Digital Circle going independent and my thoughts on the Future

On Thursday we announced Digital Circle was going independent. . This was something that was mooted for a couple of years, decided on March 23rd this year and has been acted upon over the last month. It hasn’t been without stress, it hasn’t been without some heartache and I believe that some of these things … Continue reading “Digital Circle going independent and my thoughts on the Future”

On Thursday we announced Digital Circle was going independent. .

This was something that was mooted for a couple of years, decided on March 23rd this year and has been acted upon over the last month. It hasn’t been without stress, it hasn’t been without some heartache and I believe that some of these things will still be ahead because, in the process, I resigned from Momentum and am now working my notice. Giving up a relatively safe full-time, permanent job to go chasing the dreams of Digital Content? Crazy. But then I think it is where my heart has always been.

It’ll mean working different, it will mean being creative with how to get my bills paid (because sadly I didn’t win the lottery last month). I think it will have a little bit of personal adversity in the short term but that in the long term, it will work out. I’m not worried about that stuff because I’m committed, resourceful and extremely excited about the future.

Content and Colourful Software

Digital is all about the 1s and 0s. Digital Media is all really about media. Digital Content is all really about Content. The difference now is that we use computers to do it. The computer is the tool to make stuff, not the end in itself. I always described Digital Circle as being ‘colourful software‘. Momentum dealt with serious software and serious business, whether that be insurance companies or financial institutions, and to reflect that the software was also serious and grey. Lots of forms and spreadsheets. Whereas Digital Circle members made software all the colours of the rainbow in the forms of games and web sites. They took the design and crafting of the product seriously. They would do the right thing for a product rather than the expedient thing. Considering the time I spent at a large financial institution trying to manage a second line support team, I can say that large institutions writing grey software will always choose expedient.

I also love working with the Steering Group. They’re a loose-fit, comfortable-wear group of people whom I respect and am lucky enough to call friends. We don’t socialise together, it’s a relationship that fits because every single one of them has given hundreds of hours towards the betterment of the digital content industry in Northern Ireland. They don’t get paid and, in every case, the time they spend with Digital Circle is time spent away from their businesses. In other words, they pay heavily to contribute to Digital Circle so that you don’t have to. I couldn’t do it without them. And this extends backwards to the Digital Circle Steering Groups who have gone before. And it’s not like they even get to tell me what to do. They advise. They tell me what the industry needs and I try to provide. Their character, their principles are utterly without reproach and that’s the only way I could work with them. And they encourage me to follow what I think is right for the industry.

What I do

  • Promoting creativity in schools through trying to influence STEM agendas (and as government is now calling it a STEAM agenda, it’s working. It’s about appreciating the role of design and creativity in making really great products and services. I spend a lot of time working with W5 STEMnet and I would encourage you to. We have to rely on more than just serendipity to get our young people into skilled careers.
  • Promoting computer programming and design skills in school kids and adults through pushing Coder Dojos across Northern Ireland with the help of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. And our work isn’t stopping there. We have considered how to deliver the software and media component of the NISP CONNECT Knowledge Economy Index targets and we’re 100% committed to exceeding those targets
  • Promoting entrepreneurship in schools through working with Young Enterprise NI. Every year I volunteer to help run their Digital Masterclasses. I would encourage you to put some time in. As I say to the kids (and as was repeated yesterday by Steve Orr at the NISPCONNECT Stakeholders day), entrepreneurship is the fastest way to become independently wealthy other than crime and the lottery.
  • Promoting the digital industry through lobbying and actually just showing off how amazing you guys really are. This resulted in the first SBRI in Northern Ireland being in ‘digital’ and it paves the way for more. And that SBRI came from the incredible work that you did in helping with Code4Pizza.
  • Fighting for funding by dreaming up new contrivances that can only be delivered by the types of companies who join Digital Circle. The CIIF2 project has funded around 150 projects so far and around 100 of them are digital (that’s more than a million quid invested by government into digital companies). The ‘Games on Film’ projects we did with Northern Ireland Screen last year resulted in great projects that have spawned other new ideas, new schemes. The work we did with the Community Relations Council has again influenced outcomes in favour of our industry (and not just our registered members).
  • Providing information on events (you can add yours), jobs (you can add yours), opportunities (you know…) and showcases. We highlight opportunities that NI digital businesses can collaborate with UK and European companies and institutions. I know that not many people consider doing anything but you really should. You have to broaden your horizons.
  • And representing Northern Ireland on a global scale. Digital Circle has been invited to some of the top tables in the world, liaising with some of the top people. Our new independence should make that easier to manage, easier to deliver.
  • Expanding our membership to give us more work, not more cash. We don’t charge a membership fee because we believe that Digital Circle is a movement, not a club. We work to bring hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding and investment into companies in our sector and I don’t feel motivated to nickel-and-dime you for a few quid. I’d rather have some of your free time to help out at Coder Dojo, W5 STEMnet or Young Enterprise. I’d rather you organised events for the industry and put them on our web site. I’d rather you went on an InvestNI trade mission or hired a placement student (and paid her/him).
  • And I’m connecting people for new opportunities and contriving new opportunities almost daily. But ultimately if you don’t get involved, if you stand at the sidelines, then I can’t sell you everywhere I go. Digital Circle has, over the last five years, been ahead of the market trends. We watch closely, we encourage and we promote your business needs within government for the betterment of our industry.

I don’t just work with the Steering Group, either. I visit companies who invite me to visit and I learn from them. I feel immense pride in Northern Ireland when I see our digital media companies do their best work. Working with companies like Iglu Media, Outsider Games, Billygoat Entertainment, AirPOS, Rumble Labs, Venuebooker, Black Market Games and others and seeing their dreams and aspirations is simply breathtaking.


For contract reasons, I will be working through my previous company, Mac-Sys Ltd for a while. For the last decade they have been tirelessly serving the digital media industry in Northern Ireland as the only Apple Authorised Service Provider here. For the last five years they’ve been managing without me. They’re the go-to guys for design companies, for film companies, for web companies because most of these companies tend to own an Apple product or two. (They’re faster than that shop in Victoria Square. They’re qualified to open MacBooks. They’ve a pretty unbeatable service level agreement and have never failed to deliver on it. And yes, they do some PC stuff too). There’s a reason a heap of agencies and studios have given Mac-Sys Ltd the keys to their offices over the years and it’s entirely about trust. The team there are utterly principled in their approach to doing the right thing and not just the expedient thing. The function of an IT department is to make life easier for the end user, not the IT department. (And its worth noting that I’m proud of the pro-bono work they do with helping some primary schools get their IT provision in order. We need more IT companies to do the same). If you want to help me, hire a great IT company to help you. And for all of these reasons, if Mac-Sys Ltd are not your IT provider of choice, then a quick phone call or email can change that. I started Mac-Sys Ltd in June of 2003 after running the Northern Ireland Mac User Group for 6 years, helping Mac users in Northern Ireland for free. It would seem that June is the month for starting new things.

I’m not special, guys. People who can draw, design a web site, or write code, or design amazing games; you’re special. You have talents and skills that I can only dream about. I love working with designers and coders and artists because they’re inspiring. I’m keen to see what comes next. I’m keen to see how people can push the envelope. It’s not always about money, it’s about the eyeball economy. What have you done today which made others stop and look. What did you make today which gave someone a little feeling of delight.

Every now and then, someone writes something nice

From AirPOS on the independence of Digital Circle.

So you may or may not be aware of Digital Circle. If you’re in Northern Ireland and have even a brief flirtation with technology, start ups, film, music, entrepreneurship or sailing (don’t ask) then you’re probably in the loop. Of course the influence extends beyond our borders to the USA, UK, Ireland and other connected parts of the globe, but mostly the impact of Matt Johnston’s tireless, fearless, sometimes uncompromising and bordering on obsessive commitment to pushing things forward will have been felt in our own backyard.

And even when someone is leaving, they can bring a wry smile even when I’m so sad to see them go

Matt is doing his level best (which is pretty damned good) to change this place. Although he can still be an ass at times; patience is rewarded

I’m humbled by you all. I love this place. I’m horrified by it sometimes, but I love it. I’ve made my home here and I hope, not beyond reason, that my kids will love it too. Digital Circle being an independent entity will bring a new dimension to my work. And I’m excited to be part of it.

5 thoughts on “Digital Circle going independent and my thoughts on the Future”

  1. Matt, just hearing this news, big step, having worked with you in the past, I’m sure you will make a success of digital circle and male it a bigger success that you have in the past. My doors always open if you need a hand

  2. Matt – when did you start up a technology company or seek investment?

    I need not ask how long you have been blowing your own trumpet. Has it turned you deaf?


    1. 2003 I started my first technology-based company. While it is primarily an IT service company, they have done bespoke software development, bespoke media production and bespoke streaming solutions and services for media houses. It’s still running. I turned down an offer of investment.

      2006 I started my second. I ran it on sales before having to make a choice between running it or Digital Circle because doing both would be a conflict of interest. I chose Digital Circle. I can’t rightly be involved in a company that would compete with members for service-based businesses.

      2009 I helped two local companies get investment and turned down shares in both because again it would be a conflict of interest.

      2012 I started another company. We’re seeking investment; starting with SEIS.

      If there’s anything I can help you with, let me know.

  3. Wait, what?

    I thought the agency going independent meant you were staying in the same job, but with nothing more than a different chain of command. Sounds like this new thing is a Brand New Thing, and will be.. interesting. Good luck!

    Also, I don’t know who the heck “Gilbert” is, but he’s clearly a jerk.

Leave a Reply