Irish Rover

July 2, 2008

Patrick Collison is a kid in motion. The 19-year-old Irish entrepreneur ran his first marathon in Copenhagen at 16. He’s since switched to long-distance biking, and this summer he’ll ride the entire 460-kilometre length of Ireland in a day. An avid skier, he’s sped down the Austrian Alps—“Fast movements down the hill are all I’m interested in,” he says. And now he’s climbing to the upper peaks of the tech world. In March, Auctomatic, the company he helped found a year ago, accepted a $5-million buyout from Live Current Media, a Vancouver Web-development firm, making Collison and his two partners, plus his younger brother, millionaires.

In April, Collison came to town for a few days to attend meetings and set up his desk before officially starting work in the Vancouver office in June. He first visited Vancouver last spring, and was charmed by the sun rising above snow-capped mountains, the scene framed by gleaming high-rises. He’d board the Aquabus and spend the day at Stamp’s Landing, working to the “gentle tinkle” of False Creek’s sailboat masts. “How can you not fall in love with a place like this?” he asked.

Skinny, with a lightly freckled face and cropped red hair, Collison doesn’t talk much about his finances. Over whiskey and salad, he launched instead into an earnest discussion of national identity. He considers it “pretentious” to call himself an international citizen, but this son of Limerick has already lived in Boston and San Francisco.

If he had his way, citizens would migrate at will around the globe, unrestricted by anachronistic and arbitrary borders. His friends and co-workers bounce between cities, keeping in touch through Twitter and Facebook. “If you ask me now where I live, I wouldn’t know what the answer is,” he said. Like millions of Irish expats before him, Collison is mindful of losing his national identity, and his accent, in this shiny cosmopolitan future; yet he can imagine never returning to live in Ireland, where he had trouble finding venture capital. In many ways, he embodies the way this city sees itself: wealthy, athletic, tech-savvy, and young. He’s also unencumbered by history, at liberty to move in whichever direction he wants.

Collison didn’t start using a computer until he was 10, and didn’t really like programming until he turned 13. But by 2004 he’d created his own programming language, which earned him second prize at the prestigious European Union Contest for Young Scientists. He’s not completely computer-focused, either. On his blog, he moves seamlessly from technical programming instructions to his thoughts on author Philip Pullman and the U.S. presidential race. At 17, he wrote to the Irish Times that famed linguist and activist Noam Chomsky’s “trait of deceit, in a would-be scholarly work, is a disgrace.” Another newspaper would later call him “the most intelligent redhead in Ireland.” He’s concerned about seeming conceited, though; his site’s link to his press clippings is titled “See ‘narcissism.’”

Accepted to MIT in Boston at 17 (despite not having graduated from high school), Collison dropped out after four months to start his own company. He returned to his hometown and developed software that made life easier for large-scale buyers on eBay. Along with his then-16-year-old brother, John, he joined up with two entrepreneurial British cousins in their early 20s who had backing from a Silicon Valley seed-investment firm and had created a similar program for large-scale eBay sellers.

Despite offers from two of the world’s largest tech companies, the group sold Auctomatic to Gastown’s Live Current, where they now have executive-level positions and a significant ownership stake—minus John, who returned to school last fall.

The decision to go with little-known Live Current, whose market value is only $64 million, may seem strange. But a smaller company will give Collison and his partners independence, and the chance to be responsible for their own success. “Without wanting to be arrogant about it,” he said, “we think we’re pretty good at this.” The company has some enticing assets, including Body.com and Perfume.com, and predicts annual revenues of $100 million within four years. Staff have recently been in India and London, working around the clock to close a $50-million deal related to Cricket.com.

Geoffrey Hampson, the company’s 51-year-old CEO and chairman, who spent 14 years in the manufacturing industry, sees Live Current’s success in recruiting those who grew up with social networking online. Sites like Cricket.com, instead of being static portals, will connect users with their friends and encourage them to check in constantly throughout the day. Hampson’s teenage children are his test market. “My daughter is 16, she has a BlackBerry now, and she’s on Facebook and Twitter, and IMing and emailing and text messaging,” Hampson said with some awe. “They don’t even use the phone anymore.”

In an effort to attract global talent, Live Current (which has Playstation’s Rock Band stored in the boardroom), tries to adopt Silicon Valley’s work hard, play hard ethic. Employees choose their own hours; Hampson comes in early, but some programmers prefer working in the evening. That’s perfect for Collison, a night owl, who nearly failed a course at MIT because he kept sleeping through its 11 a.m. start. Auctomatic’s old San Francisco headquarters was a two-room apartment shared by a rotating cast of five employees who slept and worked at all hours. This will be his first time in a real office. “It’s weird,” he said.

Collison and his two young millionaire partners decided at the last minute where to live—he was still looking for a small loft in late May, and was concentrating on the neighbourhood around Main and Broadway (a 24-hour coffee shop there is a favourite late-night working spot), which would set him up nicely for biking to the Gastown office. He plans to bike Mount Seymour this summer, and complete his pilot training. He might even buy a small prop plane, since sports cars don’t hold much appeal for him.

Checking in from Boston, where he was visiting friends at MIT, he said he finds it thrilling to be in control of a plane. “To go wherever you want, be it up, down, left, right,” he said. “It’s complete freedom.”

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