The Irish in Silicon Valley: The lessons learned and difficulties faced

In a three-part series, 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 1951, an American journalist was waiting for a flight from Shannon Airport when the airport restaurant’s chef handed him the perfect concoction for weary travellers: an Irish Coffee.

The writer returned home to San Francisco and tried to recreate it with a nightclub owner. They couldn’t get it right. In the end, they hired the chef from Shannon, Joe Sheridan, and brought him from Ireland’s West Coast to America’s. There, the Irish Coffee went from being a local gem to an international hit.

That’s just one of many Irish innovations that “made it big” after a trip to the City by the Bay.

From civil servants and property developers to a new wave of tech entrepreneurs, Irish émigrés constantly transform American cities like San Francisco. Along they way, they’ve learned some valuable lessons.

“They’ll ask questions,” says Cathal Phelan talking about American companies looking to do business with Irish firms. “You need to know to answer it in their language.”

Phelan, the CEO of the touch screen technology company Rapt Touch, knows what he’s talking about. He runs the Dublin-based company remotely from San Francisco because of the importance of having a strong footprint in America.

While most of the team is in Dublin, Switzerland, and Taiwan, Phelan and the company’s head of sales, Mark Anderson, act as the face to the big customers.

Firms wanting to do business in America need to talk like American businesses. Sure, it’s all in English, but Phelan says cultural differences can create problems.

“Sometimes the funny thing about Irish people is that they’re too honest, and too revealing, and too self-deprecating,” says Phelan. “The American corporation will say, ‘is your [product] the best in the world?’ An American firm would say, ‘yes, of course.’ Sometimes an Irish team would say, ‘well, we think its pretty good.’”

What may seem to some Irish entrepreneurs as a form of modesty and realism could come across as a lack of confidence to the bigger companies.

An Irishwoman who made move out to California echoes a similar point. Ashlinn Marron first moved to the United States in 2010. After a period in Australia, she’s back, now leading the Irish Network Bay Area, an organisation that helps connect émigrés.

Marron says it is imperative in San Francisco to talk directly about what you want and what you need. She says the tech community as a whole and Irish community specifically often want to help others along. Marron offers:

“Before you move over, I would definitely start reaching out to networks like ours. But you really need to be here to look for a job here.”

Marron says her Irish network helped her gain business contacts and friends in San Francisco. However, she credits other networks with getting her a job as a creative services manager for Stitch Fix, an American fashion site.

The network’s best opportunity is helping new people connect with established players. Just as an Irish business needs to seem confident when talking to American firms, anyone making the move out to the Bay Area needs to fight for what they want.

“Don’t be gun shy,” says Managing Director of Silicon Valley Bank Barry O’Brien. “If you’re not going to say it, someone else is.”

O’Brien, a former Irish diplomat, says it’s important to be smart though. Many people will be generous with their time, but you have one shot.

“Make sure every hour of that day is used effectively.”

Meet with the right people. Do your homework beforehand. Don’t mess it up.

“Coming here is expensive,” says O’Brien. “Not just the flight. Everything is expensive here.”

Just about every entrepreneur I spoke with in San Francisco talk about the difficult costs in the city. Being there for a week, it’s very clear: the Bay Area is pricey.

Much has been made about recent reports that Dublin is more expensive than Silicon Valley, but the numbers speak for themselves. The average rent in San Francisco, is more than $3,200 (€2,760) per month versus around €1,920 per month in Dublin.

Then there’s the big cost of choice. For a business leader, that’s a much bigger problem.

“There are so many dreams around the corner, says CEO of Game Your Game Inc. John McGuire. “It’s a challenge to keep your team, although we have a very loyal team.”

McGuire, who moved to the Bay Area from Galway, says with so many tech companies all seeking the best talent, employee turnover can be a big challenge.

He says his sport data collection and analysis company probably couldn’t have gotten off the ground outside of the Bay Area, thanks to the connections he made. However, the increasing costs may shift their focus.

The company, which operates the brand Game Golf, has offices in Galway, Kiev, Singapore, and San Francisco. McGuire envisions a time in the future when their American office is only home to sales and marketing teams, with most of the engineering work happening elsewhere.

“The cost of doing business here is high, in particular in San Francisco,” says McGuire. “That’s not the case in other areas of the U.S., but here it is. Now, you see there are tech hubs in places like Seattle born out of the necessity of not being here.”

Paul Walsh of MetaCert Protocol says he learned a lot after moving to Silicon Valley. With his company’s planned initial coin offering, which he describes as “launching five startups at the same time,” Walsh says anyone looking to launch or expand their company in San Francisco needs to be realistic.

“Everything takes longer than you expect,” says Walsh.

Walsh says even in Silicon Valley, where some startups like Instagram had “unicorn” success incredibly fast, MOST companies still take five years to find product/market fit.

The Irish community in San Francisco continue to innovate and thrive. The lessons they learn and share will help the next generation of entrepreneurs and actually improve Silicon Valley’s culture.

Think of what American’s would drink, if not for the mixture of cream, coffee, and Irish whiskey. Just as the Irish coffee became a global hit following exposure in San Francisco, plenty of Irish firms are finding a similar success.

Still, a major question remains: how can the community back home in Ireland benefit from this new California tech gold rush? Next week, we’ll explore the benefits of the the deep cultural connections between the Bay Area and Ireland.

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