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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 24 November 2020

'The stench of GamerCon harmed us. We still get complaints about it and we weren't even involved'

Karl Walsh talks about his route from the gardaí to running Dublin Comic Con.

Karl Walsh Co-founder, Dublin Comic Con

BEFORE I SET up my businesses, I worked as a garda. Now, I’m on a career break just following my passions.

I’ve been making props and practicing sculpting as a hobby for years, always hoping that at some stage I’d make a career out of it. And now I have by running both Dublin Comic Con and a special effects company.

Prior to all this, I spent several years doing security in Dublin Airport and did a bit of time in Blanchardstown IT doing computer studies. I wanted to do multimedia and graphics in DCU when I finished school, but unfortunately it didn’t come true for me.

Then the opportunity to go into the gardaí came up in 2006. I applied, got offered a position and decided to give it a go. I loved working in the gardaí, but I knew I still wanted to do something else – run my own business.

At one stage I was actually going to open a gym. A friend of mine owned one and he said he was going to sell up, so I offered to buy it off him. Unfortunately someone else with more capital got in ahead of me.

After that, I nearly opened a café with a friend of mine. We couldn’t find the right premises and then one place came up on Dame Street. We had a look at it, but my gut told me “no”. The unit had changed hands a lot and there had probably been eight or nine cafés in and out of it. I think we made a good call there.

At that stage, we looked at doing an on-street café dock and applied for a casual trading licence. You can make a lot of money due to the low overheads, but getting the licence proved too tough.

I went through all these different things and my head was full of ideas for businesses. Then the idea for Dublin Comic Con came along and I haven’t looked back.

Karl Walsh 2 Karl Walsh (left) and Derek Cosgrave Source: Dublin Comic Con

Learning to love events

Before Dublin Comic Con, I had no background in events. I never ran an event, I never did a business management course, I never did a marketing course. All I could do was design websites and graphics.

Dublin Comic Con came about because myself and my co-founder, Derek Cosgrave, are collectors and costumers. We have a Predator costume we made – among other sci-fi costumes – and would go to charity events to provide photo ops.

People knew us on the scene for making high-quality costumes and we would go along to one or two of the anime shows that run here. We went in, looked around and said, “We don’t fit in.” We felt old. It’s a very inclusive community in Ireland, but it wasn’t our scene.

We walked away from it and thought we would love to have a New York- or San Diego-style Comic Con event here. No one was taking that chance so we decided to do it ourselves.

There were five of us at the start and we all got together to chat. We had enough costumes and props to fill a warehouse, so we thought we could do a different kind of convention.

Our event would be about interactive set building and workshops for people interested in this stuff – and if people just wanted their picture taken or to meet an actor, we’d provide that too. It would be a fun family day out that also caters to nerds.

Eventually the five people involved whittled down to two – myself and Derek. We ploughed on and kept everything in-house. I built the website, we made the sets for the show ourselves and did the floor plans, the whole works.

We found a venue a bit outside Dublin city centre in Swords – an empty box of a venue, but we made it work. It was close to all the major roads near the airport so it was accessible at least.

We sold out the first show and unfortunately had to turn people away. It was then I realised I loved doing events. I loved the planning and the event itself when you’re busy putting out a lot of fires.

Then I see families and kids so happy – that’s what I loved seeing. They might walk in with a sour face and by the end they’re having great craic. What the traders say to me is also moving.

For the first couple of years, they would come to me and say, “You’ve helped save my business. I’ve made three or four months worth of sales here.” You feel good about that.

Auditorium Pic1 Dublin Comic Con Source: Steve Wilson

Battling rivals

We spent about a year and a half planning the first event, and it was stressful. But it was fun stress. We weren’t answerable to anyone, so we could just make a call on things because so much was in-house.

It was tiring as well, but I was building towards having a dream job so I didn’t mind putting in the hours at all. I only crashed with tiredness about three or four years into it, that’s when it all hit me at once.

We’ve done a few things over the years to keep the concept fresh. We’ve expanded the size of the event every year, but now we’re limited by the space that venues can give us. So we got involved with Games eXpo to try something different.

Gaming was a growing aspect of our show, so we thought a dedicated event would work. But we were just part of that event – along with a few other people – and sponsored the Comic Con hall. 

In the build up to our event, the infamous GamerCon came about. We said to ourselves, “Let’s see what happens with that.” Unfortunately their event didn’t go well, they had to turn people who paid for tickets away and got a lot of negative PR.

After that, our options were to sit back and let the stench of GamerCon inhabit other events – like ours – or rectify it by running our own gaming event. So we jumped the gun a bit and ran a bit earlier the convention we were already planning.

We could have held off until the year after, but we thought someone else might come in from the UK, run a similar gaming event and take the lead. That’s happening a lot in the pop culture events scene.

For the first time since we ran Dublin Comic Con, we had a reduction in numbers. Even to this day, we’re still getting people messaging us to say they’re not coming because they mix us up with the people who ran GamerCon.

But we didn’t run GamerCon. We run another event in the Convention Centre, not GamerCon. We had to do a post on social media to reiterate that we were not involved with GamerCon because the association with their event was hurting us.

Although Games eXpo didn’t do well financially, we got great feedback and we won some people’s trust back. It wasn’t oversold and purposely had a lot of clear space for people to walk around. If anything, it proved we can run a gaming event.

Captain America Pic2 Source: Steve Wilson

My future

I’m about two-and-a-half years into my career break and I took that because I have two young kids. I was working over 60 hours a week and then trying to run a business on the side – so one of them had to give.

I was lucky enough that the gardaí wanted people to take career breaks at the time. Previously I was working until 2am or 3am each night, but now I’m on my own schedule.

I can spend time with my kids now and keep my businesses going, all while knowing I can go back to the gardaí. And I’d say I will go back one day.

I have another couple of years that I can use for the career break. I’ll extend it mainly because of the kids. I want to be around for them as they grow up and I like doing the pre-school runs.

For me, as much as I want to build the companies and protect what I’ve created, my kids are my priority. When the kids are older, I’ll definitely be going back to the gardaí because it’s a fun job – it’s exciting. And it’s a guaranteed pension as well.

I’ve spent 10 years of my life at the job too, so to throw all that away wouldn’t be good. The time to go back needs to be right though. The kids need to be more grown up and I want to pass the reins over in the business properly.

That doesn’t mean I’d sell my stake in Dublin Comic Con or Arachnid FX. I’m building up a nice team around me, which will allow me to just manage it or be a source of advice to whoever takes it on.

I’d be very hard pressed to sell on Dublin Comic Con. It’s very personal to me and I don’t want to see someone buy it just to turn it into a cookie cutter.

Karl Walsh is the co-founder of Comic Con – Ireland’s Dublin Comic Con and Arachnid FX. This piece was written in conversation with Killian Woods.

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Written by Karl Walsh and posted on Fora.ie

About the author:

Karl Walsh  / Co-founder, Dublin Comic Con

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