Pádraig Hoare visits two ambitious technology-based businesses in the rapidly-evolving suburb of Blackpool on the northside of Cork City.
If you go down to Blackpool today, you’re in for a big surprise. If you go down to Blackpool today, it’s an IT gem in disguise.
Something special has been happening in the heart of Cork’s northside. You may not see it right away, but it’s been hiding in plain sight.
In recent years, Blackpool has been building quietly as a centre of tech excellence and innovation, led by a mix of Irish firms such as Teamwork.com, Xanadu, Westbourne IT Global Services and Texuna; and international companies like Blizzard Entertainment and IBM.
One of the standout companies is Teamwork, co-founded by Glanmire native Daniel Mackey and Peter Coppinger, who is originally from Bantry.
The Teamwork story is well heralded at this point. The two men have bootstrapped the company from a two-man operation to a would-be giant with more than 200 employees and upwards of 20,000 customers, including giants like Disney, Netflix and Spotify.
The plans for growth for Teamwork in the coming years are ambitious, with a doubling of its workforce planned and around €500m in revenue targeted annually.
Teamwork’s growth has all been on the two men’s own dime, with not one cent given away in equity to any investor.
At the annual Cork Company of the Year Awards in January, Teamwork scooped top prize in the large company category, with Cork Chamber describing it as “leading the way for SaaS in Ireland providing a suite of operations to help run the businesses of their 20,000 customers across 183 international companies”.
SaaS stands for software-as-a-service — meaning customers can access software over the Internet, provided by a company like Teamwork.
Cork’s northside is at the heart of Teamwork’s operations, with customers all over the world using its products 24 hours a day which it provides from its Blackpool Retail Park base.
Teamwork’s co-founders are adamant that this side of the city — long seen as neglected with inferior infrastructure and political apathy from central Government — can be the next great centre of innovation not just in Cork, but as a beacon for the entire region.
Cork has witnessed a 63% increase in employment in tech companies in the last five years, with 13,000 workers currently employed in more than 60 IDA support companies in the region, according to voluntary tech body IT@Cork.
The focus has largely been on foreign direct investment (FDI) growth in other areas of the city and county, with the likes of Dell EMC employing thousands in Killumney and Mahon.
On the indigenous investment side, Cork-founded Voxpro has been another of the inspiring stories, with Dan and Linda Kiely building a marvellous tour de force — the outsourcing services firm began life above a city centre pub some 20 years ago before selling to Canadian firm Telus International for €150m.
There is of course Apple in the heart of Cork’s northside, which the Cupertino-headquartered firm has consistently reaffirmed as one of its most vital locations around the world.
However, Blackpool has largely gone under the radar. Yet the success stories are there for all to see with just a little digging.
Teamwork wants the best talent locally, nationally and internationally to choose Cork, according to Mr Mackey.
The firm set up a website — escapetocork.ie — in order to boost the profile of the region to talent.
“All our friends went to Dublin, London and to Australia, New York, San Francisco during the downturn. But now Cork is a viable place, a proper alternative to Dublin. We in Teamwork are paying top wages and we have jobs for them. Escape to Cork is highlighting why Cork is such a great place to live. We want to get people back or attract new people,” said Mr Mackey.
With a well-documented housing and rental crisis engulfing not just Cork, Mr Mackey would like to see proper infrastructural investment in the northside of the city.
“The M20 motorway from Cork to Limerick will hopefully make a major difference. The redevelopment of Kilbarry railway station could transform the area, and make it more attractive for people to come and live and work on this side of the city and county,” he added.
Kilbarry railway station would be a boon to employees already working in the area, as well as the potential hundreds or even thousands who could be attracted to Blackpool and the northside of the city.
Then there is the long-mooted northern ring road, or lack of it. According to business leaders, the northern ring road from the Glanmire bypass towards Poulavone in Ballincollig would crack open the area’s economic potential.
The eastern half of the Northern Ring Road was included in the €116bn national development plan, as was the M20. The eastern half will connect the M8 Cork to Dublin motorway with the M20, according to the national development plan.
Kilbarry railway station has gone under the radar, despite business leaders in Blackpool believing it is among the most vital components needed for the northside to thrive.
Grand plans for a railway station at the Kilbarry Business Park stalled as a result of the economic crash in 2008, with city officials confirming in 2016 that it was unlikely to be resurrected.
A close neighbour of Teamwork is Blizzard Entertainment, where 400 staff provide support for six games, including World of Warcraft.
Blizzard director Rodger Sanders has echoed the calls for Kilbarry to be redeveloped.
“We certainly would benefit from something like that happening. Any time you increase transportation options, you are giving people more choice, you are expanding the circle from which people can commute, the range where people can find accommodation with a reasonable commute, and just like all businesses in Blackpool, Blizzard would certainly benefit from that.
“Cork is on the rise, and the northside is on the rise. With that optimism and the kind of future we want for the city, we have to think about these things,” he said.
There is a sliver of hope that plans for Kilbarry are not dead and buried.
Iarnród Éireann is said to be open to the idea of putting it back on the agenda, while the National Transport Authority (NTA) has not closed the door on it.
There is a sentence in the National Development Plan 2018-2027 that remains significant: “A Cork Transport Strategy is also being finalised by the relevant Local Authorities in partnership with the NTA which includes proposals for a revised bus system for Cork and enhancements to the commuter rail service in Cork including additional stations and rail fleet,” the text says.
A spokesman for the NTA did not dismiss the idea.
“Work on the Cork Transport Strategy is continuing and a draft will be published for public consultation in the coming months. In that context, we are looking at everything,” he said.
The IDA is keen on promoting Cork’s northside as a location for FDI.
Ray O’Connor, South West Regional Manager of IDA Ireland, said the success of the likes of Blizzard is a selling point for the agency as it competes for the all-too-valuable FDI into the region.
“Cork has evolved into an established tech hub with over 60 overseas technology companies already established here employing thousands of people and adding significantly to the local economy.
There is a range of exciting Irish technology companies also across the city which adds to the cluster.
“The northside of the city already has a number of IDA Ireland supported companies such as Blizzard, Cognex, Apple and Flex which act as excellent reference sellers as we promote the location for further inward investment.”
Blackpool will always be home for Teamwork, according to Mr Mackey.
“Cork is where it all happened for us.
“We’d love to see the potential of Blackpool and the northside realised.”
Community spirit is the ‘name of the game’ for Blizzard
– Pádraig Hoare
It is an established entity in Blackpool for more than 10 years — and for millions of worldwide gamers, the support provided from Blizzard Entertainment’s centre is invaluable to a seamless experience.
Blizzard Entertainment opened in Blackpool in 2007, now employs 400 and supports six games, including World of Warcraft, Hearthstone and Overwatch.
The Irvine, California-headquartered company was formed in 1991, changing its name to Blizzard in 1994, creating legendary titles along the way such as The Lost Vikings and the Warcraft and Diablo series.
The support provided in Cork is across eight languages, primarily in Europe, but also supporting global regions.
Blizzard in Blackpool also run an operations centre which monitors the global technical infrastructure.
The longevity among employees in Cork is striking — the average tenure of staff in Cork is near a decade.
The company prides itself on employing nearly 30 different nationalities in Blackpool and says it works hard to act as a good neighbour to the local community — focusing on community development, childhood development and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education.
Senior director of customer service for Europe, Rodger Sanders said: “As a company, Blizzard is a developer and publisher of video games. That is our core business. Around that, we do some e-sports leagues and some of the other things that go along with it. Primarily, we publish on the PC platform but we also have a large presence on consoles as well as mobile.”
Blizzard, quite simply, sells guaranteed fun as a commercial product.
Cork’s northside has historically been one where community values and family trumped anything else. Ask any emigrant in different parts of the world, and you will invariably get the same answer — once a northsider, always a northsider.
That sense of community fits in with Blizzard’s values, according to Mr Sanders.
“Making it a good place to work here in Blizzard is one of our biggest priorities, honestly. One of the things we pride ourselves on at Blizzard is community. We’re part of our community. It’s a sum of quite a few things.
“There are things we do as a company that have a really big global impact, such as the largest donation ever to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation ($12.7m). But locally we also operate at that level. We have a sense of community within our office and the community within our games, but we are also part of the Blackpool community.
“It’s important that we are seen by our neighbours as exactly that, their neighbours. You see us out on the streets because this is where our team lives, it is where we work, our children go to school here, it is where we cash our pay cheques, where we shop.”
That can be seen on nearby Leitrim Street, where Blizzard teamed up with Mad About Cork on a 20-metre street art mural. Over 50 Blizzard crew got involved.
“We really try and partner with local organisations, such as Mad About Cork where we did a nice past, present and future mural on Leitrim Street. We partnered with another local organisation, Cork Nature Network, to clean up and refresh our local park. That kind of partnership is truly important to us,” Mr Sanders said.
For Blizzard employees in Cork, it is not just the fun side of working for a games company, but also the chance to progress in their careers.
Mr Sanders said: “We’re very competitive in terms of our compensation, in terms of benefits. We try to create an inclusive and comfortable workplace.
Like I said, we’re primarily a customer service centre here, but we have a lot of people who come here to work for Blizzard, develop their skills and move on into software engineering, marketing, publishing, public relations — I can’t think of a single division in our company where we don’t have a single person who did not come from our customer service operation here.”
Teamwork.com: Home-grown, with global ambition
– Pádraig Hoare
The founders of Teamwork.com promised each other two years ago to be relentless in their quest to “make the business as big as it can be” — as well as constant product innovation, that meant giving staff the most innovative employee experience possible.
When competing with the Dell EMCs, Apples, Amazons and Googles of the world, Daniel Mackey and Peter Coppinger realised they had to go further to attract and retain world-class talent.
It is perhaps one of the reasons the two men are nominees in the International category for EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2018.
While it is a strategic business decision to make the working life as enjoyable as can be, it is also a human one, said Mr Mackey.
To maintain 40% annual revenue growth, Teamwork aims to increase employee numbers by 65% by the end of 2018.
“A lot of people look at us and think we are an overnight success. Not at all — it’s been a long 20-year overnight success. It’s been a blast, especially the last 10 years where we learned different sides of the business. The big differentiator between us and maybe one of the global giants is that we are as employee-focused as we are business and customer-focused.
“Nobody wants to spend eight hours a day working in a small cubicle and ask permission to go outside. We treat our employees like adults. We set targets, we give them autonomy and mastery of purpose. We have a 10-year vision so we know where we are going. We have a three-year plan and a one-year plan and that is broken down into four quarters, which is broken down to four weeks. Everyone knows exactly what they have to do.
“This quarter we have a target of growing revenue by €5.2m. If we hit that, our employees all get a 10% bonus. We do that every quarter so there is a really good incentive to hit that target.
“Because we’re an open book company, which we started about two years ago, we make all our figures open to all the staff so they know how the work that they are doing contributes to the bottom line, and our targets every month. We want people to think like owners,” he said.
Teamwork has 23,000 paying customers worldwide, employs 200-plus people and has a remote workforce in 15 countries, with office locations in six of those. Remote working has seen Teamwork staff fulfil their wanderlust by travelling the world, yet keeping their jobs.
“Even though they are remote, they can come back and work here for a week whenever they want, and we pick up the tab. We’ll work with local hotels to get good deals for our staff coming over regularly. Our own products help, such as Teamwork Chat.
“Everyone is communicating in real time. Also if we have three or four people working in Amsterdam or Barcelona, then we will open up a co-working space there. That is how Amsterdam, Barcelona and Buenos Aires came about.
Flexibility is great, and it is good to separate your home and working life.
“Legacy and culture is very important to us. Work is changing — if you have kids in creche who are sick, we want you to leave and take care of it. That is priority and work can wait. That is the beauty of SaaS, you can work from anywhere and anywhen. You’ve hired people because you trust them, so why shackle them once you have them in? As long as its done, who cares where you work?” Mr Mackey said.
Like Peter Coppinger, Daniel Mackey is a cerebral thinker, a voracious reader always looking for an edge. But there is little corporate jargon as he speaks plainly but clearly in the Blackpool campus, and he says he would be horrified by anyone thinking they are superior to their peers.
“If staff have a problem, they can send us feedback, completely anonymously if they prefer. That is how problems are solved. They can say anything they want to us.
“Good ideas can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to come from us. We don’t have all the answers because we have never worked anywhere else. We’re just two developers. If there are good ideas from other offices, we’d like to bring them in here. Staff are encouraged to write proposals. 210 people can then feel involved.”.
The founders live and die by one major rule — “don’t be a dick” to others (it’s written down), and you’ll fit right in. And when you fit right in, you get to enjoy some pretty cool things at work, Mr Mackey said.
It is not all about wages — Teamwork salaries are known to be generous — but also how you go about your business in the Teamwork environment.
Their state-of-the-art site in Blackpool — which recently saw a €1m investment — boasts games rooms, office libraries, a garden roof deck with a barbecue area, and they even threw in two slides.
Team events such as trips to the cinema and catered lunches are regular, a music room means folks can be inspired by blasting out Metallica or Dr Dre to their heart’s content, while the Teamwork welcome box for new employees leaves a lasting impression.
“The welcome box includes an iPhone, a choice of a Mac or PC, and 13 books which are handpicked by Peter and myself and others. We give gym membership to everyone but if they don’t like the gym, it can be swimming or whatever they like.
That is about trying to compete. Why would someone want to work for Teamwork? Because we want to get talent.
“The more we can give, like the gym membership, or Pizza Friday, or catered lunches or welcome boxes, it does help. It costs nothing. If you do the best work ever and it benefits the company, we could give you €1,000 and you forget about it. But if we give you an experience, say a weekend away with a partner to a resort up the country, you will remember that. They are the kind of differentiators we are aiming for,” Mr Mackey said.
Corporate social responsibility has become as essential to the millennial worker as a competitive wage, and Teamwork has responded accordingly.
“We are more than just money. Money is the outcome of hard work, but we have given 1% of our profits to good causes. We don’t pick where that money goes, the staff do.
“We make it very clear it is not charity, it is any good cause that makes our world a better place — Cork Penny Dinners, kids with soccer jerseys, dog welfare charities…
“We continued our old lease at the former office for Teamwork Catalyst, so we could get 20 startup SaaS companies in, and let them give it a shot for a year. What makes us unique is that we didn’t want anything for it. We made every mistake in the book, so if we can help someone avoid those, then it’s happy days.
“We’ve had buses of adults in here doing the tour. We’ve had the CoderDojo kids, and kids from the northside of the city. We tell them how we got here and we hope it inspires them. That’s really important to us — especially seeing as half of that class were girls. CoderDojo is superb, it gives them a taste, and if they come in here and see what is possible, that’s even better.”
ANALYSIS: We must be smart in how we grow
Cork is growing at pace, with an estimated 25% of Cork city’s footprint to be built in the next 25 years. We need to be smart and strategic in how we grow, to learn from past experiences, to be visionary and proactive, says Conor Healy CEO, Cork Chamber.
It is crucial that as a city region, we build on the opportunities for Cork and in doing so, we must recognise the existing depth of potential in our city.
On our doorstep we have vast opportunities in the development of the city docklands, coupled with the enormous latent potential and opportunities for our existing urban areas and strategic employment areas.
For instance, with investment the northside of Cork City could reflect perfectly the ambition of Project Ireland 2040 for compact and sustainable growth.
Project Ireland 2040 aims to provide balanced regional development and to improve the State’s infrastructure. It plans for an additional one million people living in the state in the next 25 years and places its emphasis on the use of brownfield sites in cities, towns and villages. It is estimated that Cork will take 20% of this population growth.
To do this, we need to proactively re-energise our city’s districts and communities to grow sustainably to meet future population demands while maintaining and growing the quality of life and the uniqueness and heritage of our city region.
Right here and now, we have a unique and diverse offering in Cork, underpinned by an impressive business, skills, education, international connectivity and cultural track record.
We have seen the city population increase by 4.6% in recent years, and we have seen a significant increase in business activity with Cork going from strength to strength as an attractive location for FDI while being the base for a growing number of hugely successful home-grown companies.
We have strong and established clusters in ICT, pharma, life sciences, cybersecurity, energy, marine, agri-food and financial services. Crucially though, to ensure that we grow our potential and future-proof our City region, we need to focus on the foundations. One of which is public transport. We need a network and infrastructure that works with Cork and can grow and adapt as the City changes and grows. This is fundamental.
If we fail to plan for the future, the alternative is unmanageable congestion and the lowering of our quality of life with negative knock-on effects on society, the environment and the economy.
If we stick with the northside as an example, there is already a hugely impressive portfolio of successful companies with names such as Teamwork.com, Xanadu, Blizzard, Westbourne IT, Strencom, Quintas, Flex and of course Apple.
There is the Northside for Business Campus focused on developing enterprises and growing small businesses, and there is a whole host of homegrown indigenous businesses.
These companies, and others, have recognised the potential here, basing their operations a few short kilometres from the City Centre. This year, we’ve had positive announcements such as the M20 Cork to Limerick motorway bringing with it the development of the eastern section of the Northern Ring Road. These projects will be massively influential and transformative. Of course, the development of the complete Northern Ring Road route will catalyse this potential even further.
However, we can’t afford to be complacent and overlook the opportunities to develop the public transport infrastructure across the northside of the City, by increasing the accessibility and permeability, as a City region we are investing in the community both business and residential.
For instance, the train runs straight through from Mallow to Kent Station. It is only logical and a quick win to put plans back into motion to develop the Kilbarry Train Station servicing Blackpool and the surrounding areas.
If we are to grow sustainably and ensure a public transport system that meets the needs of the City, it is imperative that such access points are developed without delay. We need safe cycle path infrastructure in and around the northside, and the extension of the public bike share scheme to service the area.
Previously there were proposals for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to run from North to South connecting Ballyvolane to Cork Airport via the City Centre. Wouldn’t it be timely to now reinvestigate the potential of this North to South BRT route, linking with the key strategic employment areas at Blackpool and Cork Airport?
This would greatly increase the attractiveness and appeal of bus transport as an option for commuters, and could be progressed in tandem with the East to West, Ballincollig to Mahon BRT.
This dedicated BRT corridor could be linked to a Park and Ride on the north of the City, again this would facilitate options for commuters freeing up congestion in the City and giving people a plausible alternative option to private car.
Why not have the Kilbarry Train Station developed to operate dually as the Park and Ride location connected to a dedicated bus corridor and with a public bike share station and secure private bike parking also located at the station and with the appropriate connecting infrastructure in place? The time is now to start developing the game-changers. At a later stage, these bus corridors could be transformed into a Light Rail Corridor.
Ultimately a new type of urban living needs to be developed with higher density corridors and better public transport servicing commuters and residents alike. City regions must be enabled to grow their unique opportunities.
As part of Project Ireland 2040, the Government has committed €200m Bus Connects Programme funding to Cork. We need this made available without delay to facilitate the proactive development of an enhanced public transport network, with the commitment to future public transport investment.
The northside of Cork City is on the cusp and with the right infrastructure investment could be developed further to maximise its potential for business, employment and housing.
As a nation, we need to transform into a smarter, more urban and climate-friendly country, and here in Cork Chamber we believe that in Cork, we have the opportunity to be a leader in this space, to realise the vision of Ireland 2040.