Social media entrepreneur offers €20k to promising start-ups (video)

7 Jun 2012

Pictured: Niall Harbison and Lauren Fisher

Niall Harbison and Lauren Fisher built Simply Zesty from scratch with less than €10,000 and within three years it was acquired for potentially up to stg£5m. Now Harbison wants to share €20,000 between two promising start-ups that each have the potential to create around 20-30 jobs within the same time frame.

Social media agency Simply Zesty was founded when former chef Harbison and ex-PR person Fisher stuck a chord on their views on where social media and marketing were headed during a chat on Twitter. Fisher moved from the UK to Ireland and with less than €10,000 to their names, she and Harbison started the business in a spare bedroom.

In March, TV and internet player UTV plc acquired Simply Zesty for about stg£1.7m, rising potentially to stg£5m depending on figure trading performance.

While Harbison still has his hands full with Simply Zesty as well as his own food blog, he wants to put some of his good fortune to good use. In what he describes as a “personal project”, he is offering two prizes of €10,000 a piece to start-ups he believes have the potential to create 20-30 jobs within three years, just like Simply Zesty did.

In return for the €10,000, he will take a 10pc equity stake and promises to be the quietest silent partner in the history of start-ups.

Entrants to the competition, which closes 18 June, are encouraged to get creative with social media and provide links to websites, videos, documents, presentations and anything else they think will best tell their story. All the details are here on Harbison’s Lovin’ Dublin blog and below in this video:


Thoughts on the Irish start-up scene

I decided to take the opportunity of covering this new endeavour to ask Harbison a few questions about his views on the Dublin start-up scene and Ireland as a hub for promising new companies.

“It’s really getting a lot better and there is a better ecosystem in the last three to four years. The big guys like Google and Facebook still mop up all the good talent and it doesn’t have the same grassroots feeling as the likes of a Berlin. What it needs is lots more money and people giving people a chance with just an idea like they do in the US. So it is getting better but there is a long way to go.”

Despite the journey ahead, Harbison says there is plenty of inspirational material in evidence. “I love Irish stories like the Dublin Web Summit, Hostel World, Cubic Telecom, etc – stories about Irish people who hire lots if people here and build stuff that gets respected all over the world. Everybody in the world tells you ‘here’ isn’t possible, but we can do so much from here on our little rock we just need to think bigger sometimes.”

The toughest lessons are the best lessons

I asked Harbison what were the hardest lessons he and Fisher learned during the Simply Zesty journey and if there were scary moments where they both questioned what they were doing. “Not having any capital in the early days was hard,” he admits. “We made it all up with Fishers’ brains and hard work. That was key.

“There wasn’t a day that went past in the early days where we thought we might just be mad and having wages to pay and people depending on you are always the toughest things.

“We often went for growth when it was risky and it paid off in the end but that is not an easy thing to do at the time.”

Despite the slow burner that the Facebook IPO turned out to be, Harbison is infectiously enthusiastic as ever about the future of social media. He believes we’ve barely scratched the surface.

“I think we’ve seen 1pc of social. What I love is the media spin on Facebook and how that is driving that stock down. If I could do one thing with this cash other than invest it in Irish start-ups I’d be putting it into Facebook and leaving it there for the next five years.

“Social will continue to change and nobody could have predicted the disruption across the world it would have caused, so I don’t think I’m brave enough to say where we could be in another five.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years