in Ireland. We agreed to take the brand, and he agreed to support us.”

O’Rourke explained that at the time, tech communities weren’t very accessible in Dublin, especially for emerging people and ideas. “It was tough to find like-minded folks you could evolve ideas with, while not necessarily having an active project. We’d been noodling on creating an open format tech event for a bit and, around that time, we met Perry while he was scouting Dublin for his event series. We jumped at the chance to partner up. It was a great way to take on learnings from an existing event series, and layer in some of that Bay Area flavour.

“22 events later, I have to say the flavour and format has served us well. We got to know Gene somewhere around this point, and he shared the same passion as us for being part of a community of makers and thinkers. It was a natural fit him to hop aboard and help drive DublinBeta on to what it is today.

Murphy, who is entrepreneur in residence at Bank of Ireland, explained that events are in his blood as his family organises the Bloom festival every year in Phoenix Park.

“I grew up basically in the RDS and, at six months of age, visited my first event thanks to my Dad bringing me around it, the night before it opened, in my carry cot. So, suffice to say, events are in my DNA and the opportunity to combine that love with my fascination with tech start-ups had me sold long before a call from Russell to see if I would jump on board.”

So, why is DublinBeta coming to an end?

“In short, we want to end on a high,” Banks explained. “DublinBeta has always been about the start-ups. As long as we felt that we were delivering value to them, we were happy. When Gene joined the team quite a few years back, DublinBeta was in danger of going a little stale. His extra energy and ideas helped to revitalise the event and re-energise myself and John.

“I think we have reached another natural point where we either needed to change things up again or decide to wind things down. The three of us have a strong belief in the ethos of the event. Start-ups first. We never received any financial reward for what we did, nor did we do it for any recognition. We just did it as we felt it needed to be done. We believe that this ethos served us well, and start-ups and attendees that attended felt that emanating from us. If we decided to not be involved and put another team in our place, there is a concern the event could take a direction contrary to that, so we have decided best to celebrate DublinBeta’s successes and see who or what event will take its place.”

In many ways, it sounds like a rock band knowing when to quit.

“Always be of your time,” agreed Murphy. “When Beta started, we were in a space where there were an incredibly high amount of people creating. We’ve had some fascinating and crazy and thoroughly cool tech start-ups through our doors, and that’s been a big moment of pride to showcase them to an awesome community of people. More recently, personally I’ve realised there’s only so many things that can be done at a given time and, instead of letting Beta fall between a gap and become a hassle to work on versus an exciting event, it’s better to wrap up now and celebrate Ireland’s awesome tech start-ups one last time, properly.”

Good ideas never die, they just fade away

As O’Rourke sees it, the community space and access to resources in Dublin have increased a phenomenal amount since DublinBeta started.

“And it seems like there are now lots of low-barrier ways to get involved in tech entrepreneurship communities, both on- and offline. In addition, the frequency of our beloved scrappier ventures has slowed a little while, on the other hand, Ireland has raised the bar in its tech output quality. With that, some teary chats, and an eagerness to make room for what’s next, we decided to wrap up the six-year DublinBeta project and be thankful for a fantastic community of buzzers that have taught us so much along the way.

Banks believes that the most vital reward DublinBeta gave start-ups was, in a word, feedback.

“And, let’s be clear: it wasn’t that folks were universally telling teams that they loved their ideas. Founders were being challenged on everything from their business model to technology stack by our attendees. I think that is one of DublinBeta’s strong points. We had amazing attendees who brought a wide range of experiences and insights, which they could use to really help the start-ups get a better feel for what they were doing. We regularly would have attendees from VCs, accelerators, colleges, tech businesses and government officials all in the mix throwing in their two-pence worth.

“As for what will replace it … I do not know, to be honest. But I do believe that Irish people are naturally good at building communities and someone out there will pick up the baton and we will see something in the coming months.”

O’Rourke agrees: “On the theme of feedback, it was hearing a 12-year-old entrepreneur getting into the deep technicals around why a demoing loyalty start-up was built with a particular code stack, then seeing the loyalty app founder’s reaction shift and begin to take notes.”

“Were we of value?” mused Murphy. “Was it worth doing? Over the past few weeks, since we launched the First Ever, Last Ever Beta edition, we’ve had some lovely emails from folks – that, I won’t lie, made my eyes a little watery – saying the impact that showcasing made for them or even attending, and how that got them to quit what they were working on and start their own tech company. It’s best to leave the teams and attendees answer this one, and I hope we did help people as that was our goal. Maybe in the tweet replies to this article, people can share if it was fun for them, inspired them or if it was just a fun event to attend?”

People have the power

The last ever, first ever, DublinBeta interview

DublinBeta in 2015. Image: Gene Murphy

As treasured memories go, for Banks, he loved watching a community forge into position as teams would return a second or third time.

“We had several companies do that and many are now very well-known, high-profile start-ups that have got customers, funding and are growing at a phenomenal rate. But, if you were to push me, it would be watching the development of Shane Curran. Shane first demoed at DublinBeta in July 2012, at a very youthful 12 years old. The most pleasant, intelligent, well-rounded boy you could ever hope to meet. Since his first attendance, Shane has been back – with, I think, two other of his start-ups – and grown into a towering man, and I know a source of great pride to his father Kirrill. But Shane, for me, represents the future. We gave Shane a platform at a very young age to show the world what he could do and he was amazing. From there, he has gone from strength to strength. I believe that the youngest generations use and interact with technology in a way that even us techies don’t fully appreciate. The more safe, creative outlets they have, the better for all of us. Shane gives me hope in the future of not just tech but our society as a whole.”

For Murphy, it was the adrenaline. “Standout moments were every time we didn’t ruin an edition! Sometimes, our own ability to do that, however, was taken out of our hands, such as the case of the wonky fire alarm. One time, years back, with three hours before our event, we were told that one of our venues couldn’t open due to a faulty fire alarm. It was OK as it turns out, but just kept going off so, with no time at all and a few phone calls, the wonderful folks at Pygmalion gave us a space, moved around all of our stands, and our demoing teams even got in on the action of helping us set up. It started raining and poor Russell stood outside the old venue directing people to the new home, which was Pygmalion. That was a night to remember, to say the least.”

The future is unwritten

Looking to the future, each member of the DublinBeta team feels that the start-up scene in Dublin is evolving nicely at its own pace.

“Since 2011, the scene has changed a lot,” said Banks. “When we started this journey, there were hardly three to five events on a week. I know that [now it] is into the 20s if not 30s, ranging from tech, AI, cryptocurrency, digital marketing – you name it. And I am sure that there is an active community for you to get involved with. This means that if you are looking to start something that there is now a more evolved community of groups that can support you, no matter what you plan to do.

“I also think that the hype cycle around start-ups seems to have cooled down, which is a good thing. From what I see, you are seeing more mature start-ups that have customers, MVP built etc that are now looking to get onto programmes or funding. This is probably driven in parts by how much easier it is now than even five years ago to get something built and users onto it.

“Finding customers is the basic key to success and I think we are seeing a lot more start-ups focusing on that from the off and reaping the rewards. As for improvements, the main big one will be that someone will need to put an early-stage start-up mixer event [on] in the New Year as we won’t be here to do it.”

Murphy thinks it is an interesting time for entrepreneurs. “We’ve been able to see snapshots over the last six years since starting out with DublinBeta. Where we went from the phase of the uber-creators of wonderful ideas, that has broadened out to seeing so many new streams of people joining the community. Corporates and multinationals now play a big role and see the value in the tech start-up community in Ireland, and things are good. But things can always be better and that’s what we all need to keep in mind.”

He concluded by asking: “What is the best state our community can be in to accelerate great entrepreneurs in the tech start-up space to their goal even faster?

“That’s the most important item in my opinion: to keep pushing on.”

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