Straddling Silicon Valley and the Silicon Docks

Friday, May 4, 2018 - 17:00

Inside the Ascent of Intercom, with Co-Founder (and Maynooth University alumnus) Des Traynor '03

By Rebecca Doolin

NOTE: This story originally appeared in The Bridge, the Maynooth University alumni magazine, in December 2017. 

Shelving his PhD work for a day turned out to be the biggest decision of Des Traynor’s life. 

Instead of tapping away on his computer, Des hopped the train into the city to attend a coffee morning put together by young up-and-comers in Dublin’s burgeoning tech scene. He left the event having met not only his future wife (significantly fateful in its own right), but also the guy he’d eventually partner with to build what’s been deemed “Ireland’s next billion-euro company.”

Fast forward a few years and Intercom is a tech company that is transforming the way businesses communicate with their customers. Their model is to eliminate the multiple platforms through which a customer connects with a company, and vice versa—whether it be sales, marketing or customer service—by using singular technology that feels like a messaging app you could be using everyday on social media or on your smart phone.  

The company’s success to date is impressive: 20,000 businesses as clients (including giants like Microsoft and Stripe); $116M in venture funding raised, and 350+ employees. The US-based company (incorporated in Delaware) has a very large R&D base in Dublin, in addition to its San Francisco headquarters and recently opened offices in Chicago and London.

Intercom’s stock has risen (figuratively, the company hasn’t gone down the IPO route, yet) at a precipitous rate. But the ultimate question every fourth-year Computer Science student is wondering: How did they do it?  

The answer certainly wasn’t immediately clear on the day of the coffee morning, when Des (now Intercom’s Chief Strategy Officer) met Eoghan McCabe (now Intercom’s CEO). The company had a journey, as did Des personally.  Des started at Maynooth University in 1999, and despite following his sister (Georgina Traynor, ’01 and ’06) there, to Des, he was very much taking his own path, as all of his school mates were off to universities in Dublin. 

“You get a reasonable opportunity to reinvent yourself that you don’t get when you follow other people where they’re going,” Des said. “I was also attracted by the Computer Science and Software Engineering programme at Maynooth because it was very, very, very hard. It appealed to me to go somewhere where I knew I’d be tested.” 

He was, and built his technical skills while also building a network of like-minded techie students who spent out-of-class time hanging out, chatting on servers, and taking on projects through the Maynooth Information Network Development Society (MINDS, now known as SocIT), started by Cian Synnott ‘03. It was at Maynooth, and through MINDS, that Des built a friendship with David Barrett ’03, who would go on to help found Intercom with Des and to Trinity alumni, McCabe and Ciarán Lee. Today Barrett is a senior engineer at the company. 

Despite the hotbed of tech activity on campus in those days, the dot-com bubble burst on the outside. “Our thinking went from, ‘Will I be buying a Ferrari?’ to “Will I even get a work placement?’” Des earned an Intel Scholarship and graduated first in his class across the sciences in 2003. He’d gotten a taste for San Francisco during a J-1 and ultimately landed an IRC SET scholarship out there for the next summer, before heading back to Maynooth to pursue a PhD in Computer Science and Software Engineering. His research, unsurprisingly, sought to disrupt the way in which CS students are assessed. Des was building a computer-based alternative assessment that sought to bridge the gap between what students actually knew and how tests measured that knowledge. “Across third level, there was template-based marking for template-based learning.”  
But in the end, the project bored Des, and after lecturing at MU for a while, he abandoned the doctoral journey in favour of an entrepreneurial one.  In 2005, Des and another Maynooth grad, Andrew Page, built a search engine for the hottest social networking channel at the time, Bebo. Their product, called Bigulo, went by the wayside with Bebo, but, “The seed of something bigger was there. … It gave me the taste to do things that actually mattered.” So Des started blogging: The medium is one he remains addicted to today, and uses both as a tool in Intercom’s thought leadership and brand-building strategies, but also as an outlet for his own desire to teach, to explain complex subject matter and to simply share and engage with knowledge.  
“I do really like to explain things, to a detriment sometimes,” Des admits. “Blogging helps bring people along on the journey and Intercom’s mission is about making Internet business more personal.”

It turns out blogging helped connect Des and Eoghan at the coffee morning. “He had a blog. I had a blog.” So the two team up to build an error-tracking tool for software developers called Exceptional. The company tallied thousands of users but ran across a problem: it had no way to talk to them. A side project ensued and the quartet of Intercom co-founders built a chat tool whose popularity quickly outstripped that of Exceptional. By 2011, the four were courting venture capital in Silicon Valley and on August 15, 2011, Intercom was incorporated. Seed funding of €1M was secured, and quickly grew to €6M, then €23M and a few years later, €116M.   The road ahead is limitless for a company like Intercom, whose pitch to simplify the customer communication experience is paramount in today’s digital commercial age.  

“For Intercom to work, you’ve have to believe a few things: One, relationships with your customers is key. Two, the future is high-quality customer experiences. And three, messaging is the future of communication and the platform to build your relationships from.” 

To do this, Des, as Chief Strategy Officer and Vice President of Marketing, is building his brand and his user base—by returning to the principles of blogging and teaching, but bringing them to global scale, and with the signature flare of Silicon Valley.  He’s just completed a 10-city World Tour of Intercom events, which are billed more like the “gig you can’t miss” than any sort of dry corporate workshop. Case-in-point: The tour wrapped up at Vicar Street in November. BUILDING INTERCOM:  An evening of engineering stories about building, scaling and taking risks with our product. The concert-level hype helps Des build a following as well as a brand, sharing lessons learned with crowds of college students and start-up techies hoping to be the next Des Traynor.  

Still, in classic Irish fashion—proud but humble—Des describes the tour as a sign of the company’s success and says that to him, the tour simply means: “Hey, we’re not shit.” 

No, that’s not up for debate. In fact, behind the hype and the business success is a desire—an imperative even—to recognise the power that comes with a voice that Intercom has achieved and use it for good when possible.  In January 2017, immediately after President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel into the US by several majority-Muslim nations, Intercom used its blog to make a statement that reverberated throughout the industry. In the post titled, “Supporting our Muslim brothers and sisters in tech,” McCabe wrote, “We feel compelled as humans to see if we can try to ease the new suffering of some, by even a small amount. And as immigrants ourselves, we’d also like to make a statement on the topic. We abhor this and any policy of hate and discrimination.” 

“Intercom is a dual-citizen company of a sort. We’ve had two offices from day zero. …If you’re in tech, and you’re from one of the newly unfavoured countries, or even if you’re not, but you’re feeling persecuted for being Muslim, we’d like to help you consider Dublin as a place to live and work.” 
Intercom backed up the empathy with support—both in-kind and financial, offering to pay €5,000 in legal fees for at least 50 Muslim tech workers who consider moving to work in Dublin.  Des said Trump’s decree “spurred a visceral reaction for us. We feel like where you have an unfair advantage and have an opportunity to offer people a leg up or a way out, you have to try. That was the basic stance we took. It’s hard enough to make it in Silicon Valley without having this thrown at you.” 

In general, Des is pleased when the tech industry finds common voice on such issues and eschews the cynics who say, “That’s the least they can do.”  

“We should be encouraging more companies to do the right thing, no belittle the ones who do,” Des said. “It’s good to see the Valley finding a collective stance on these things and own their own power.” 

Straddling the two worlds of “the Valley” and Dublin is something Des is well accustomed to, spending one-third of his time in San Francisco and two-thirds in his native Castleknock. Newly married, he’s a man living two lives in many ways: “I have friends in both cities, clothes in both cities, follow politics and events in both cities. It’s not two identities, but feels close sometimes.”

The pace, however, is not likely to abate anytime soon. As Intercom continues its ascent into the tech stratosphere, its strategy is to build more software and hire more people—in other words, grow.

“The road ahead is clear,” he said. “It’s the velocity and amount of people required that’s the challenge.  

Odds are: He’s up for it.