Insight: Gareth Quinn

NDRC's Helen Fullen spoke to Gareth Quinn, founder of Digital DNA and supporter of The Ireland Funds Business Plan Competition 2019.

Gareth Quinn is the founder of Digital DNA, a digital content and events company showcasing innovation and leadership in digital technology. In 2018, Digital DNA attracted more than 2,000 delegates to St George’s Market, Belfast. In his role at Digital DNA, Gareth also founded Digital Futures, a programme fostering entrepreneurship among thousands of young people in Northern Ireland, which brings the winning team to California each year.

He is Co-founder of Kairos, a sports technology company focused on streamlining planning, aggregating data and optimising the performance of elite athletes. Co-founded with Ulster and Ireland professional rugby player, Andrew Trimble, Kairos has secured a sizeable seed investment to further build out the product offering and to escalate its go-to-market strategy across Europe and the US.

Gareth has a huge passion for the island of Ireland and specifically for Belfast and believes that the ambition, capability and relentlessness of businesses and individuals there are the catalyst for future prosperity.

Why do you support The Ireland Funds Business Plan Competition?
My first interaction with the competition was in 2017 when I was asked to judge the final at NDRC in Dublin. The Business Plan Competition has built up a formidable reputation for the calibre of startups that apply, with many of the companies having gone on to do great things and raise in excess of €3.7 million. I am hugely passionate about The Ireland Funds having seen firsthand the impact it has had on many projects, changing the lives of so many people.

What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
It’s a hard to pick a few books that have greatly influenced me but three very different books that have influenced me in different ways would be:

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber. I read this book about 6-7 years ago when I was making mistake after mistake with my first business venture. This book was a no-nonsense look at how to avoid the pitfalls that lead to the failure of many small businesses – in essence, it looks at how to build a company for success based on systems and not on the work of a single individual.

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E Frankl. Viktor, the author, details his horrifying experiences in Nazi concentration camps, along with his unique and easily explained psychological approach of logotherapy, which is also what helped him survive. I was given this book by a business mentor and although a quick read it was one of those books that makes you step back from all that is taking place in your life - business, family and personal, and apply a lense of humility, respect and realism. A phenomenal read that I would highly recommend.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. This was a tough read, one of those books where I would find myself having to go back and re-read a few pages due to how deep and technical it got. Don’t let that put you off - it was worth the slog and was my first real insight into the ‘power’ that comes with ‘living in the moment’ - something which is a lot easier said than done. Tolle talks about how only the present moment is important and that people's insistence that they have control of their life is an illusion "that only brings pain". Although deep in part, the context he gives is relatable and practically he describes methods of relaxation and meditation to aid in anchoring yourself in the present - which for what it is worth is something that I have found helpful and valuable.

What purchase of €100 or less has most positively impacted your life?
It’s arguably not the most exciting purchase and a bit over €100 but my Apple Airpods have been a revelation. The wireless functionality with good quality built in mic allows me to flip between listening to music or audiobooks and taking and making calls. The battery life is good, and the charging case is pretty cool.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
Ah, I have had many failures and I like to think individually and collectively they help me with decisions I make now. One of the biggest mistakes that I made again and again for the first few years of my initial venture was over-complicating just about everything. For whatever reason I felt that running a business was a hugely complex thing to do. It may be difficult at times, with ups and downs, with particular challenges and opportunities that need to be navigated, but it is not complex. The basic fundamentals of business are the same regardless of the type of sector or business. Provide something that solves a problem or that people want at a price that allows the business to generate suitable profits to grow. Many, if not all, of the most successful ‘profitable’ businesses in the world, do this by employing smart yet simplistic systems, processes and models. It has taken many, many mistakes to learn this and to shape how I now approach challenges and opportunities.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it what would it say and why?
Promote one of my businesses of course… For an opportunity like that I would keep it simple and state simply “What good deed will you do today?”. I believe that the value of helping not just friends, family and colleagues but also those who we don’t know and come across randomly is hugely important and something which gives significantly to society and also to ourselves individually.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
My latest venture is a sports technology company that I co-founded with Irish and Ulster Rugby player Andrew Trimble. For two years Andrew and I, quietly and under the radar, invested a lot of time and effort into Kairos, exploring its potential, engaging extensively with the market and building it out. We are now reaping the rewards of that effort having closed a decent seed round of investment and having launched.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
It’s probably not that unusual or absurd (or interesting) but I choose to park a mile out of the city each day and walk to the office, getting some fresh air in my lungs and listening to an audiobook before attacking the day.

In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
A simple one – to take time to try and be more in the moment – whether that is through a practical exercise such as meditating, just taking a breath focusing on the current moment instead of what has been or what is coming and trying to appreciate in the moment those special experiences with family, friends and colleagues.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
My advice would to be suss out what potential mentors out there could help with where you are right now. Do not worry about how inaccessible they are – identify them, find a way to engage with them and make an ask of them that they cannot ignore. One of my first mentors was Pádraig Ó Céidigh who, back in the day, I tweeted asking for a coffee and saying that I would travel from Belfast to Galway for a 30-minute coffee to get his insight into what I was doing – who would say no to that. I ended up meeting Pádraig in Dublin, half way, for 2 hours and it was a massive catalyst for what I did next. I have various other similar examples - work out who you can learn from and just ask! Ignore anyone who your gut tells you is not trustworthy and/or full of crap - they more than likely will be!

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I think there is a lot of rubbish in the startup sector. There are many people, driven by ego and the chance of making a few quid, who confidently provide advice and direction with little or no relevant skills and importantly experience. I would be very mindful of what qualifies individuals to give advice and guidance. I would also be very mindful when exploring the services that you are considering paying for. The reality is that most successful people out there know how hard it is and they also know how important the genuine advice and guidance that they received was to them - for this reason you will find that most of the help, advice and guidance you need is readily available in good faith from those who have been through it already.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I spent the first year of my first venture being massively distracted. Exploring every ‘sparkly’ opportunity, meeting everyone I could and trying to consume as much information as possible. At the end of that year I learnt a lot, but the business was in a bleak place. I had to learn very quickly to focus and prioritise what was best for the business. I became a lot better at planning, managing tasks and being more effective with my time. I still have my moments but through the mistakes of the past I am a lot more precious of my time and how to use it, saying no to almost anything in a business context that doesn’t progress my business interests.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
For me I just take some time out to break down what needs to be done and what is a priority. In my early days of business, I would have spent huge amounts to time being overwhelmed and unfocused - spending inefficient hours procrastinating over what needed to be done. Once I have taken that step back a late-night session blasting through what needs to be done and planning out executing next steps for the more complex challenges that require the input of others, usually puts the bus back on the road and pointed in the right direction.