HubSpot’s Brian Halligan: ‘Ireland has a chance to be Europe’s Silicon Valley’

30 Nov 2018

Brian Halligan on stage at Inbound 2018. Image: HubSpot

As HubSpot expands its footprint in Dublin, co-founder Brian Halligan tells John Kennedy why he is a fan of the Irish city’s start-up potential.

The first time I met Brian Halligan a few years ago burns in my mind. As well as peppering me with more questions than I could field at him, moments after leaving the HubSpot offices in Dublin I get a tweet from him telling me we should have talked about Fleetmatics, an Irish company of which he sat on the board. He was right. A few months later, Fleetmatics was bought by Verizon for $2.4bn.

I was just musing on this experience in a conference room during HubSpot’s recent Inbound conference in Boston when Halligan bounded into the room amiably munching on an apple.

‘That’s the next step for Ireland. Talk some big VCs into investing, steal one of the founders from Intercom and give them money to start a fund. That’s what’s missing in Ireland’

Fresh from a keynote stage appearance at an event attended by 24,000 people, Halligan is cheerful, chilled but focused. “You know, this event started off more a user group with 300 or 400 people and a speech by Seth Godin. We decided, let’s do a community, and now it’s 24,000 people. How did that happen?”

I remark how diverse the attendance is in terms gender and race – not your typically white, male-dominated geek-fest that marks out most State-side tech events. “The marketing industry itself is super-diverse. We work hard on making sure the speakers are diverse. We’re super proud of that,” he smiled, taking another bite of his apple.

HubSpot’s new DubSpot

A shiny glass office development with construction towers on south quays of Dublin.

1 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Image: Gary Belcher

HubSpot hit the headlines in recent weeks in Ireland for its decision to lease all of the office accommodation in 1 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay (1SJRQ) on Dublin’s South Docks for €6.8m a year from Hibernia REIT. Overall, the expansion will allow HubSpot to accommodate up to 1,400 seats across its two locations.

Two years ago, HubSpot announced plans to create 320 new jobs at its European headquarters at One Dockland Central, in a bid to bring total employment at the company in Dublin to about 500 people. In September, reported that the company had surpassed the crucial 100-engineer milestone in Dublin.

That first time I met Halligan, he said that HubSpot was born out of his and co-founder CTO Dharmesh Shah’s conviction that marketing was broken.

I ask him if marketing has been fixed? “No, but I think we have made an impact and I think we have helped a lot of people to market better. And that’s good for the companies that are marketing and the recipients of that marketing; they are not as irritated as they use to be.

“The whole of HubSpot is really grounded in not trying so much to fix marketing, but in really studying normal human behaviour and how that has changed. And the initial insight at HubSpot was that humans weren’t reading magazines and newspapers; they were reading blogs and spending a lot more time on social media and on Google. And we decided to figure out how do we help marketers shift their model so that they can match that.

“Nowadays, we ship a fuller suite of products because we see humans increasingly buying stuff without stores and how that customer experience is really the key to disrupting existing industries and building new industries.

“We pivoted HubSpot a few years ago from marketing to how do we build a full suite that helps people to go to market in a way that is modern and fits with the way people want to buy.”

Entering the enterprise

Man standing on a stage pointing to a presentation.

Brian Halligan, co-founder and CEO, HubSpot. Image: HubSpot

In his keynote, Halligan pointed out how customer experience is king, and that the experience and convenience has to be as authentic as the final product, whether it is through a subscription with Dollar Shave Club or buying from Warby Parker or Purple Mattress.

“It’s just a march of history. The convenience part and the patience part has kind of sped up, and I don’t know why it took so long for this to happen. But it is happening.”

I mention his co-founder Shah’s customer-code talk which, at times hilarious, hit the nail on the head about customers no longer willing to put up with bad service or unnecessary user experience frictions, whether online or offline.

“Dharmesh’s secret – it took me a long time to learn this – is that he makes sure he has less projects going on than anybody else, but he will absolutely nail those one or two and say ‘no’ to everything else.

“When we started HubSpot his project was that he wanted to become the foremost expert on how Google actually works and he kind of became an expert. He went super granular. He thinks about things very deeply and is a super-bright guy.”

Man in t-shirt making a presentation on stage.

Dharmesh Shah, CTO and co-founder, HubSpot. Image: HubSpot

Halligan and Shah met about 12 years ago while both were studying for MBAs at MIT’s Sloan Institute for Entrepreneurs. Initially, they politely ignored each other but ended up working on a few things and decided they wanted to build something big and significant.

Halligan describes Shah as the “near-perfect co-founder”, adding: “We are very complementary and we like each other. We have different expertise that we are relatively deep on and we have respect for each other in those areas. I would never make a big decision without him and it is vice-versa. And it’s not because we have to but because we want to.”

At Inbound 2018, HubSpot made a powerful statement of intent, revealing ambitions to bring its popular growth platform into the enterprise through its Sales Hub Enterprise platform, which could bring it closer to competition with Microsoft and Salesforce.

“If you look at what we’ve done over the last four or five years, all of our attention has been on companies of between 20 and 200 employees. That’s kind of our sweet spot. And if you were a Martian looking at us, you’d say, ‘OK, that’s where they live.’

“But over the past year we’ve been scaling in three distinct directions. Firstly, from marketing to sales to service – that’s east to west. We looked south with starter editions for two to 20-strong businesses and finally north from the 200 to the 2,000-strong employee level.

“We call it enterprise, but if you ask someone at Oracle they’d say it is mid-market. But it’s fair to say we are now focusing on really decent-sized companies.”

I point out the breadth of start-ups that were at Inbound from all over the US which were now part of the HubSpot ecosystem, focusing on various niches. “There’s a huge community around us. Capitalism is incredibly efficient. If there is a niche, it will get filled.”

From Boston to Dublin via California

Speaking of start-up ecosystems, I ask Halligan about Boston. “The thing about HubSpot, and part of the reason we put Boston on the map, is that we are a little obsessed with San Francisco and Silicon Valley and we always wanted to build a Californian company in Boston. Every year, Darmesh and I visit start-ups in California. We are a west coast company on the east coast.”

Halligan said that while the Boston start-up scene is good it could be better. “When I was growing up, Boston and Silicon Valley were neck-and-neck back then and we’ve been lapped many times. We missed the whole PC revolution, a lot of the internet and we missed the consumer apps and a lot of trends. I’m not entirely sure why, but we missed a bunch. And what we wanted to do was build an anchor company here in Boston and if that leads to other companies starting or investing in other companies then that would be great. But we would like to build Boston back up if we can.”

Every city has an identity and Halligan believes it is also down to mindset. “Boston was founded by puritans, religious zealots and conservative people with buckles on their hats. But California was founded by gold miners, risk-seekers and I think that bleeds into the culture out there. People are much more willing to start companies, keep it going and not sell it, which I think happens in Boston.”

He points out the things that attracted HubSpot to Ireland. “Obviously the tax treatment but also the talent and the prices. It’s still great but it’s getting very competitive and Dublin is getting up there with Silicon Valley. In Ireland, we are competing with some of the Silicon Valley companies for office space. Dublin is really growing up.

“It’s harder to recruit in Dublin than Boston,” Halligan added. That said, you get the sense that he is one of Dublin’s greatest fans. “I really like what Trinity is doing, opening up its engineering and business schools and getting more practical and entrepreneurial, which I wish they had done a while ago.

“Another thing that Ireland should do is talk to some of the big Silicon Valley firms and get them to set up shop. Someone like an Accel or a Sequoia. Take some young enterprising person and give them $100m to go fund a load of start-ups. That would be the ticket.

“It would be awesome for Ireland to really develop its start-up ecosystem. There are some good ones – Intercom is really interesting, Fleetmatics was interesting – but there’s not a ton of them.

“That’s the next step for Ireland. Talk some big VCs into investing. Steal one of the founders from Intercom and give them money to start a fund. That’s what’s missing in Ireland.

“But Ireland has the chance to be the Silicon Valley of Europe, for sure.”

Looking at his own investment in Ireland through HubSpot, Halligan is satisfied.

“Chris [Kinnear, MD of HubSpot EMEA,] has done a great job for us and we have surpassed 100 engineers, it’s starting to happen. Service Hub was built in Dublin and a lot of our mobile product too. There’s a lot of talent in Dublin.”

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