The Irish in Silicon Valley: Why does San Francisco continue to be such a draw for Ireland’s entrepreneurs?

Over the next three weeks, Dublin Globe speaks to a number of Irish entrepreneurs,  financiers and techies driving change in Silicon Valley. We’ll explore their stories, lessons, advice and why these émigrés still watch what happens in Dublin so closely.

In the middle of the sleek skyscrapers in San Francisco’s East Cut neighbourhood, a sign stands out. With a bright fluorescent shamrock, Kate O’Brien’s Irish Pub beckons dozens of workers to a pint and big screen televisions showing baseball and basketball.

Like so many Irish pubs all over the world, Kate O’Brien’s is a hallmark of a little island’s big impact. In cities from Kalamazoo to Katmandu, Irish émigrés settled into their new homes and shared their love of a pint, some music and great craic. They built businesses and built cities.

Today, a new gentian of Irish entrepreneurs are building their own dream launching and leading startups here in the Bay Area.

This week, we will focus on why San Francisco continues to be the centre of the startup world, despite hubs popping up globally and critics saying the future of startups will be elsewhere.

The Connections

“There’s a huge wealth of experience and knowledge in San Francisco,” says Pamela Newenham, co-founder and co-CEO of the social network Girl Crew. “A lot of people have done exactly what we’re doing. They’ve built global social networks.”

Newenham, a former journalist at the Irish Times, says she regularly travels between the United States and Ireland as they grow the network which connects women in 50 cities globally.

She says Ireland launched several large multinational companies such as Kerry Group, but few came from her industry of social networking. By tapping into the widely available experience in the Bay Area, she believes Girl Crew could grow to be large enough to justify a full office here.

Ireland may have incredibly smart entrepreneurs, but the country’s population of 4.7 million is half that of the 12 counties in the San Francisco-San Jose area.

Besides the broad numbers, there are just so many successful companies in Silicon Valley, breeding advisors, investors, and perhaps most importantly: clients. Startup job and investment tracker Angel List counts more than 33,000 companies and 18,000 in Silicon Valley alone.

Cathal Phelan moved from Ireland to San Francisco in the early 1990’s, working for the American firm Cypress Semiconductor and later as the CEO of RAPT, an Irish company that develops large-scale touch screen technologies. He remains based in Silicon Valley, despite almost all of his staff being in Europe and Asia.

Phelan says it is imperative to have a footprint in America if you want to do business in America. He warns that American businesses may be quick to dismiss a small Irish firm stepping off an airplane and into a meeting.

“Part of the reason for brining first [Senior VP of Sales Mark Anderson] and then myself full time was to say ‘we’re real, we matter,’” says Phelan.

While Phelan has spent almost all of his adult life outside Ireland, he still considers Dublin “home.” That’s not the same for his teenage daughter, born and raised in America. Through her, Phelan says he can see subtle differences between Irish entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in America.

He says to succeed, Irish entrepreneurs need to learn how to speak with American businesspeople: something that takes time and a different perspective. We’ll dive into that advice, later in this series. Be sure to sign up for the Dublin Globe Newsletter here.

The Cash

For many Irish startups, Silicon Valley represents an opportunity to get financing that wouldn’t be as easy or even possible in Ireland.

“This is the Super Bowl,” says Barry O’Brien, Managing Director at Silicon Valley Bank, referencing the most important match in professional American football.

San Francisco is the centre of investors. In few other places will startup founders find financiers as willing to take big risks.

John McGuire, CEO of Game Your Game Inc. which makes data-collection devices and analysis software for sport, realised he couldn’t launch his business in Galway.

Back in 2010, McGuire estimated it would take about $10 million to get his product, Game Golf, to consumers. That would be a tough sell to Irish investors, who McGuire says, at that time, were more risk averse than American venture capitalists.

“It was going to be difficult to raise the finance in Ireland for something like this,” says McGuire.  “We have everything a software company has, but we have the added [challenges of] a physical product: manufacturing and the types of people that go with that.”

McGuire made the choice to move over to California for his dream second career. Sleeping on couches for nearly a year and missing his wife and young children, he kept to his dream.

Using the connections that are only possible when you’re in the same city as dozens of CEOs and investors, his sacrifice paid off. Today, McGuire’s products were used in more than two million rounds of golf in 137 countries.

McGuire says, “at the end of the day, you either have something that’s attractive to raise financing from investors or you don’t.”

The Climate

Paul Walsh’s journey to America came with advice many entrepreneurs may not have heard.

The founder and CEO of MetaCert says, “I remember having lunch with a veteran VC who became a mentor of mine. He said, ‘Paul, don’t come out here for business. Come out here for your personal life.’”

The Wexford-native says he moved from London to San Francisco in 2011 because he and his wife wanted a better pace of life. Walsh says the weather, wine country, and outdoor living makes San Francisco a place to live a good life.

“Enjoy life,” says Walsh. “Business will follow.”

And business is following for some hard-working Irish entrepreneurs.

“It’s Hollywood for entrepreneurs,” says Girl Crew’s Newenham. She continues, “chasing the American dream of having an amazing company instead of being an Oscar-winning actress.”

Of course, all of the draws of San Francisco and Silicon Valley also have the drawbacks. Every entrepreneur I spoke with in California says they learned plenty of lessons during their time here. We’ll dive into some of those lessons in the next two parts of this series.

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