Niall Harbison’s life journey reads more like a movie screenplay.
It’s a story that has it all: success, glamour, wealth, addiction, trauma – and dogs!
Particularly dogs. In fact, it could be said that it is his love of dogs that saved his life.Rewind to Niall’s early days in Ireland, and it’s quite a different story. Driven by dreams of success and money, Niall embarked on a career as a Chef, never realising where this journey would take him.
“I was a chef in normal restaurants and MIchelin Star venues. I even cooked in Australia for nine months, in Melbourne and on the Queensland coast,” Niall said.
“I stumbled into working on yachts as I wanted some adventure and soon worked my way up to bigger and bigger yachts.”
Depression and anxiety
Originally from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, Niall found himself travelling the world, surrounded by wealth.
This included a private cheffing job on a huge yacht belonging to Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Along with its swimming pool, two helipads, cinema, and even a submarine, the yacht included a recording studio used by Mick Jagger and U2!
Sadly, however, this amazing dream turned into a nightmare for Niall, who was already struggling with depression and anxiety.
“Being a chef is a horrendous career choice if you have drinking issues,” he said. “It’s an industry that has so much drinking involved because of the late hours and high pressure.”
But the lifestyle did give Niall plenty of time to think about the future and his next move.
“I had lots of spare time on yachts as the owner would often not be on board, so I could research and play around online. This was the early days of video and social media, and I just fully embraced it. I was very early to the space and had a huge passion for it.”
Returning to dry land, Niall co-founded his first business, Simply Zesty, from his spare room.
“Simply Zesty was a digital media agency for brands. We essentially helped big banks, telecom companies and alcohol brands navigate the early days of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.”
Million dollar sale
The business quickly grew to 50 employees in three countries – which Niall says was mostly due to good timing.
Niall exited the business in 2012, selling to major player UTV Media for millions!
It wasn’t long before Niall co-founded his next venture, Lovin Dublin – a digital media platform promoting food, drink, and lifestyle in the Irish capital.
“It was a big success, as it took a new approach to curating information in cities and rode the early days of Instagram,” said Niall.
As successful as the business was, Niall still wasn’t where he was meant to be. He sold his share of Lovin Dublin and headed to Thailand.
Heavy drinking and Valium
“I moved to Thailand as I wanted to escape the bad weather in Ireland and work on my health. I have depression and anxiety and that really helped at the start.
“But with so much free time, savings to live on and nobody to watch over me, I quickly slipped into heavy drinking and taking Valium,” he said.
What happened next was both terrifying and lifechanging.
“It was the culmination of 25 years of not dealing with some personal issues from my youth. I’d always been an alcoholic but had been able to function. This time, I went on the mother of all benders for six weeks, drinking whiskey from 6am and self-medicating with lots of Valium.
“I ended up in a very bad way in ICU and nearly died. Its then that I said, if I do survive this, I need to do something meaningful with my life.”
Winning the lottery
Niall was living in Koh Samui, usually a busy and popular tourist location. However, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, the number of visitors dropped dramatically. It was then that Niall started feeding the local street dogs.
For this former chef and digital media entrepreneur, this was exactly what he needed to feed his soul.
He said more and more dogs turned up to be fed every day, as he travelled around the island on his moped. As they got to recognise the sound of the engine, the dogs would run to greet Niall which, he says, was like winning the lottery every day!
From feeding one stray dog, Niall once again founded a successful enterprise – except this time, the winners are man’s best friend!
Solving a global problem
Realising that street dogs needed much more than just food – such as veterinary care and, most important, sterilisation – Niall founded Happy Doggo – and is now on a mission to solve the global street dog problem.
Initially, Niall funded all the rescues himself, from his savings and investments. But with the formation of Happy Doggo, he and his team work hard to raise the funds they need. And it’s hard work.
“I’ve always been hard working, be it as a chef, in business or now with the dogs. It’s always a bit of all or nothing with me,” he said.
“The biggest difference though is, like most people, it used to be for personal gain or to advance my career or buy nice things. Now it’s a vocation, and I just do it to help the dogs – which is 100 times more rewarding.
“I’ve literally got nothing to focus on apart from the dogs. There are a lot of logistics and hard things to plan, and it is every bit as hard as previous things I’ve done in my life.
“There are dog bites, long hours, stressful situations and a bunch of other challenges – but the difference is this is now my life making a huge difference to many creatures, so I love every single second.”
Just as in business, Niall has set himself some very big goals.
“My top line mission is to decrease the number of street dogs in the world by 50%. There are 500 million of them in the world, so I’ll have to reduce that by 250 million. This will take me my entire life, but it is something I am very determined to do.”
There is no doubt Niall is making a major difference, saving so many innocent lives. But it would also be fair to say, that the dogs he cares for have actually saved his life.
If you would like to help Niall achieve his goal, check out www.happydoggo.com – where you can read all about the foundation and donate.
Niall Harbison has published two books – both are available through Amazon.
The first – ‘Get Sh*t Done: From spare room to boardroom in 1,000 days’ – is an inspiring guide to succeeding in business.
The second is ‘Hope – How Street Dogs Taught Me the Meaning of Life: Featuring Rodney, McMuffin and King Whacker’