I’m actually heading off to the Arctic Circle for seven days, we’ll literally be hundreds of miles from the nearest city and a significant number of miles from the next person.
Gearòid is the Head of Design & Growth at Hassle.com, we met a few years back when we were both working at startups based in the Techspace offices. I sat down with him one evening at Hassle to talk about growing up in Ireland, education, getting into tech and everyone’s favourite event - Design+Banter.
Hey! So, where did you grow up and how similar or far removed was it from living in London?
I grew up outside of a small seaside town in Ireland, called Kinsale. It’s set in beautiful countryside, a really amazing place. There’s about 5000 people normally, then in the summer time it’s like 10000 people. A lot of people go there for the summer and then during the winter time it’s a little bit grim. It sits on the Atlantic ocean and is a wind and rain lashed kind of place. It’s funny, it has an incredibly good gourmet scene and a really great annual jazz festival and then basically nothing else.
It always felt a little small, I love going back there now, I appreciate it more now I’m a little bit older, but at the time when you’re a teenager in a small seaside town - with nothing to do - it’s a little bit frustrating. There’s no anonymity whatsoever. Then you take somewhere like London, where you can have total anonymity if you want it, it can be quite liberating and lets you pursue goals and ambitions that people at home might perceive to be beyond your limitations. I think it’s the main reason people move from small towns to big cities, to get beyond the limitations of what you can do in that place. I really like it there though, I go back there frequently enough to keep in touch, it’s a very beautiful place.
You have that drive to get back to nature then?
Yeah, I went through a phase when I first moved to London of loving all things urban, when I travelled I’d always visit other cities. But in the last couple of years I’ve realised that there’s a bit missing from my life when I don’t get back to nature, which sounds incredibly pretentious, but it’s just where I’m from. ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ Two years ago I went away with a very good friend of mine Martin, who’s also a designer, to the Aran Islands off the West coast of Ireland for a week, no phones, no internet, we had rules about it and you just decompress, you feel all your muscles relaxing and you can switch off. Then when you get back into King's Cross, London hits you and you realize how intense it all is.
I’m actually heading off soon to the Arctic Circle on a hiking holiday for seven days, we’ll literally be thousands of miles from the nearest city and a significant amount of miles from the next person. There’s something very exciting about that.
The Arctic Circle sounds pretty daunting, which bit are you going to?
It’s the far north of Sweden, it’s a thing called the King’s Way, or the King’s Trail, which is this historic hiking path. We’re doing a portion of that over six days, it’ll be about 15-20km a day, which isn’t really that bad, but we have to ￼￼￼￼￼￼ bring all of our own food and any supplies that we’ll need. Sweden being Sweden, there’s a trail of very well maintained cabins along the way which you can stay in, with varying degrees of comfort. The time of year we’re going, it’ll be about 20-22 hours of sunlight a day, so plenty of time for walking! It’s gonna be amazing, everyone thinks polar bears when you say Arctic Circle, but it won’t be like that and it’ll be around 10-12°C, which is just like an Irish summer really! For hiking it’s perfect.
The King’s Way by Martin McKenna
My father worked as a draftsman in a ship building yard, on big oil tankers and Irish Navy ships, not like little pleasure boats, big things.
Going back to when you were younger, were you always interested in design?
I was kinda lucky that my father worked as a draftsman in a ship building yard, on big oil tankers and Irish Navy ships, not like little pleasure boats, big things. There were always plans and drawings and models lying around the house, which was really cool and I probably under appreciated it when I was a child. I had this “toy”, it was like this schema for one of the Irish Navy ships that they produce when they launch it and all of these little cut aways for the guns and when you’re a ten year old kid, that’s the coolest thing ever. I think that permeated into my brain, seeing how things were made and that kind of schematic view of the world. ￼ At that age, my mum was very creative from a different point of view, she played a lot of traditional Irish music, she wrote poetry and was a primary school teacher, so always had arts and crafts stuff happening. That was the kind of environment I grew up in, my Dad was quite technical and then my Mum was more classically creative I suppose and that just seeps in.
You made a career out of design, but you didn’t take the design education route, what did you study at University?
I did what's described as a “broad entry course” at Trinity College, Dublin. You do politics, economics, sociology, business, accounting, statistics and maths in your first year. After your first year, you choose what you want to specialize in. In the first year I got involved in the university newspaper. They basically gave everyone a title just so everyone would stay involved and work all the crazy hours it took. For the second year at university I got promoted to deputy editor. I was in charge of the entertainment magazine that went along with the newspaper.
The whole team didn’t really know anything about design —the editor Peter knew best how to use the software, but I don’t think he’d ever call himself a “designer” . Hell, I wasn't a designer either but I remember I got a book from the college library on Quark and realized I really enjoyed it. At that point, we were producing an issue of the newspaper and the magazine every two weeks so I got a lot of experience, very quickly.
It was my claim to fame. I had a front page design in the Irish Times done on Microsoft Paint. On my tombstone will be, "This guy set design back by 20 years."
I also got hired to be a layout artist for two days a week, by the Irish Times. At the time I was the youngest person there by about 20 years. I was still like 21 maybe and everyone else was around 40. They must have thought , "Who's the kid?" It was a good experience and it was great to see the work you did in people's hands walking down the street, but also to see — maybe this is a bit harsh — how bad design can be handled in a big company. As an aside to that, I really wanted to do a cover design for the magazine I was working on there. It was a business and innovation magazine andone of the articles was about teaching children to be entrepreneurs. They wouldn't give me Photoshop on my computer, but I was really determined, so I searched the PC I was assigned to and the only graphics software I had was Microsoft Paint.
I had this idea for a children's finger painting of, "I want to be an entrepreneur”. I pitched the idea to the magazine’s editor and he really, really liked it, and assumed they’d go get the Graphics Department to remake it properly from scratch. Then the magazine came out a week later and it actually used the thing I'd done in Microsoft Paint. They just printed ￼ it. So that was my claim to fame. I had a front page design in the Irish Times done on Microsoft Paint. On my tombstone will be, "This guy set design back by 20 years."
How did you get into tech and startups?
I was lucky enough that a few friends at my University started an event in Dublin and I worked with them on it for the first couple of years. That ended up becoming a thing called Web Summit, a 25,000 person tech event with a side event called F.ounders.
F.ounders gave me the opportunity to interact with a group of people that I hadn't met before. These were tech founders from all over the world. Some from London, some from Berlin, some from New York. I was actually really privileged at that event, Jack Dorsey was there from Twitter, Chad Hurley from YouTube, and Niklas Zennström from Skype. They were the big guys, but there was a whole group of other people as well who were at a much earlier stage, but doing really interesting things.
I met with these people over the space of a weekend and got incredibly inspired. They were all so passionate and doing really interesting things. I basically made the decision then that I was going to relocate. My girlfriend at the time was English and she wanted to go back to the UK, it made sense to go to London.
I ended up joining EDITD, which is a fashion data startup. I think I was employee number five or six there, super early. I probably oversold my skill set a little bit too, so I was frantically reading books on Java Script in the evenings.
There’s two things I love about working in a startup. One is the personal impact level,; the impact on the trajectory of the company that you as an individual can make. That's where as a designer, or anyone else, if you come in early enough, you have a huge impact on the success of the company. The flip side is, it's responsibility as well, which I think is important for me to have in the role I'm in. At EDITD, the work I did was very deterministic on the success of the company. That gives you a great sense of responsibility in what you're doing. It feels important, and it feels meaningful. You don't get that with client services work. Or at least I never got that. I felt like if I was working late one night, I was working late because I was going to make this company succeed.
Irish political scientists are very enamored with Ireland as an exceptional case of Western democracy, as it's different in a good many ways. One of the things they talk about is proximity to power.
Jumping back for a second, when I studied politics, Irish political scientists are very enamored with Ireland as an exceptional case of Western democracy. One of the things they talk about is proximity to power. That's why big companies like Google and Facebook like doing business in Ireland because they can pick up the phone and talk to someone very, very senior in government very, very easily. For a constituent, it's the same. You're very close to your local TD (that’s Irish for MP).
Constituencies are small, politics is local. It's like village pump politics, which has a lot of down sides, but the upside is your proximity to those running the country. I see that in startups as well. It has huge downsides, when it comes to such scale, overly familiar relationships can sometimes break down. It's like your best mate's your CEO when you're five people. When you're 300 people, maybe that doesn't work. So there are downsides, but in early stage startups that really works for me. I like being able to sit down with the CEO and figure something out.
Now that you're at Hassle.com, I know that your role has changed a bit since starting there. What is it that you do?
When I joined, I think I was employee number five or six again. My contract said Product Lead — whatever that means. When I started on day one, we were about a month out from announcing a Series A round, and we needed a whole new website - a website that looked like we just raised $6,000,000. That's what I did for my first couple of weeks, redesigned our website.
We have a small engineering team and a cross functional design team that handle design and front end. I like that, I like a design team that can implement its own designs, one that's not just making pictures. I don't buy into making pictures.
At the time, everything was burning down, the company was scaling, month on month growth was insane but the whole platform was creaking. I worked on the website first and then all of a sudden we were going to do a massive launch in Dublin. So then I was coordinating all of the outdoor media for the Dublin launch and some of the press stuff as I had relationships with some press in Ireland. Plus I was doing the all the design work, collaborating on localization for the Irish website, transactional comms and coding HTML emails. At no point had we really sat down and said, "This is my job”, which is why I like startups.
Design is the lens through which I look at most things , so certain projects felt a good fit for me because there was a design element or a process design element, but I definitely wasn't sitting in the corner in Photoshop. At a certain point I then started hiring and thinking a little bit more about what the team's role was. I wanted it to reflect the broadness of what my role had been, so I wanted a team of problem solvers. For example, one of the things I still want to go and spend time on, is the process element of when a cleaner comes in for an interview. They come ￼ into a space, they need to fill out certain forms. They need to be impressed with our professionalism and impressed by the scale of our company. There's a whole interaction there that I'd love to be as considered and as detailed as an Apple Store experience. I'd like it to imbue the values we want the cleaners to express when they go and deal with a customer. We haven't quite gotten there yet, but we will.
A beautiful aspiration to have.
Yeah, it's a thing for me when we build products for the cleaners , — everything we do should model the kind of behaviour we want them to have with their customers. When we're sloppy, we can't expect them to not be sloppy. It's process design, it's service design and then it's actually product design as well. We tried to hire a team that would be reasonably broad, so our first two hires were non-traditional design. Cai had a background as a hardware hacker, lots of installation stuff, some design as well — he has a really good view on building simple solutions.
Then Ben is a fantastic illustrator, but had actually been working more as a freelance front-end engineer. I felt like he had more to give as a designer and got him involved as well, so really it's quite a techy design team.
There came a point early this year, we weren't entirely happy with how we'd structured our marketing team. When we came to restructuring it, I remember I had a breakfast with Alex and Jules two of the founders of the company. I got an email the night before saying, "Can you meet us for breakfast outside the office at 8am tomorrow?" I was thinking, "Holy shit, shall I bring a cardboard box? What have I done?"
They said they're going to restructure that team a little bit and they wanted to bring some new people in. I started spit-balling it, like maybe we need to manage this and do that. They said, "Not quite what we were thinking. We thought you might be interested in moving into the lead role there.” It completely left fielded me. I’d never really seen myself as a marketing guy. But, I don't ever turn down a challenge and it was a super big challenge. I said a tentative yes and asked could I think about it a little bit.
I also thought that maybe some of the processes we had for agile product development could be applied to growth.
The more I thought about it the more it seemed like a really exciting thing to do. I also thought that maybe some of the processes we had for agile product development could be applied to growth. I said I'd do it and spent the first couple of weeks trying to retrofit some of the product-y stuff into that team. One of the core challenges, for example, was dealing with retention.
You can grow by retaining more customers and acquiring the same amount, you just keep more around. Lifetime value of customers became a thing as well. How long can you keep a customer longer? How long can we keep them happy and could we keep their bookings up? All those things became more about customer satisfaction not just getting new customers through the door.
Congratulations are in order, I hear Hassle has joined forces with Helpling?
When we sat down maybe 16 weeks ago or whatever, it was to think about next steps for Hassle.com. and what our vision was for the company. Where did we want to be in 12 months, 24 months and beyond. We looked at how we would get there. We had some funding offers on the table that would have put us on one trajectory and gave us the opportunity to . go and beat our European competitors., We were pursuing those actively and then we started to think about it a little and go, "Yeah but winning in Europe is not really the end goal. We could spend the next 18 months winning in Europe but the Americans will have raised another $50 million and they're going to come take our lunch money.”
I've seen this so many times in the European tech space. It's like over a course of time a European winner emerges everyone goes, "Yay." And all of a sudden the Americans come in and buy them or kill them because they've been in a much easier market where they can scale horizontally and vertically with no borders, no currency or language issues, and they can raise a lot more money. So we started talking to the Helpling guys. They had a set of skills which are about getting incredibly fast horizontal growth. In a year they went to something like 200 cities. That is deeply impressive. It completely flips the normal narrative on it's head. Normally it's the Americans that have all the money, all the talent, and all the scale and the Europeans are kind of left trying to hold out.
Let's talk a little bit about Design+Banter. How did you and Sam come to put it together?
I was thinking about this because we were going to have this chat and trying to find earliest records of it. It was an email to some people in Dublin, before I moved to the UK. I'd sent an email to about 7 people who I knew kind of well bemoaning the lack of a decent design meet-up in Dublin and suggesting something with the name Design+Banter with actually quite a different structure to what we have now. That was about a couple of weeks before I decided to move to the UK. Not entirely well timed.
Ultimately after basically two years in London of going, "I'm going to do it, not going to do it, going to do it." I just decided I was doing it.
I also should take a moment to say that at that point in Ireland, where ‘banter' had a very different meaning to what it has in the UK and it hadn't been ruined by certain TV shows here and a certain lad culture. The name is something I struggled with a lot in the last year, it would be very hard to change, it's one of those things we've invested a lot of effort into building the brand up.
Someone actually tweeted yesterday saying, "Oh I can't believe this event is called Design+Banter, what next?"
Any way after basically two years in London of going, "I'm going to do it, not going to do it, going to do it." I just decided I was doing it. I was working at a startup — in the same building as you actually at that point — and we had introduced 10% time at the company. At that point we were looking to hire another designer. I pitched to the founder of the company and said, "I want to work at an event, it's going to help me get through to the community which means I'll be able to hire better people".
At that point, an employee who hadn't been in the design team had expressed a desire to become a designer and he was starting off with us. That was Sam Willis, who ended up running the event with me. Basically that day we made a website, started an Eventbrite account and emailed a few people about speaking — you, John Gold, and Sam Morris from the Guardian — and then just started to get the word out.
The product that I was working on was a set of social promotion tools for events and one of our clients was Bloomsbury Bowling, so I reached out to them and said, "Hey guys, you use the awesome product we built. How about you help us out and give us some free bowling?" They gave us one night free in the side room to the bowling alley and then it just kind of came together from there.
Design+Banter by Joe Watts
How did you promote the event initially?
We identified key people in the design industry in London that I kind of knew or I was one connection removed from, then I personally asked them to come along. I knew that if they came along they'd probably tweet about it and bring a couple of other people along. Obviously we looked at who the were speakers going to be and we tried to get a combination of good content but also people who are well networked as well so they would bring a following. That went quite well actually, we got the word out, we sold out the first event which was really nice. We were actually slightly over subscribed. I was slightly terrified the whole thing wouldn't come off, but it did and it was just this amazing, amazing high after that first event.
At the end of the night we were still pumped and we didn't want to go home. Myself, Sam, and Charlotte and another friend of mine from Ireland, Johnny, ended up in the resident's bar at a Premier Inn in Euston, having a drink because we claimed we were staying there just because we didn't want the night to end. The whole thing had come off and when we got in the next morning, looking at Twitter, we had all these great tweets, all these people were being really, really positive and so we decided we had to do another one.
We made some decisions about short content, keeping the talks to seven minutes, keeping the atmosphere pretty light-hearted was key too. Myself and Sam have always made an effort to introduce ourselves to people at the event. To find that person who's standing on their own and go and talk to them and introduce them to people we know. The flip side is, as the events became more successful, there was a point at which they became a victim of their own success. They just got too big. The biggest one we did was the birthday party in June, a year or two ago, where we had over the course of the night north of 500 people turn up.
What other projects would you be working on, if you had more time?
I love Design+Banter to bits and I've put my heart and soul into it, but it pretty much leaves no space for any other side projects. There's been a couple of ideas I've had that I wanted to pursue, but ultimately Saturday afternoon only stretches so far.
For me the next side project I want to do is actually writing based. To go back to University, when I was doing the design stuff for newspapers, I was also writing a lot. I freelanced as a journalist in Ireland for a while, I had one front page in a national newspaper— my Mum probably still has it framed.
I really enjoy the act of writing. Not creative writing, factual writing, opinion writing. As part of the whole deal with Helpling, I had the opportunity to shape some of the internal and external comms and write some long form content to be consumed by teams at both companies. I got the opportunity to do some very considered writing about something I was very passionate about and I remember thinking , "Oh I actually really enjoy this".
So this side project is not a magazine, but I would like to treat it that way — it has an editorial line, it has a viewpoint and it’ll probably be about startups and design. That's a project I want to do.
To wrap up, I know you're a avid reader, what are you reading at the moment?
I'm reading The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's a very, very, very surreal book. It's not at all like his previous fiction. The best way to describe it, is I feel like when I'm reading it, everything is a bit fuzzy and it's very hard to get a grasp on it. It's like being in a dream.
Gearóid on Twitter: @gearoidorourke