Posted on Tuesday 19 June 2012 by Ulster Business
Niall Harbison (centre) is pictured with his Simply Zesty co-founder Lauren Fisher, John McCann, GroupCEOof UTV Media plc; Nigel Robbins, Commercial Director for Ireland at UTV Media and Ken Fitzpatrick,CEOof Simply Zesty. UTV paid £1.7m for the company
Like many entrepreneurs before him, Niall Harbison has tried his hand at various pursuits and taken a few risks along the way.
Ultimately he followed up on his ideas and passions, which means that now his job feels a little bit less like work.
Niall set up the social media company Simply Zesty with co-founder Lauren Fisher in 2009 and has seen the company grow to a level that attracted the attention of UTV, who bought the company for an initial £1.7m in March of this year.
Born in Northern Ireland, Niall moved to Europe at a young age and has lived in Dublin far longer than he did in Ulster, although he has always been a regular visitor to his family in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. Spending more of his time in Belfast following the UTV acquisition has allowed him to immerse himself in the culture and enjoy what he describes as “an energy and spirit that you don’t see in other cities”.
Despite always having an interest in technology, Niall’s first passion was cooking.
“I started by training in Dublin on a two year full time course before going to work for the best chef in Dublin at the time, peeling potatoes to get the job,” he said.
Under the guidance of the Michelin star chef Conrad Gallagher, he went on to become Ireland’s youngest Head Chef of a fine dining establishment in 2001 at the age of just 21.
His next step took him into an even more glamorous world.
“I then went on to work on Super yachts working for some of the richest people in the world including Paul Allen the founder of Microsoft along with Bill Gates. He was worth $33bn and I travelled the world cooking for him,” he recalls.
“Cooking in the pit lane at the Monaco GP or Cannes Film Festival would have been the best parts. I also got to cook for every celeb under the sun including Bono and Lance Armstrong.”
It seems like the kind of lifestyle that wouldn’t be traded in too readily, but Niall is quick to play down the romance.
“Cooking is a tough job. I loved it but I got about 10% unhappy doing it and that is more than enough for me to make a change. I was always interested in technology and I fancied a new challenge,” he says.
The next challenge was inspired by a response to a YouTube video that Niall uploaded.
He came up with the idea of having cooking instructional videos on the internet as a way of complementing cookbooks. It even took Niall by surprise when the videos received 50,000 hits in the first month alone.
“It dawned on me that we were about to enter a golden age. I was blown away,” he says.
The idea led to the creation of an interactive cooking website with videos posted online. An appearance on BBC’s Dragon’s Den followed. At this time Niall was beginning to realise what he had stumbled upon. The experience opened his eyes to the huge potential of social media because as a start-up he didn’t have a huge marketing budget and had to use and learn about the social media tools out there.
This ‘golden era’ for social media was an opportunity that Niall didn’t want to see slip by. Following a brief period where he was juggling two businesses: a food website and the infancy of Simply Zesty, Niall made a commitment to the social media industry: “The food website didn’t work out and when many people would have quit and gone back to get a job I thought it was worth another shot because I was learning so much and having a lot of fun running my own business. Social media was a bit of a land grab and we decided to go for it full on, rather than slow and steady growth.”
While in the US, having a couple of failed businesses on your CV is seen as a good thing as it shows that you have tried your hand and made mistakes that can be learnt from, in the UK, a failed business is feared to be an infectious disease.
Niall is an example of how the risk involved in entrepreneurialism can pay dividends and he stresses that taking risks can lead to rewards.
“Give it a go and don’t be scared of failure. The tools are all out there these days and are mostly free. The worst thing that can happen is you fail and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that at all,” Niall believes.
A new generation of tech-savvy young people are entering the job market with a well developed understanding of social media to add to their skill set: “I spend my time talking to executives in large companies who are often in their 40s and 50s and it is amazing how many of them have just given up on technology and are leaving it to a whole new generation. People coming out of college these days have a huge opportunity to become thought leaders and use technology to their advantage,” he adds.
Niall advises businesses to capitalise on the availability of social media tools. He rubbishes the claim that Simply Zesty has a secret recipe to success. Hard work and making the most of blogging were two key reasons for its success.
“Everyone thinks we have some magic formula. But everyone has the same tools – Facebook, blogging etc. With technology the barriers are so low now that you don’t have to be that smart to have your own blog and grow a big audience. The technology is there for everybody. You’re all walking about with a HD camera on your phone so it’s just a case of coming up with something a little bit different and having your own unique angle and hopefully coming up with a way to build up community around your company or yourself,” he says.
“Everybody can have their own personal brand now because of social media. The boundaries are only really limited by your imagination!”
Niall emphasises the impact of the website’s blog, which he describes as “the single most important part of the business”.
“We get 500,000 visitors per month and it has brought in business from Australia, Russia and the USA. We hated formal networking and decided to use the blog instead as our main marketing tool,” he explains.
When asked about his predictions for future trends in social media and how Simply Zesty will push on from its recent success he replies that the company, and the sector, are only at the start of the journey.
“We have only seen 1% of what these new technologies can achieve. The next two years are all going to be about mobile mobile mobile,” he adds.
“The hard work starts now. We grow in to multiple markets, get bigger clients and create a globally recognized brand out of Simply Zesty.”
On his own future he says his heart is still with Simply Zesty and UTV because it is at the very start of that journey.
“We haven’t achieved anything like what we can do yet. Simply Zesty has always been challenged for resources given our growth but the guys at UTV totally get what we are trying to do and are brilliant owners to have,” he adds.
Niall and Simply Zesty seem to be going from strength to strength and he is now in contention for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the year award.
“Being nominated for EOY was a great honour and it really allowed me to step back and see what we have achieved in the last three years. It really made me realise what an amazing team we have and how little I would have achieved without them. I just happen to be the one who started this with Lauren, my co-founder, but without the people around me I would be nothing.”