Serial entrepreneur Niamh Bushnell, is Dublin's first Commissioner for Startups, a role created to "develop a voice, an image and a platform for Dublin as a great startup city, nationally and internationally". The Office of the Dublin Commissioner for Startups is an independent, not for profit organization. With her experience not only in building startups, but also in government, venture investment, as well as working internationally (Niamh was immersed in the New York City startup ecosystem before being lured back home to Dublin), it appears that she has found the perfect job for her rather diverse resume. "All that was missing was my name at the top [of the job description]" Niamh exclaims to me over email when I emailed to ask her how she was finding the transition from "entrepreneur" to employed.
That diverse resume--combined with an enthusiasm for Dublin's potential as a great tech city--is essential, as Niamh is defining not only her role but the future place of the Office of the Dublin Commissioner for Startups as well. Stepping into this newly created position in the Fall of 2014, Niamh was determined to not to reinvent the wheel (as Dublin is already a vibrant, growing technology scene with an abundance of events, conferences and meetups going on). Instead her focus quite intentionally (and of her very scrappy office), has been to fill-in the gaps, to pursue what's not being done (and truly needs to be done) to bring cohesion to various stakeholder activities and to enhance Dublin's entrepreneurial momentum. Case in point: the recent launch of TechIreland.org (a comprehensive, public database of innovation originating in Ireland). No such database existed previously, yet information on Ireland's tech eco-system was a question continuously being asked.
Nearly two-years into her mandate, I caught up with Niamh in Dublin during Inspirefest (a leading and uniquely diverse, sci-tech and Arts festival that takes place in Dublin at the end of June). As we briskly walked to a networking breakfast for female founded tech startups she had arranged, I asked Niamh what she had learned since taking up the position. After a short pause, "many things, it turns out", then "let me get back to you with a complete answer on this" she says.
And she did (as you can see from the list below). With TechIreland.org launched in beta, Niamh is focused on other key projects from a product-focused pilot program between Irish startups and multinationals located in Dublin. Policy change is another top agenda item (and would be a huge win, as it would indicate her office has successfully found its footing within the tech community).
For other tech ecosystems considering the creation of a similar office or function (or intrigued that such a role was even necessary), these are the considerable learnings from Dublin's first Commissioner of Startups (and yes, a year from now, I suspect Niamh will have more):
- Focus your time, money and resources on supporting and promoting only the very best companies in your ecosystem. The success of the best will lead the way and inspire the other innovative companies that come after them.
- Where others can't or won't fill the gaps is where your role begins. In Ireland this meant driving new initiatives like Mentoring for Scale, Tech Concierge and TechIreland.
- On a similar note to the first point: don't reinvent what is already happening in the tech ecosystem. Steer clear of initiatives already being done (events in particular as generally there are likely already lots of them for startups in the ecosystem to choose from).
- Don't go it alone in the community. Find collaborators where possible for every project or initiative you run. (On TechIreland.org, Niamh created a Board of Advisors composed of community stakeholders from the investment, startup and technology sectors).
- Regularly play the role of cheerleader for the very best initiatives in the community.
- Realize you're part of "the startup industrial complex" and make sure you're always adding unique value.
- Think of your office as an experiment, fizzing away in the corner, trying stuff, dumping stuff, and then trying more stuff.
- Own nothing - and try to hand off the initiatives you have developed as soon as they are proven. More established organizations can scale your work and give it a longevity that your office, as an experiment cannot and probably should not. The last thing any startup ecosystem needs is more bureaucracy.
- Keep your team small and tailor your funding to just what you need to make your small-scale experiments happen.
- Spend more time in your own ecosystem than traveling to others. Case in point: Niamh limits her travel outside Ireland to 20% of her time.
- Secure funding from as diverse a combination of public and private sources as you can, so you can remain nimble and flexible in your projects and areas of focus. 23 organizations from the Bank of Ireland to Google to Vodafone are listed on the Dublin Commissioner for Startups website as supporters.
- Get your messaging right! Establish a clear competitive advantage message about your startup ecosystem and stick to it.
- Run your office as an independent non-profit to maintain an independent voice and to establish your office as a comfortable place for all sides of the community to gravitate towards.
- Prioritize educating political leaders and civil servants in government about the startup culture and the dynamics of the new digital.
- Advocating for policy change (tax and immigration policy for example) will be a more important part of the role than you may have originally imagined.
- Encourage turnover! This is a role (and office) that needs new ideas (and networks and energy) on a fairly regular basis in order to keep the value it brings to the tech ecosystem high, unique and relevant.