The Big Read, sponsored by Vodafone. The first in a series of conversations with preeminent Irish tech journalists.
Pamela Newenham is a business journalist with The Irish Times, with a particular focus on the areas of innovation, technology, startups and entrepreneurship. Earlier this year, she edited (and contributed to) Silicon Docks: The Rise Of Dublin As A Global Tech Hub, the first book to offer an in-depth overview of the rise of Dublin’s preeminent technology district. When she’s not documenting the Dublin tech scene, Pamela is the founder of her own nascent startup, GirlCrew.
What was your approach when it came to Silicon Docks? What did you want the book to say?
Everybody knew the companies, and everybody had opinions – what the MNCs bring to the Irish economy in particular. And I wanted to stay away from that a bit, as it had already been reported and commented upon a lot. I wanted to find the stories that people didn’t know: what was the process involved in getting these companies to Ireland? So much of it is in the details. And that’s what makes this story interesting, and unique. When I set about exploring how exactly Twitter came here, for example, I discovered that Biz Stone had tweeted, to his Mum, ‘You can’t trust everyone on the internet, even if they’re from Ireland’ – and somebody from the IDA had seen that tweet, and wrote back saying ‘Oh hey, you can trust us – would you be interested in meeting up?’ And he wrote back, including their business development person, saying ‘We’d love to meet up, let’s go for it.’ And they did. It’s amazing to go back and find all those tweets. Trace the whole timeline as it happened.
Those random one-on-one communications, those moments of serendipity, seem to pop up all over the place.
Again and again, it’s all about relationships and people. It might seem otherwise, but nothing happens quickly: people have a lot of contact with each other, do loads of meetings, establishing the relationship. The year prior to Facebook coming over, the IDA had spent an entire summer visiting their offices and meeting them, almost daily. They got to know Facebook in and out – by the end of it, they knew the company better than the people who worked there. That way, they knew what Facebook needed in Ireland, and the challenges that they might face, and addressed them all well in advance.
Who are the MVPs of the Silicon Docks story?
Google, no question about it. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority developed the area, and they played a huge role, but really, if Google hadn’t arrived in the area I’m not sure it would be what it is today. I don’t know that all the other tech companies would be there now. It was quite easy for the government and the IDA once they had a Google in place – they were able to go to Silicon Valley and say ‘Hey, look, we have Google here – would you be interested in coming to Dublin?’ And it’s continued from there: ‘We have Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Airbnb, Dropbox…’ Now they have a huge list. Any company they go to now is going to be impressed: ‘If they’re there, why aren’t we?’
I think Irish people used to be a lot more sensitive about sharing information, and helping each other. That mentality is gone. Everybody is glad to do whatever they can to help people to get ahead.
The book doesn’t shy away from the issues concerning corporate tax rates in Ireland.
Look, the tax situation is incredibly complex, and I’m not sure that I even understand it. But what I do know is that Google employ almost 3000 people full-time in Dublin – indirectly, they employ way more than that. They own their buildings, and spent over $300M buying them, and millions more kitting them out, which I think shows they’re in it for the long haul. People have to appreciate and remember that they are contributing tax. They make a huge contribution to Dublin, and to the tech community – I really think they’ve embraced the city.
It feels like the influx is never-ending; every week there’s a new announcement, a new company breaking through…
I’ve been a Technology Reporter with The Times for three years now, and it feels like there’s never been so much tech news. There’s nearly too much. It’s cool to be an entrepreneur in Dublin now. It’s cool to have a startup. A few years ago, if you had have said ‘Name an Irish entrepreneur’ you might have said Dermot Desmond or somebody from that older generation. These days, I’d say Des Traynor.
— Pamela Newenham (@PamIrishTimes) February 3, 2015
How has the Dublin tech scene evolved in the years you’ve been covering it?
I see us learning things from San Francisco. One thing I think we’ve learned is that people in Silicon Valley are really good at sharing contacts, and doing introductions, and that’s something that’s happening in Dublin now. I think Irish people used to be a lot more sensitive about sharing information, and helping each other. That mentality is gone. Everybody is glad to do whatever they can to help people to get ahead. And they feel good about helping other people. It’s beneficial to everyone in the tech community.
Which startups have you enjoyed writing about?
I like companies who pull really brave moves, real badass stuff. What Soundwave have done is really brilliant. The things they do just blow me away: sending LinkedIn friend requests to Mark Cuban, who ended up investing in the company… That kind of stuff really impresses me. It’s about doing what it takes to get ahead. I think a lot of Irish startups can learn from that. We’re not scared to pick up the phone, contact someone we don’t know, and sell ourselves. Putting our stories out there. Those are the things I really like to write about.
You report from a lot of international tech events. How does the global community respond to what’s happening in Dublin right now?
I think the perception is really good from America, and from a lot of places in Europe too – however, a lot of countries still don’t know enough about the startup scene in Dublin. I remember talking to people in Israel who had very successful startups there, and they hadn’t heard anything about what’s happening here. That brought home to me that we might think that we’re this amazing hub, doing so well – but there are still people and places out there that still don’t know anything about us.
I think we still need more product development, and we need more engineering. Irish people have always been very innovative, and we’ve always been good at being able to implement ideas. There have been successful small businesses in Ireland forever. But really developing things… We still need to do a lot more.
— Pamela Newenham (@PamIrishTimes) August 20, 2015
In the midst of all this activity, you co-founded your own startup…
GirlCrew is for making new friends. It’s female only, bringing online offline – we connect online, then have brunches, lunches, dinners, a book club, picnics, nights out, anything you can think of. We do GirlPro events to help girls get ahead in their careers, I’m hosting dinners for members who are entrepreneurs… It’s been going really well. But it means I’m permanently wrecked, as I spend around forty to fifty hours a week doing it on top of my day job.
Can we expect a sequel to Silicon Docks?
Martin Shanahan, the Chief Executive of the IDA, had an idea for what happens in the sequel: he said in 2020 when Silicon Docks book two comes out, it will take a nostalgic look back at the once happening place of Silicon Valley, because Silicon Docks will have taken over (laughs) – I don’t necessarily think that will happen. A lot of the companies won’t be around. Disruption is massive now. Things come along that change industries forever. The customer rules. Startups are as powerful as big companies now, in many ways, and that’s the real game changer. They’re lean, and hungry, and adaptable in a way big companies can’t be. That’s how an Instagram happens. Somebody recently said to me that The Irish Times should scrap the print edition and just give each writer an Instagram account instead… Just turn the paper into a really, really good Instagram account. And I thought about it and said… That could be an idea (laughs). And that’s scary.