The man behind the Harbo mouthpiece
Lovin’ Dublin’s controversial owner and ex-contributor Niall Harbison talks about selling a business for millions, writing a book and demonising the less well off
Colourful dichotomy: Niall Harbison. Behind him is artwork by Gearoid O’Dea. Photograph: Eric Luke
Niall Harbison is a mild-mannered chap who rarely swears, is humble about his achievements and qualifies every statement with an even-handed alternative position. “Harbo”, the entrepreneur, food blogger and now author, is a foul mouthed ranter and boaster, given to off-the-cuff dismissals of bad restaurants, old media and, sometimes, the poor and destitute.
What turns Niall Harbison into Harbo, the name he is referred to by others online? Is he just quietly going about his business when he suddenly starts lambasting beggars and opening pop-up haberdasheries on their corpses?
I’ve no idea. I spend an hour unsuccessfully trying to find the trigger while we sit outside his offices, in the sun. Over the course of our conversation he is pleasant, swears rarely and uses qualifying terms like “I guess” a lot. He refrains from giving detailed answers unless pressed, backs away from strong opinions and smiles the whole time. He says “I’m not that smart” more than once.
Online he’s combative and blunt. In person he’s like Artie Fufkin, the record promoter in This Is Spinal Tap, admitting his mistakes and inviting you to kick his ass. It’s no fun kicking anyone, anywhere under those circumstances.
“You’re nothing like your online persona,” I say, probably sounding disappointed.
“You’re the second person who’s said that to me,” he says.
Harbison emerged as the co-founder of the media-consultancy agency Simply Zesty which sold for £1.7 million to UTV in 2012. He’s since established two businesses, PR Slides, an image library for journalists, and Lovin’ Dublin a food blog, for which he writes profanity strewn prose and ill-thought-out social commentary. He’s also just published Get Sh*t Done, a self-help manual, business tome and confessional memoir. It’s premised on the notion that the author is a free-thinking outlier in a world of nine-to-five drones who need his counter-intuitive “life-hacks” (example: don’t bother queuing for a seated flight) and non-conformist wisdom (example: money isn’t everything; he met a billionaire who told him so).
Valley-inspired parody Indeed, it’s hard not to feel like the bearded, hoody-wearing Harbo is a Silicon
Valley-inspired parody. PR Slides employees bring their dogs to work (one former employee told him: “I didn’t know how to tell you, but I was terrified of dogs when I started”) and his bachelor pad in Ranelagh has the word “innovation” spray-painted on the wall. This was done by the graffiti artists he hired to decorate. “I just said ‘do what you guys think would suit.’ ” He recently sold the house, he says, because he wants to buy a “cool loft-style apartment,” which, in the context of Dublin real estate, is like wanting to live in a windmill or an igloo. Are there cool loft style apartments in Dublin?
“No. They’re really hard to find,” he says.
Born in Co Tyrone, Harbison lived from the age of one to 17 in Brussels where his father worked with the European Commission. Was he privileged? “We weren’t especially well off. I was middle class . . . So yes more privileged than an awful lot of people but it’s not like I was in Smurfit having all my college fees paid.”
He hated school, where teachers made him feel stupid and where he didn’t fit in. In Get Sh*t Done, he suggests that formal education leads to “a life of mediocrity”, and lists high-achieving drop-outs like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah Winfrey went back and got her degree later, I tell him. “Did she?” he says. He doesn’t seem to feel too strongly about this today. “Look I’m probably too opinionated about it,” he says. “I’m definitely not saying that everybody should quit college. That would be stupid. . . It’s probably great for the vast majority of people but there are a large number of people who maybe aren’t cut out for it and you shouldn’t be cast off if you’re not.”
He became a chef because his father insisted that he do something. He came to Dublin and worked his way through the kitchens of Conrad Gallagher before travelling the world, working on the yachts of the super-rich. “Money was irrelevant . . . You might spend three days prepping for a party. It was surreal.”
What did he learn about the wealthy? “It doesn’t make them any happier having all the money.”
In 2006, he started up an online cookery demonstration business called iFoods which got a lot of coverage and occasioned an appearance on Dragon’s Den. It failed, and the best bits of his book involve how to respond to failure. “Friends and family put money into it . . . people were blaming each other and it wasn’t nice. You don’t even want to go for a pint with your friends because they were the ones patting you on the back and saying ‘Ah, it’s going to be huge.’ ”
He considered going back to the yachts, but instead started Simply Zesty with his friend Lauren Fisher. Social media was still new and brands were searching for ways to navigate it. “It was just luck and good timing,” he says.
This makes me splutter: “But in the book you say ‘luck’ has nothing to do with success.”
“Oh, do I?” he laughs. “Brilliant. You mostly make your own luck. In Simply Zesty’s time it was timing more than luck. The timing was spot on.”
“It does sound a bit like luck,” I say.
“Yeah. I’ll have to go back and do a few edits.”
When he and Fisher sold Simply Zesty to UTV, he says, he had €400 in his bank account. He would have got more money if he’d stayed with the company but he left soon after because “I’m not into the corporate world.”
Around this time he had a big alcohol-fuelled blowout. He’s very open about having issues with depression and drink. “My name is Niall Harbison and I am an alcoholic, ” he writes in the book. Now he says he is not an alcoholic. “I more binge drink . . . I work crazy 16 hour days and then the lid just eventually blows, I guess . . . Other people are smart enough to go jogging or whatever. I just work until the lid blows off the top.”
I ask when it last happened. “Good question. What are we now? June? Maybe just after Christmas. I think I did all of January off the booze and then sort of exploded for three days.”
After reading the book I thought the drinking was in the past.
“Well I’d finished writing it at around that time,” he says. His binges usually start with a few sedate pints with friends and end a few days later with him blitzed and alone. “The spells of not doing it are getting much longer and the binges are shorter, but it’s still something that needs to be managed.” Nowadays, he goes for long walks with his dogs rather than going drinking.
He has high ambitions for both PR Slides, which recently raised €500,000 in funding, and Lovin’ Dublin. The latter sells Dublin as a hipster paradise somewhere between London, New York and Berlin, but it has been accused of loving Dublin and not Dubliners. Harbison has caused outrage by calling fellow-citizens “junkies” and “knackers” in his reviews and in May he wrote rather bluntly about beggars in the city centre. A more recent piece referred to diving kids at Grand Canal Dock as “knackers” having their “annual wash.” Each time he writes things like this people get angry and Twitter explodes.
“I should probably think before I write. I never went to school. I never went to journalism college.”
I’m getting used to the contradictions at this stage. “Are you saying there is a point to formal education?” I say.
“Yeah, exactly.” He laughs. “No, as long as there’s some sort of filter [it’s okay] . . . I used to write the same sort of things and nobody cared but as soon as you sell a business or write a book you’ve more of a responsibility to be more controlled and careful about what you say.”
‘Trying to be funny’Don’t those pieces demonise people less well off than him? “I was trying to be funny. [I was] reading things like Ross O’Carroll Kelly. I definitely wasn’t trying to demonise people. It just came out wrong and hands up, it’s completely wrong and I get that. It’s a lesson and I’ve learned from it.”
What did he learn? “Just that people are quite passionate and even if you hear people on the street using words like ‘knacker’ and ‘junkie’, it doesn’t mean you should write it.”
Does he not think it’s more than just the words, that there’s also a problem with the disrespectful attitude behind the words? “I’m obviously not explaining it well. I think those are problems. There’s a lot of homelessness and it needs to be dealt with and people are ignoring it but maybe there’s a better way of getting a debate going . . . The one thing I’ve learned is that I don’t know enough about [this issue] to be commenting on it so I probably shouldn’t anymore . . . I’m not smart enough, clearly. I’ll leave it to others.”
He has “sacked” himself from opinion pieces at Lovin’ Dublin. Ninety eight per cent of the angry reactions to his last article, he says, were justified. The other two per cent?
“Being told by people they wanted to hang me wasn’t nice. But you have to realise that people are very different in real life.”
He is certainly very different in real life. Is the forthright foul-mouthed persona a cunning form of branding? He says no, that the writing style emerged by accident and was just a way of making the blog “unique”. He points out that it’s hard to get nuance across online.
“It’s easier in a conversation [like this] . . . I never write anything and think, this is going to get a great reaction. It doesn’t start like that. I just write something and the reaction comes either good or bad. I’m not smart enough to link the two.”