Sep 30, 2015

Speaking with Paddy Cosgrave: With Web Summit Move to Lisbon, the Customer Comes First

Dominic McGrath talks to Web Summit CEO and Founder, Paddy Cosgrave, about the summit's move from Dublin to Lisbon.

Dominic McGrathJunior Editor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

I first spot Paddy Cosgrave as I make my way to the interview, on his phone, walking in circles outside the Graduates Memorial Building, a man perpetually busy. The Trinity graduate, and former President of the Phil, seems to have little time on his hands.

This should come as no surprise. The 2015 Web Summit, which will take place in Dublin in November, is expected to have an attendance of 30,000 people, and will attract some of the largest names in the technology industry. The scale of such an event boggles the mind. Thousands of handshakes, hundreds of businesses, and one man right at the centre. When asked to describe the Web Summit to the uninitiated, Cosgrave lists the descriptions made in newspapers around the globe. From “Glastonbury for geeks” in the Guardian to “a gathering of tech’s high priests” in the New York Times, when international newspapers are competing to give you a label, that’s probably a sign of success.

Indeed, the adulation that Cosgrave receives, seated alongside the co-founder of Halo, Jay Bergman, at a questions and answers session in a packed out Graduates Memorial Building (GMB), is something akin to that of a god, let alone a high priest. At the event, hosted by the Phil and organised by Cosgrave, entitled “Startups: Why you should start one or join one after College”, both speakers encouraged students to embrace the risks and start your own business. In their own words, coming out of college in your early twenties, “you have nothing to lose”.


It does turn out that in other cities, people also have fun

The gathered students seemed unperturbed by the announcement made earlier in the week that the Web Summit will leave Dublin for Lisbon in 2016. Cosgrave is enthusiastic about the move, claiming that in Lisbon “the possibilities are endless”. Indeed, it’s clear to see his excitement in moving to a venue that can contain the ambitions that Cosgrave has for the Web Summit. “They have a metro station right at the venue, massive bus connectivity, a huge amount of space for taxis, and so it opens up massive possibilities”.

He gently mocks the naivety of those who claim that Dublin, with its preponderance of bars, and infamous networking pub crawls organised by the Web Summit, has an international monopoly on nightlife. Recounting a Dublin City University (DCU) student who asked him how people would have the craic in Lisbon at a similar question-and-answer event, he admits that while the Web Summit will lose the specific charm that Dublin has to offer, “it does turn out that in other cities, people also have fun”.

Cosgrave is quick to refute the claim that Dublin has become a victim of the incredible success of the Web Summit, but the fact remains that Dublin’s infrastructure was simply unable to handle the growth of the Web Summit: “There always comes a point where a city reaches its natural limit, and if these can’t be overcome, the ventures have to go elsewhere”. Pointing to an analogy with the sporting world, Cosgrave argues that Ireland’s strengths lie in different areas, and the inability to host the Web Summit shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a major loss: “Ireland could probably never host the football world cup, but we could host potentially the rugby world cup. If we can’t host the football world cup, is that the end of the world? I’d argue no”.

The Web Summit has been praised for many years, by politicians and commentators, as making Ireland a central player in the tech industry. I ask him whether, regardless of the numerous estimates of the value of the Web Summit to the Irish economy, whether it offered Ireland something more intangible – reputation and prestige in an industry that is currently undergoing an inexorable growth. Cosgrave calls it “advertising equivalent coverage”. For the layman, it’s that flutter of pride one feels when seeing the name Dublin in a string of publications, from Forbes to the New York Times, all extolling the fact that Ireland is the “centre of the tech world for a week”. It’s going to be difficult to replace that buzz the summit brought to the city, Cosgrave admits: “It’s the opportunity Irish business gets to meet people who wouldn’t ordinarily be in Dublin”.

But there was very little about the decision, admits Cosgrave, that was difficult from a business perspective: “For anyone who builds a business, there is a golden rule. Even when you’re twelve and you do business for the Junior Cert, they say ‘the customer is always right, the customer comes first’”. While he speaks of the pride he felt in seeing the city “being overtaken by all of these people from around the world”, calling it a “terrible shame that it won’t be in Dublin in 2016”, there is little room for sentimentality when you’re running a business the size of the Web Summit: “Personally, absolutely [I’m disappointed], but as a business, the customer always comes first”.

Personally, I’m disappointed, but the customer always comes first

What surprised me, and perhaps the audience too, is how politically engaged Cosgrave is. Stopping from time to time to apologise for “going off on a tangent”, he lists the huge range of policy areas that he sees as restraining homegrown entrepreneurs in Ireland. Unsurprising for a man who was on the board of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) until a year ago, he has an opinion on the education system in Ireland. He praises the fact that the numbers of those doing STEM courses in Ireland “is quite high compared to many parts of the world, including the United States, so I don’t think our education system is as much at fault as our policy”. Indeed, for Cosgrave, he seems Ireland’s economy as trapped in sectors such as food production and agriculture: “There is a preponderance of primary and secondary companies in this country, and as a consequence we lose out. Fortunately we have a lot of American companies that are happy to take up the slack, but this leads to an imbalanced economy”.

It’s difficult to discuss the business sector in Ireland without addressing that apparent cornerstone of Ireland’s attractiveness to multinationals, our 12.5 per cent rate of corporation tax. Cosgrave has a nuanced view on the issue: “You cannot say our low corporation tax is a bad policy for sure. There is no way of proving that. You should have your low corporation tax, but at the same time do as much as you can for indigenous, export-driven, innovative companies”. Peppering his analysis with a multitude of adjectives, he adds: “It is arguable that our tax rate is ingenious and brilliant and viable and a great policy … but if you’re going to have that you’ve got to be careful that you don’t ignore, or stymie, or in other ways diminish the opportunities available to advanced, indigenous exporters”.

This extensive reply gets down to the essence of Cosgrave. An expert in business who’s confident in his own opinions. I often pitied Jay Bergman during the talk, for having to share the stage with a man who seems unable to prevent himself gravitating towards the spotlight. And it’s for this reason that I can’t imagine the joke made by Adrian Wreckler, the Technology Editor for the Irish Independent, ever coming to pass. As he chaired the discussion, Wreckler joked that Cosgrave might run in the upcoming election. But it’s clear Paddy Cosgrave would never ever go into politics. He has too much media savvy for that.

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