A Letter to Irish Startups

The Web Summit started out three years ago from my bedroom and later my couch with two friends, Daire and Dave. If I’m honest, we were just three friends without jobs, foolish enough to believe we could persuade a handful of the world’s leading tech entrepreneurs, investors and journalists to come to Ireland to talk to the startup community. Our strategy in a sentence: Late night Skype calls and the promise of a pub crawl.

We had no backers, and few believers. There was no slide deck. None of us had ever organised a conference before. And most importantly, there were no startup conferences at any real scale in Ireland to learn from at the time.

If I look back, the fact that leading international tech CEO’s, investors and journalists constantly flew to Europe to speak, but almost always skipped Ireland, pissed me off!

I’d grown up on a farm in Wicklow surrounded by almost every piece of hardware and software imaginable from early Macs, Psions (the first PDAs), games consoles. My dad milked cows by day and as a hobby coded by night (he’s now retired and codes full time). I was obsessed with tech. Obsessed.

But pre Web Summit, the only real option if you wanted to meet lots of other tech entrepreneurs, investors, journalists and more from around the world in one place in Europe, was to fork out €2,000 for a ticket to some conference in Germany or France or the UK, pay for flights, pay for a crummy but stupidly expensive hotel in some European capital city, and then scrounge together whatever money you had for food, buses etc.

It was reality back in 2010, and it was a reality that really pissed me off. Wasn’t Ireland supposed to some sort of tech hub!

Our office for the first 18 months
Our office for the first 18 months

I’d spent most of 2009 in Ireland stuck in a bruising battle to get a tech startup off the ground. It was a pretty isolating experience. YouTube was my only resource to hear great talks, and as for meeting international investors, journalists, mentors and advisors, the only option in Europe was to fork out a King’s ransom.

We were going to change that, or so we hoped. We wanted to bring together the Irish startup and business communities to network and to learn from some exceptional tech entrepreneurs, investors and more from around the world. And we wanted to do it in Dublin. And, most importantly, we wanted to do it for less than anything else in Europe.

Those first months were an incredible challenge. But in October 2010, we pulled something off. Since then, a lot has changed. The Summit has grown into perhaps the most global startup and tech conference in the world, but I think it’s worth looking back on that first Summit and comparing it to where we are now, as few people really remember it for what it was:

Back in October 2010:

  1. Less than 30 people spoke
  2. There was 1 workshop
  3. Just under 500 people showed up to the Summit
  4. 3 startups exhibited
  5. 4 international investors showed up
  6. Attendees came from 1 country: Ireland
  7. There was 1 evening networking event
  8. 3 overseas journalists attended
  9. Most people paid €349 to attend
  10. Startups paid €1,050 for a team of 3
  11. Startups paid €2,500 for their exhibition stand

This October:

  1. More than 300 people will speak – a 10x increase
  2. There will be over 50 workshops – a 50x increase
  3. 10,000 people will show up – a 20x increase
  4. 900 startups will exhibit – a 60x increase
  5. 400+ international investors will attend – a 100x increase
  6. Attendees will come from over 100 countries – a 100x increase
  7. There will be over 100 evening networking events, dinners and more – a 100x increase
  8. 400+ international journalists & bloggers will attend – a 125x increase
  9. Most people will pay €595 to attend – a 2x increase
  10. Startups will pay €950 for a team of 3 – a 9% decrease
  11. Irish Startups will pay €0 to exhibit as part of ALPHA – a 100% decrease

Back in 2010, the feedback from the Irish startup community was incredible.

Wait, what?

But didn’t Datahug, Logentries, Skillpages, Profitero and many other Irish startups pay more in 2010 than todays new wave of Irish startups will for an event that was a mere fraction of the quality of 2013.

Yes is the answer. There’s no hiding from it. In hindsight, 2010 was, relatively speaking, an over-priced sh*t-show. I owe Connor Murphy, Vol Pigrukh, Eamonn Leonard, Trevor Parsons, Stephen O’Regan, Paul Campbell and many others more than a few pints.

If I’m upfront, in 2010 the wifi broke, the AV didn’t work, the food was non-existent, the coffee was terrible, there were almost no overseas investors, scarcely an international journalist, and so much more. Fast forward to today, and the Summit is a giant global startup conference with few events anywhere else in the world attracting a similar calibre of folks, yet for an Irish startup it’s now a fraction of the cost of 2010.

How in the world?

You see back in late October 2010 at the first Summit, as rag tag and tiny as it was, something happened for Irish startups. And that something is, I guess, the important part that created the momentum for 2011.

In October 2010, startups met investors that actually went on to invest, even if there were only 4 international ones in the room; journalists and bloggers shared stories with the world on numerous Irish startups, and lots more. Irish startups met mentors, advisors, board members and more. For example, Dog Patch Labs emerged out of our first Summit in 2010; Polaris went on to invest in Logentries; while DFJ Esprit invested in Datahug. There are lots more stories.

Datahug
Datahug

Of course the reality is not every Irish startup that showed up in 2010 exists today. Some are dying a slow death. Some of course have surpassed all expectations.

But a note of caution: The Summit is not some sort of magic potion that will turn your startup into the next Facebook. The reality of startups: most fail. Attending the Summit guarantees nothing. And I mean nothing. We now persuade thousands of incredibly influential people to fly from all over the world to congregate in a room for the Web Summit, but what you make of the people in that room is up to you (Russell Banks and Gene Murphy have shared their advice on this).

That said, back in October 2010, I thought at one point that any Irish startup that didn’t intend walking down the street to the Summit needed their head examined. I was so passionate about what we were doing, and so sure it was a huge step forward for Dublin, that I momentarily believed anyone that was missing out was doing their own company and their own team a disfavour.

On reflection, I think that was very extreme. In fact, it was way off the mark. It was an obnoxious mindset to have.

Fast forward to today, and I simply think that if you’re an Irish startup then the Summit is a very rare opportunity on your very own doorstep. No other small nation I know of in the world has an event like the Summit. There will be thousands of opportunities walking around the Summit in October, and at private events for startups and attendees by night. Attending a comparable event elsewhere in the world would cost about 3 to 4 times the amount, perhaps 5 times.

And at those events, you won’t be able to show an investor a great pub, bring someone to an incredible restaurant, have them to your house for an after-party. This is your city.

I’ve constantly helped the non-bullshiter startups in Ireland over the last 3 years, and yes there are bullshitters galore. We’ve put great Irish entrepreneurs and great Irish startups on stages around the world, introduced them to investors, set up press for them in the biggest tech blogs on the planet, and lots more. We’ve brought armies of investors and journalists to Dublin outside of the Summit, heck there are 6 of them in Dublin today alone.

It's not all about the talks
It’s not all about the talks. Paul Hayes does his thing.

And this year, we’re expanding on what we set out to do: create something for the Irish startup community. We have a standalone Irish startup competition, as well as lots of private events to connect Irish startups to investors, journalists, partners, employees, mentors and advisors. Exhibition stands at no extra cost, a team of incredibly helpful folks in the office like Paul McDonnell, Tony Ennis, Rob Farhat and many others who are constantly helping, introducing and advising young Irish startups.

But, you know, what you make of the Summit, our team and the thousands of people that will be in Dublin in October, is up to you. I am unapologetically passionate about what we’ve created in Dublin, and utterly biased.

Taken the day I put a desk into my bedroom in 2010 to start it all off
Taken the day I put a desk into my bedroom in 2010 to start it all off

Ps. A huge thanks to so many folks over the last three years for their constant support, advice and time, including Paul Campbell, Eamon Leonard, Des Traynor, Sean Blanchfield, Stephen O’Regan, Pat Phelan, Russell Banks, Ray Smith, Connor Murphy, Vol Pigrukh, Noel Ruane, Shay Garvey, John Flynn, Alan Coleman, Mark Little, Dylan Collins, Paul Hayes, James Whelton, Darren Mulvihill, Cathal Furey, Vinny Glennon, John Kennedy, Joe Cosgrave, Gene Murphy, Rory O’Connor, Ray Nolan, Paddy Holahan, Chris Horn, Karlin Lillington, Adrian Weckler, Gary Leyden, Brian Caulfield, Anna Scally, Anna Cosgrave, Edel McCarthy, Donal Cahalane, Karl Aherne, Martin Kelly, Will Prendergast, Jonathan Siegel, Colm Rafferty, Iain MacDonald, Noel Toolan, Barry O’Dowd and the entire IDA team, the team at EI, Kevin Abosch and so many others who have helped us over the years. (I gave up writing names, apologies to all those I missed)

Pps. I also have to thank Paul Campbell and Eamon Leonard for creating Funconf. It inspired me, kept me thinking and got me constantly tinkering. Paul in particular has been a great friend and sounding board since college. Paul along with Dave O’Lohglin were the only other people I knew in college interested in shipping product. Almost 10 years ago we separately tinkered with dead-end but fun ideas/products. Anyway, above all else Paul has constantly checked my tendency to get carried away with ideas and notions over the last 10 years. He’s also the man behind Tito, which I think is going to change physical gatherings and events the world over in a way Stripe should payments and Layer should communication.

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