FACEBOOK HQ, Palo Alto, Silicon Valley. In the lobby is a flat-screen TV showing a rotating digital globe. White beams bounce around it continuously from point to point, crossing oceans, linking continents. New friendships as they are made in real time between people’s Facebook pages all over the world. This is ground zero of the social media universe and it’s pretty damn cool.
In my suit shoes, trousers and shirt I am way overdressed. I don’t know how many millions of dollars the guy I’m meeting is worth, whether he’s five years younger or older, but I’m pretty sure, like everyone else I’ve met so far this week, he’ll be in Converse, jeans and a t-shirt. And he is.
He gives me a tour of their operation – all open plan, bikes against desks, graffiti on the walls. We grab a coconut water from one of the free-of-charge coffee docks and head out to the basketball court, where he likes to brainstorm with his team, he tells me. As it happens we’re the same age and so we get on quite well, chatting about everything from tech to politics to new sporting interests (it turns out we’ve both recently taken to a bit of climbing).
After about an hour we part company and I head down California Avenue in the sun, carrying a gift from my first actual Facebook friend. It’s a poster that confidently proclaims: “done is better than perfect”.
Facebook has surpassed Google in the ‘coolest place to work stakes’. The only thing cooler is to work for yourself in a hyped-up start-up, which Facebook and Google once were themselves. And of which there are many more out here.
So what is it about this place that young guys and girls can so casually stroll out of college and set up companies, industries even, that will come to dominate our known universe? Or set up rivals to destroy them?
Seriously. Hewlett Packard and Intel were born here, so was Apple. Does a day go by now where we don’t use either Google or Facebook? I use both more than I use my bike or my microwave.
I jump on the Caltrain with a bunch of Giants fans and on our hour-long journey to San Francisco I toss the whole thing over in mind. I’ve been on Stanford campus, in the design school and tech transfer office; visited the hottest incubators like 500 Startups and Plug and Play Tech Centre; met with serial entrepreneurs and first-timers; and I’ve listened to the money men: Silicon Valley Bank and the various venture capital firms and angel investors that help make the whole place tick.
What I’m looking for cannot be bottled and checked on to a plane
All I want to know is, what’s the secret and how do I get it back to Ireland? I’m hoping the expats out here can help me and throughout the course of my week I make it my business to meet with Irish folk involved in every space, every corner of this tech-mecca: the clean tech pioneer, the guy who finished his Leaving Cert and got on a plane two days later to go set up a company in The Valley, the grad student who wants to take on and take down Facebook, the professor who is helping students reinvent the way we interact with the world and the financial patriot helping fellow Irish entrepreneurs.
But they all tell me the same thing. That what I’m looking for cannot be bottled and checked on to a plane. It’s an attitude, an atmosphere. It’s cultural, historic even – one traces it back to the 1800s and the kinds of people who left their comfy homes and clean cities in the east to strike out here on their own in the unknown. The first American innovators.
It’s a nice, romantic way to look at the world but what it essentially reveals is the truth that Silicon Valley is unique, the perfect ecosystem. And perfection by its very nature cannot be copied: there can be no second silicon city.
And yet that doesn’t mean that we can’t create something good ourselves in Ireland, something different, something special (in the European context at least).
I think about this some more as I stroll from the train station back to my friend’s apartment, past the new building where Twitter is about to relocate. Another major outfit coming to Dublin to set up an international HQ.
Ireland is already special for the big established players coming in to Europe because of our low corporation tax rate, amongst other things. But establishment isn’t innovation, and one, albeit big, element does not a healthy ecosystem make. The kind of FDI we need to attract if we’re to be truly special – an investment of new capital, new people, new ideas: a new culture of enterprise – doesn’t care about corporation tax rates (not for the first couple of years anyhow).
It can sometimes be the case of: How can government get out of the way
A key question for me as a policy maker, and hence this trip is: what can the government do to attract and foster this new culture? It’s a question I ask cautiously though as sometimes it can be more a case of what shouldn’t the government do or how can government get out of the way. I mean imagine if some suited middle-aged official was in charge of Paddy Cosgrave’s incredibly successful Web Summit and Founders series? It just wouldn’t work.
One of the first things you learn when you step in to such an environment is that it can’t be created or fed by politicians or bureaucrats. As one person in Stanford said to me, “enterprise requires chaos”. And the genuine cultural element, the fail to succeed mentality that we don’t seem to have here, can’t be impregnated in our collective psyche with a law.
But politics, and politicians, can facilitate. And, of course, we’re not starting from scratch. There’s already a lot going on. But we need to do more to help properly seed an entrepreneurial, start-up environment, be it in Dublin, Galway, Cork or Kerry. And as I get chatting with our Irish abroad, so keen to give something back, if only an idea, I get to hear more.
Some are small changes, while others are more radical. Some can be initiated quite easily while others are longer term goals. But each is compelling and taken together could actually be the difference.
Telling someone that it’s ok to fail and having them believe it and go for it is one thing. But making it impossible for them to start back up again if they do, through regressive and punitive bankruptcy laws, undermines any possibility of a virtuous cycle through failure. We know this. And the government is moving on this. But not far enough in my opinion.
We can’t be afraid of failure
At the Dublin Web Summit in June a successful foreign entrepreneur was asked: how do you decide where to locate your company? His simple answer, “I go where the developers are”. Start-up internet companies need developers and we don’t have nearly enough. But imagine if we told young aspiring founders from abroad that we would pay 20-25 per cent of their developers’ wages. They would flock here overnight and everyone else would come with them: more developers, designers, investors. Quebec is doing just that at the moment in an attempt to become the gaming capital of the world and they’re flocking there in droves (86 new companies since the initiative started).
It might sound a tad radical and sure we don’t have the money to do this. But what if instead we said we wouldn’t charge them any income tax for the first year? Or PRSI? Hey, it’s just an idea, take it for a walk, think of something better. And there are many more ideas out there.
If we’re going to really become a creative, innovative place to work and live then we need to start thinking a bit more creatively in our policies too. And we can’t be afraid of failure. Some ideas will fail, it’s essential in fact that they do. But one thing is certain: if we keep just talking and hoping and writing reports on how to achieve the perfect start-up ecosystem for Dublin or wherever then we guarantee ourselves neither failure nor success. We won’t be special, we’ll be irrelevant. Forget perfection. It’s time to get doing.