ESV Client Spotlight: 15 Minutes With Nick Tobias, Founding Principal of Tobias Partners
Tell us about your business
We are a boutique architecture and interior design firm in Paddington Sydney, which I founded in 1999. 80% of our work is houses that range between $5 and $15 million construction budgets. We deal a lot with high net worth individuals on projects that are very valuable and special. Those clients, as they should, have very high expectations, and we have an extremely talented team in order to deal with that. The 20% of our work that isn’t houses is an incredibly diverse range of work - everything from retail, office fit-outs, eco-farms, wineries and boats, as well as working with schools and other community groups.
For us, design and quality is key – it is the lens through which we see everything.
How did the idea for your business come about?
I wanted to be an architect since I was 10 or 12 years old. I always had a highly independent and entrepreneurial streak about me. I started my practice when I was 22 and halfway through university. By the time I finished University I had quite a few staff and the practice was well up and running. It was quite an intense period of life, but I managed to get through it all. For me it was a different type of way to learn the skills and the rules of the game in the real world.
What are some of the challenges you faced in the initial stage of starting your own business?
The greatest challenge was probably the ‘chicken and egg’ challenge that everybody deals with, when you’re just starting out and people want to see what you’ve done. When you haven’t done much it’s very hard to get the next opportunity. Somehow I managed to talk and negotiate my way through that and was supported by some fantastic early clients/patrons. It was hard work, but in that very early stage it all felt like opportunity. I think because I started the practice when I was so young, I had an appetite for risk and so the challenges always felt like opportunity.
How long have you worked with ESV and what do you value the most from the relationship?
I’ve worked with ESV for over 15 years. It started in the very early days and it has been an amazing relationship. For most of that period I’ve worked with Kurt Baker, who has been a trusted advisor on a whole range of issues. ESV handle my specific business affairs, my investment related affairs and my personal affairs. It’s way beyond just doing tax – it’s quite holistic advice. Kurt is somebody who I can talk to about a broad range of topics – nearly like having a board member although I don’t have a board.
What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
Saying ‘yes’ too often and not saying ‘no’ enough. Being too empathetic or sympathetic and not having the courage to deliver the bad news. But all failings come with an upside. It also means I am very concerned that the people who engage with our practice have the most enjoyable experience possible. Because of that we have a very dedicated and loyal following of clients and staff, suppliers and consultants alike.
What motivates you?
Being able to do things that leave a tangible, positive footprint on the earth. Through my work and in my life in general, those are the decisions I try to make. It’s about asking how can I get up each day and do something that’s manifestly positive.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
On a big, global level, as a designer, I’ve got to put Apple in the mix. They have always been so clear about their values and their vision. The outcome of that has been many things of beauty and extraordinary function, which has impacted the lives of many in a very positive way.
Where do you see yourself and your business in 10 years? 20 years?
Our goal is to leave a legacy of very beautiful, timeless buildings that will always inspire people to aim for design excellence in everything they do. In 20 years I would like to say that we are still around and producing these great buildings. It’s not a focus for us to say that the practice is necessarily bigger, but that the projects continue to get bigger, more interesting, more dynamic, and possibly spread over greater geography. It’s a real quality over quantity model. We will never grow for the sake of growth. If we grow, it will be because there is such a demand for quality, and we feel that even with growth we can continue to deliver that quality.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to others hoping to start their own business?
Spend a lot of time getting clear about the vision. If you can, speak to others who have been down a similar journey to get an understanding of roads that you might not want to go down.
But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to jump. It’s never as scary as it looks.