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Thursday 14 December 2017

Niall Harbison: 'The stress levels were out of control and the way I dealt with it was booze. Ten pints to forget all my problems'

Niall Harbison opens up to Joanna Kiernan about taking his own advice and dealing with his demons

Niall Harbison and Emma-Jane Power
Niall Harbison and Emma-Jane Power
Joanna Kiernan with Niall Harbison. Powerscourt Shopping Centre, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Niall Harbison. Powerscourt Shopping Centre, Dublin

'You can go travelling, do something different, the world doesn't stop.'

 

Two weeks ago, entrepreneur Niall Harbison upped and took a flight to Morocco for a change of scenery while he worked.

"All I need is my laptop," he says. "January is so depressing and cold and everyone is on diets and also people don't fly that much in January, so I got tickets to Morocco for €40 return and I stayed in a place over there for €30 a night. I was nearly saving money by going there and the work I did was insane. It was so good because I was inspired."

Niall came to prominence in 2012 when the then 32-year-old sold his social media agency Simply Zesty, which he started in 2009 in his spare room, to UTV for a multi-million euro profit.

He is now the CEO of Picstash, an online image library that he co-founded with model Emma Jane Power, and is also behind the popular foodie blog Lovin Dublin.

"It was quite a cool thing to do," Niall says of Simply Zesty's success, with a humble shrug. "A lot of it was down to good timing and luck, but we worked really hard too."

But has this early business victory put more pressure on his subsequent ventures?

"A lot of people said I should just go and take a couple of years off and chill out after the sale of Simply Zesty, but I think the pressure is on," Niall says.

"When we sold it, a lot of people said, 'Oh, you were so lucky', or that it was pure luck, blah, blah.

"A certain amount of that is true, but it's also a huge amount of hard work. There's a really good saying, 'Once you're lucky, twice you're good', so if you can sell a second one or have a really cool second business then nobody can say any different. So it's really about proving those people wrong and proving it to yourself that you can do it."

Rather than ignoring his critics, Niall chooses to feed off any negative vibes that come his way, using them as fuel for his ambitions. He even keeps a specific folder on his computer with screen grabs of hate mail and negative comments and uses this to motivate himself.

"I add to it all the time," he says. "There are the people who are just like, 'Go and die', which is another level - I ignore them.

"But the people who are slagging me, saying, 'Oh it's going to be a failure' or whatever, it's great to have that there - they actually make me get up an hour earlier in the morning. It might not work for everybody, but it works for me."

prophesy

Niall actually forced himself to write his motivational bestselling book, Get Sh*t Done, which was released last year, by tweeting about his intention to write it, giving himself a very public deadline and making the bold and ultimately self-fulfilling prophesy that it would become a bestseller.

"The book was great and it did what I wanted it to do, but I kind of got distracted doing it all and realised that what I should be doing is focusing on the business that I have because that's what pays the bills," Niall says.

"This year now I'm going to be super-focused and try and get both companies, Lovin Dublin and Picstash, up to the next level."

Late last week the Lovin Group, which is also backed by Rugby star Jamie Heaslip, announced it would be expanding and creating 12 new jobs this year. The move will allow Niall to stand back a bit from what began as a personal food blog and has grown to attract a cult following.

The outspoken and sometimes constructively caustic edge to Niall's Lovin Dublin articles has at times, he admits, gone a little too far and landed him in hot water.

Last summer he was forced to make an apology for referring in one restaurant review to inner city Dublin teenagers who were jumping into the water at the Grand Canal dock as "knackers" while simultaneously suggesting that the crime rates in the area would decrease while "they were all busy having their annual wash".

"I always get myself into trouble. Not intentionally, but I guess we write the way it comes out of my head and that is probably not the way to be doing it," Niall says with a grin. "I should probably bite my tongue more often.

"The fact is, though, that 90pc of people are positive about it.

"I met two people on the street yesterday who said, 'Oh, you're from Lovin Dublin! I love that site', but then you go online and there are 10 of the PC police or there are grammar Nazis going mental. You can't keep everybody happy, but at least it's interesting."

Niall believes a big part of Lovin Dublin's appeal is its brutally honest writing.

"I know it does get me into trouble sometimes, but there are so many people writing restaurant reviews and maybe taking money for them or just giving very vanilla opinions, so I think people like the fact that Lovin Dublin is honest, although that does get us into trouble. It's an opinion that they can trust," he says.

depression

Niall extends this brutal honesty to his own personal struggles. He is open about his experiences with both depression and what he says was "an alcohol problem".

"I was like 27, 28 when I did the first business and I had never managed 20 people. The stress levels were out of control and the way I dealt with it was booze," he says.

"I would go out and have 10 pints to just forget all of my problems. It was quite bad, really bad, then I stopped for a year and thought, 'Oh, I wasn't that bad'. And I went back and was drinking again for about five or six months and now I have stopped again.

"People will say, 'Ah, sure, you're grand, I drink way more than you', but I don't do it in a healthy way, so I just decided I was better off without it, but there are easier countries to not be drinking in than Ireland.

"The depression is kind of linked to the booze, I think, for me. It definitely comes and goes, but it's not as bad as it used to be.

"It's not the end of the world at all. I take one tablet a day and that keeps me grand. I didn't actually know what it was for about three years then eventually I was talking to a doctor and he asked if it might be that and I thought - Ah! That's what it is!"

Niall, who is currently single, was born in Ireland but lived in Belgium until he was 16. A couple of years after his parents divorced he came back to live here.

He wasn't interested in school and left to become a chef, after which he worked aboard a billionaire's yacht, sailing around the world for several years.

"Some people have a very planned-out dream life that they try to create, but I try to do things that are just interesting and fun to do and try to not think about the monetary aspect of it, which is tough - you do need to pay the bills," Niall says.

"I just think you're here for a really short time - like, we're all going to die. It's morbid, I know, but I think that you just have to have fun.

"If I walked into Picstash or Lovin Dublin tomorrow and thought, 'God I hate this', I'd move on to something else.

"You see so many people trudging to work to jobs they hate, something they just really don't love. You have such a short life. Living for the weekend is great, but you are also spending 40 or 50 hours in work, so you need to try and like it a bit."

luxury

Niall takes the point, however, that many Irish people don't feel they have the luxury of choice when it comes to work, especially these days.

"I completely get that, but it's also a mindset," he says. "When I sold Simply Zesty I had a grand on my credit card left to play with. There is a formula: everybody goes to school and then college, then they do a masters and they are two years into a job and they say, 'Oh, I couldn't take any time off now because I'll fall off the career ladder', but you actually can.

"You can go travelling for two years if you want, you can do something different, the world doesn't stop."

As a boss, Niall has a firm handle on the importance of a healthy work-life balance for his employees.

"People will come and ask if they can get two hours off to take the car to the garage, or for a doctors' appointment, and of course you have to say yes because they are the same people who will be checking their emails at 11 o'clock at night and replying to people," Niall says.

"It's a really crappy way of measuring people anyway, to focus on what you can get out of them between those set hours of nine to five."

'You can go travelling, do something different, the world doesn't stop.'

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