An interview with Dublin's Startup Commissioner Niamh Bushnell

by Deirdre O'Brien - 19 Apr 2016

If you’re in Dublin this week, then you’re in for a treat when it comes to Zalando events. Tomorrow, we’re hosting an evening of interesting discussion, with the chance to catch up and share ideas with some of the companies innovating in this space.

We'll be posing the question: “What is Tech Culture?”. We want to know how tech organisations foster a 'culture' to support technical innovation and team engagement. Zalando Dublin will be represented by Graham O’Sullivan, Delivery Lead at Zalando Dublin, who’ll be joined by other panel representatives from companies making their mark in Ireland.

In the lead up to this exciting panel, we had the opportunity to sit down with Niamh Bushnell, Dublin’s Startup Commissioner and moderator for the event.


Zalando Tech: What is special about the ecosystem in Dublin that attracts best-in-class tech talent?

Niamh Bushnell: There are a couple of aspects to Dublin in particular that help us stand out when it comes to tech. Firstly, Travel Tech is a huge industry in Dublin. One in three trips organised globally touches Irish-built tech, so it's a sector that's big and very important for us.

Secondly, most of the leading multinational tech companies in the world have a home in Dublin, including Zalando. Apart from Travel Tech, Fintech, and more broadly, SaaS are huge sectors in Dublin and these companies are building product side by side with multinational companies – Google, Amazon, Etsy, Dropbox, LinkedIn and more – in the same sectors and hugely influenced by that. The cross pollination of tech talent that results in Dublin is pretty unique.

Our location also makes us unique, as we’re the bridge connecting Europe to the US. We’re quite US-centric, yet still incredibly proud to be a European city. A lot of Venture Capitalists and Angel Investors from across the pond invest in Irish companies thanks to the strong historical and cultural connections that have been established.

Zalando Tech: What can Dublin learn from its competition in the startup space?

Niamh Bushnell: We can learn a lot, definitely. What we’re unable to change in Dublin is our physical scale, but the positive side of this is that it keeps us densely populated as a tech hub on top of being better connected. That said, we're always looking at the larger scale hubs and seeing what they're doing, and how the ecosystem is adding value to their startups and scale-ups in tech-related ways.

We're trying to encourage our startups to connect at an earlier stage with Venture Capital companies and Angel Investors here in Ireland and internationally. It's something I sense comes more naturally to companies in a larger city. Here companies feel like they don't want to be on the radar until they're "ready". But, funding is a relationship game and we need to play it from the start to win!

I also sense that in mainland Europe there's more cross border R&D collaboration between companies in the ICT sector. I think this is very positive and the more collaboration, the better.

Speaking of the US, the key startup cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston are older and more mature than Dublin, so there's an opportunity to learn from them. In this office, we’re constantly asking ourselves, is what we’re doing really valuable to our startups from an education, funding, or markets perspective? I’m always trying to make sure we don’t get caught up in the ‘Startup Industrial Complex’ as I call it, where being busy doesn’t always cut it. Starting with questions about value is incredibly important and at the same time hard to quantify.

Zalando Tech: What positive actions have you observed to support greater diversity, specifically in tech?

Niamh Bushnell: The activity around female founders has really played a role in recognising the value of diversity and how it contributes to innovation. Women receiving investment, celebrating female-led companies, all of these actions have generated a lot of press which is a great way to foster role models. Role models are what breed the next generation of entrepreneurs, and there aren't enough of them right now, but there’s definitely more recognition and acknowledgement than there used to be.

People come to professions via different paths and through varied experiences, meaning your education doesn’t always fit the standard criteria of a four year degree. It’s exciting that the workplace is opening up to new ways of recognising experience, as this is a vital element in how greater diversity can be achieved.

These days, when you see a photo from big companies showcasing a certain team, it's odd to see them all belonging to one gender or one race. You know that something is wrong with that picture. We have more than 1,200 startups in Dublin and boast multinational companies that have become household names – constant cross-pollination and communication between these spheres is a positive indication of greater diversity. Dublin is a great representation of the melting pot that is tech, and we’ve become a go-to place in Europe for diverse influences.

Zalando Tech: How important is trust in a start-up environment, especially in the context of engineers and management?

Niamh Bushnell: Trust is everything, and not just in the context of interpersonal relationships at work. It’s trusting the process, trusting in failure, experimentation, and risk, plus trusting in the culture. You’re buying into a tech process when you enter these environments, you’re taking on a team, a culture, a lifestyle.

I would say passion has the same level of importance as trust. If passion and trust aren’t alive and kicking in your daily work, then your company won’t function. Trusting in teams and the company vision needs to happen, as it touches everyone in an organisation – trust needs to be the common denominator in the workplace.

A big thank you to Niamh for taking the time to speak with us before the panel. To RSVP for the event, which includes plenty of time for questions after the discussion, check out our meetup page here.

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