Adrian Weckler: Dublin Tech’s Independent Voice

The Big Read, sponsored by Vodafone. Adrian Weckler was studying for a career in law, when he realized that had one tiny problem: “Law is just really boring.”

Instead, he became one of Ireland’s foremost tech journalists, first with The Sunday Business Post and now as the Technology Editor of The Irish Independent, where he remains one of the most inquisitive and essential voices writing about tech in Ireland today.

What kind of startups do you like to write about?
The people I like best are the ones who have the same accent they always had, straight talkers who know their product and their market. A good example would be PageFair, a really successful company that’s really going places at the moment. Talking to Sean Blanchfield, there’s no airs and graces, he’s not trying to sound like he’s from the Valley or be on message all the time. That’s really refreshing. And they’re the guys who will go far. I think they’re about to break in a big way.

I like Drop, I was in San Francisco last week, I walked into a shop off their street and the first thing I saw was their product. They’re smart, and they’re doing great right now. We tend to figure out clever business niches, and take advantage of them. Kudos to a company like Brite:Bill who have won some huge deals in the states. What they do isn’t sexy, it’s billing software, but who cares? They spotted an opportunity and jumped on it. And look at 3D4 Medical, who got two minutes on stage during the Apple launch the other week. They’re not a new company, but what they’re doing is genuinely interesting. And they were a significant part of something that made front pages all over the world.

It feels like an exciting time in tech in Dublin right now…
I don’t think it’s necessarily just Dublin, it’s all happening across the US and Europe as well. Most big cities now have a nascent tech scene that’s linked to a new type of entrepreneur, and a new model of innovation. In Dublin, however, we have an extra cushion base because we have so many multinationals who are based here. Some of it is shallow and superfluous, as some of the tech companies who are based here don’t actually do much tech at all. But other multinationals are contributing to the bigger tech ecosystem; there are growing niches within those companies that are more involved in engineering and design here. Places like TripAdvisor, who have around fifty people working down beside the O2 Arena, and most of those are engineering jobs or quasi-design jobs. You’re seeing quite a bit of that happen. Even with old-timers like Microsoft, you’re seeing more and more bits and pieces that are being designed here in Dublin.

The people I like best are the ones who have the same accent they always had, straight talkers who know their product and their market.

To some degree, it’s a very natural evolution for those companies…
It’s down to talented managers here arguing for that, and also to a growing workforce. Then there’s the influx of people from Eastern Europe, for example, which has massively enriched the skills base here. Those are the kind of people that Silicon Valley is built on, that cities like London and Berlin are desperately trying to get, and the ones that create the real value.

For all that’s been written and said about it, how big an issue is taxation when it comes to MNCS in Dublin?
There’s two different issues there. The first one is about corporate taxation as policy instrument to attract companies here. From my experience of talking to dozens of tech companies, it falls into two camps: with the larger ones, it definitely is an issue, but I don’t know how much an issue it is for companies who have been here for years because they’re already bedded down so much. Google’s just after spending €150M on a second data centre, and have just gone over 5,000 employees in Dublin. Now, you can’t tell me that if our corporate tax rate goes from ten per cent to fifteen per cent, that they’re going to just pull out. I don’t believe they will. If you say that everything that goes through the Google office is taxed at fifteen percent, then maybe that is a threat. But I don’t believe they’ll leave if you hike it by a few percent. As an issue, I don’t think it’s the massive issue that people make it out to be.

For smaller companies, however, and I talk to a lot of them, ones with under a hundred staff here, they don’t give a shit about tax. And the reason that they don’t give a shit about tax is because a lot of them aren’t making profit yet. It only becomes an issue when you’re actually making a profit. Their main worry is to still be alive in a couple of years’ time.

What do you think makes Dublin unique as a tech hub?
I like the advanced sense of social accessibility that Dublin engenders, both in our own tech companies and in the companies that land here. It’s not that hard to meet people here, even the ones who are senior, you don’t have that sense of royalty that you get in Silicon Valley. Now you can’t compare Dublin to Silicon Valley; it’s a million miles ahead of anywhere else in the world. I would argue that we’re trying to compare ourselves more on a level with a city like Stockholm, which is a proper startup city. Maybe even London, even though it’s ten times bigger than Dublin. We definitely outperform proportionally compared to them.

Are we in a moment right now?
We’re definitely in a moment. If you look at the recent CSO stats, tech is the second highest pay category in pay in Ireland, and it’s just behind the financial industry. I think it’s around €65,000 per worker per year. That’s has a huge effect on many levels. There’s a big psychological effect, too. In Ireland, traditionally, middle-class aspirational parents have always tried to push their kids into white collar professions they saw as respectable: law, finance medicine, maybe engineering. The reality now is that the kids coming out of the science and computing courses in the colleges, it’s not just that they’re with these hip companies, they’re now starting to outbid the financial graduates on the townhouses in Dartry. And for middle-class snob parents who thought that tech was just for nerds, they’re now seeing the tech graduates going to San Francisco, London, Berlin… or they stay here and make more money than their kids do. And that probably sticks in their craw a little. That might sound a little bit shallow, but there’s a big cultural realignment that goes with this shift towards tech, and all of this makes a difference in terms of how the city works.

Who are the Dublin startups to watch right now?
There’s one called Cesanta, that I’m really impressed with on a variety of levels, it’s basically two guys (Sergey Lyubka and Anatoly Lebedev) who were deep core high-level programmers in Google’s Dublin office, one from Ukraine, one from Russia, who decided to go out on their own with an Internet Of Things play. They’re very impressive guys, and they’ve got money from some very impressive people. That’s a company I could see scaling quickly, and they’re committed to Dublin. Another one I find really interesting is a company called , run by Jay Bregman, the co-founder of Hailo, it’s basically trying to become a global regulatory standard for drones, he’s got some real heavy-hitters behind him. It’s a very ambitious idea, and he wants to do it from Dublin. That’s what makes it interesting to me.

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