Last week we had Niamh Taylor in our NI Digital Experts interview series, following our inaugural interview with Emma Gribben. Today’s interview is with someone who’s been a champion of the digital industry in NI for many years: Gareth Dunlop.
When I first started to familiarise myself with the digital scene in Northern Ireland, Gareth’s name kept popping up. Seen as one of the digital industry’s leading lights in NI, Gareth was – and is – well-known and widely respected as a digital entrepreneur and leader.
I consider myself lucky that I’ve gotten to know Gareth a bit over the years, having collaborated on a few projects as well as seeing him in action delivering his expert insights and consultancy.
Moreover, I see Gareth as a bit of a mentor, someone who’s advice I value and respect, and who has a keen insight in to the realities of building an agency-model business in the digital realm.
His UX agency Fathom is going from strength to strength, something which surprised me at first because too many people in Northern Ireland working in digital barely know what ‘UX’ means, let alone see the need for a specialised service.
But I really shouldn’t have been surprised, knowing Gareth’s experience and business acumen. I’ll let him talk about how he got in to digital, and the reasons behind founding Fathom.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how did you become so involved with it?
My year out from university (1992 / 1993 – mercy!) was in AIB in Dublin. I was fortunate to work to a boss who I got on with really well and in a very talented team. When they offered me that same position when I graduated I was only too glad to accept. That crew went on to form the web team who developed Ireland’s first online personal banking platform – 24online.ie – launched in January 1997. (To show how different times were back then, a Senior IT Manager in the bank at the time threatened to move his banking to a competitor if his account was connected to the internet in some way because of the security risk!)
That was me hooked. At the time I remember thinking that something big was happening, that the Internet could accelerate a fundamental change in how society communicates. And even though I didn’t quite know where the journey might take me, I knew if those wagons were heading West I wanted to be on them!
Contrary to many people that strive to build a business in the digital industry who come from a background in sales or marketing, you as a Computer Science graduate have a formal education that’s incredibly relevant. How do you feel your degree has given you an advantage in this business (if any)? If you could go back, would you choose to study the same subject, another subject, or skip university altogether?
Perhaps I can answer that question by letting you know my final year modules? Parallel programming, COBOL, business analysis, assembly language! Like much education it wasn’t the specifics of what I learned, but the logical way it taught me to think, that has stood by me. I wouldn’t change a thing, and perhaps like many it was my year in industry that really lit a spark about how relevant technology can be.
As an aside it also means I can speak confidently about the technical componentry of the Internet and I think that has been an advantage.
You’ve had a rich career over the years before you started Fathom, and can easily be considered one of the early flag-bearers of the digital industry in Northern Ireland. When did you decide that starting your own business was the right decision? Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur.
The Tibus experience was a remarkable one and when I came out of it at the age of 37 even then I knew that if I ever experienced a decade in my career as stimulating and fulfilling as “the Tibus years” I would count myself very fortunate. Tibus was a great cocktail of an old-school Chairman who always demanded more, a super-capable team of Directors who led the various divisions of the business and lots of great people selling, project-managing, designing, developing, hosting and connecting. I used to say Tibus was like when you used to pick football teams at school, except that one of the captains was allowed to pick 20 players before the other captain could start.
Luck is such a big part of life and therefore business, so I wanted to know if I could do it again. I came to the simple realisation that I would rather try and fail than not try and wonder. Of course, preferable to both of these was trying and succeeding!
And so Fathom was born.
Why the name ‘Fathom’?
Back in my Tibus days, Kenney and Mark and their team at HamillBosket were very generous in constantly referring their clients to Tibus for their web design and development needs, so Kenney was the first person I turned to when I set up the business to help with my name and brand.
Of all the options they provided, I really liked how Fathom had implications of depth and measurement and how that resonated with the type of agency I had hoped I would be able to build. Notwithstanding the challenges of getting an apposite domain name, it’s a brand name I’ve always liked and felt able to rally around it. Clients have often commented unsolicited that they like it too.
In Northern Ireland, User Experience design is not on many people’s radar. Many of your clients come from further afield – do you feel that basing your business in Northern Ireland gives you a competitive advantage, or does it hinder your agency’s growth?
In between Tibus and Fathom I spent just over a year and a half working for my good buddy Niall McKeown at his business Ionology. Niall spent (and continues to spend) all his waking hours thinking about strategy and I had the benefit of being the sounding board for the creative storm inside his brain. He was clear that businesses needed to be ruthless in their focus for differentiation and that unless they were hugely capitalised that they could only go mainstream via a niche “get big, get niche or get out”. So that gave me the confidence that UX should be the focus for the agency.
Our revenue is split roughly 60% Republic of Ireland, 30% Northern Ireland, 10% London, which I think is a fair reflection of our reach and the relative maturity of those marketplaces. Of course the business would find it easier to grow in London because over half of the entire UK digital marketing marketplace is there. However because we are in a niche, many of our clients understand that we need to travel to service their needs.
So I would be neutral about being in Northern Ireland. On one side, the marketplace is tiny here and we need to travel for work, on the other we are one of only two dedicated UX agencies on the island and therefore we do get the opportunity to work with large and significant organisations such as Three, Tesco Mobile, PSNI, Ordnance Survey Ireland, Ogvily, Permanent TSB, Tourism NI, Enterprise Ireland, and Independent News & Media. I think one of the reasons we get these opportunities is because we have the confidence to focus our offering in our niche.
Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?
My lovely and super-supportive family take much of my time outside of work, with my wife Lorna (whose backing has been absolute from the very start) playing the role of listener-in-chief with aplomb. When I’m not doing family things I’m feverishly staving off mid-life crises (plural not a mistake) through a series of sporting outlets including rugby refereeing, keeping fit, mountain biking and of late donning the lycra and getting on the road-bike. I am also on the Board of Christian Aid Ireland, a charity whose values and activities I believe in passionately.
Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience.
Apart from fathom.pro? There is a cracking lo-fi and paper prototyping app called Marvel, which is brilliant for getting sketched interface ideas off paper and onto a digital device for testing and validation effectively and inexpensively. Clients and those who attend our UX training courses are constantly amazed at how easy it is to use and how quickly it facilitates design validation and direction.
About Gareth Dunlop