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.