Be careful how you build your team — freelancers who are too good to be true, are too good to be true! When you don’t know the going rate for a particular skill set, the only real way to find out what a good person is worth is trial and error. That can feel like an expensive mistake, but you have to experiment. It’s all a learning process.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tobias Showan, Founder of Exertia. After designing and creating his first game at 9 years old, Tobias self-taught himself to code at 17 and has continued learning and exceeding expectations ever since. Since graduating from Durham University with a degree in Electrical Engineering, Tobias has worked in manufacturing and automation for seven years, balancing his professional career with keen interests in gaming, technology, psychology, and futurism. His skills extend beyond technology, with his passions including creative writing, music, and art.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I taught myself programming while I was still in school because I was bored of my lessons — not a very virtuous start, but I was very keen on futurism and what could happen with humanity. I liked films like the Matrix, and that started me on the path of questioning what I wanted the future to look like.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I worked in software for most of my life, stationary and at a desk. I then was needed in the family business — they needed some manual labour as there were some staff shortages.
That was how I found myself working in a factory pushing trolleys around, which I did for a year and a half.
It made me realise that you do come home feeling better, as you have been continuously physically moving around.
That was when I realised that we pay a price sitting at our desks in the office. We may not notice it at the time, but we’ll notice it later. When I made the move back to a desk job, I realised I had to do something.
That’s when we first started thinking about how we can get people more active in life. The technology angle came a bit later.
We were at a festival and saw a girl wearing a VR headset with a boy tickling her. She was spinning around screaming, and then she sprinted towards a barn — which she would have crashed into if we had not caught her.
It turned out that the VR headset was offering people the chance to ‘face your fears’, and she had been in a 3D environment full of spiders.
Of course, I had to have a go and watch spiders crawl around me. It did make me jump at one point, and that’s when I made the second leap: that exercise and getting the heart-rate up didn’t have to be separate from technology. After all, who wouldn’t run or cycle like their life depended on it if they had a giant spider behind them?
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Making many expensive mistakes. When we started, we experienced setbacks and unexpected opportunities. Some things failed miserably, and some things worked better than we thought. We didn’t sit down and worry about it before we even started, though. If you just focus on worrying about not doing it right, you never start. I’m not convinced one person in the world is doing everything right.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Don’t! All joking aside, I didn’t go into this with the assumption that I’d enjoy every minute of it. When you turn your passion into a business, you still need other passions, otherwise you’ll have no down time. My hobbies are creative writing, art, music. It’s important not to do pure work all the time, and still cultivate your other passions.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
Practical tip: stack the bits you do like with the bits you don’t, and swap between the two. Otherwise, you come back to my mentality that you cannot expect it to be fun all the time.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I enjoy the sense that I’m in control of where I’m heading. Obviously we are, as every business is, pulled here and there by the currents of change, but we’re still able to swim against the tide. No business has full control over their industry, but I suppose I have the benefit of the illusion of control.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Every single thing takes much longer than I thought. I thought I could do most of it myself, and the minute you realise you can’t because of time, the act of getting someone else in takes time, checking that they’re doing it right is more time…
When you are doing it yourself, it feels instantaneous so you don’t register how much time it takes. All those extra processes build up.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
No. I have worried an awful lot, but I have never considered not doing it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Ask me in 10 years, as many of them do not seem funny yet!
Perhaps one of the funniest is when we were up until 4 a.m. making an overly elaborate display stand to demo our project, a gaming bike. We had left it to the last minute, and ended up coming back home from the factory at 4 a.m. four nights in a row to get it all built and painted.
One the day of the demo itself, we set it up — and what happened? Half of the people there thought that the display stand was the product we were selling, not our gaming bike.
You have to laugh.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Honestly? I don’t think I am a ‘great leader’: I’m just running a business.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Inherent in our business model is making the world a better place. It’s an idealistic project, intending to improve health and fitness across the globe, in a way that changes how humans relate to exercise itself. Our very existence as a business is predicated on making the world a better place.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Everything takes longer than you thought. See above!
- Don’t listen to everyone — they’ll tell you things that sound bad because they cannot see your vision, not because they are right. Be careful who you ask for advice.
- Be careful how you build your team — freelancers who are too good to be true, are too good to be true! When you don’t know the going rate for a particular skill set, the only real way to find out what a good person is worth is trial and error. That can feel like an expensive mistake, but you have to experiment. It’s all a learning process.
- In R&D, doing something without positive results is still productive work. You’ve removed things which don’t work from your consideration. If you think about it, academics publish results of things that do not work all the time, and that is still considered useful and a contribution.
- Value of persistence — if you have a bad day, carry on and hope tomorrow a better one. It’s important to keep soldiering on.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We talk about the Exertia Lifestyle revolution, which is far more than any product.
I would love to see people who don’t think they should play games, who look down on them, to have a go. I do not think game designers are respected enough: to make a good game, you have got to have award winning art and music, smart programming, an understanding of dance or war theory…
You have got to be good at all other fields of creativity, and they have to be done well to make a good game. I would like people outside the gaming world to notice and realise that.
I’d also like people inside the gaming world to start moving a bit more! Rediscover the joy of moving around, being healthy — breaking down those fears of ’real’ games.
These two worlds don’t talk to each other, and I’d love those communities to meet and make friends.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Man, however well-behaved, at best is but a monkey shaved!”
I mean, it’s not particularly deep, but I like it.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I like Elon Musk’s style: the slightly wacky mad inventor. Maybe he can treat us to a private breakfast when the first Martian restaurant opens.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.