Words and interview by Simon Bland
Creative career paths are a funny thing — once you start on your journey, there’s no telling where you’ll end up. Darren Jobling was first bitten by the creativity bug when he was a young man dabbling in cassette-based computer game publishing in Newcastle’s burgeoning games scene in the early 1990s. It was a passion that coincided nicely with the video game boom and pretty soon, it gave way to some very real employment opportunities.
Together with his equally video-game-focused brother Brian, the duo fronted Zeppelin Games and then Eutechnyx, a company that worked to revolutionize racing titles with popular releases like NASCAR: The Game, Formula One and James Bond Racing. Cut to today and his career path has evolved yet again, placing him as CEO of ZeroLight, an organisation that uses gamification techniques to make the digital journey of buying state-of-the-art vehicles a fun and interactive experience. While similarly car-focused, it’s a far stretch from his humble video game beginnings. So what drives his creative ambition and eagerness to explore new markets?
“My underlying ethos is ‘it’s possible,’” smiles Jobling, speaking to us from ZeroLight’s offices in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Despite currently working with some of the biggest names in automotive, from VW, Mitsubishi, Cadillac and Lucid Motors, this North East native still likes to keep things local. “Bar Nissan, the North East isn’t really known as a hotbed of car production — yet you’ve got people from Silicon Valley like Amazon, Apple, and Lucid Motors coming to the North East to access the latest and greatest technology in connected customer journies,” he explains, commenting on the way in which his region is attracting big industry heavy-hitters. “At the start, you don’t have to have everything all planned out. All you have to know is – it’s possible.”
Perhaps this blue-sky attitude can be traced back to his first steps into the industry, a time that — as Jobling explains — was instrumental in forging the North East’s creative scene. “The computer games industry in the North East started off as part of an entrepreneurial cluster at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum,” he tells us. “It was a bunch of 14 to 17-year-old kids who were really into video games. One day, one of them sold a game to a publisher and they all realized that if he can sell a game, they can also sell a game — it’s possible.” According to Jobling, the DNA of every North East-based games company can be traced back to this very hub: “We got a natural entrepreneurial cluster of game developers that started to grow. Some of these people started lecturing at our universities and then it became a self-propagating community. The rest is history.”
It’s a bright history too. Darren’s brother Brian was approached by Richard Branson’s Virgin Mastertronic with a proposition at the tender age of 14. They asked that he write a system that prevents users from copying games and Virgin would pay him 2p a cassette. “My dad was an engineer and said ‘You’ll never see any of that money!’ By the time my brother was 17, he was earning more money than my dad and bought himself a Porsche on just 2p a cassette,” he chuckles. “That’s the power of scale and in the world of digital, that’s what you need.”
Today, the North East remains a thriving base of creativity. It’s also the region at the heart of our latest Investment Bootcamp, a structured learning opportunity that connects creative company founders with mentors and investors.
With so many years in the creative sector, knowing when to be vulnerable and work on your weaknesses is something that Jobling has learnt first-hand. “Success is a poor teacher,” he reasons. “You fail your way to success. It’s where you learn the most and figure out how to change your behaviour for next time.” Discovering when to delegate and play to your strengths has also helped.
Surrounding yourself with the right people is key and something that our Investment Bootcamp is designed to help with. “I would always recommend getting a coach or mentor; people with different ideas. Also, try to have a diverse and interesting board,” suggests Jobling. “We’ve got some really outstanding people on ZeroLight’s board that really provoke your thoughts. Having people with industry expertise provides a much-needed perspective too because a games industry mentality definitely needs adapting for the world of automotive.”
Having secured investment to help take ZeroLight to new heights, navigating the world of funding is something Jobling has become very familiar with. His advice? “The most important thing in the world is to only take money from people that you like because you’re left with them long after you’ve invested the money,” he highlights. “ZeroLight is very fortunate. There have been lots of times when people have offered us tremendous investment deals but I’ve thought to myself the relationship is just not gelling correctly. In your career, wou’ll get offered some fantastic deals but all money isn’t equal,” adds Jobling. “Pick the right partner. You need to understand what your company is, what your values are, and make sure everyone syncs up with that.”
It’s this combined thinking — together with a revolutionary tool that allows users to interact with the car-buying experience globally, from the comfort of their armchair — that has made ZeroLight such a successful venture. Looking ahead, Jobling hopes to take things even further, doubling down on his creative ethos. After all, anything’s possible. “ZeroLight has worked with some of the biggest names in automotive and tech, so there’s really no reason why every car manufacturer in the world shouldn’t be using the ZeroLight sales & marketing platform. That’s the ambition,” he reveals. “Keep on pressing ahead and keep on scaling.”
If you feel inspired by Darren’s words of advice and are looking to grow your business, Creative UK is running several initiatives across the North East to facilitate growth and investment. Sign up to the mailing here to find out more about what is available to you.