We get the business culture we deserve

 

NET RESULTS:Some soul-searching is needed if we are serious about developing an entrepreneurial culture

DOES IRELAND have a sufficiently entrepreneurial culture? That question is regularly mulled over at various events. Recently, the issue has had its highest profile in the form of debate and discussion at three major venues.

Firstly, at the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh just over a year ago. Secondly, as a key plank of the considerations in the Government’s Innovation Taskforce report. And finally, as a backdrop to the Dublin Web Summit and its sister event, F.ounders, just over a week ago, which attracted some of the world’s leading technology entrepreneurs.

Farmleigh is proof that this State can produce entrepreneurs. While many of the attendees were second or third generation diaspora – and thus their business success could not be seen to have any immediate connection to Ireland – there were others who came through the Irish educational system, built companies here or succeeded abroad.

F.ounders and the Dublin Web Summit, meanwhile, focused on the current spread of smaller Irish tech companies and company founders, although the majority of press and publicity around both events was more about the international entrepreneurs coming here.

The latent hope is that some – either the ones who’ve already made it or the ones who might make it some day – would eventually consider Ireland as a base for their companies.

And then there was the Innovation Taskforce report, a massive tome of 160 pages that examined numerous aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship, and how to foster the right environment within Ireland.

All three of these projects are ultimately quite similar in some of their conclusions and intent. All three recognised the importance of the multinational presence and the possibility it creates for a support ecosystem for indigenous companies.

All three delved – formally or informally – into issues around how best to promote and support entrepreneurship, including elements of education; mentorship; government support; and finance, from angel investments through to high-level venture funding.

All encapsulated in various ways the yearning to see Ireland turn into a mini powerhouse in the area of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.

And yet. And yet. Over the years, I’ve seen some fantastic successes in the technology sector – some large-scale, some more modest, some barely noticed because the company story played out mostly outside of Ireland.

And while I am convinced there are superb individuals who will always climb the ladder, build companies, create jobs, and do what an entrepreneur can do, I worry that there is something within Irish culture that is deeply anti-entrepreneurial. I believe it is evident even within Ireland’s own business community, the very community and sometimes the very individuals who say they want a Silicon Valley-like entrepreneurial culture here. So much so that most who achieve success do it outside Ireland (witness Farmleigh).

The business community here is still too ready – too eager – to tear down Irish companies and entrepreneurs publicly and privately. And while so many like to quote that line about failure being a badge of honour in Silicon Valley, the sad truth is that failure here is still mostly Failure, with a capital F. Witness the blogs, discussion forums, Twitter, private conversations at business events, and there’s still a bit too much barely disguised glee at company crashes, a belief that their leaders deserve to fail.

I wonder too about where the technology entrepreneurs will come from and how they will build their companies when – as highlighted in one of the Sunday newspapers last week – many of our leading home-grown and multinational technology companies can’t get people with the education or work experience to fill the jobs they have lying vacant.

Talk to those trying to hire, and they say too many graduates have cookie cutter, bland IT skills, poor independent reasoning and, thanks to the recent boom, didn’t bother going abroad to get any international experience.

This is not the random IT job here or there that can’t be filled. We are talking about tranches of jobs – of 50 to 100 at single companies – lying open during an economic crash; it’s nearly unthinkable. I’ve been hearing the same story for months and spoke to people in recent weeks who told me about up to 50 developer jobs unfilled at several indigenous IT companies.

Last week, I talked to a well-known Irish entrepreneur who is trying to find an individual to take on a senior engineering management position within a start-up – the individual would get equity in a promising company that has already received one of the largest equity investments on this island.

Candidates would have seen a significant advancement in their own career by taking the position. But the company has been unable to fill the role because people are turning it down as “too risky”.

Too risky? At a time when no job is guaranteed?

Even setting that aside, the finances are there to keep that job running for long enough to significantly improve someone’s résumé – even were the company to collapse and the individual to find him or herself back on the job market.

In Silicon Valley, it is such senior management figures who tend to be the next round of entrepreneurs after their company is sold. If Irish-qualified individuals fear even going into management, how will they have the guts to start their own companies?

We should definitely be focusing on how to create an innovation culture and an entrepreneurial environment here – our economy depends on it. But some national soul-searching is in order.

A country gets the business culture it creates – which is a reflection of its own values – and ultimately, that it earns and deserves.


Twitter: @klillington