As Dublin gears up to host the Web Summit, founder Paddy Cosgrave talks to Keira Gilleece about this year’s event and their decision to move to Lisbon for next year.
When Paddy Cosgrave decided to hold a get-together for the Dublin based tech community in the Chartered Accountants House five years ago, he had no idea it would grow to be one of the biggest global tech conferences within a few short years. After the initial gathering of 400 people in 2010, Web Summit grew to 10,000 by 2013 and the question arose of how Dublin would be able to cope infrastructurally with its rapid expansion. This came to a fore last year as traffic brought Dublin City to a halt when 22,000 people descended on the capital, while hotel prices sky rocketed, Guinness flowed freely, and most significantly, the RDS struggled to cope with the WiFi demands.
With the recent announcement of Web Summit’s move from Dublin to Lisbon, Cosgrave admitted that infrastructure was an issue, but his primary focus was the user experience. “I think infrastructurally, Lisbon is a venue that is state of the art. It’s four times the capacity of the RDS and we just want to create the best experience possible for attendees,” he says. While there has been some criticism for the move in the media, overall the response has been generally positive. “If you go onto the Lisbon 2016 Facebook event, which we created on Sunday, you’ll see lots of Irish people saying ‘I booked my tickets already’. They booked their hotels and flights because they’re like ‘oh my god hotels are one-fifth of the price of over in Dublin.’”
Despite all of the infrastructure issues, Cosgrave doesn’t think there was any more the government could have done to keep Web Summit in Ireland. “Enda [Kenny] has been incredibly supportive. He’s spoken at the event the last three years, he’s come and met people who have come off the stage and made them feel incredibly welcome. There is only ever so much a government can do, and in terms of the priorities in Ireland right now, Web Summit is at bottom of the list. We’ve got problems with hospitals, we’ve got problems with schools, and they have an immediate impact right now on people’s lives all over this country and I think those are just more important issues.”
The tech scene has expanded rapidly in Dublin over the last few years, with companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yahoo setting up their EMEA bases here, along with a booming start-up scene that rivals Silicon Valley. Many fear that the loss of the Web Summit to Lisbon will damage the economy and affect this growth. However, Cosgrave believes Web Summit played only a small role in this, and that the Silicon Docklands will continue to thrive after its departure to Lisbon next year.
“I think if there’s any contribution [made by Web Summit] it’s incredibly small. I mean, what’s much more important is the contribution that entrepreneurs make every single day, just building great companies. [Ireland] is known as a location of choice for big global tech companies to have an operation here for tax purposes, and I think seeing companies like Teamwork and Log Entries and CurrencyFair emerge out of Ireland, does an incredible amount. I mean yeah, of course Web Summit helped in some small way, but Web Summit is only three days. There’s another 362 days of the year, and what happens in those 362 is arguably more important.”
In terms of bringing back a smaller type of tech conference to Dublin, similar to his other ventures like MoneyConf in Belfast, Cosgrave doesn’t rule it out. “We haven’t really had a chance to even think about that yet. Literally my primary focus now is just 2015, and making sure it’s a great event for everybody.”
Despite the huge success of Web Summit, there are still some things he would go back and change. Web Summit may have outgrown its Irish roots now, but there was a time when Cosgrave didn’t even consider that it would have a global impact. “I thought it would just be an Irish conference and the Irish community would show up, and that was great that they would learn and hear from and get to meet some of these amazing entrepreneurs. If we had got focussed earlier at saying, ‘hey this isn’t just an Irish event, this is an event that people from all over the world can come to’, I just think that would have been a good thing for Web Summit.”
For students interested in attending the Web Summit, Cosgrave offered a few tips to make the most of the experience. “We obviously have our careers night, so that gives an opportunity for 3,500 college students to hear some of the most inspiring entrepreneurs talk about how their careers might be affected by technology and how they should be thinking about working out their career in a very rapidly changing world. So, go to that is my first piece of advice. My second piece of advice is volunteer, because you basically work for a period of time and then you get a free ticket to Web Summit, so if you really want to meet lots of start-ups or you want to listen to some speakers, that’s a great opportunity. And then you know, crash the night summit, that’s what I’d do. I shouldn’t say that, but just show up.”
As for advice for budding entrepreneurs, Cosgrave admitted he was recently inspired by a song he heard on Spotify. “I actually heard this line from a rap video recently which said, ‘if you’re not scared of your dreams, your dreams aren’t big enough.’”
He emphasises the Samuel Beckett adopted tech mantra of ‘fail again, fail better’, instead of following the traditional route of a graduate. “I think when you come out of college, people around you are nervous about your future and they just want you to follow that tried and tested path. The truth is you can always wander back to that path; you can go off on a little adventure for five or six years. Many of the most successful people, incredible executives, CEOs of amazing companies, they didn’t take this traditional path, and by the time they were 30 years of age, they had these experiences that nobody else in the company they were working in had. Innovation comes from disruptive people who have an alternative view of the world, and the best way to get an alternative view of the world is to do something alternative.”
A lot of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs dropped out of college, so does Cosgrave think a college degree is still necessary to create a billion dollar company?
“Anecdotally, it is true that people have not gone to university and they have succeeded, but statistically, it turns out that education actually on aggregate makes a difference. So, rates of entrepreneurship are actually consistent for people who drop out of secondary school, people who drop out of college and people who go on to get a PhD – roughly the same percentage of people [from each group] become entrepreneurs.”
“The difference between somebody who sets up a company with a PhD and somebody who dropped out of secondary school, is that the size of the companies tends to be vastly different, and the focus also. So if a group of guys with a PhD in a particular area of research set up a company, it will tend to be export focussed, it will tend to be highly innovative, and it will tend to be much larger, on aggregate. As compared to somebody who drops out of secondary school, if they become an entrepreneur, it will tend to be addressing a local market need, like a corner shop, and it will tend to be quite small and un-innovative. So you have to be careful of the reason why you will hear this story about a guy who dropped out of Harvard and built a business worth $250 billion, it’s because it doesn’t actually happen that often. It’s more often that people stay in university, they go and work for somebody else for a number of years, and if you look at the most successful, if you look at the data for successful entrepreneurs, most of them start companies in their early to mid thirties, after they’ve gained valuable experience working for other companies. That tends to be the pattern.”
As for getting a job in Web Summit HQ, is getting a First Class Honours Degree the only way in? “We get so many applications, that we were just like – if you don’t have a 2.1 or a First from an IT or a University, we won’t even look at you. But even then, there’s just so many people with good degrees from everywhere, that we will instead just look at the bottom of your CV where you usually put hobbies. One of the guys who works on the engineering team, Will, his current occupation was ‘pizza delivery boy’. He turned out to be brilliant, and so enthusiastic. Then there was another guy Stephen from Cork, who was working as a postman around Mallow and was a part-time farmer. He had an unbelievable degree, did great things in college, really interesting, involved in societies and student publications. We were like, ‘who is this guy, he’s worked as a postman for the last year, let’s just meet him, let’s meet these people.’”
One of the big attractions of Web Summit is that it’s no longer all about tech, and has become much more diverse since its inception, with a Food Summit, Cinema Summit and Music Summit all featured in 2014. Was that intentional, and is it going to continue to go in that direction? “Yeah, we’ve added the Fashion Summit, and the Sports Summit is now so much bigger than it was last year. And that reflects the fact that technology is now part of everything. Technology used to mean a grey computer that sat on your desk in the office, but now we all have smart phones. Even my mother is using an iPad, my granny is using an iPad, and so we’re all just using technology. When you think about sport for example, you interview coaches and they now say it’s actually a statistician and technology arms race. If you don’t have great technology, great analysis, software and analytics tools and great data, you’re going to get outcompeted.”
With Web Summit having taken place in Ireland now for five years, Cosgrave must have some interesting memories to mull over. “Some of the magical moments for me have been waking up in the morning and looking at Twitter or Facebook and seeing all of these young, early stage entrepreneurs telling their friends they were in Coppers and they met Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. To most people that sounds extraordinary, but actually all of these entrepreneurs, they really just want to help the next generation of entrepreneurs. The highlight for me is that [these entrepreneurs] will just go on pub crawls. Drew [Houston], the founder of Dropbox, was in a real old man’s pub by the Guinness factory last year, and he saw a guitar and he started just jamming with these old men. That really is the magic; it means you just never know, literally never know, who you’re going to meet. And yes, Bono does lead a pub crawl, and he has done for four years.”
Web Summit is on in the RDS from November 3rd-5th.