Sunday 17 December 2017

The homeless man turned hi-tech tycoon

Text entrepreneur Mark Hurley tells Tom Prendeville how he brought himself back from total calamity

Tom Prendeville

MARK Hurley ran a successful horticultural business building greenhouses until catastrophe struck in 2008 when all his orders dried up overnight.

Within the space of four weeks he went from relative wealth to abject poverty and ended up living homeless in an abandoned half-built ghost house near Termonfeckin, Co Louth.

In a cautionary tale of riches to rags and prosperity once again, Mark Hurley tells how he picked himself up from the bombed-out wreckage of his life and successfully reinvented himself as a tech entrepreneur.

Recalling those dark days, he says: "All was well until January 2008 when suddenly my phone just stopped ringing. It was like Eircom had suddenly switched off my phone. The market for my greenhouse products didn't contract, it collapsed. And I had to let the staff go because I couldn't pay them – it was a very frightening place.

"I found myself in a spiral and within the space of four weeks I lost my family, I lost my home, I lost my company, my car and any money I had. I was left with literally nothing. I only had €40 in my pocket and nowhere to go. I was literally in a daze; it was a very low place to be."

Readjusting to the life of a homeless man, his lot was made worse by the fact that some days he had nothing to eat because – as a formerly self-employed businessman – he was not entitled to any social welfare money.

"There were days on end when I wouldn't have spoken to a single human being – out of shame. I used to heat water with candles under a pot at 5.30 in the morning and it would be hot by 7am, so every day when I went out I was clean.

"I remember my darkest day; I had to ring my ex-partner about collecting the children and I forced myself to pretend that I was ill as I couldn't face collecting my kids. In truth, I did not have food to feed them or petrol in the car to collect them."

Distraught and with dark thoughts swirling around his mind, he went out on to Termonfeckin beach.

"The beach was empty; there was no one there except me. I was thinking, 'What sort of person am I? I can't even feed my own children.' I hated myself. I walked into the water and I had no intention that day of ever coming back."

Incredibly, a change came over him and thoughts of his mother and family and his brother who had died flooded his mind. He started to walk away from the water, then jog and run until he fell over.

"I remember this vividly. It was as if I was running away from the previous position I was in. I thought, 'If I did it before, I can do it again. I had the realisation – that it's not until you have lost absolutely everything that you are in fact free to do anything."

Days later he wrote down where he would like to go in life and what he would like to achieve. "It was a huge goal and I knew I would have to grow into the type of person who could achieve it. I then began to live as if I'd already achieved the goal," he says.

Over the course of the next year he went to the library every day, as much to keep warm as to research everything he possibly could about computer systems and the world of online business. He wanted to know "where all the money was converging" and concluded that there was "no recession online'.'

Mark Hurley discovered via his research that one billion text messages are sent every month, 97 per cent of which are read within three minutes.

His novel business idea was a communications tool based on text messaging that allowed business owners to get to their customers quickly and cheaply outside the clutter of regular phone call traffic.

In the meantime, he secured €100 a week from social welfare and later the full payment of €188.

"One day I walked into an accountancy practice in Drogheda and told them that I was going to form a new company."

The meeting changed his life: they introduced him to a course – the Discovery Zone – run by the Louth Enterprise Board. He then approached Enterprise Ireland, which put him on the New Frontiers Programme for businesses with major export potential.

The programme came with a €15,000 stipend which enabled Mark to move into regular accommodation with electricity and hot and cold running water.

Although he still had a pre-crash overdraft legacy debt of €70,000, his name was still good in business circles. "I owed some money on an overdraft, but my philosophy was to always pay your suppliers because you may need to trade with them again," explains Mark.

He secured three business angels who have invested €90,000 in hard cash and sweat equity in the form of the necessary software programmers to make his concept a reality. In June, Mudge was launched.

"A full five years after my personal crash, I have a warm, safe and secure home. I have a brand new company and a brilliant team around me. I have my children back in my life too.

"I still haven't achieved my goal, but every day I am a little closer to it. My personal goal visualised on the beach that lonely Sunday afternoon was that from being on the floor and almost down and out, I would once again be on top of the world."

Sunday Independent

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