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Gareth Quinn: 'My father has been a massive influence'

Gareth Quinn tells Margaret Canning about the roots of Digital DNA, his upbringing in rural Co Down and how he's shaken off the self-imposed 'scrape through' tag

By Margaret Canning

He's the guru who masterminds Digital DNA, Northern Ireland's biggest tech event for people and companies keen to learn how to harness the potential of digital to grow their businesses. And while most of us associate tech with hip and trendy offices in urban centres, Digital DNA founder and managing director Gareth Quinn (36) had a rural upbringing and still lives in the country, in Darragh Cross in Co Down.

But speaking to Gareth, who's married with three children, it's clear that things haven't always been straightforward though setbacks have galvanised his will to succeed.

A varied career from the Electoral Office to Belfast City Council has also increased his knowledge of civic life, helping him draw together a wide coalition of support for Digital DNA, which takes place on June 6 and 7.

Gareth says: "I originally lived in Castlewellan with my parents, and they then built a house in Atticall. We lived in a mobile home for ages and I remember lying there hearing the sound of the rain battering off the mobile home.

"I grew up surrounded by fields and when I wasn't at school, I'd be out exploring in the fields or out on the football pitch. It's a very rural area and a beautiful part of the world. For me I was just a kid enjoying life with no real focus but I do remember saying to my mother, 'Some day, I'm going to drive a Porsche'. But now I have no desire for that at all."

He describes his parents Patsy and Pauline as hardworking people who strived to improve their lot in life. "I remember my dad working on the roads and seeing him in a hole 8ft down. He worked really hard as a contractor."

His mother worked in a health clinic in Kilkeel - which she now runs - while his dad is now a senior salesman. "They just always worked really hard but they had nothing behind them educationally. That work ethic has really influenced me and I've picked up that hard work is required to do anything."

He went to school in St Louis' Grammar School in Kilkeel after getting a B in his 11-Plus. "Academically, I never had any real interest and I was never the smartest guy in the class. I did the bare minimum to scrape through - the typical scrape-through artist.

"I did really enjoy getting my teeth into business studies. Then in my GCSEs I got an A, B, five Cs, a D and an E - not great but enough to scrape through."

But the seeds of a future career were being sown. "I remember my first computer was a Gateway Computer made by a company in Dublin, and I just loved it. I remember thinking that the Microsoft Word was amazing, and that was the start of my interest in computers - and it was the time when the internet was coming to the fore, too," Gareth says.

"I scraped through A-Levels but I didn't have the results I needed to get on a computing course in Queen's. I had applied for computing and IT at Jordanstown so I went and begged to get on the course." He moved to a student house and embraced student life - including Gaelic football, and less typically, set-dancing to accordion bands.

But things didn't go smoothly, and after the first year, his results were so bad the university wanted him to leave the course. "There were other people who had done as badly, and they were being allowed to repeat the year. I begged to be allowed to repeat as well but they told me that the difference was, the other people had a really low attendance record, but my record was really good but I still hadn't managed to pass.

"For that reason, they made me go back and do a HND, which I was able to do part-time. But I was embarrassed, and I would Tippex out the 'HND' on the textbook so that my housemates wouldn't see. But it all made me decide to push on, and I did the HND part-time." During the course, he worked at email contact centre gem, now known as Concentrix. That work involved talking to potential visitors to Ireland on a Tourism Ireland contract. Then he got a full-time job in the Electoral Office, processing forms and typing in details. "That was really my first big boy job. I was earning £10,251 and my rent was £100 a month, so I felt pretty flash."

He then worked as the area electoral officer for north and west Belfast, announcing the winners of the Assembly elections in November 2001 and appearing on live TV.

"I was announcing the election results from a pig's shed in the King's Hall while my parents watched it on TV," he says.

Then a job came up at Belfast City Council in the Lord Mayor's Office. "I basically was in charge of administration at the Lord Mayor's Office, so I did all the diary planning and organisation for the Lord Mayor, working with Lord Mayors from Tom Eakin to Jim Rogers, Tom Hartley, Pat McCarthy and Wallace Brown."

The role gave him a ringside seat into many major events, including attending a service for George Best in Manchester. "There I was, the biggest Manchester United fan you could imagine and still a kid of 23 or 24. I was in Manchester Cathedral sitting behind the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress and over my shoulder were Nobby Stiles and Denis Law.

"Overall, the City Council gave me a macro-view and a micro-view of the work of the City Council, looking at things like big events like royal visits which were happening, then issues like homelessness. Whatever was happening, the Lord Mayor's Office would be involved in some way, shape or form."

He came to work closely with councillors, helping them with issues such as leadership development and improve their skills and knowledge.

Gareth also took on an MBA in Ulster University, which he describes as a "personal crusade to try and prove myself". "Doing it gave me a lot of confidence and it was my catalyst for deciding to do something different."

He sat down with career consultant Kim Johnston. "I was on a really good salary on a good career path and with good career progression ahead of me, but I wanted affirmation that I was on the right track," he says.

Gareth concluded he wanted to do something else. "I then realised I need to build up my knowledge of tech and I needed to build up my relationships. I realised that when I arranged an event in the City Council, I would become a mini-expert in a particular subject and build up relationships with the key players."

He hit on the idea of holding an event which would help companies harness tech to their advantage, whether they were using social media or customer relationship management systems.

Gareth secured sponsorship in the first year of the event in 2013 from the New York Stock Exchange. "I just went along to their offices in Adelaide Street. I was told they didn't have money for sponsorship yet they were able to give us £6,000.

"I was invited to New York to meet them - and the chief executive Jon Robson invited me to launch it on the floor of the Stock Exchange. I gave him a Harland & Wolff T-shirt.

"Looking back, I hadn't a clue. It really was just a lot of random coincidences."

And while the first year was well-attended, he had to ensure the event made money. He established links with the Corry family who organise all-island expos the Self-Build Show, and have now bought into Digital DNA.

Gareth says it's now making money and providing full-time salaries to seven people. The event generates revenue through sponsorship, delegates and exhibitions.

This year's event is supported by the Belfast Telegraph for the second year in a row and takes place at St George's Market in Belfast.

Digital experts from organisations including Google, Motorola, and Microsoft will give their insights into technology and digital trends and will speak to an audience of 2,000 delegates. Ruth McEntee, head of sales in Ireland for YouTube, is one of the most eagerly-awaited speakers.

Gareth says: "With a world-class partner in Deloitte Digital for the second year running, an amazing venue in St George's Market and speakers from some of the biggest brands on the planet, we're confident that Digital DNA will again be the must-attend business and technology event of 2017.

"With the Belfast Telegraph as our official media partner for Northern Ireland, we're excited to be working with a partner that has the same passion and enthusiasm for business as we do."

Q What's the best piece of business (or life) advice you've ever been given?

A Trust your gut.

Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A Do not over complicate it. What need are you providing a solution for? Why is your solution better than the rest? Will the market pay more for the solution than it costs you?

Q What was your best business decision?

A Realising that in 2015 I owned 100% of a good idea and 0% of something commercially viable. I sought investment which brought considerable skills and experience, hired an exceptional team and collaboratively we grew my idea into a business.

Q What are your hobbies/interests?

A The things most families do - walks, cinema, out for something to eat and quite competitive football matches in the front garden.

Q If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?

A I have realised the massive influence of my father who was an exceptional salesperson demonstrating honesty, integrity and hard work. Maybe if I wasn't doing what I do I would now I might be working in sales for an innovative tech company.

Q What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A Last year we went to Spain and this year we're off to Italy with family friends which will be a well deserved break after Digital DNA in June.

Q What is your favourite sport and team?

A I'm a Manchester United fan and enjoy watching and supporting both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.

Q How would you describe your early life?

AI was very privileged to have been brought up in a very loving and caring family with parents that wanted the best for me and my two sisters. I had a happy, stress free upbringing.

Q Have you any economic predictions?

A In the middle of this Brexit madness, a couple of weeks before a Westminster election, the silliness at Stormont, Trump being Trump - are you wise? We are obviously in a very uncertain time... (but) I firmly believe that if we make the most of our relationships with both the UK and RoI we can create significant opportunity and capitalise on what we are already very good at.

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