Tech Dispatches from Davos: No Fear Entrepreneurship
Drew Houston has a great singing voice. Around 2:00am last night he serenaded the Davos late night crowd with a rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man." Marissa Mayer and I cheered him on piano side. While I didn't meet him there, I'm told Mick Jagger was hanging out in the same bar. If Dropbox doesn't work out for Drew, maybe Mick can set him up with an audition.
In the last few days I've hung out around Bill Gates, Timothy Geithner, Arianna Huffington, Larry Summers, Jim Breyer, Niall Ferguson, George Soros, Chelsea Clinton, Sean Parker, Sheryl Sandberg, Henry Blodget, Tim Armstrong, Niklas Zennström, Eric Schmidt, Nouriel Roubini and goodness knows who else.
As I'm typing this, Maria Bartiromo, the CNBC anchor, is interviewing Michael Dell three feet to my right. Now the interview is finished. Now somehow I'm chatting with Michael Dell. What in the world do I have to talk to Michael Dell about? Turns out very little. Now he's on his way to meet with someone else. And I'm back to typing. The word that I keep falling back on to describe Davos is "surreal."
Paddy Cosgrave is a name you may not know yet, but he's one of the most interesting people I've met at Davos. For the last two years, he organized the F.ounders conference in Dublin, Ireland. Everyone I know who's been to the conference has said it is the best conference they've ever attended. The story of how it came about is inspirational for entrepreneurs everywhere.
In January 2010, Paddy found himself in the Menlo Park office of Tim Draper, the legendary venture capitalist. Paddy, a tall, curly haired, 20-something with an easy Irish accent, was asking Tim about what he could do to encourage Silicon Valley-like entrepreneurship in Europe.
"In the Valley, the networks are so dense that you can form relationships with other entrepreneurs," Paddy explained to Tim. "In Europe there are pockets of entrepreneurs in cities, but the only way we meet is in conferences. And the conferences are all too big and difficult to actually connect with people."
As Paddy tells it, Tim made two points. First, while it may seem easy from the outside, making meaningful connections with other entrepreneurs is difficult, even in the Valley. And, second, having identified a problem, the next step was easy: go back to Europe and create a conference that didn't suck.
Paddy dismissed the idea at first -- what did he know about running a conference? -- but somewhere on the flight from San Francisco back to Dublin something clicked. He took a cab from the airport to a small hotel in Dublin, put down a deposit for two dozen rooms, then went home and poured himself a bowl of Corn Flakes and started sending emails.
Paddy pulled together a gathering of 28 entrepreneurs for the initial meeting in Dublin, not yet dubbed F.ounders. They were mostly European, but Paddy leveraged his sister's position on the student philosophical society at Trinity College, Dublin to invite Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. The event was casual. Fewer speeches and panels, more dinners and pub crawls.
ENTREPRENEURS AS REVOLUTIONARIES
The event was a huge success, but the attendees wondered why it needed to be restricted to only European entrepreneurs. Paddy wasn't sure at first, but one of the attendees introduced him to Skype founder Niklas Zennström who offered to open his rolodex. Paddy wanted to keep the event intimate, so he limited it to 150 attendees, approximating Dunbar's number -- the theoretical maximum number of people with whom you can maintain stable social relationships.
So far as I can tell, Paddy's distinguishing characteristic is he has no fear. He will talk to anyone. In that spirit, he reached out to Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube, and Jack Dorsey, father of Twitter and founder of Square. Both, as it turned out, were of Irish-American descent so the idea of a entrepreneurship conference in Dublin intrigued them. Once they were committed, everyone wanted to be involved. The limitation at only 150 spots made an invite all the more sought after.
Paddy has held the two F.ounders conferences in October 2010 and October 2011. It has already been dubbed the "Davos for Geeks." The event last October included a private dinner in the Guinness Factory, a pub crawl with Bono, and what I'm told was a moving speech from the Irish President. Every evening attendees would return to their rooms to find another memento waiting on their pillows: a bottle of Irish Jamison Paddy had the company personalize with every attendee's name, a bag made from the sails of Niklas Zennström's winning sail boat, and a limited edition poster by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick based on his iconic image of Che Guevara but made up of mini images of Steve Jobs to represent entrepreneurs as revolutionaries.
Paddy thought through every detail and executed the conference so well that a group that is traditionally difficult to impress was blown away. At Davos, I was talking with the head of marketing for a large financial services organization. He said, "We would basically pay any amount to sponsor any event Paddy wants to put on in the future." So my strategy at Davos has been simple: sit within a few feet of wherever Paddy is and meet the who's who of the conference as they come to say hello and subtly hint that they want an invitation to F.ounders 2012.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Yesterday a small handful of us entrepreneurs met with the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. His question was: how can he create a Dutch Silicon Valley? As you can imagine, that's a question many of the government officials wandering the halls of Davos are asking. What's inspiring about Paddy's story is that far from Silicon Valley he built a brand and successful company, which he's now expanding to run other conferences, with nothing more than hard work, focus on details, and a lack of fear. That, to me, seems to be the recipe for successful entrepreneurs.
Hanging around near Paddy I've met some incredible people over the last few days. The highlight so far came the other evening when I met Sir Tim Berners-Lee. While Al Gore (who, surprisingly, I don't think is here) may have said he invented the Internet, Sir Berners-Lee actually did. The person who introduced us said, "Hey Tim, you built version one of the Internet, come meet the guy who's building version two." Having Sir Berners-Lee call CloudFlare"interesting" -- well, that's something I won't forget. Full steam ahead.