“If you walk into a Starbucks in Palo Alto, you’re as likely to overhear someone pitching a start-up idea to a venture capitalist as a discussion about the latest 49ers or Warriors game,” says Mark O’Sullivan, tax partner and head of the US West Coast offices of Irish law firm Matheson.
“Silicon Valley is unique and different to most of the rest of the US. There is a definite collaborative vibe amongst the business community in terms of dealing with common issues or concerns. There is also a greater willingness to network and grow relationships outside one’s core competency. Meeting someone new is never perceived as a waste of time. Within the start-up community, having an unsuccessful business is not the same ‘kiss of death’ to one’s future prospects as it might be back in Ireland. ”
O’Sullivan joined Matheson when he graduated from UCD in 1998. He moved to California with his wife Mary-Catherine in 2007 and his two children were born there.
“The business opportunities here are unrivalled,” he says.
“Companies with innovative technologies that will shape the future are popping up every day. Sometimes you see the future taking shape before your eyes and even before it enters mainstream consciousness. For example, we have seen driverless cars from Waymo and others (albeit with drivers onboard) zipping around the streets of Silicon Valley for a number of years.
“Being based in California means I often visit clients at the birthplace of their companies and you get to experience the very distinctive and vibrant energy that created them in the first place. You also get to see the innovative and ground-breaking projects they are working on. Many are embarking on a path that will truly disrupt traditional business sectors.”
O’Sullivan has worked through three changes of political administration during his time in the US and says unease always follows an election.
“The level of uncertainty at the beginning of this year did lead to projects stalling for a period of time but in recent weeks, activity levels have picked up and business life carries on as normal,” he says.
“I don’t think the business environment has changed noticeably since the election, however it is still early in president Trump’s regime and he hasn’t yet accomplished most of the legislative changes proposed in his election manifesto.”
O’Sullivan says Trump’s stance on immigration is causing sleepless nights in some sectors.
“There is certainly concern about changes to the H-1B visa regime in particular,” he says. “It allows US companies to employ foreign workers in specialist occupations and has been used widely by US companies to plug skill shortages.
“Silicon Valley technology companies are quite reliant on engineering talent from outside the US. I have heard anecdotes about companies setting up R&D hubs in places like Vancouver to hire non-US engineers. I also believe Ireland can play a more significant role in conducting R&D activities for US technology and bioscience companies.”
In addition to his primary degree, O’Sullivan has a diploma in financial services law and is a chartered tax advisor accredited by the Irish Taxation Institute. He is also a registered foreign legal consultant with the State Bar of California. Living in California has allowed him to indulge his passion for outdoor sports (he is into hiking and triathlon) including skiing at Lake Tahoe in the winter.
“From a personal perspective the outdoor life, national parks and climate here are very appealing,” O’Sullivan says. “I used to play team sports like Gaelic football and soccer back in Ireland, but it’s much more difficult to participate in team sports nowadays.”
O’Sullivan divides his time between Palo Alto, the firm’s newly opened offices in San Francisco and travelling throughout the US.
“We were the first Irish law firm to open an office here and my main remit is to provide support on Irish legal and tax matters for our West Coast-based clients. The conversation about setting up an Irish operation usually starts here and I also spend a lot of time promoting Ireland as a business destination and building relationships.
“The West Coast and Silicon Valley have been an important part of our firm’s international growth strategy since the late 90s. I now spend two to three days a week in San Francisco and while the distance between our two offices is relatively close (40 miles), in many ways they are two separate markets.
“The start-up scene and the location of technology companies in San Francisco is a more recent phenomenon and for the most part does not include any traditional hardware tech companies. Silicon Valley’s early history is intertwined with the semi-conductor industry and has existed as a tech centre for far longer.”
O’Sullivan says most of the job opportunities on the West Coast for young Irish people are in the tech and life sciences sectors. Software engineers and scientists are in demand as are those skilled in big data analytics.
“Outside of the Bay Area young Irish people have done very well across a broad range of sectors from financial services in New York to the agri-food sector in the Mid-West.”
O’Sullivan hails from Valentia Island in Kerry from where the first attempts to lay a transatlantic cable were made in the mid-1850s.
“There’s a nice symmetry to the fact that I come from what was a tech hub in the 19th century and now work in the biggest tech hub of the 21st century,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Times.