Web Summit founder warns students they are living in ‘last decade of professional class’

news1Trinity alumnus and Web Summit founder Patrick Cosgrave warned students that they are living in the “last decade of the professional class” at an event hosted by the Phil and Trinity Entrepreneurial Society on Wednesday. He said that rapid advances in artificial intelligence will mean that the jobs of lawyers and doctors, previously seen as secure, would soon be performed by computers, presaging a “daunting future.”

He insisted that there was “no better time to join a start-up” than when in or just after college – when one has “freedom to do things” and doesn’t have family constraints. One thing that those in Silicon Valley have more in common than any other, he said, is that they have all “failed more than they’ve succeeded”, and that even in hugely successful ventures like Facebook, there are many internal failures. There is a “huge amount of luck along the way” and “attrition rate is extreme.” He said that there is rarely “such thing as an entirely new idea,” giving Facebook as an example of an idea that “was just executed better.”

He was positive about what he described as a “vibrant and interesting ecosystem” of tech startups in Dublin, but was sceptical of the benefit to “indigenous tech” of having multinational tech companies headquartered here. He said that the Irish-based employees of such companies as Google and Facebook are principally involved in customer support and sales roles – “skills not useful to startups until they have reached 200 or 300 employees.”

Concerning the types of people Web Summit employs, Cosgrave said that they hire a “diverse range of people,” from engineers and data analysts to arts students, but that a key feature is that they are “affable and enthusiastic” with “great interpersonal skills.” He gave an anecdote of a nineteen year old intern who was asked to set up a conference call with the CEO of McKinsey, a prestigious American consulting company. This intern was “completely fearless” talking to such a senior figure who was oblivious to his young age – “those are types of people we hire.” Much furore was caused earlier this year when Web Summit advertised that it would only accept applications for internships from those with first class degrees from a university or an upper-second from Trinity. Cosgrave indicated that it had been orchestrated so as to gain publicity and that such a stipulation hadn’t deterred the types of people that Web Summit seeks to hire, who boldly applied regardless.

Cosgrave, who studied BESS and graduated in 2005, said he “wasn’t the best student,” didn’t go to lectures and crammed for exams. He was president of the Phil, edited the Piranha, and worked on a number of startups – a social network that was canned when Facebook came along, a viral invite system, and a “silly” advertising platform. After graduating he was involved in Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful Democratic nomination campaign and founded MiCandiate, an online platform that profiled candidates running for election in 2007. His intention was to introduce a premium service to generate revenue, but it “turned out to be a terrible idea,” and it was after that failure that he “stumbled into organising the Web Summit.”

The Web Summit has increased in size from 500 in 2010 to 22,000 in 2014, and Cosgrave foresees 35,000 attending in 2015. In response to a question about whether such exponential growth in attendance could have a negative effect on the experience of attendees, he said that “the larger the conference the higher the probability” that they will make beneficial connections. He was very candid in admitting that “a large proportion of the start-ups (in attendance) will be out of business.”