Can you make money in Ireland today? In a shrinking economy this is a big question facing many start-ups and owner-managed companies, never mind large enterprises. There was an international theme to the IIA congress and awards last week that got me thinking about the opportunities for Ireland’s digital economy.

Opportunities exist on two fronts. There are the indigenous Irish companies that continue to grow because they have leveraged digital technologies to expand beyond these shores. Colm Lyon from Irish payments-processing company Realex, for example, revealed how much of their six billion euro of payments processed each year are by non-Irish companies selling to non-Irish customers.

Take a traditional business such as the air travel. Ryanair‘s ability to rapidly expand into new markets is grounded in their singular reliance on their website for ticket sales. Not having to negotiate relationships with agents and brokers in each new jurisdiction they seek to enter must give them massive agility. It also gives them the ability to exit from unprofitable markets even more quickly and cost-effectively!

Other Irish companies such as HostelWorld, PaddyPower, Havok, PrimeLearning and this year’s recipient of the IIA Netvisionary award MuzuTV are all examples of success on the global stage from humble roots. Each has built their enterprises and aspirations on the back of digital technologies.

Then there are the opportunities presented by the presence in Ireland of the multi-national digital goliaths such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Dell and eBay. The knowledge and international outlook that these organisations bring to their staff will reap long-term benefits for Ireland. This big thinking is epitomised by two former Irish employees of Google who created “the world’s largest search engine” cuil.com.

The headquarter presences of these large organisations in Ireland also open the potential to develop partnerships with them that can launch small niche Irish players onto the worldwide stage.  These organisations are often manged by Irish-born leaders who remain very positively disposed to local organisations. For example, I had the pleasure of chatting with Derry-born director of operations at Facebook, Colm Long, at the IIA awards and was extremely impressed at his interest and understanding of the Irish digital landscape. The example of small Irish online survey provider PollDaddy to be integrated into the world-leading blogging software WordPress should serve as an inspiration to all aspiring innovators. And WordPress don’t even have an office in Ireland.

The optimism and positivity of the people who work in the digital sector in Ireland seems unwavering. Policy makers  are looking for “the next big thing” that will form the bedrock for Ireland’s economic growth over the next decade. Perhaps we’re sitting on it.