I met Taoiseach Enda Kenny in his office in Government Buildings.
He was warm and casual and funny as usual. He told me to keep in touch and drop over for coffee again some time. Here’s our interview:
When you were at SXSW, Dublin Globe put you in a Stetson…
(Looking at image) Oh my God almighty (laughs) – I did say to Governor Abbott that one thing I want to do is cross the Rio Grande and become a redneck.
What was the thing that most surprised you about SXSW?
The energy coming off Austin. I know that’s a huge SXSW thing. Their motto is ‘Keep It Weird’.
Do you like that motto?
I think it’s great. It’s different. It sets out what Austin is. Businesses are spilling out from California and down from Illinois because they make it easy to do business. We’d like to be the same way. And the Governor said to me ‘Texas is the export state. You are the export country.’ That’s why we’re investing heavily in research, innovation. Very important. But Austin was moving at a frenetic pace. And, you know, you can just sense the energy off them. And it’s like, this is the place to be. Austin has identified what makes a difference. And that’s given them the advantage to rev it up.
What about Dublin, then? How can we benefit more as an indigenous tech industry from the multinationals?
Our reputation is exceptionally high. We have ten out of ten born of the internet companies here, all the pharma, IT, financial services – and that’s all growing. But I think the next stage is we look at where we are in the competitive world. And we would play hard and play fair in terms of tax. We abolished the ‘Double Irish’ because of perception of reputation damage. We have now finished the public consultation for intellectual property, for the knowledge box. We will set that at a rate that’s competitive. That’s the next stage of where we can be. But also, I think that a closer affiliation between multinationals, research, innovation, universities, colleges of technology and business is paying enormous dividends. I was in NUIG recently: they have three hundred people working under a Chinese professor in stem cell research. It’s extraordinary. Out in UCD, UCC, the robotics work over in Sligo… All these of these places, they’re firing on all cylinders.
The energy coming off Austin… Their motto is ‘Keep It Weird’. I think it’s great.
One of the challenges for startups here is that we don’t have a level playing field with the UK when it comes to early stage incentives for investors. It’s something that we are bringing up as part of the consultation process with Minister Noonan. Do you believe that a level playing field with the UK is a priority and something that we can achieve?
I do. It’s very difficult to achieve a level playing field because governments can make adjustments here and there that give them an advantage, if you like, over others. But at the end of the day, talk to the people who are involved in business. It is the talent pool that they look at. At the end of the day, the tax can make a difference and, obviously, from a corporation tax point of view ours was always an issue. That’s very strong for us. Minister Noonan is looking at the question of equalization of PRSI treatment for self-employed and PAYE people – we’ll start that push in the budget in October for the next three years. We’ll have half a million taken out in requirements to pay USC, so we’re reducing the tax burden to below fifty percent. Which is, I think, a step very much in the right direction. You know, people call us from Seattle or Vancouver or California or Australia or wherever: ‘Is it time to go home? I want to go back. I’ve got experience.’
What do you say to them?
I say, ‘Absolutely! And we’re going to welcome you.’
Do you think the climate here is as easy for entrepreneurs here as it is in the States?
In terms of climate, we have changed things deliberately here because we recognize the importance of jobs. We also recognize the potential that we have through our education system, working with universities, colleges of technology and business so that our young people can stand with their peers on any stage around the world. So we’ve become more competitive. We’re consistently increasing our position on the world competitiveness league. Clearly coming out of the catastrophic situation that we were in a few years ago, we’ve learned a lot of lessons. So that’s why we make access to credit available for startup businesses. We have two thousand in the Dublin area alone. I was speaking to an American two years ago. He set up a company here in Dublin. And I said, ‘Why did you come here?’ And he said, ‘I wanted to come to a cosmopolitan city.’ But then he said, “I am blown away by what I see walking in the door in terms of talent and ability.’ And that’s the key.
I think so.
Look at what’s happening to this city. The Silicon Docks, the entire place is exploding. And why do they want to be here? They want to be here because the Irish are very different. They’re inquisitive. They’re gregarious. They’re curious. They’re creative. They’re imaginative. And that’s what makes the difference. You know, fifty percent of the people to be employed in the next six to eight years will be in companies that haven’t even been thought of yet.
Yes. Isn’t that exciting?
It is. So if you’re a surfer and you’re out on your board, you’re not watching the wave that’s ten yards away. You’re watching the one that’s a half mile out. Get up on that one.
Exactly. Were you surprised when you heard that we have over two thousand startups in Dublin?
No, because they now understand that it’s not as restrictive as it used to be, and they’ve lost this thinking, ‘If it fails, I’ll be a failure.’ So what if it fails? Start again. I think we’ve learned that from America, too.
Fifty percent of the people to be employed in the next six to eight years will be in companies that haven’t even been thought of yet.
As business people, I think we’re much more like the Americans than our European neighbors. We have that culture. We’ve been there for so long.
We know what it’s like to live on another man’s shore. We have a pretty extensive diaspora, whether engineers or welders or pipe-layers or coal miners or railway people or whatever. And we’ve moved into the high tech world. And when I see them… I was in Salesforce the other day in Sandyford. They had all the CoderDojos there. I said to a little six-year-old, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’m mentoring this person here. I’m telling him the language and how to draw this thing and drag this thing across here and make it work.’
I’ve never been as optimistic as I am about the young generation coming ahead of us.
So if you had an eighteen-year-old standing in front of you and they said to you, ‘Should I get a job or should I create my own company?’ What would you say to them?
I have an eighteen-year-old son, he’s just finished the Leaving Cert. You can do the two, actually. Because a lot of young students now, in their Transition Years, will set up a small business in the school, and they’re encouraged do that. And they get to see that there is something outside the sort of traditional professions. The excitement of building your own company. And they look at the many millions of people who have actually done that and who do so every day. So, I would say, ‘You have nothing to lose and everything to gain’.
Sheryl Sandberg, over in Davos said, ‘I’ve been in public business, I’ve been in private business, I’ve been around the world a hundred times, but there only one country in the world where you can get it all together and that’s Ireland.’
She said that?
That’s very impressive.
Now, look at the young Collisons that won the Young Scientist Exhibition a couple of years ago. See where they are now. That’s the kind of energy, that’s the kind of imaginative potential we have. Those people are in the system out there now, and they’re probably thinking about this, and what we have to do is to inspire it, to bring it to reality.
Do you have a favorite entrepreneur? Somebody that you look up to?
I’ll tell you what I look up to – to see the excitement in the faces of the people who want to go to work because they’re challenged. I was down in EMC in Cork with Bob Savage, in front of two and a half thousand engineers, and I said, ‘Is the person here who’s going to build the next Facebook or the new Google? If you are, stand up.” A hundred of them stood up. They’re all challenged, you see. They know they’re changing their frontiers up ahead.