The interview: Niamh Bushnell, Dublin’s new start-up commissioner

11 Sep 2014

Dublin’s start-up scene needs to not only establish an identity for itself but also gather data on what makes some entrepreneurs succeed and others fail, says Dublin’s new start-up commissioner Niamh Bushnell.

Bushnell was this week appointed as Dublin’s first-ever commissioner for start-ups and it is her ambition to make the city one of the great start-up capitals of the world.

She has spent the last 16 years in New York where she had two start-ups of her own.

Bushnell co-founded her first company, Pan Research, in Dublin in 1996.

An expert on doing business in the US and in particular in New York’s thriving start-up scene, Bushnell has been instrumental in the creation of an Enterprise Ireland-backed online resource to help Irish companies planning to enter markets in the US.

She has recently been appointed entrepreneur in residence at Talent Tech Labs in Manhattan.

The role of Dublin commissioner for start-ups has been created on the recommendation of the Activating Dublin Initiative spearheaded by Dublin Chamber of Commerce and Dublin City Council.

The new commissioner will work in conjunction with Dublin City Council and Enterprise Ireland and the Local Enterprise Offices to maximise the potential of Dublin’s existing business ecosystem, which already supports a wide range of tech and innovative start-ups and acts as a base for many global tech companies. 

When you speak with Bushnell she applies a lot of the direct, New York frankness that no doubt will be appreciated in Dublin, a city she believes shares a lot of character traits with New York’s start-up scene, but none of the scale.

Dublin’s start-up renaissance

With so much happening, so many companies being started, networking events on nearly every night, and new sources of funding being established, Bushnell’s instinct is to bring some kind of cohesion to the scene.That’s not to say Dublin isn’t experiencing something of a start-up renaissance – where confidence, enthusiasm and know-how are in abundance.

“I think the role is about bringing together all of what’s good that currently going on in Dublin’s start-up scene. There’s great people, great expertise, great talent and great initiatives, private and government related, and obviously we’ve got some great multinationals.

“The who’s who at the top level and the who’s who in the smaller multinationals, the ingredients are all there and the reason this role is coming about now is because we really have to take this opportunity and grasp it with both hands and capitalise on what we’ve got – the energy that’s here, the momentum that’s been building and create a platform, an image, a voice for Dublin as a great start-up city.”

Bushnell has a point. Dublin has nine out of 10 of the biggest born on the internet companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter as well as global events like the Web Summit. And everyone in the start-up scene agrees that the city has a unique and encouraging energy for entrepreneurs.

But if you look at the current start-up scene in Europe, it is Berlin and London that stand out the most in terms of having carved out a distinctive start-up voice and identity so far.

“We need to do this for ourselves as much as for attracting international entrepreneurs and companies in. We deserve it. We need to go even further. We need to create more excitement around start-ups among the population, more understanding of the industry, more density ultimately of start-ups and enhance the culture of start-ups here so that we can be even more successful.

“We need to have those scaling companies, we need to have those great venture capitalists and talent coming in and achieve those successes on the global scale.

“We need to do it for ourselves but also to attract that money and that talent in.”

The fault in Dublin’s stars

We can all agree it’s a great time for start-ups and people can enjoy the bonhomie around networking and accelerator pitches. But Bushnell points out there are gaps.

It’s hard not to agree with her. All of this activity and enthusiasm will mean absolutely nothing if Ireland doesn’t produce scalable companies whose technologies can change the world. Do we want more trade sales and entrepreneurs flipping companies just to cash in? No. We need tech companies to scale, go the distance and potentially IPO.

“I think it’s a great time with lots going on but there are lots of gaps as well. My job is to drive new initiatives that will move the needle for Dublin.”

She points out that Dublin needs to cultivate a start-up image that ensures its place in the conversations about New York, London, Berlin and Silicon Valley.

“There are a lot of hot start-up capitals out there, there are a lot of start-up cities and its because technology people keep saying it’s ‘easy’ to start a company and the barriers are so low because technology is now so cheap. That’s all well and good but where do we have an unfair competitive advantage over other cities? Where do we have great innovation? Who are the great people? We need to create a community that comes together and can make things happen.

“Dublin is small enough to have a density and a community and the kind of collaboration-focus that leads to innovation and yet it’s large enough and important and popular enough to be on the international stage and make an international statement and be internationally attractive. I think that Dublin has the best of both worlds in my experience. “

But the gaps that she worries about are still there to be fixed.

Many of the factors that make the New York tech scene stand out for Bushnell – the openness of the people and their energy – are present in Dublin, even more so because Irish people and most of the tech industry looks west anyway.

“But how do we make the relationship with our multinationals mutually positive, proactive and beneficial for start-ups?” she asks.

“Nor have we capitalised by shining a light on data. We need to start gathering data that allows us to position ourselves on the international stage about the start-ups about the clusters, about the trends and the innovations.

“This data will allow us to promote ourselves better, understand who we are, what’s going on and how people are cycling through start-ups and how we can keep them in the start-up ecosystem and not fall through and go back into corporate world if they have a failure.

“We need to track the failures of our start-ups and learn how we can help them at every point along the way.”

The need to think big

Another big issue is ambition. Just how ambitious are Irish start-ups, Bushnell wonders.

The mantra among Silicon Valley start-ups is to grow big, grow fast. While Irish start-ups don’t have the advantage of a vast but localised marketplace like the US on their doorstep, there are increasing numbers of entreprenuers and founders heading directly to the US, including Trustev’s Pat Phelan, Viddyad’s Grainne Barron and Stripe’s John and Patrick Collison.

“Start-ups are all about thinking big and if you have a start-up and you aren’t thinking big then you need to ask yourself why? Do you believe in the product, what are you worried about? Is it down to talent? What is it that makes you not talk about outsized numbers, big markets and global expansion?”

Another aspect that Bushnell is keen to encourage is the connection between universities and start-ups, which is a big factor in many start-ups emerging from Silicon Valley and New York. She commended, in particular, the efforts of DCU which has created a UStart incubator to support undergraduates.

“It’s also the connection between entrepreneurs and their universities and alumni that needs to be minded better.”

By creating a greater start-up identity for Dublin, Bushnell believes this in turn will be good for the country in general by fostering greater interest in entrepreneurship, sales and marketing.

I point out that there is an inherent snobbery among Irish people about selling, which is ironic because when they apply themselves Irish people are naturals at it.

“People in Ireland are naturally quite open and communicating well is something that comes natural to us. Because we do it so well it is something we don’t actually prioritise as a business skill, which is a huge oversight.”

She also believes that Irish people, not only entrepreneurs, need to become greater risk takers and be less hesitant about opportunities.

“In the States people ask me to jump on to the dream and figure it out as you go along. I think a little bit more of that kind of selling without completely obfuscating the realities, a little bit more prioritising what is our message, what is our mission and how we are going to get there at the highest level.”

Bushnell concluded: “If you have a vision and you are able to pronounce that vision clearly and consistently you have a fighting chance. Unfortunately that’s something we don’t do enough of.

 “And that’s what I want to bring to the table as Dublin’s start-up commissioner – figure out what is our sales pitch? What is our message? How can we continually learn from our successes and failures?”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

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