ZenDesk, Dublin And The Art Of Managing Growth

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Via The Sunday Business Post: Dublin needs to get higher, a lot higher, according to the head of ZenDesk’s operation in Ireland. The customer support software business has more than 100 staff in Ireland, 10 per cent of its global staff, with plans to further expand its presence here.

“The policy we have of keeping everything low is a little misguided. If we had a downtown area where you could go as high as you want and it was constrained to a certain geography it would make sense,” said Colum Twomey, ZenDesk’s vice-president of engineering and managing director in Ireland.

“Office space is becoming more limited in our part of Dublin. Everybody wants to be where the buzz is along the [Grand] Canal. It’s getting harder, companies coming in now are finding it more difficult to get offices and the lead time on getting space is slow,” said Twomey.

“It would be great to see a coordinated strategy on ensuring the space is there. I’m not sure how realistic that is, but I trust the dynamic of the market itself. With the market coming back, investment is picking back up again, the cranes are going up again,” he added.

olm-Twomey-Zendesk Dublin-Globe Colum Twomey in Zendesk’s Dublin HQ

Twomey said ZenDesk’s own growth plans would need to take the current difficulties in finding space into account, but he was confident the business could find room to grow in Dublin.

“Rents are going up, it will be tricky, but I’m not overly worried that we’ll find the space. When we came here they were reasonable, it has increased, but I don’t see that as a barrier,” he said.

Twomey said the increase in residential rents wasn’t proving a barrier for the firm, due in part to its location. “Compared with San Francisco where rents are astronomical, we’re still in a good spot. Our office is right on the Luas and we have good public transport links in general. We have pretty flexible working practices and hours too,” he said.

ZenDesk’s current office in Grand Parade in Dublin, its biggest outside San Francisco, has capacity for 150 staff. Twomey said the firm’s growth plans would not be limited by its existing space.

“We have a huge customer base in Europe and it’s great to be here to service that. We, primarily, have engineering here along with sales and support. Dublin is a fantastic place to find engineers from all over Europe. Our initial plans were relatively modest, but as I started going to meet-ups, I found we could attract really good talent,” he said.

“We are doing core development work here and that’s really important for attracting staff. Engineers like the desks, they like the food in the fridge, but what they really want is interesting work. They have that here, where we have responsibility for the core product and a lot of autonomy.

“A lot of multinationals try to keep the core stuff close to home and farm out the less interesting stuff. We don’t do that and that’s a big advantage in recruiting. We are getting people who have used the product before and can work on it.”

Twomey, who has more than two decades of experience in the tech sector, said it was ZenDesk’s desire to house an engineering operation in Ireland that attracted him to the firm.

“The opportunity to build an engineering organisation from scratch and to have the autonomy to do it was very appealing. In a lot of companies, the first hire is a finance or sales person. ZenDesk went with an engineer. I already had experience using the product, I saw how they were changing the market and how customer support is managed,” he said.

“Customer support doesn’t sound exciting, people think of call centres and headsets. This is anything but that, it’s all about the relationship between our customer and the end user. There’s nowhere to hide if you provide a service, you need to care for that relationship and make sure you are listening to what your customer is saying through whatever channel the customer is using.”

He said the extensive presence of multinational tech firms in Dublin had helped ZenDesk substantially on the recruitment front. “Of the engineers we have here, around 60 per cent were already in Dublin and of those less than half are Irish. There’s an international talent pool already here. The world has changed enormously in the last decade,” said Twomey.

“We are going to keep growing in Dublin, I don’t see any limits to what we can do here.”

The ZenDesk engineering chief said having engineers familiar with the product joining the firm helped the business to grow its customer base.

“A lot of our business comes from upselling. We’re great at getting in under the radar into parts of firms. We pass a certain threshold and once they start using the product it becomes contagious. We go into a lot of enterprise deals where we are competing against other companies, but find we already have a presence with the customer,” he said.

“People buy it just for a small function and think of it is a specialised tool, but then they see it and it expands from there. The low barrier for entry helps us. Users pull out their credit cards and are using the product the same day. By the time our competitors have put together a proposal, we’ve rolled out a solution already.”

Twomey said ZenDesk deliberately had no long-term targets for its employee growth in Dublin. He said that staff increases would be based on the office’s performance. “We are going to keep growing in Dublin, I don’t see any limits to what we can do here. We grow based on our success. It’s about making sure we have as effective an engineering organisation as possible,” he said.

Twomey said that in order for firms like ZenDesk to continue to increase their presence in Ireland, more work was required to improve education and infrastructure. “I want to see Ireland’s education system improve. It’s good, but it can be a lot better, particularly in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths]. We have only recently started hiring new graduates, we are attracting good ones. Ireland could invest more in ensuring that is happening,” he said.

“Ireland is great in terms of attracting people in and retaining them. There definitely needs to be more investment in public transport. I would find it hard to attract staff if we were located outside the M50.

Originally published in The Sunday Business Post.

Picture: Bryan James Brophy

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