David Scanlon, the Man Who Sold Me Ireland

Culture Bits, sponsored by CurrencyFair.

I met David Scanlon three years ago on a sunny day in Bulgaria. He had come to Sofia in his Enterprise Ireland role of telling the story why startups should consider moving to Ireland. To say that this seemingly casual lunch changed the course of my life would be an understatement. I sat with him again three years later on a mildly cold day in Dublin. We talked about his current role as Investment Lead in NDRC, helping indigenous startups grow, his experience hosting Startup Grind Dublin and why Ireland may be the best place to be both a successful entrepreneur and a genuine human.

You are about to do your 21st Startup Grind. What have you learned from running it?
Startup Grind was me, professionally, taking a risk with something for the very first time. I put myself forward, and tried something that may not have worked, in a very public way. I had never done a public interview before. I had never run an event all by myself. I had never tried to convince an audience of people to come along to an event because of how I sold it to them. I’d never tried any of those things. It could have all failed horribly. Every single time I do a Startup Grind, I’m terrified that it’s not going to work out because it is something that I care about deeply.

It hasn’t always worked, I’ve had bad events, and have let people down. It’s been a good process for me personally, from a personal and professional point of view, to be able to say, “Okay. That wasn’t so bad? I tried it, and this worked, and maybe this could have been better but, on the whole, that was okay.”

It has allowed me to become somebody who can step beyond the safe constraints that people often put themselves under. People can be afraid to be vulnerable and to try something new because the imagined negative outcome is horrendous compared to what the actual reality of it is. Professionally, I am a better person at my job at NDRC because I have this thing that is Startup Grind, which I am vulnerable with, on a monthly basis.

What have you learned from your speakers?
That the most interesting people, and the ones you can learn the most from, are those who are the most vulnerable and transparent about their experiences and are the most honest.

I don’t do the interviews so that I can learn to be the ultimate CEO. I just listen to people tell their stories about their grind and their struggle, personally and professionally, as they try and achieve the reality that they have imagined. That is what an entrepreneur does; they imagine a reality. They’re slightly delusional, and they work towards that. It’s the struggle of realising, or not realizing that, which I reinforce during the conversations.

It’s not groundbreaking tactical advice. It’s more how to be a good human. You could almost call Startup Grind, Human Grind. How you run a business is hugely important, but it is equally important how you behave as a person to other people in those situations, how you are honest with yourself about the way that you are dealing with people, viewing a situation, and engaging with people in your environment. I am optimistic about where we are going. I think the tech world is getting better. We’re more open about having conversations about how to be a good person while building tech companies.

When I first dreamed of doing the grind here, I wanted to stay with the vision that we educate, inspire and connect entrepreneurs, which came directly from the experience of the speakers. Lately, I have realised the most exciting part happens after the talk. A lot of people stay on to have conversations with each other. The best ones are those where the attendees chat together of something that happened during the conversation. Somebody has picked up on something, and they’re discussing it with somebody else. They’re taking it somewhere else. It’s the emotional connection to that piece of content that they will bring with them afterwards. That’s real.

But to get to that, the person on stage needs to be real. How do you keep them real?
Show as much as possible they are a normal person. I use the analogy that everybody puts on their trouser, one leg at a time. That is regardless how rich they are or how many companies they have sold. I am careful not to focus on the necessity to succeed and have the big exit. That is not the only way and it certainly not the only reason to go through the grind. The grind is about learning, becoming a better person, and doing that with the people you have along the way.

Is that purpose something that you believe in, or is it something that your experience has taught you?
I think it’s probably something that comes from within myself. Because I don’t have that goal of being a billionaire founder before any milestone birthday. I’m definitely not going to do it before I’m 30. It’s not what drives me. I don’t consider myself more or less successful because I earn more or less than somebody. I consider myself successful because I’ve learned something and helped another human. My frame of reference is helping. The lines are constantly running through my head – how is this making my local environment, Dublin, and Ireland as a whole, a better and more successful place?

Where is this coming from? Is it who you are?
It was a good cause that I was able to easily take on as my own. It wasn’t something I set out to do as a young professional. I didn’t sit down and go; I’m going to make the entirety of my professional career about making Ireland a more successful economy. That’s a good thing to do, it’s a good work to do, and it gives you an opportunity to help a lot of people – but I definitely didn’t set out with that as the purpose of my professional career.

A year ago I wrote an article about Guidecentral’s exit. When I asked Gaston who had helped him along the way, he mentioned two names and one was yours. At the time though you were working for Enterprise Ireland and telling the startups from outside Ireland why they should consider moving to Ireland. Yet you were helping someone who was already here and who was moving from Google to start his own thing. Why was that?
I had always tried to make sure the reality I was selling was true. That wasn’t selling pieces of turf for cash, though, but rather, I was selling the supportive and open environment we are here in Ireland. I was doing my bit to connect the pieces and the people so it could be more cohesive, so it would be easy to connect people, even when I wasn’t around. I had to work hard to make what I was saying was true. If I were relocating here, I would want a concierge who is well connected, independent and trusted. I would want someone who could easily traverse all of the resources that are available to help me. That happens by building relationships. And I was trying to give that help to everyone regardless if I had brought them over or not.

When you first took that role in 2012, was it a big learning curve to get to know your turf here?
I knew it, but only as an external person. I’m not a founder, and I’m not a terribly commercial person either. The main way I became so aware of all the bits and pieces of the ecosystem, was through social media. The people who were writing the most content were the startup founders, people like Robin Blandford from Decision For Heroes, Caelen King from WhatClinic, as well as others like Jason Roe and Damien Mulley. They were passionate about fixing problems for startups and blogged and tweeted a lot. I associated with their passion, I was in awe of their desire to be disruptive and built strong digital relationships with them.  

Working for Enterprise Ireland gave me a lot of opportunities to create value. During one of my overseas trips, I overheard a conversation about how Enterprise Ireland sounds like an unfair competitive advantage for Irish startups, and that’s what it is.

It certainly sounded like that to me back in March 2014 in Sofia. And it is a big part of why I decided to relocate here. What was the big pitch?
There were two pitches. One was the more standard business commercial pitch that the IDA use when they bring in the multinationals. At the time that was the four Ts – tax, track record, talent, technology. In that was the track record of the companies who were here in the ecosystem. The young agile and well-educated workforce. A place where it’s easy to hire, it’s easy to start, it’s easy to fire, it’s easy to pay your taxes. We’re a pro-business country that speaks English and has a special relationship with the United States, etc.

What was the response that you were getting? I was surprised, but then again I wasn’t looking to relocate a business.
Tax was the one T everybody knew. The stuff that was surprising for a lot of people was the track record. Even I was fascinated by it. We’ve had foreign direct investment in Ireland for 70 years. All this time the IDA was never content to just sit back and say, ‘’ Well, we’ve got Google, our work is done.’’ Instead, they kept on looking for more and more companies, discovered them and brought them over. It meant that the profile of the people in Ireland kept on changing – in terms of the skillset, nationalities, demographics and the experience.

Theses diverse set of people began seeing multinationals as stepping stones to gain commercial experience to do their own thing. If we had just kept on bringing in the same type of companies and hadn’t tried to keep up with the new startups and hiring the new types of people, we wouldn’t be at a point now that we have such a diverse workforce, looking to do something for themselves. We have a team in NDRC that has a Bulgarian, a Spanish, a Dutch and an Egyptian co-founding team. There are not many places in the world that can happen.

Was that chance or deliberate thing on IDA’s end?
It wasn’t planned, but neither was Silicon Valley. It was a reaction to market forces. I mean we’re tiny. I try to remind myself this every day; there are less than five million people living here. Because of that, the trend in America dictates the kind of company that’s going to come to Ireland for the next five, ten years. We’re just riding that wave. Of course, we add the local flair like the Irish people’s appreciation for a good story and for understanding somebody’s past. “Tell me about your people,” we ask. It’s just a fortuitous set of circumstances.

The big companies were identifying and hiring people who had the entrepreneurial urge but then also letting them go. They always kept them close, watched them and helped them from arm’s reach. And welcomed them back in case they wanted to.

That’s something that I have found in NDRC, which makes me very happy. We have the attitude that what you are learning in your current role is as important for preparing you for the next role as it is for achieving current goals and objectives. When I joined, I sat down with the leadership team, and we talked about my onboarding plan which was 18 months long.

What was the second pitch for coming to Ireland?
There’s an environment that is positive towards growth and opportunity. I think Ireland does opportunity pretty well from a business perspective. We are positively disposed towards people seeing an opportunity and going after it. There is not a tendency to say, “You can’t do that,” or “You have to do it my way.” We’re okay with trying new things, and we’re pretty open to people coming with something new and innovative. That’s not necessarily, of itself, a bad thing just because we haven’t seen it before.

The Irish are certainly open-minded to new people.
To people, to art, to new cultures. We’re interested in new ways of doing things. We’re good at adopting new technology as well. I do believe that we’re not so conservative that we have to be tied to a certain way of succeeding, and success looking like a certain thing and following a certain path. The Start In Ireland program was born out of necessity and an openness to try something new, because we had no other alternatives.

We were in a position where the economy was in tatters. People were emigrating again in huge numbers. We tried something new, we tried something that nobody in Ireland or Europe had done before, and we did it very fast.

https://twitter.com/dscanlon/status/804757898760962049

It’s why the whole statement of lack of ambition in Ireland baffles me. What you are describing is ambition, not big exits.
Yes, exits are not the only determinant of success. I know someone personally, who got that criticism about not hanging on for the huge exit but is in fact very happy with what they have achieved. They did that without burning out and becoming completely disenchanted with the business environment. They haven’t killed every single friendship that they had along the way to get to that point. This person is now well liked, well regarded, has all of their relationships intact, still has a strong relationship with their family, is healthy and is hungry for more. Within six months of having made that exit, the founder is re-investing and talking about a next startup and has retained the goodwill of the startup community here. I think that that’s a better metric.

Do you think our founders would have achieved the things that they did if they weren’t here?
Possibly not. It’s funny, the characteristics of the environment attract people who are disposed to want to be in an environment that attracts them. I will give you an example – Parsa Ghaffari who is Iranian, moved here from China. He is one of the most Irish founders that I have ever met. He is somebody who gives first, somebody who wants to help others along the way towards achieving his success. Ireland allows you to be successful in an environment that does its best to support success.

It pays you back along the way if you’re prepared to help other people and be a participant in this community along the way of achieving your success. Because it’s not a zero-sum game. You can give back and create value along the way on your journey as well. I think there is something in the environment here that lends itself to that. Maybe it’s something to do with the density, the size of the population, the fact that there’s a very international dimension to what’s going on here. It is an environment that accepts people and allows them to give back as they go. And they succeed in very sustainable and unique ways.

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