From one West Coast to another: PlanNet21’s Denise Tormey on Silicon Valley living

As part of our ‘Irish Abroad’ series, the Galwegian talks about her road to America, avoiding cultural faux pas (and mountain lions) and how California is in denial over The Donald...

From one West Coast to another: PlanNet21’s Denise Tormey on Silicon Valley living

Photo: plannet21.ie

If you’ve been watching Donald Trump’s insistence that he is going to “win big league” become less and less laughable as he seized the Republican Party’s nomination and sets his sights on the White House with a sense of bemusement verging on fear, imagine how it feels watching it all unfold on American soil.

Our own Denise Tormey, president and co-founder of PlanNet 21 Communications, has been doing just that as a resident of San Francisco, and she’s starting to think Trump has a real shot.

As for her American neighbours and colleagues in the Bay Area, they’ve yet to come to that realisation. Maybe they’re just too close for that to be a comfortable thought.

“It's just incredible,” she says of the race thus far. “He's 24/7 on the news, no matter what you turn on. Although really I'm more of a Netflix person!

“The Californian people are completely in denial. They've just been thinking it couldn't possibly happen. First of all, it was that he couldn't be the candidate choice. And now they don't believe that he has a chance. But he really does.”

Tormey, an EY Entrepreneur of the Year international finalist in 2015, has gleaned as much from dealing with people outside the state.

“The reality is he has a very good chance of winning. I speak to people in North Carolina, Boston, New York... all the way down to Texas. And you will definitely hear different opinions when you step outside of California. Surprisingly.”

What’s perhaps most surprising is that she’s been able to take a straw poll at all. Certainly when it comes to the business people she’s encountered since leaving Ireland for Silicon Valley, politics is usually off the table in terms of chit-chat.

“The icebreakers are very different,” she notes. “There's no bit of chat about the weather... Because the weather's the same all the time!

"You’re pretty much [straight down to business], unless you know something about their kids. You don't talk politics. Now a lot of them in the Californian state are Democratics anyway – but they pretty much stay away from that.

“They stay away from sport as a general rule as well. Whereas in Ireland, whatever the match was that was on last night, whatever Ivan Yates was on about on the radio, that's how things start off here. It's a little bit different.”

Drive-bys of the friendliest variety aren’t welcomed either on the West Coast.

“I'm a little bit on the casual side and I've often been known to just 'pop in' to some of my customers. Drop in for a casual cup of tea or coffee. But you can't just rock up to a customer site out in San Francisco – I was threatened with an orange jumpsuit for it at one point! It's all about appointments.”

New kids on the block

It's far from orange jumpsuits Tormey was reared.

Raised in Carrownagappul, Mountbellew in County Galway – “the bog”, in her words – Tormey graduated in Business & IT from the University of Limerick before qualifying as a chartered accountant with the now-defunct US computer titan Digital Equipment Corporation.

It was while living in the bog, however, that the seeds of her entrepreneurial spirit were sown. The way she tells it, she gets her risk-taking side from her father.

“Dad had his own business. He cut out himself in the early ‘80s, started off his own sawmill. He does a lot of the beams for castles, the Board of Works, and fisheries around Ireland.

“He took a big risk, at the height of the then-recession.

“I would consider him the real entrepreneur, because he had a huge outlay.

“Whereas we were all leaving very good, ‘permanent and pensionable jobs’ as our parents would have said, but we had very small seed capital. A couple of laptops and a little bit of rent and away we went.”

What had started as a pipe dream with three old UL classmates became PlanNet21 in 1998, as they set out to capitalise on a new era of business networking and communications infrastructure.

“I guess we saw a gap in the market for the newer technology,” she recalls. “It was something we'd learned about previously in UL. We all went out and got our bit of experience, but it was still niggling...

“I was in digital and some of my colleagues were in the likes of Intel and Boston Scientific and large corporates like that.

“While they had the older technology it was clear that they needed the new way to do networking, which was over IP.

“We latched on to Cisco Systems who were a very large switching and routing company – and still are. As they acquired new technology and got into new areas, we were the new kids on the block.

“We had all the time in the world; there were no husbands, wives, mortgages, nothing. We barely had a car between us. We spent all the hours of the day just getting up to speed on the technologies. Because we latched onto the new cutting edge – or bleeding edge, some might say – technologies, we were the ones who won the jobs with the larger US companies. We were the only ones doing it initially.

"Youth is great. We saw no barriers, we just went with it!”

The perils of San Francisco

They went on to quickly establish themselves as a truly global concern. PlanNet21 now a presence in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast, but also France and, of course, Silicon Valley.

That was where Tormey headed for in January 2013, having realised the importance of tech companies being physically close to the centre of the action, despite the ease of long-distance communication today.

“You can have all the technology in the world, but deals are done with people.”

Tormey was joined by her husband – who also works with PlanNet21 – and their young children. They return to Cork twice a year, with Denise also heading back and forth across the Atlantic on an “as-needs basis”.

Was it a difficult decision and upheaval?

“It was an easy decision to make initially, but then the actual executing upon it brought a little bit of 'oh my God, what did I do?' a week out!

“From a business point of view, it was a very logical next step to take. From a family point of view, the kids were of an age where they were easy enough to extract from Ireland and put into a San Francisco or Silicon Valley setting.

“But yeah, there were some bumps along the road. There are some challenges just even getting across, around visas, immunisation is slightly different... And you have zero credit when you get out there first.

“Obviously you miss the banter, you miss your friends and family. And then general things like matches and festivals. I'm three-and-a-half years in now. I won't say I have it all sorted.”

Still it must be nice not to have to constantly talk about the changeable weather. San Francisco is a beautiful place, even if you risk running into raccoons and billionaire hipsters...

“Well that's it! I had to gather the kids together when we got out there and tell them all the ways they could die. Between earthquakes, mountain lions, bobcats and snakes... They were like 'oh God, mammy!' I told them we'd be fine.”

Making money out of chaos

Tormey says she’s learned a lot from the people she’s encountered on the West Coast.

“There really is a lot of interesting individuals. People with interesting takes, from the wild and wacky, to very down-to-earth people.

“One of the ladies that really struck me when it comes to women and tech was Kelly Kramer.

“She's the CFO in Cisco and she's constantly being chatted to about women and technology and how to move it along. Move the women's agenda.

“I very much liked what her words of wisdom to us all were.

"Basically: know strong women, be a strong woman and raise strong women. There doesn't need to be anything more than that really.”

When Taoiseach Enda Kenny cut the ribbon on PlanNet21’s new Dublin headquarters in Citywest Business Campus last November, he hailed the company as “a great example of how an indigenous Irish company can grow to become a global player."

Does the praise go both ways when it comes to the Irish State? Is enough being done to help homegrown businesses expand internationally?

“From my point of view, I have to say IDA are doing unbelievable work. They really show up well. Especially in Silicon Valley. I'd know those guys very, very well.”

While everything is apparently rosy in terms of Irish dealings, Tormey acknowledges that these are turbulent times when it comes to the big picture. Characteristically, she sees silver linings around the doom and the gloom.

“Where there's chaos, there's money to be made!

“There have been some knee-jerk reactions. Even the Friday after the Brexit announcement. A couple of the Irish corporates I deal with had been spending a lot of money on data centres in London and the next morning it was: 'okay, where are we going to go, Dublin or Frankfurt?' That was the first comment out of them.

“Nothing's going to happen fast and none of us have a crystal ball..." she concludes. "But there's opportunity for Ireland there. For sure.”

Click here for more information on the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award