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The Future of Dublin Tech, Part 1: U.S. Firms Tout Market, Talent

The Future of Dublin Tech, Part 1: U.S. Firms Tout Market, Talent

If it were warmer, the Docklands area of Dublin could almost pass for a mini Silicon Valley.

In the span of a mile or two, you’ll come across the massive offices of Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other international Web giants. These companies employ hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of people in Dublin. And they are growing fast—making a big impact on the local innovation scene, as well as the overall economy.

A first-time visitor might be forgiven for making comparisons to other regions—and eras. The bridges spanning the River Liffey, named after literary giants like Samuel Beckett and Sean O’Casey, hark back to previous periods in Irish history. Yet the amount of commercial development in this Dublin neighborhood is reminiscent of newer parts of Boston, San Francisco, London, and even Shanghai.

Multinational corporations and mega-development are not new to the area, of course. Big tech companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Oracle have been in Ireland for decades, with a mostly positive track record of keeping jobs in the country. They have been drawn to Dublin and other cities by a number of factors. The country’s top corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent—and incentives that make it lower—has been well publicized. Add to that a highly educated workforce, access to European customers, an increasingly cosmopolitan feel, and a relatively low cost of living—at least compared to London, say—and you have an attractive place to do business.

That’s why hundreds of U.S. companies directly employ more than 100,000 people in Ireland, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland. And the country consistently ranks in the top 10 or 20 globally in measures of foreign direct investment.

Now the next generation of U.S. tech household names, from Airbnb to Zendesk, is setting up shop and growing in Dublin—and their motivations are complex. They are trying to expand amid the impending closure of the “double Irish” tax loophole and the international backlash against the tax treatment of companies like Apple and Google. For many of the next-tier companies, the main opportunities are around recruiting Irish and pan-European staff who are crucial to building their international business.

“The Irish story is morphing,” says Elaine Coughlan, a general partner with Atlantic Bridge Capital, a growth-equity venture firm focused on the tech sector. “The headline is about tax, but the reality is very different.”

What complicates the story, of course, is that each company has its own reality. But the general trend is toward mid-size companies opening gateway offices to the European marketplace and hiring in sales, marketing, and customer support services. A secondary emphasis seems to be on hiring engineers and product developers.

Take Dropbox, the data-storage company whose Dublin office opened in the summer of 2013 and now employs about 100. Most of those jobs are in sales and user support, with some also in marketing, recruiting, and engineering. Roughly 60 percent of the staff relocated to Dublin from across Europe.

Dropbox's Irish logo, in its Dublin office. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

Dropbox’s Irish logo, in its Dublin office. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

For Dropbox, which doesn’t have huge profits yet, the decision to grow in Ireland seems to be less about the tax incentives. “It’s the market and the talent,” says Adrienne Gormley, who leads the company’s user operations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Gormley joined Dropbox about six months ago after working at Google for seven years.

As she puts it, the Dublin operation is “key to Dropbox’s growth” because most of the firm’s user base is outside North America.

There’s a similar story across town at Airbnb’s Dublin office, which opened in January of this year and is pushing 300 employees as the company’s European hub. Ireland isn’t a big market for the online house-rental company, but its local office serves as a “center of innovation around hospitality,” says Aisling Hassell, Airbnb’s head of customer experience for the region.

That means her employees speak about a dozen languages and need to have “passion about the brand and the sharing economy,” she says, as one of their main duties is to help European hosts and renters with the site.

Hassell previously spent 15 years in California working at Symantec before returning to her native Ireland. That’s a common theme these days, as a critical mass of tech workers in Dublin seems to be helping draw more Irish expats and immigrants into the talent pool.

Yet Dublin is still a small community, and everyone knows everyone in the tech scene. “There’s a lot of ability to network,” Hassell says. “Dublin is a village. It’s good and bad—you can’t keep a secret.”

Aisling Hassell in Airbnb's Dublin office. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

Aisling Hassell in Airbnb’s Dublin office. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

And like any healthy ecosystem, there seems to be plenty of job flow between companies. “It’s getting more competitive for talent,” says Gerard Murnaghan, a senior sales director at job-search firm in Dublin. “The economy is recovering, and companies are getting a bit more bullish.”

As he puts it, his company’s new hires might come from a LinkedIn, say, and leave to join Google a few years later. Murnaghan, a native of Cork, had years of experience at Apple, EMC, and Oracle, before joining Indeed. He says, “Dublin could be more of a technical hub if we make it more attractive.” By that he means making personal tax policies and educational options more favorable for tech workers, and investing in basic amenities like broadband access and public transportation.

But if companies are worried about a talent crunch coming, they’re not showing it.

“Recruiting is easy—if you’re doing interesting work,” says Colum Twomey, who heads up Zendesk’s 70-odd staff in Dublin.

Zendesk, a customer-service software company based in San Francisco, is a bit of an outlier, in that its Dublin operation is primarily focused on engineering and products. In particular, the local staff lead the firm’s efforts in mobile and voice-based technologies. That product focus comes from Twomey, a software engineer who previously ran an Irish development-tool startup called Wilde Technologies and also led Informix’s European development team in Dublin (the database business was acquired by IBM).

Other U.S. companies run key engineering and business functions out of Dublin, as well. HubSpot, which recently had an IPO, has around 100 people in its local office, and about a dozen of them are engineers; they are in charge of the mobile layer of HubSpot’s marketing software. What’s more, site leader Jeetu Mahtani says the Boston-area company makes 15 to 20 percent of its global sales from Dublin.

Another Boston company, TripAdvisor, opened an engineering center in Dublin in 2013—its biggest outside of headquarters. The online-travel giant saw an opportunity to grab top talent in Dublin. “We generally do not find that specific engineering skill sets vary much by region,” says a TripAdvisor spokesman. “We’re just as likely to hire an amazing engineer in Ireland as we are in the U.S. if they fit the criteria we’re seeking.”

Companies like HubSpot, Zendesk, and Dropbox may represent a bridge between the big, established multinationals and the emerging entrepreneurial community. Indeed, there seems to be a rise in interactions and talent flow between Dublin’s tech startups and its big companies (more on this to come in Part 2).

Look no further than Google, one of the biggest tech operations in town, with about 3,000 employees. Paddy Flynn, a veteran of five and a half years in the Dublin office, leads a team focused on product quality for the Web giant. In his spare time, he also heads up the local Google for Entrepreneurs program, which is a global initiative to support entrepreneurial clusters.

“When I started at Google, the startup community didn’t really exist like it does today. It’s vibrant without necessarily being big,” he says. “My goal is to get Googlers locally involved in the community.”

That entails hosting meet-ups, running startup community programs, providing financial support and resources, and working with organizations like Enterprise Ireland, Startup Ireland, Startup Weekend, and Seedcamp.

Paddy Flynn at Google's Dublin offices. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

Paddy Flynn at Google’s Dublin offices. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

It’s all part of a greater shift and maturation in Dublin’s innovation landscape—from isolated pockets of techies who didn’t necessarily talk to each other, to more of a thriving give-and-take between the different constituents in big companies, small companies, universities, and government.

“You’re seeing the public and private parts of Ireland coming together starting to happen,” Flynn says. “That’s critical.”

[Editor’s note: In Part 2, coming tomorrow, we’ll look at Dublin’s emerging startup scene and its challenges.]

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