SUCCESS: Former Coffs resident Joe McCord and his young family.
SUCCESS: Former Coffs resident Joe McCord and his young family. AAP Image/Richard Walker

How a homeless youth became a leading digital guru

COFFS ex-pat Joe McCord's story begins with hardship: a childhood marred by drug abuse, violence and homelessness.

But skip to the age of 32 and the former Orara High student's days of crippling addiction, hospital visits and couch-surfing are behind him.

Even though he never finished high school, he's now the quintessential city businessman heading one of Queensland's fastest growing digital marketing companies Digital8 - worth millions.

His story has attracted the likes of the Courier Mail but Joe has reached out to the Advocate in hope to provide his insight to local youth who may be struggling.

Soon after Joe was born the court deemed his mother unfit and he was placed into his father's care in Grafton.

It was at the age of 14 when tensions culminated into a violent run-in with his father, and he moved to Lowanna to live with his mum who he barely knew.

With six other siblings, he suddenly found himself surrounded by drug use and domestic violence.

"Until that point I'd managed to avoid using alcohol or drugs but in that household it was so normalised. The situation was out of control with so many kids, there was a lot less visibility. I was sucked into it straight away,” Joe said.

"There was a lot of domestic violence and overt drug abuse. It was a really unhealthy environment.”

Eventually the situation became too much for Joe and while staying at a friend's home in Coffs Harbour one weekend, he decided he wasn't going back.

Through Orara High School it was organised he would enter the youth housing system and he soon began living at the Jetty Bunker Youth Service.

At the age of 16, he was given a four-bedroom house with Youth Allowance and "100 per cent freedom”.

"I went way off the rails by that point.”

"There were a lot of unsavoury characters around me, I was getting into pretty hard drugs. The time between then and when I was 18 was just a blur.”

Joe dropped out of school after Year 10. Soon after, he suffered from a drug-induced psychosis.

He was admitted to Coffs Harbour hospital and was diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder.

After two years treatment he moved to Brisbane seeking a fresh start, and while working odd jobs he met his partner.

Within a year of living together she fell pregnant with their first child, Audrey.

"I looked at Audrey and thought to myself I wanted to be more, I wanted to be a better role model for her.”

Joe had lasting friendships from his time in high school. At this stage, they were all starting to carve out careers in the digital industry.

Chris Ward, who is now the Chief Digital Officer at betting and gaming company Ladbrokes, was at the time working as a search optimisation specialist and it was through him that Joe landed a job interview.

And while Joe didn't end up getting the job, he managed to land himself contract work. From there, he worked his way up and is now the general manager of Digital8.

High school friends Anthony Ward and Aaron Whitlock (front), Joe McCord and Chris Ward (back) at Anthony's wedding in Thailand.
High school friends Anthony Ward and Aaron Whitlock (front), Joe McCord and Chris Ward (back) at Anthony's wedding in Thailand. Contributed

Joe admits if it wasn't for the support of his close friends from Coffs, he wouldn't be in his position.

"They're all killing it.”

Chris's brother Anthony, a former JPC and Orara High student, owns and operates digital marketing agency Noria based in Thailand.

Aaron Whitlock, a former Woopi High student, owns several businesses including popular Brisbane dog cafe Todd & Pup, and has worked in digital marketing for Neds, Ladbrokes, Culture Kings and Tatts Group.

Sonja Meyer, a former Orara student, now owns and operates creative agency Ethical Design Co in Melbourne.

"There's kids in Coffs who think they're going to leave school at grade 10 and work at a Pizza Hut for the next 20 years, but there's so much opportunity out there.”

"You've just got to get your head on straight, and get out of that lifestyle.

"Being able to spend time with youth workers gave me a brief period to observe and hear from positive role models. Coffs is a town that's very self-aware, there's a lot of programs and groups - but it's up to the kids to listen and establish that contact in the first place.

"You don't have to be at the lowest of low to seek help. It doesn't matter how screwed up you are, you can still get out.”