Like many millionaires, Niall Harbison didn’t do well at school.
The 34-year-old Irishman, who failed the same year three times and left school at 17, is quick to point out that Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga all succeeded without university.
But when Harbison left school, he had no plans of becoming an entrepreneurial millionaire. His father insisted that he learn a trade and so Harbison became a chef, working his way up the restaurant ladder.
Even within the kitchen, he felt trapped. “I quickly realised that being a chef is a particularly tough job. It’s really hot, you never see the outside world, there’s a lot of pressure,” he says.
So Harbison moved out of Michelin-starred restaurants and on to yachts, cooking for Bill Gates, Paris Hilton, U2 – “basically anyone who’s been at the Cannes film festival".
After travelling the world and acquiring a taste for a luxurious lifestyle, he built his first business, a cookery tutorial website, in 2007.
That business failed, but he went on to build Simply Zesty, a social media marketing company that helped brands create viral campaigns. One thousand days after he founded the company, Simply Zesty was bought by UTV for £1.8 million ($3.27 million) in 2012.
Harbison has now published a book, Get Sh*t Done, with some of the key lessons he’s learnt. Here are his 12 key tips to follow in his footsteps.
Ignore conventional routes
We’re always told we need to follow the set path in order to succeed, but Harbison says that isn’t the case: school and university needn’t be the right choice for everyone. “It’s important socially and helps you figure out what you want to do next in life, but there are other options," he says. Instead, every time a choice presents itself that involves a risk, you should take it - think unconventionally and be more spontaneous. “Everybody’s got this world mapped out for you where you finish school and college, go into the working world, have a family and get a mortgage. I say just flip that around, travel, or open something when you’re stuck in a dead end job,” he says.
Failure is an option - and a good one
After his first business, iFoods, failed, Harbison says he was embarrassed to face his family and friends. But the experience, he says, “was like an MBA in college. It teaches everything you need to know.” Basketbasll star Michael Jordan - who has missed the game-winning shot 26 times and lost 300 games - is his prime example of why failure leads to success.
Get married later
“Once you start to get mortgages and a family, it’s definitely harder," says Harbison, who aims to get married at the age of 40.
In his book, Harbison says, every night he asks himself: “If today was my last day on earth, would I be happy with what I have achieved so far?” The answer's not always yes, but it's a strong motivator.
Announce goals in public
Before publishing his book, Harbison says he announced his goals on Twitter. “I am publishing a book, it will be in shops in nine months and it will be a bestseller,” he wrote. The public expectation spurred him to succeed.
Go old school
After losing three big clients in three days, Harbison hand-wrote 30 letters to his existing clients, updating them on the company and thanking them for their business. Simply Zesty didn’t lose another client for a year. “I’m currently writing 200 personal notes to go into books for certain people,” he says.
Harbison writes in his book that “you can’t come to the table thinking, ‘I am going to screw these guys and get everything I want'.” You have to have a good relationship with the people you do business with, he says, so be prepared to compromise.
Leave it to the last minute
Christmas Eve is the best day for shopping; you should book flights depending on the cheapest deal on the day; and never book hotels online - simply arrive at the hotel where you want to sleep, and say a competitor offered you a room for less. The worst case scenario, he writes, is that you have to stay up all night.
Don’t spend money on tea or coffee
It can add up to thousands fo dollars per year. And be careful with all your spending, Harbison cautions. He tells the story of one multi-billionaire who spent the equivalent of an average year’s salary on expensive champagne - which he mixed with Red Bull - but still didn’t have fun that night. Some things just aren’t worth the money.
Sell, brand and code
Sales pitches will be rejected nine out of 10 times, but are essential. The brand is one of the most important elements of a company - but don’t be a slave to feedback, focus on your own vision. And coding is the new Latin, Harbison writes: you absolutely must learn.
Put down the smartphone
You’ll be more productive in meetings if you focus on what people are saying instead of checking your emails. And Facebook can invade your life and waste time - it might be worth deactivating your account.
Don’t worry about the money
Money isn’t necessarily the best metric for success, Harbison says. You should focus on what you want to get out of life and pursue it. For example, if you’re a lawyer and want to open a café, you should work evening shifts, learn about cooking, or start a food blog. “A lot of people don’t end up actually following their dreams and are risk-averse. Someone might want to open a cafe but they spend their whole life as a lawyer without actually loving what they do,” he says. “It’s just really about taking action and doing something about your dreams and admitting them to yourself.”
Additional reporting by Shahid Mahdi
Get Sh*t Done by Niall Harbison is published by Penguin.
The Telegraph, London