Innovation Anthem

My piece in last Sunday's Independent:

Anticipation. That was the name of the Guinness ad that burst onto our tv screens in the summer of 1995. Da da da, dada, dada, dada. On the streets, in the pubs, at stadiums, bus stops and festivals. For one whole summer, Ireland had a new national anthem and it was a swirling little ditty that had no lyrics and made us all mad for dancing.

A couple of years later, when I was living in the States, friends would ask me what it was like to grow up in a small country like Ireland and I’d tell them about the Guinness ad and how it became a cultural phenomenon. Funny and creative, it also exposed what a wonderfully small and connected country we are.

When I moved back home to take on the role as Dublin's first Commissioner for Startups I wondered about our size and how a capital city of just over one million people could become a global hub for startups like London or Berlin had done. Per capita, Dublin’s funding levels look strong but in absolute terms these much larger cities will likely always drown us out.

Dublin's story however, is much more than just a numbers game. We’re a city that feels like a village, with a unique spirit and drive that attracts people from all over the world to start and build great businesses.

Thanks to Enterprise Ireland and the IDA, Ireland already has a decades old reputation as a global business center. Our goal now is to become known as a hub of innovation and leading tech talent, and my office is happy to cheerlead for the cause.

Now almost two years in and we’re still just at the beginning of a huge amount of work, and an enormous opportunity. Opportunity that’s gathering a broader range of voices too. At a recent meeting of “shared services” multinationals in Cork I listened as, one after another, country managers described the technology roles now dominating their Irish operations and expressed frustration about how poorly the shared services label represented their strategic value back to global HQ.

As I continue to listen, and understand the landscape here in Ireland, I’ve realised that Ireland will never be known for innovation if our multinationals aren’t known for it. They’re just too much a part of the story that’s told about us in the world.

Our weekly publication DublinGlobe.com and important new initiatives like TechLifeIreland, and TechIreland.org strongly position Ireland as a center of innovation. But we're nowhere near finished the job. People's common and deeply held belief is that all multinationals use Ireland as an administration and sales hub, and it's going to be our toughest job yet to turn this Titanic around. According to current profiles on TechIreland, 36% of tech multinationals in Ireland are building product from here. That’s a solid and increasing percentage which is good news for the country, not so good perhaps for the startups who have to compete for that pool of talent. When we succeed in changing the current narrative, and make Ireland synonymous with innovation, everyone will benefit.   

A couple of weeks back I heard the filmmaker Michael Moore speak at the Irish Film Center on Eustace Street. A huge and diverse group of people filled the theater but Michael, clearly chuffed to be back on the auld sod, couldn’t help but address us as one homogeneous group - ye warm, witty, Catholic Irish. It was engaging but a little too cute for comfort. It also prompted me to wonder whether we’ve given the modern Irish story sufficient airtime in the outside world. If not, our companies and our talent are still breaking down stereotypes every time they travel to fundraise, market, and sell themselves abroad.

Startups are the headline act in Ireland's innovation story and we've developed some truly world class sectors in MedTech, Travel Tech, Fintech and Software as a Service where we're competing, and often winning, against much more established, global players. TechIreland.org is telling that story on a company by company basis and by the time it launches in late October every startup and tech multinational in the country will be profiled on it, as well as every global investor in an Irish company. Anecdotes are nice but it’s a huge step forward to be able to present a complete and factual picture of Ireland's tech credentials. The launch will also be an opportunity to tip our hats to the many groups and individuals who have helped bring TechIreland to fruition.

Dublin’s credentials as a tech hub are strong, but then again, every city worth its salt can point to clusters of innovative companies, leading investors and serial entrepreneurs. My friend and mentor in New York, Jerry Colonna, once asked me what Ireland's equivalent of MIT was. Competing with MIT is a tall order, arguably, for any university in the world, but we have some early contenders, and with the right focus and investment we could get there. Our great tech multinationals could play a role as key sponsors. It makes so much sense for them to invest deeply in Ireland's future as an innovation powerhouse.

Music? Check. Literature? Check. Theatre and film - including an incredible nine nominations at this year’s Oscars? Check and check. Now, what will it take for innovation to secure a permanent spot on Ireland's already glowing international resume? Persistence, investment and another wonderfully contagious anthem we can dance to perhaps? Lets make it happen.

Niamh Bushnell

Lines and Dots

For the rest of this month I'm republishing some popular blog posts of last year. This one about NDAs from September 2015 is probably worth a repeat performance.

A couple of years ago, I lost an important client for my startup because I asked them to sign an NDA. The relationship limped on for a while after, then finally conked. Official cause of death: a lack of trust. Thinking back on my naiveté still makes me blush. Me who was supposedly steeped in the cool, startup culture of New York, and a seasoned entrepreneur on my second startup.

A couple of the discussions I had last week brought me back to this painful experience. John Hurley, the CTO of Ryanair, told me that entrepreneurs often tell him their ideas are “top secret” and share such scant details that it’s hard to offer them any meaningful feedback. Then, a colleague brand new to mentoring startups, told me he was asked to sign an NDA. He was confused and annoyed by this request, and I understood why.

For sure, there’s a time and place for NDAs, like when you’re ready to “open the kimono” on your company’s IP. But asking for an NDA at the idea stage of a business or before a relationship has even begun to have traction just makes the entrepreneur look like an amateur drowning in hubris. I mean really, what were the chances that my prestigious client in New York would first pay to use my product, then “steal” the idea and then reassign their precious engineering resources to build their own version? I had a better chance of winning the lotto.

So early stage NDAs imply a lack of trust and generally speaking, they’re a sign of a weak or immature entrepreneurial ecosystem. Where there’s no trust, there’s no electric flow of ideas between individuals and networks. Entrepreneurs - and all other stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem - are supposed to be out there, morning to night, selling their ideas to anyone who’ll listen, getting feedback and iterating as quickly as possible. This just cannot happen in a culture of top secrets.

We must encourage our young - or first time, or just naive - entrepreneurs to talk more openly about their ideas and businesses. Help them to recognise that without execution, their ideas are worth nothing. In fact, they’re as insignificant as dots. And to paraphrase Mark Suster, one of my favorite VCs: People invest in lines, not dots.

Niamh Bushnell

Beaches and Bogs

Greetings from an extended bank holiday weekend in rural Donegal, another one of Ireland's up and coming tech hubs. So say cheerleaders like me - and a great article in last week's Boston Globe.

During my recent Listening Tour to London I met VCs, accelerator leaders and entrepreneurs. I asked them about Brexit and what they knew of Dublin’s tech ecosystem, and I came home with good answers to both.

Right now, the Brexit vote seems to be driving little more than a business as usual reaction from the key players in London’s burgeoning digital economy. Noone I met is jumping ship, holding emergency board meetings, or even echoing the media rhetoric that seems pervasive to the rest of us. They’re all just too busy getting on with it.

There are however concerns about talent. Uncertainty makes it harder to attract key people to come and live in the UK, especially if they have spouses and families in tow. Schools, neighborhoods, communities and commutes. Since June 23rd, a move to the UK no longer feels like the opportunity it used to be.

Overall, though, my conversations in London - many of them with immigrants - left me with the impression of a steadfast focus on the present and a confidence in the future.

Confidence that the UK government will continue to do right by their digital economy in terms of tax, investment and talent policies.

To me, London remains a world class tech hub. And the opportunity that interests me most is the alignment of Dublin’s great tech story with London’s. Brexit or no Brexit.

It's this huge opportunity I’m thinking about as I walk across the beaches and bogs of north west Donegal.

More anon!

Niamh Bushnell

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