Online commerce pioneer Bill McKiernan talks to Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell.
Irish-American entrepreneur William (Bill) McKiernan is president of WSM Capital, LLC, a private equity firm he founded to invest in payment and other technology companies. Before founding WSM Capital, McKiernan founded CyberSource Corporation in 1994 to provide payment processing (and other related services) to online businesses, building the company into one of the dominant players in the e-commerce payment market. With over 300,000 customers processing over $120 billion per year, CyberSource processed 1 of every 4 e-commerce transactions in the US and 1 of 8 worldwide. In July 2010, Visa, Inc. acquired the company in a deal valued at $2 billion. As well as founding WSM Capital in 2012, Bill serves on the boards of several notable organizations, and is Chair of the judging panel for The Ireland Funds Business Plan Competition.
Earlier this week, he was announced as one of the high-profile investors in the latest round of seed funding for Dublin-based social innovators ChangeX.
Tell me about the Ireland Fund’s National Business Plan Competition…
The whole idea is to expose university students in Ireland to entrepreneurs and capital and mentors. The quality of the competitors over the years has dramatically improved. It’s amazing how strong the entrants were this year relative to four years ago. I think we’re getting better at helping the students through the process. And by that I mean we now have the Ryan Academy helping with the pitches and giving them some coaching – that helps a ton. The Ireland Fund has been working with universities to get them more engaged in the selection process, too. This year we had about a hundred applicants and then they get whittled down to about fifteen to go through the Ryan Academy Bootcamp and then we saw the four finalists in Dublin a couple of weeks ago. So a lot of work goes into just whittling the groups down to just those four finalists.
There’s a pretty impressive prize on offer…
We provide a cash award: the winner gets 10,000 Euro, the second place 5,000 Euro and the third and fourth place finishers get 1,000 Euro. It’s not enough to typically get a business up and running, but it’s often enough to at least let them get a prototype or give them some exposure to entrepreneurs or additional forms of capital that they can tap into. So I do think it’s having a positive impact.
What do you think that Ireland brings to the table, in terms of business culture?
Every country has unique attributes, unique characteristics, and I think it’s important to leverage those. I know when I was CEO of CyberSource, we were looking to offshore some of our software development because we were having difficulty finding quality engineers in Silicon Valley. It was very competitive. So we started looking at locations outside the US, and we just stumbled on Ireland and we started looking in Belfast with the help of the Invest Northern Ireland Group. We wound up opening up a lab that employs about a hundred engineers up in Belfast. And the reason we chose Ireland was we found that the workforce was very talented; the quality of engineers was very good, and universities in Ireland were fantastic. The loyalty among the employees was unique as compared to Silicon Valley, where there’s very little loyalty. The language was great because we shared a common language, we shared a common culture and heritage.
We wanted to put in a lab that would take on the same projects as we were taking on in California. Because of that, we knew that our engineering managers would have to spend a lot of time in the new location because we would have to bring the new team up to speed. The really funny thing was that when we talked about a lab in India or China, our engineers were not all that excited and a lot of the engineering managers were Indian and Chinese…
That’s very funny.
But when we talked about Ireland they were all going, “Yeah! I’ll go to Ireland!” (laughs). When we eventually did open the office in Belfast it was incredibly successful. It’s still there. That was in 2008. The epilogue to that story is also very encouraging. Out of that CyberSource lab in Belfast was spawned another company called Bitnet that is staffed by ex-CyberSource, now Visa, engineers. They’re right down the street from the CyberSource-Visa office. It really is the Silicon Valley model where one company spawns another company and hopefully that will spawn another company and on and on the story goes.
In terms of Bitnet, you’re an investor?
I’m an investor and I’m the Chairman Of The Board.
And I suppose the guys there said, “Hey Bill, we have this idea. Is it of interest to you?”
That’s exactly how it came about. Two of my former CyberSource managers came to me with an idea and said, “What do you think?” I said, “I’m very interested.” And I put up the first million dollars to get them going.
What’s your perception of the engagement and the importance and the reality, I suppose, of tech multinationals in Ireland?
I think it’s amazing. And it’s particularly amazing in Dublin. When you and I were judging the Business Plan Competition at Google, I could have been in Silicon Valley’s Google office. It had the exact same feel, the people looked the same. It was a snapshot of the global village as you walked around Google, with people from every corner of the world, every nationality, every race. The fact that Google’s got 5,000 people in Dublin is remarkable. And it speaks to – I think what you referenced earlier – Dublin’s unique position between Europe and North America and how it is so attractive to young people as a place to live and work. What we’ve seen out here in the Bay area, in California, is a migration from Silicon Valley up to San Francisco. The reason for that is because the young people want to live in San Francisco, they want to live in an urban environment. They don’t want to live in the suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley. So what that’s caused is all the companies moving up to San Francisco to tap into that talent pool. I think the same thing is true in Dublin, where it’s a city where young people want to live. If the talent is there, high tech companies are going to want to be there as well. Google, Twitter, Facebook in Dublin are all examples of that.
Absolutely. I agree with you. It’s all good, bar the challenge of space.
But that’s a good problem to have, Niamh (laughs).
Picture via Xavier High School