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Virgin territory: Irish social media CEO turns ordeal into opportunity

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Around St. Patrick’s Day, when you’d expect to see the Irish all over the news, one Irishman monopolized the media, but not because of the holiday.


Internet entrepreneur David Hugh Martin, a native of Coolock, a few miles up the R107 from Dublin, became American media’s most wanted after he used his own social media platform, www.kontain.com, to give the world a first-class seat (seat 1A specifically) for an unfolding air travel nightmare.

Martin was aboard Virgin America Flight 404 on March 13, en route to New York from Los Angeles, a five-hour flight that would turn into a 15-hour ordeal. With hurricane force gusts buffeting JFK, the plane was shunted off to modest Stewart International Airport 90 miles north of the city, where it sat sequestered on the tarmac for five long hours. By most accounts the passengers were treated pretty shabbily, both by Virgin and Stewart management. Food and water were in short supply, as was, apparently, leadership and courtesy on the part of at least some of the flight crew.

Martin is the CEO of the digital production studio Fi and sister company, the “visual update” social media site Kontain (think Twitter with pictures and video updates instead of just text). Using his new Kontain iPhone app (and Virgin's free Wi-Fi service), he transmitted images of the deteriorating situation on-board in near real-time to friends, family and followers around the world.

“Virgin crew losing control of the passengers. Police now onboard here,” read one post. Next was “Virgin American staff are losing it here. Telling passengers to shut up. It’s a circus.”

Here’s his view of the ordeal, compiled on YouTube:

Picking up on his digital dispatches, Virgin reached out to Martin and eventually, in conversations with Virgin America CEO David Cush, Martin would broker a full refund and a $100 voucher for all the passengers (who eventually had been bussed to New York courtesy of JetBlue).

Once Martin’s social mediation got picked up by the New York Post, media outlets such as The Early Show, Fox News Channel, CNN (twice), Nightline and Inside Edition all angled to give him facetime. Martin sensed an opportunity.

“I wanted to be a spokesman for how social media can help in situations like this.”

Here’s a sample:

E.T. iPhone Home!

As for being that spokesperson all across American media, Martin owes it all to E.T.

“My dream as an Irish person was always to get to America—it seemed like a kind of dreamland. Growing up I used to watch things like MacGyver, Night Rider—it was a massive influence. I got this brand in my head and that brand was America,” Martin said. “My first impression of American was the film E.T. I was like seven or eight years old and I’ll never forget seeing those kids on their bikes: they had bigger hills to jump off of, their houses were bigger, their roads were wider--America just looked better.”

After studying medical science at Dublin’s Institute of Technology Tallaght, Martin shifted to study communications at Dublin’s Ballsbridge College. Taking courses next in Germany, he met his future wife and fellow student Camilla, from Sweden. Finding they shared the American dream, they started surfing the internet to find jobs that would get them to the States, perhaps on the crew of a cruise ship.

“We were denied every job we applied for…even to clean toilets,” Martin said, “But while I was surfing around, I was realizing that the internet was really kind of ugly and hard to use. I started to make my own websites to see if I could do it better. My first one was a compilation of jokes, and then I did one on conspiracy theories—an American fascination. The sites started getting ranked high on search engines and that led to more jobs.”

Having moved to his wife’s home in a provincial town north of Stockholm, they opened a modest internet café and operated the growing website design business out of the backroom. The breakthrough came when his company, Fantasy Interactive or Fi, built the Starbreeze gaming website, which won the prestigious FWA 2001 Website of the Year award. He gave his own site a big company feel, impressive enough to attract Time Warner Cable, which signed Martin to a lucrative contract.

“We talked over internet with the webcam and in the background, a bit blurred, were all these 12-year-old kids playing computer games in the café, which Time Warner took to be our office,” Martin said. “We built the site for their Roadrunner broadband service and we still work with Time Warner today.”

Fi’s client roster would later include Burton, IKEA, H&M, Joost, EA Sports, Atari, Porsche USA, MTV, Ford, Nintendo and the Swedish Government. The agency continued to win digital industry awards, 52 at last count. Fi was listed third after Apple (1st) and Pixar (2nd) on Imagine Publishing's "Most Inspiring Companies List,” with Dreamworks (4th), Amazon, Nintendo and, ironically, Virgin Atlantic also on the list. In 2006 Fi was named Sweden’s Most Successful Private Company.

Fi currently employs about 50 people (and its website www.f-i.com proclaims “WE ARE HIRING”) split between its Swedish office and its New York outpost, a sprawling two-story Tribeca loft, which opened in 2005.

Though a young man of the world, with an international business, a Swedish wife and a New York City home, Martin sees himself as very much Irish and social media as a natural communications channel for the Irish.

“The Irish may be behind a bit on technology, but they know how to use social media. I grew up with Irish radio, with talk shows like Joe Duffy’s, a kind of original social media,” Martin said. “To me the Irish have the best culture from a social perspective. They’re the best examples of human beings in the world.”

Well, no argument there!

MEDIA PINGS…I originally reached out to David Martin to Twitter, telling him I’d like to do this blog post, his tweet in reply was “I’d do anything for Ireland John, you know the way it is!” ...Here's a look at Martin's seat-mate on the flight--http://bit.ly/9PNyE3--Carrie Ann Inaba, a judge on "Dancing with the Stars"...Good websurfing here--the link to the 2010 Irish Blog Awards winners announced back on March 27: http://bit.ly/d3lqyw …Helpful media links from an interesting site--the “Irish Media Women” blog: http://bit.ly/9JsiHP. And for a great look at books about Irish natural history try http://bit.ly/coaxS4.


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