This blog first appeared on Medium.com
This is a story about a life and a career.
My life, my career.
Hi, I’m Shane, and this is my first personal post on Medium.
I remember, 10 or 12 years ago, talking with a friend about our individual daily grind. He had what you might call a laissez-faire attitude to career — he was driven, no doubt, but he didn’t really mind which direction in which it took him. He had — has! — ideas growing out of his ears. Scarcely a week goes by without some new concept grabbing his attention. Often it flounders within days; very occasionally it takes root and becomes something on the road to great.
Me, I’ve always been much more circumspect. Cautious. I’ve been guilty of, as one particularly Irish saying goes, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. There was a time when I saw every outlay as a cost, not an investment.
That invidious mindset permeated every facet of my life. Routinely I would notice, dwell upon, half a dozen things that were wrong before I had even made it downstairs for breakfast.
The voice was a permanent presence.
- “The leak in the shower extractor fan is getting worse.”
- “Why didn’t you get up when the alarm went off the first time? Now you’re already behind.”
- “You see that gap in the tile in the corner of the bathroom? It’s going to cause problems if you don’t do something about it.”
- “You should go for a run.”
- “You should boot up the computer right now — you’ve already lost time.”
- “What age are you now? If you don’t succeed in the next two months it’s going to get harder and harder for you.”
It never stopped, never went away.
At different times it eased, but it was always there.
I’ve played Gaelic football since I was 12, for more than a quarter of a century. I’m a goalkeeper. It can be a thankless position — if you make a mistake it’s rare that someone gets you out of the shit.
When I stood in that square I felt at home. In control. I talked and hollered and roared. Occasionally it went wrong, as things always do, but in general while the ball was anywhere in my sphere I was content. Sport at any serious level —and it must be said that the seriousness can bear little relation to the standard — is meditation in motion. But when there was no motion — before the game, perhaps, or when the play was at the other end of the field — The Voice would never be far away, fixating always upon the area of doubt.
- “You don’t want a high ball to drop short.”
- “You’re getting old — you can’t get off the ground like you used to.”
- “You’re going to cost your teammates this game, you know that?”
But when in motion it was never there. The football field was the place I felt most comfortable, where the proper demons couldn’t get me.
Elsewhere, though, they could really take a grip.
“As cottage industry as media got”
Almost seven years ago now, I was editor of an Irish football website that had hit its peak around 2006. I had coded (Classic-ASP-DIY-style), designed (very rudimentary) and written all the content for the site, which went live in 2002, just in time for the World Cup in Korea and Japan. That was a strange and wonderful time to be launching a brand new football site in Ireland — Roy Keane and his Ireland teammates were just arriving in Saipan for a pre-tournament camp and were about to cause the biggest schism in the history of the sport in Ireland.
The website was as cottage industry as media got: we had no budget for design, none for development, none for commissioning content. Marketing? Forget about it.
Neither did we have free content distribution systems so integral to digital media in 2016. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not yet exist. Neither did Google Analytics. “Social media” was our (self-built!) bulletin board. I remember buying the .com domain name over the phone at the end of a lengthy conversation. Imagine!
Early in 2010, after another great Irish football controversy (courtesy of Thierry Henry’s hand) had ended our hopes of reaching a first World Cup since 2002 and with it spelled the end for a website desperate for the attention boost that might have given it an advertising lifeline, I landed a job on the desk of JOE.ie (the capital letters were part of the brand; we had deep discussions about this).
And while I wouldn’t have known a line of PHP if it had bitten me on the arse, my exposure to code helped to build a friendship with the affable, a-little-strange French programmer who was responsible for programming, from scratch, our entire CMS.
I first met Niall McGarry in February of that year. He insisted he had been a regular reader of my football site — meeting a reader! in the flesh! — and I was the third staffer to join the desk. (Much later he reflected on my interview and told me that the only way I wasn’t getting the job was if I came in and shat on the boardroom table. Hearing a boss speak this way a massive eye-opener for me.)
McGarry has risen to national prominence over those seven years. I remember the day we introduced him to Twitter. Initially a reluctant tweeter, he quickly mastered it, instantaneous feedback and rapidly growing followership giving him nourishment in his pocket 24 hours a day (the iPhone was still just three or four years old but already well down the road to changing everything about the way everyone does everything).
While our characters were wildly different, we got on well. He saw me, I think, as this strange individual who didn’t enjoy nights out or spending time in groups of lads (itself an oddity in a team working on a website aimed squarely at Irish men), but who could point his fledgling business in exactly the right direction to help it work.
To most people, the business was crazy. A number of online content “businesses” had started up between 2007 and 2010, quickly gaining traction as the earliest waves of the social media revolution broke upon the shores of human behaviour. Several of them sneered openly at the pretentiousness of this upstart based out of the west of Ireland. JOE was aimed squarely, unashamedly, at Irish men in their 20s and 30s (or “the 18–44 demographic” in ad-agency-talk). We deigned to cover hurling as easily as tech as easily as style. It didn’t always work, often it didn’t work at all, but it was out there walking its occasionally ungainly walk while others were talking their talk.
We were an easy target. “Begrudgery” may well be an exclusively Irish phenomenon, but in those early days we ticked way more boxes than the minimum required to be “begrudged”: we “had airs”, as our grannies used to say. We (or Niall, mostly) approached things with a sort of bald and crazed ambition. We were busily building a publishing brand that consumer brands might take seriously. Early client meetings invariably opened with the welcome of “How long did it take you to come from Galway?” We were outsiders in every possible way.
The business was crazy because only crazy people did this in Ireland in 2010. It was crazy because it was being bankrolled not by angel investors or venture capitalists but by the profits of a west of Ireland-focused, medium-sized web design and marketing business McGarry had built from scratch. Those profits were fine, but enough to foot the bill for the long, hard road to build a media brand in an already (it seemed) overfull media landscape in a small country on the edge of the Atlantic? Not likely.
People looked at what we were doing, openly admired McGarry’s bravado and counted the days until we went out of business.
And for virtually anyone else, going out of business would have been a certainty. Try to gain ad money on a new media platform with a tiny audience. In those early days, cashflow was so uncertain that we never knew when we might get paid. (We always were, in the end, we just didn’t know when — which was still a lot better than a lot of the country, who were either queuing at the dole office or heading abroad in search of work…)
Promoted to editor of JOE in April 2011, I was given a brief that was, in all respects, brief: (1) grow JOE’s audience; (2) do it fast.
At this stage the site had been live for a year, but heady early aspirations of having a suite of corporate sponsors for every section of the site turned out to be almost comically misplaced. The vision was too new for most agencies, who were still, if they gave digital much thought at all, locked into a world of display ads. Branded content partnerships were not on the radar of many in the game, but McGarry was ahead of the curve. He saw the explosive potential in branded content — it was a year or two before this became known globally as “native advertising”, a term he hated. Native advertising is still advertising and as Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg character in the movie The Social Network said, “advertising is not cool”.
Branded content, on the other hand, opened all sorts of doors: it was much closer to product placement than traditional advertising, theoretically creating great content that enhances rather than interrupts the user’s experience. Later, a Netflix arrangement with the New York Times and Purina’s thing-of-beauty catfood story “Dear Kitten” by BuzzFeed were held up as the gold standard, and we were reaching for it.
But all that was to come: in 2011, as we moved from west of the Shannon to leafy Dublin 2, people were beginning to take us seriously. Tasked with growing audience quickly, I foraged about in Google Analytics — data is the most important voice in every 21st century media room, after all — in search of patterns in stories that spiked.
Armed with the info — which took maybe two hours to find — I implemented a shift in content strategy away from lengthy articles that were (1) labour-intensive, (2) traditionally-minded, (3) economically-unsound and (4) most importantly, completely unwanted, in favour of quicker, snappier, Ireland-centric stories that often had an element of user-generation about them. It yielded sensational results. Publishing 8–12 times a day was not what most young journalists dream about, but the game was cut-throat — to bring in revenue we needed an audience, and to bring in an audience we needed stories that spiked, and we needed them every day.
From a dozen or so pieces per day in the supposedly tried-and-tested news-plus-features model we were suddenly hitting “Publish” on 50–60 pieces every day that all aimed to tick two boxes:
- Is this interesting to a lot of young Irish men?
- Will they want to share it with their friends?
At the same time a revolution was happening in online behaviours. From a virtual non-entity three or four years previously, Facebook was suddenly becoming indispensable. The JOE community grew lavishly in the space of six key months in 2011–12 (and organically too; it was a long time before a cent was spent on advertising).
Still, whether it was the uncertainty of being part of an early stage media/tech start-up, whether it was because I was overseeing the generation of reams of stories I myself would never actively seek out, whether it was a discomfort with the outlandishness of McGarry’s vision — the great successes of day 5 invariably becoming the baseline for day 10 — The Voice was never far away, and with it seismic effects on my physical and mental wellbeing.
Most days as I headed into the office, first in a business park in Oranmore, Co Galway, later in Merrion Square in the centre of Dublin city, I fought the urge to run.
- “You can’t do this. You can’t do this. You can’t do this.”
- “You’re in charge! Ha! How laughable!”
- “You know they’re going to see through you soon, right?”
Eventually, after a couple of false starts and a couple of years of hiding myself in front of everyone, I ran.
My personal brand of fatalism was rubbing off on my team. I had had enough of walking aimlessly around a park avoiding my desk, enough of working on things I didn’t believe in, enough of sobbing uncontrollably in an array of toilet cubicles. (Starbucks in Blanchardstown was a particular favourite.)
Itmay sound stupid, but I only recognise that as depression now, six years and two diagnoses later. One psychologist put me on the severe end of the scale after a €90 an hour session of listening. A second, a year or so later, placed me at moderate, to which I reacted particularly badly. “How dare she describe me as moderate? Haven’t I already been diagnosed as severe?” The unmistakable subtext was “Why can’t she just leave me alone so that I can wallow in my severe depression?”
Which brings me to the end of 2016, and another career in another media-leaning, rapidly growing tech startup, and eventually to Gary Vaynerchuk.
I knew the guys behind Square1 for a couple of years, having worked with them indirectly as they built the rock-solid foundations for the Maximum Media suite of sites. When an opening came up, seemingly at just the right time, I jumped at it. They brought a deep skillset in building the most robust high-traffic websites in Ireland, which fed into their media-focused Publisher Plus ecosystem. I brought a knowledge of the challenges and desires facing the publisher. It seemed like a perfect match.
I recognised the symptoms within a month. My success in the role was directly proportionate, I felt, to the success of a number of online media companies. But they were media companies whose content I was not just indifferent to. I found, to my surprise — because the client list was known to me in advance — that I was actually hostile to some of them. I would have to spend my days helping people to succeed whose business models I strongly disliked.
This time I was aware of what those symptoms were, what they could do to me, what needed to be done to prevent them wreaking havoc on me again.
I had to get out, and I did. Within seconds of leaving that office, I was more content, more convinced than ever of the skills I possess and those I don’t, and choosing to focus on what I am rather than what I am not. At around this time I discovered Vaynerchuk, the single most visionary mind in the business world as many of us sleepwalk into 2017.
Gary Vee has wowed conference audiences all over the world with his expletive-laden keynote talks. With the urgency with which he is making hay in this once-a-century industrial revolution, he is no respecter of the media dinosaurs that stand in his way.
I recognised so much of what he says. Niall McGarry was saying many of the same things in 2010 and 2011. Back then, a lot of people thought he was a bluffer. Me, struggling to see any hope through the permanent haze of depression, I could see no path that I could navigate in order to implement the breadth of his vision.
I’m proud to have worked alongside Niall McGarry, no matter how much I hated a lot of those days at the time. I suspect it must be similar for a few of those who find themselves at the centre of the hurricane that is Vaynerchuk’s rapidly expanding VaynerMedia right now.
There’s a clip in a recent episode of his DailyVee vlogs, where Vaynerchuk says to some members of his team, including his personal and permanent videographer, “Do you know how amazing this is going to be to look back on?”
I look back, and that’s the way I feel. But more than that, because I know now that this big D will not go away but that by doing the right things I can keep it under control, I look to the future and for the first time ever in my adult life I feel the same way.
It starts with talking
For years, the vision, energy and urgency of others brought out the worst in me. I first spoke openly about my depression and its effects on me in October 2016. It’s the best thing I ever did. Now, after more than 15 years when this illness did its worst on every facet of my life, taking the enjoyment out of every single day, through honest conversation, without a doubt the most powerful drug I’ve ever known, I’ve finally found my own vision, my own energy, my own urgency.
I’m doing my best to make up for lost time. Not only do I look back and think how amazing it was, I look forward and think how amazing it can be. Everywhere I look I see possibilities not pitfalls now.
I have found a niche as a freelancer, helping businesses, nonprofits, startups, entrepreneurs, individuals leverage digital to help them achieve their goals. I find that I when it comes to doing anything in a digital world, I instinctively know a way. The way always revolves around the stories we tell, and knowing how to read the data so that our next story is told better, presented better, promoted better, measured better. And repeat.
We are riding the crest of a wave of global, free communications which makes everything possible once the stories are good. Gary Vee’s “everything is possible, you just need to work fucking hard” mantra is my constant companion.
There was a time when I looked to the future and wilted. Now I see how I can make maximum impact. Now I see the value in everything just as easily as the cost.
And my future will be my own form of amazing: with a beautiful, gifted wife and two incredible children, with vision, with urgency, with honesty, with integrity, with doing things because they’re worth doing and doing nothing only for money, and with darkness always around the edges but never again in the centre.
Thanks for reading.