The “let Michael O’Leary run it” school of thought says political problems could be easily fixed by a pragmatic, common-sense manager.

In reality, the track record of business people in politics is mixed. Politics and business turn out to be very different domains. It’s hard to succeed at both.

That’s one of the interesting things about the career of Diego Piacentini, the Italian executive interviewed by Rosanna this week. Piacentini offers a template for how a political outsider can do the state some service.

In 2016, Piacentini had been a senior executive at Apple and then Amazon. He was responsible for Amazon’s expansion to Europe, South America and Asia. He was right at the top of the organisation — at a time when Amazon had more than 300,000 employees, Piacentini had the third-biggest employee equity stake. 

In 2016, the new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi persuaded him to come and serve his country. Renzi tasked Piacentini with no less than transforming Italy’s technology sector — to “put Italy at the centre of the universe.” 

He had the backing of the new Prime Minister and a massive brief. Where to even begin?

One strategy would be to try to run a big government department. A minister could use their big budget and army of officials to make things happen.

Piacentini didn’t go that route. He started by narrowing the scope of the job to something important he knew he could achieve. So instead of the vague and impossible task of putting Italy at the centre of the technology universe, he committed to building three things: a digital payments platform, a national register of citizens’ data, and a digital identity card.

He cobbled together €30 million from unused scraps of the federal budget. Then he recruited his team using a medium post: “this is a term job, you’re going to get paid, not enough, but if you want to do something for your country, this is it.”

Two years later, they shipped the product — a tool now used by the majority of adult Italians that simplifies their admin burden and can be used by the government to, for example, directly pay different groups of citizens. 

Piacentini describes it not as a policy, but as a tool that allows policy to work better. “You can have a great policy, but it fails because the execution is so poor. So we were building the tools to make things happen.”

This is something you see all the time in the business world: a small team sets out to solve a problem, and beats competitors with 1000x more resources. Think of Stripe, Tesla, Ryanair, Intercom. 

Those companies were able to beat bigger competitors because their organisations were aligned around solving a specific problem. Everything from hiring decisions, the organisational chart, and how they pay people — everything was focused on the specific goal. A small focused team is often more useful than a huge R&D budget — or a government department. 

R&D budgets don’t come much bigger than Microsoft’s. Microsoft owns Excel, the dominant spreadsheet software since 1983. This week Equals, a startup co-founded by Irishman Ben McRedmond, raised $16 million from the top-tier venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz to take on Excel. Equals is aiming to disrupt Microsoft Excel with a spreadsheet that’s better able to pull data from outside sources. 

The Silicon Valley mythos is all about small plucky teams taking on, and beating, big rich ones. Equals won’t start as a favourite against Microsoft, but it probably has a better chance than it might seem.


David doesn’t always beat Goliath: Modmo, the Sean Mulryan-backed disruptor of the e-bike industry, is being liquidated amid “serious safety concerns”. Francesca had the story.

Tom spoke to Colm Kelleher, managing director of The LHK Group, an insurance broker. LHK has had many approaches from private equity in recent years. However, the broker has resisted a sale, preferring instead to make its own acquisitions.

The wave of layoffs at technology multinationals is not over, wrote Stephen. We have been there before, and there are things we can do to make the most of the predictable cycle ahead.

Thomas on Meta and technology industry layoffs. The parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp is the largest yet of technology multinationals to prepare for redundancies in Ireland, illustrating how exposed the Irish economy is to the sector.

Thomas on the intriguing results of a subsidiary company that dominates its niche in the Irish market — and whose Irish margins are more than three times wider than those of its parent company.