Dublin: A Startup City we can all learn from

Mar 19, 2012
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This past weekend I was invited to be a mentor at Startup Weekend Dublin. I had never seen the Dublin startup scene, though I had read about it a bit. My weekend entailed a crash course in the startup scene in Dublin, and I took away a lot from it, so I thought I’d share

You can’t decide where startups will go

The first thing I learned was about how the Irish government, like most European governments, tried to choose a location for ‘innovation’ – when will they learn? – which was in the area of the Guinness brewery. It’s far away from the city, and ultimately, though I few tech companies are located there (probably
for tax benefits), most of the tech companies and startups are located around one building: Google Ireland. The 4 building complex is surrounded on all sides by more tech: Accenture, BT, Polaris Capital & Dogpatch Labs, the Startupbootcamp accelerator, Twitter & Facebook down the street: everyone of these, a European headquarter. It’s no wonder startups are flocking there, or more, being bred within those buildings.

I took a tour of the Startupbootcamp building and met Eoghan Jennings, the man in charge. Startupbootcamp has already opened accelerators in London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and now Dublin. Located in what was actually an abandoned warehouse, Eoghan (pronounced ‘Owen’) took me through the warehouse telling stories such as “why everything is made out of particle wood” and “how we flooded the building the first day we moved in.” Explaining about how he keeps the ‘offices’ intentionally cold, Eoghan seems to be off to a good start in Dublin, with the first class having begun just a few weeks ago.

StartupWeekend Dublin – a force to be reckoned* with

Sitting in the front row, as I always do, on Friday evening in the Google Ireland cafeteria where the event took palce, I didn’t know what to expect of the pitches I was about to see. During the traditional SW icebreaker where randomly-assigned groups must pitch a fake company based off of randomly-chosen words, I mingled with my group and asked them where they came from. Rob told me about how he had recently started working for SalesForce.com after they cherry-picked him from Google, which had brought him over from the Netherlands where he worked at ABN-AMRO – there, he was in a Think Tank for young adults. His friend, Aida, was a Google employee much like many of the volunteers and participants for the weekend. As I met more and more people throughout the weekend, it seemed everyone had years of real-world experience under their belt. Looking at the winning teams, it’s easy to see how some real startups could be formed out of this weekend:

TheMatchApp, which wants to digitalize game programs for people both at the game and watching on TV, contained two designers who brought their giant iMac desktops and Wacom tablets, and three developers who managed to push an android app during the weekend.

Reckoned, a political resource site which provides transparency on politicians by looking at promises they’ve made in their carriers and assessing whether they’ve held up to those promises, contained a few Googlers and the CEO to a company incubated at DogPatch Labs, the Polaris Captial incubator.

The international factor – complementary competences

An international, experience startup weekend team

Sitting in the Google cafeteria sunday morning, I couldn’t help but count the nationalities present in the room: an enormous number of French Googlers had volunteered, probably to help out their French colleague who had organized the event. Other nationalities well represented included Italy, Portugal, Spain, Poland, The Netherlands, Russia… It felt like the whole EU had sent representatives to Ireland. The reality is not too far off: because many ‘multinationals’ have their European/EMEA headquarters in Dublin, and they bring sales people and engineers from all over Europe in order to have ties to each country. This breeds a very close, international community, stronger than any other city, one might argue.

A long ways to go

Having sat earlier in the week on a fireside chat-style event called Archie Talks, I got a feel for how entrepreneurs talk, and got a sense for where they still needed work. As one social entrepreneur pointed out, Ireland doesn’t have a culture of ‘beating its chest’ – that is to say, they don’t scream to the high heavens about why they’re so amazing (unlike Berlin). I would add that not only does Ireland not convince others of its potential, but it doesn’t convince its own citizens of the potential. Ireland has a culture of exodus when times are tough, which is something that every startup city is going to have to learn from. We all know the basics to building a great startup city – good schools, big companies, VC money, and government backing – but we sometimes forget that in order to build great companies, people have to want and believe that their city is the best place to do a startup. Especially when other European cities are accessible passport-free.