Gareth Quinn, UU alumnus, mentor and Co-founder of sports tech company, Kairos reflects on how an alternative route through university opened a world of new and interesting opportunities.
1. Tell us a bit about your studies at Ulster
I left school just as the tech world was emerging and the internet was born, so the most obvious course for me at the time was something technology related. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the grades for the popular Computer Science course at Jordanstown but I did manage to get a place on the Computing and Information Systems course. Unfortunately, I wasn’t mature enough for the independence that came with being at university and living away from home.
Although I enjoyed the year a lot and managed to win an All-Ireland for the Gaelic Football Freshers team I failed miserably and was unable to repeat my year never mind continue my course.
With my tail firmly tucked between my legs I was determined to learn from my mistakes and turn things around. I was the first child in my family to go to university so I felt a bit of pressure to make that right. So I began a part-time HND at Jordanstown and then followed up by completing the degree part-time too. Ironically, and completely unplanned, this ended up being a much better step for me as it allowed me to work at the same time.
During my degree I worked in the Electoral Office Monday to Friday and also for a company called GEM, now Concentrix, over the weekend. So, it may have taken me six years to complete my studies, but I found that it gave me the opportunity to really focus my time wisely, grow as a person, earn money and most importantly get that really important professional experience. This combined with my part-time studies in technology gave me a really good perspective on the professional world and what hard work was.
2. You touch a lot on the benefits you gained from studying part-time. Would you recommend this option for students considering it?
Absolutely. I know sometimes the word ‘part-time’ can bring a bit of negative baggage and it’s maybe perceived as not being as good as the full-time option, but it worked really well for me. In both my degree and MBA, I was learning the theory in university and then going into the workplace week on week and getting the opportunity to apply that theory practically, which is just priceless.
3. You went on to complete a MBA- can you tell us more about this?
I completed my MBA in 2008, again part-time. Initially, my career went in a slightly unexpected direction and during my degree I took on a new role within the Electoral Office, looking after elections in north and west Belfast. After this I moved to Belfast City Hall and climbed the ladder there quite quickly, again bringing me further into the democratic and political sphere and further away from the world of technology, which I was still studying.
As well as my love of technology, I had a real passion for business. I’d even set up my own mini business during university, helping student bars and night clubs to market themselves better to students.
It was whilst working at the City Hall that I approached my boss and told him about my desire to study a business qualification. He supported me and understood the benefits it could bring, so I enrolled in the MBA course pretty daunted by what lay ahead to be honest. But I saw it as an opportunity to right the wrongs of my previous studies and I really found my calling on this course.
I loved the diversity from marketing to economics and finance to strategy and the importantly practical application of all these areas. I went from being the person who’d always just about scraped by with my studies to finishing top of the class, somewhere neither me nor my family ever thought I’d be and which still gets a laugh to this day!
The MBA was a game changer for me as it allowed me to realise that you could go on to achieve anything you want. It gave me confidence and really opened up the networking opportunity for me with my peers on the course. Through these relationships and connections and a realisation of what opportunities were out there in the business world, I got involved with the MBA Association of Ireland.
I became Chair of the Association’s Northern Ireland chapter and was on the board in Dublin, so all of this gave me so much exposure to a world outside of Belfast and a world beyond City Hall. I learned the true value of relationships and I can credit all of this to doing the MBA.
4. What was next for you?
Once I realised that business and technology were where I wanted to be, I used all of the networking and relationship experience I’d gained through the MBA, as well as my vast experience of creating events and connecting people in City Hall, to ultimately setting up my own events and media business called Digital DNA in 2013.
I set that up from scratch, not really knowing what I was doing and with no real awareness of business in terms of the financial side. The first year of the event went well and we had a couple of hundred attendees. Nobody else was really running tech events like this. It went from strength to strength where I was able to leave my role at City Hall, hire a team and earn an income from it, eventually acquiring funding for it too.
There were a lot of ups and downs along the way and some amazing opportunities that I would never have been able to do when working within the confines of public sector. But eventually I was ready to leave the events and media side of business behind, so I took more of a back seat hiring a someone who could bring the business on from where I had taken it. This allowed me to work in a consultancy capacity for a number of businesses over a few years, learning a lot.
Then in 2019 I sold Digital DNA to the Business Post Media Group and as I continue to be involved in a small capacity it’s been great to see how the event has continued to develop under the new owners.
During this time there was a pretty important moment in my life when I had been invited to join the Board of the Ireland Funds’ NI Chapter. It was through that board that I met my current business partner, Andrew Trimble who played rugby for Ulster and Ireland. He approached me, given my technology background as he was keen to explore how Ulster Rugby and other elite teams could communicate better with players in one simple platform.
At the time, all the elite teams were using WhatsApp groups, whiteboards, emails, etc and it was all a bit chaotic. After a lot of market research and exploring what these elite sports teams really needed, Kairos was born. Kairos is a communications and operations platform for elite sports teams and I’m really lucky that my involvement with Andrew and role as Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer of the company has allowed me to combine all of my passions: business, technology and sport.
Since we launched in 2021 we now have over 150 teams across 7 sports in 11 countries including my boyhood club of Manchester United FC and their bitter rivals Liverpool FC. We have an amazing team which has allowed us to create a top-class platform and grow the company the way we have.
5. What advice would you give to new graduates today?
Firstly, don’t overcomplicate things and get perspective beyond your bubble, whether that be your hometown, your part-time job or whatever is our norm. Find a reason to engage with people that you can learn from and get energy from and fun doing it. Secondly, don’t underestimate the value of networks, relationships and utilising.
I can still remember my first mentor and all those who I have engaged throughout my career. It is these individuals who have given the most learning, insight and direction. Don’t be afraid to reach out, take the risk and connect with people no matter how off limits you think they may be.
6. What are you favourite memories from your time at UU?
One thing that stands out for me was meeting new people. I come from a small village in South Down and I came to Belfast with a few school friends but it was the first time I’d been anywhere with so many new people. There were a few real characters, many of whom I don’t see any more but some who I’d still be in touch with every now and again and of course with social media its easy to stay connected.
We had such good craic and banter at the time and I’d never have had the opportunity to meet all these great people if I’d just stayed in my own little bubble and not moved beyond that.