After years of struggling to compete in London’s Tech City, Neill Gernon found room for growth and profit in Dublin’s growing startup community.
I’m caught off guard by the noise suddenly coming out of my computer: that familiar yet irritating sound of someone phoning you on Skype.
“Doo dee doo, dee doo deeee.”
A picture of Neill Gernon pops up on my screen — a 30-year-old with messy short hair wearing a light blue dress shirt, one open button at the top and his sleeves rolled up, much like any young entrepreneur might look. It’s almost two hours later than we’d agreed to chat. I scramble to push the papers off my keyboard where I had dozed off, rub my eyes open, flick on my recorder and answer his call.
“Sorry about the messing there,” he says in a lilting Dublin accent. “I got bombarded with a few unexpected tasks and meetings.”
This seems to be a recurring theme in Gernon’s life these days. Splitting his time between Dublin and London (a last minute business trip to Britain cancelled our face-to-face meeting), running two companies and organizing a weekly meeting and networking session for Dublin’s entrepreneurs, Gernon never seems to stop hustling.
Things weren’t always looking so positive for him. A year ago he was living in the middle of London’s “Tech City”, one of the largest tech startup clusters in the world. It stretches from Shoreditch to the Olympic Park, which is now used as office space for startups. The community development was an effort from the national government, refurbishing old buildings, then selling them to companies like Facebook, Google and Vodafone with the clause that some part must be a free coworking space.
Gernon worked in the ground floor of a building owned by Google, rubbing shoulders with other young entrepreneurs daily, and his company was floundering. Having worked in digital innovation and development with large corporate brands for five years, he started Atrovate in 2012 to do the same for small startups: helping them design, code and build their applications. But living in the midst of an estimated 5,000 other tech companies, Gernon’s phone stayed relatively silent.
“There’s a lot of buzz around London’s giant tech community, but everyone’s running around like headless chickens and nobody was making money,” he chuckles. “So when I needed to restructure Atrovate, instead of losing money the whole time and going down, I decided to move home.”
Moving back to Dublin was a tough decision for Gernon. He’d called London home since 2004 and was accustomed to the energy and creativity of the Tech City community. But he was happily surprised when he returned to Dublin to find it had its own startup community, although relatively small and sporadic compared to what he was used to. Startups are scattered across the city, from a peer-to-peer model for transferring money of all currencies which has garnered €1.9 million in an investment round, to an app that connects businesses with a surplus of food to charities that need it.
“It’s been very surprising because it seems not as much buzz and craziness, but people sort of commercially grounded,” explains Gernon.
But even though Dublin’s population is roughly 15 times smaller than London, it is slowly growing into a strong economic force. It’s predicted that Dublin startups will contribute €200 million to the economy in 2014, approximately 10 per cent of Ireland’s GDP, which has been steadily falling since 2008. Although there has been extensive growth in the community, when Gernon moved home there weren’t many opportunities or places for entrepreneurs to connect with each other. Because of this, he started Drinkabout Dublin, a chapter of the British Silicon Drinkabout — a weekly Friday meeting for entrepreneurs to network and socialize that tries to mimic the atmosphere of coworkers heading out for drinks at the end of a long week. Although Dublin was the 10th city to have a Drinkabout chapter, it has grown to become the second largest next to London over the past six months and has been sponsored by Google.
Through these networking sessions, Gernon found that Dublin was full of entrepreneurs sort of shooting in the dark without much guidance. Unlike in London, there’s almost no government investment in space or programs for aspiring entrepreneurs. With the country still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the government has been extremely frugal, only investing money into projects they deem vital, like the increased building of social housing. So Gernon figured out a way to help change that and re-launch Atrovate at the same time.
“A startup is basically a bunch of guys who have registered a limited company and bought a really fancy nice domain name, who are doing a long experiment over 12 months iterating on a single idea,” he explains while walking around his office fielding questions from colleagues at the same time. Atrovate has now become a “digital innovation partner” for startups, nurturing and guiding young entrepreneurs as they design and pitch their applications, as well as working to connect them with large corporate brands that they may want to partner with or sell their ideas to.
He’s also launched HustleHack, a workshop for startups in the earliest stage, even if it’s just an idea. The workshop is modeled as a pre-accelerator — a growing trend where companies evaluate everything from the logistics of designing their product, to possible market strategies and preliminary searches for investments, all in a matter of days or weeks. With this model, companies can get a year’s worth of trial and error out of the way quickly and judge whether their idea is worth pursuing.
“In the end something might come or not, but it allows you to survey your area before you invest too many resources,” says Gernon.
After the initial stage, hopefully the company will have a prototype or definitive product direction. Once the product is built, Gernon uses Atrovate to invest in it and partner with the company on a long-term basis.
As one of the first pre-accelerators in Ireland, Gernon has been working with clients almost non-stop over the past few months. He won’t say what his companies are earning, only that he’s “no longer losing money.” He’s also bringing both companies to London, where he now works one week out of each month. His end goal is to get back there permanently, but for now, Dublin works just fine for him.
“Although London always talks about community, it’s so saturated with entrepreneurs trying different ventures. It’s a bit of a trend so it becomes diluted and there’s a bit of bullshit with that,” he says. “But Dublin feels like a real community. Everyone here is truly working together, and I’m happier than I have been in a while.”