Being Eamon Leonard: Dublin Tech Then & Now

Being Eamon Leonard

The Big Read, powered by Vodafone: More from Eamon Leonard – founder, advisor to startups, angel investor, and tech community organiser.

In the second half of a wide-reaching conversation with Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell, Eamon discusses the evolution of the Dublin tech community, via his own experiences as organiser and entrepreneur. If you haven’t done so already, read Part One HERE.


Back in 2008… Who were those first green shoots in the Dublin tech community?
There had been successes, but they were few and far between. Brian Caulfield without a doubt is up there. At that point, Brian had had his success, and was already investing. But his success came along when there wasn’t really a community. There was an industry, but it was very much tied to academic institutions. The likes of Havoc, for example, would have come out of Trinity. But there wasn’t this type of grassroots-y gathering of people trying to rise up and do something together. That kind of thing hadn’t existed at the time that Brian and his peer group became successful. The great thing about Brian was that he stuck around and made himself available and had time for people. And I think that’s why he’s well respected, because he deserves that respect, you know? People with exits like Brian and Ray Nolan, who reinvested their time, energy, network and cash back into the local community. I also remember this start-up that had been Dropbox before Dropbox existed. It was maybe a bit too early, but certainly visionary in where things were going. It was called Putplace. I think that Brian invested in it. (NB: He did). Joe Drumgoole was the founder: he works for MongoDB now.

So some people in Dublin already had their eye on the bigger picture…
Most people in Dublin, their worldview is limited to Dublin. In 2007 there was an attempt to get past that for a group of people. I’m not sure where the idea was first spawned, but the idea of a trip to Silicon Valley was floating around – it was called Paddy’s Valley. I couldn’t afford to go, because I still hadn’t figured out how to convince people to pay me for stuff. But Eoghan McCabe went, and I remember being extremely jealous of him going because we sat next to each other every day. Paul Campbell went, too, so I was doubly jealous. I was the only one in my small little group of peers that didn’t go. It was this informal whirlwind tour of startups. EI gave a hand. They went to Palo Alto, and they got put in front of some really big names, even back then. I think it was the first mission, for want of a better word, from Irish people in tech to San Francisco. And I think that was another pivotal changing point. They came back energized with fresh ideas, and had been given an insight into how things are done over there. They were like ‘If they can do it, so can we’, and injected that kind of energy into the local ecosystem. So, you know, those two things in my mind, that trip and the Future of Web Apps coming here, had a great effect when it came to kick-starting people’s imaginations and lighting a fire under their ass.

And then… the recession hit.
Right. And it was fuckin’ doom and gloom all over the place. And I made a conscious decision in 2008, as this whole thing was kicking off, to just turn off the radio and the TV and not buy newspapers because it was everywhere. You couldn’t escape the negativity, and I think as an entrepreneur… The constant barrage of it was just very hard to have a healthy mind space for doing your own thing in that environment. I think that was another kind of factor that brought us all closer together. Strength in numbers, you know.

So the crisis was like a community reinforcing experience?
Looking back, it makes a lot of sense to me that there’s no coincidence between the recession and the emergence of a serious and tangible start-up sector in Ireland around this time. People were being laid off, and maybe they had this inner entrepreneur and thought, ‘Fuck it. I’m not just going to sit at home on my arse. I’m just going to start something up in my bedroom, and take it from there.’

Firefox_3 Launch Dublin
Picture: Taken at a party organised by Paul Walsh in 2008 for the launch of Firefox 3, in Dublin, one of the events cited by Eamon as a catalyst for the city’s evolving tech community: ‘You might recognise some faces. I remember meeting Darragh Doyle for the first time that night and he was telling me how he wanted to get into tech and cover some of the stuff that was starting to happen.’

What was the next big wave?
It was a very gradual ramping up. I started Pub Standards around 2010 as a regular evening meet-up for anybody out there that was building stuff. The idea was to provide a gelling point for people to meet in person, and reinforce that sense of tight-knitness amongst the community.

How many people used to come to Pub Standards?
It started off with maybe eight. At the peak, one night there was probably about two hundred and fifty people there.

It started at a time when there was no real meet-ups. I ended Pub Standards last November because I think there’s something like over a hundred meet-ups going on (in Dublin) a regular basis now. It’s had its time. I’ll also say that I was pretty concerned with the lack of diversity. It was a lot of dudes. I always wanted to find a way to make it open and inclusive. I guess that’s a hard thing to scale.

You exited in 2011. You were bought by an American company, right? How did that all happen?
I haven’t a fuckin’ clue (laughing). I swear to God. We had a consulting company and we wanted to build products and we tried a bunch of different things. They all were shit. And then we built this one thing that we thought was great. And it was funded from consulting, so we didn’t take any investment. But we knew we needed to take investment because there was only so far we could go. So we were in the States talking to investors and – good timing, I guess – were approached by Engine Yard. They chatted to me about an acquisition and I was resistant to it at first, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not sure why. I thought I just wanted to do it all myself. Then the more I thought about it, the more I realized we could take advantage of the stuff they’ve already figured out – sales and marketing and their expertise around business development. It happened very fast.

What was the product?
It was a cloud computing platform called Orchestra. It allowed developers to employ, manage, and scale their PHP apps in the cloud. Which was one of the very few doing that at the time.

Now you are the classic entrepreneur turned investor turned entrepreneur again.
My own personal opinion on it is if you’re a founder, an Irish founder, and you have some success, I think there is not just a responsibility but a huge opportunity to invest and put some of that success back in. It doesn’t have to be cash. It could be time, and network. In some ways they’re much more valuable than cash. I don’t know if you can have a tech ecosystem without some success and reinvest cycle.

Do you want to finish by telling me about this billion dollar company that you’re building?
Give us the elevator pitch.

What I’m working on is a way of helping people out with having meaningful relationships in their network. That network is fragmented over many different social platforms, fragmented over email, over phone contacts, over relationships that they have in their head, right? People can look at a bank balance and they can quantify an individual’s net worth by looking at their assets – but how do you quantify the value of someone’s real meaningful network of relationships? So I know it’s very vague, but its early days. It’s called Cohort – we help you understand who your cohort is.

I like it. So that’s gonna be one of the big Irish tech companies in the next couple of years…
Or it’ll go pear shaped in six months. That’s startups for you.

Main Image: Eamon and Tadhg Leonard, pictured at Engine Yard’s Distill conference, in San Francisco, August 2013. Photo: Yusuke Ando