Liam Casey: “If you’re not failing at some things, then you’re not trying hard enough.”

Liam Casey DublinGlobe.com

This weekend sees the arrival of the Dublin PCH Hardware Hackathon, presented in partnership with DCU, Intel and Irish Design 2015, at the DCU Innovation Campus in Glasnevin.

Last weekend, PCH CEO Liam Casey was in Dublin to launch the limited digital edition of AnOther Magazine, conceived and created by PCH after a chance encounter with AnOther publisher Jefferson Hack over dinner during last year’s Web Summit.

Born in Cork, Casey is the Founder and CEO of PCH, which designs custom manufacturing solutions for Fortune 500 and startup companies. At present, PCH has revenues of more than US $1bn a year, masterminding the design, manufacture and distribution of hardware globally. At present, the company employs 2,800 people worldwide, including 80 people in Cork (where PCH is headquartered), with additional operational headquarters in Shenzhen, China and San Francisco, California. They made international headlines last year with their high profile acquisition of Fab.com.

NB: For the record, during the course of our interview Liam expressed enthusiasm for this publication, but had one small suggestion – that we rename it Cork Globe.

This is the third year of the PCH Hackathon. What does the project mean to you?
Hackathons are great. You know, I spent ten years in the fashion industry. I could go to a fabric mill, buy sixty metres of fabric, bring it back to a contract manufacturer and make any garment I wanted… and, at the last minute, before we cut the fabric, I could say, ‘Stop, don’t make a suit, make a jacket.’ I went into the tech world, and there were all these product roadmaps and technology roadmaps that went on for years – the rigidity of that industry was just crazy. And it limited creativity.

Then, around 2008, we saw people using Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Edison, Linux, Android, 3-D printing… People could become innovative and creative all of a sudden. They could think up a product, and actually make a prototype, and then it’s the moment of truth – and that’s where things get really interesting. You explore the possibilities – ‘You could do this, do that, make it smaller, change the colour…’ Then you have a product. All these new tools, new products, new components – they’re the new fabrics of technology. That’s driving a prototyping renaissance. And the prototyping renaissance drives a hardware renaissance.

So you take all these tools, and you give them to people at a Hackathon…
And they go build products. They go in on a Friday, and by Sunday night, they have a finished product, one that’s working, with great software on it. And from there, they get an idea. Two companies, I think, have come into our Highway 1 programme in San Francisco that started off in Hackathons… First Hackathons, then Highway 1, then into the main company through PCH Access, then we take the companies and scale them. That’s what happened with Drop, from Dublin, and Adaptix – they finished in Highway 1, had a demo day, and within 9-10 months had a product in every Apple Store around the world. That’s fantastic. That’s what we do.

What do you, as a maker, get from the entire Hackathon experience?
We get the buzz from the people. Our business is about customer service, and it’s hugely inspiring when we can get great entrepreneurs and help them to bring an idea to a product in the shortest time possible – and to do it in a very sustainable way, which is really important. And, when you think about the energy that it takes, from concept to consumer – that’s a huge amount of work. And we control every step of that process along the way. The most important thing for us then is that the energy that it takes for us to promote a product – to defend a product and be passionate about a product – comes from the entrepreneurs themselves. Guys like Ben (Harris) and the team at Drop, Ayia (Bdeir) from littleBits, Christina (Mercando) at Ringley, and Emily (Brooke) at Blaze… They’re so passionate about what they’re doing. And we’re the platform that supports them.

You’ve suggested that Wired Magazine should put designers on the cover. Why?
We work with companies that are passionate about design, they’re passionate about brand, and they’re passionate about the consumer experience – that’s really important, because that’s where you differentiate and you add value. If you bring design as an influence into a startup, and you show them a better way to make something, they will use it. And design thinking is so important, from the very beginning. You’ve got to create a great design experience.

Are you impressed by what you see in Dublin at the moment?
When you look at the kind of companies that are here, you look at Intercom, who are a gold company, and then there’s Web Summit, they were in Vegas last week, with 8,000 people in attendance… They’re a phenomenal startup, probably one of the world’s greatest. It’s really important that we understand that every company today has a global marketplace, and those are two companies that get it, right off. Dublin doesn’t have to copy anywhere else, it just has to be the best it can be. We need to look at what’s working, and what’s not working, and do more of what is – it’s that simple. And if you’re not failing at some things, then you’re not trying hard enough.

You haven’t wasted any time revamping Fab.com…
Fab was a very important acquisition for us. We came on board at a great time. We’re excited, because the world of unique curated content is becoming so much more important. Limited edition products of a device –like this magazine we did for AnOther – limited edition is going to become hugely important. It’s about making less products, not more products. Bespoke today can be done easily – you can build a flexibility into how a product is made, which is really important. You have to seek it out. Discovery shopping is huge.

Dublin doesn’t have to copy anywhere else, it just has to be the best it can be. We need to look at what’s working, and what’s not working, and do more of what is – it’s that simple.

What part of the job truly excites you these days?
The mentoring thing is really important to me. For us as a company, we’re always embracing change. We’re in business nineteen years, and we work really hard to try and feel like a startup – and that’s hard sometimes. The world is changing so much, the tech world in particular – companies like Nokia appeared, and then disappeared. We had customers like Compaq… they don’t exist today. For us, operating in this world, we absolutely have to stay nimble, and dynamic. It’s so important. You’ve got to be willing to change, to break the model. And the great thing for us is that because we’re asset light, we don’t have a huge infrastructure, we stay lean. It’s amazing how many big companies come to us looking to interact with startups. It’s all about understanding the energy, and how to preserve that, and recreate it in a different form. Our model allows us to interact with companies in a very innovative way.

How would you best describe that model?
What’s really important is that we don’t think about how big the planet is. Facebook have a great term: ‘making the world small and more connected’. That is the key. If you keep your business smaller and more connected, then you don’t need warehouses to hold inventory, because inventory will always keep moving. You make less, not more, and always keep it moving. With that mindset, I always say we’re three hours from all the factories, and we’re three days from all the consumers who buy our products. So we don’t have regional warehouses, as they call them, but when Elon Musk colonizes Mars, we’ll think about one (laughs).

PCH turns 20 next year. What is the one piece of advice that you would give your younger self?
Good question. I would say get on a plane, travel, go anywhere. Be curious. Have a purpose. Understand why you’re doing what you do. Acting with integrity is important. And… have fun.

One last question. If you have a motto, what is it?
Don’t be afraid to do.

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