How Co Armagh man Matt Toman overcame dyslexia to fund an award-winning production company
Matt Toman, founder of award-winning media company Bankhouse Productions, says of his youth in Co Armagh: "I made it all the way through school without being diagnosed as dyslexic, even though I always struggled with English, and reading out loud was embarrassing - I sounded like someone who had had a stroke."
Such was his keen sense of humiliation, Matt (36) devised a system to try and mitigate it - basically, working to stay a step ahead. "Whatever paragraph was being read, I'd be power reading through the next paragraph, several times, so as to be prepared in case I was asked."
It worked - somehow, none of his teachers picked up on the fact that Matt was dyslexic.
Partly this had to do with his compensating skills, including an excellent memory. "As a kid in primary school, I can remember watching the school play and coming home and reciting every word." Unsurprisingly perhaps, he "hated" school. And left as soon as he could, in 1999. "I ran out the door at 16. In fact, a few days before my 16th birthday, I had a job, in Moy Park, the chicken factory."
From there, he worked delivering Chinese take-away "as soon as I had a licence", and various other part-time jobs, until landing an apprenticeship as a refrigeration engineer. "I'd been washing cars and mowing lawns since the age of 13. I was all about 'give a service, get paid'," he says. "By the time I was 19 I bought my first apartment, in Lurgan." By the age of 22, he had three apartments "and money coming in from everywhere", he recalls. "I rented out the apartments, I invested in a friend's business and got returns on that, and I was working full-time with overtime and so on. I was having a nice old time."
He travelled - Thailand and Australia - and bought classic cars. By the time he discovered he was dyslexic in his early 20s, "I couldn't care less. I didn't know what dyslexia was, and when I found out, I just thought 'that's not going to hold me back.' I never wanted to be labelled with anything, so I was glad I hadn't found out earlier".
One thing he did know though, was that for all the "nice life" he lived, "it didn't bring me happiness. I was buying out of boredom, looking for a buzz". The financial recession bought it's own buzz, albeit of a traumatic kind. "The long and short of it is that I lost everything," he says. "I had to walk away from all the property. And I lost my job at the same time."
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He moved to Dublin and was living on unemployment benefit. "I couldn't tell my family or friends. I couldn't admit to them that I wasn't a success any longer, because that's what they would have seen me as," he says.
"It was too humiliating to admit that wasn't the case. I buried my head in the sand for about two years. For as long as I felt like a failure, I couldn't talk to anyone. I had to overcome that in my own head first."
He also had to find a way to make a living - for a time he lived rent-free in a friend's apartment, Bankhouse Building, but that was not a long-term solution. "And I needed to find out what I wanted to do with myself. I knew I didn't want to be a landlord again, or a refrigeration engineer, but I had no idea what I did want," he explains.
During this time, because he was unemployed, he was offered back-to-college and retraining opportunities, "but that wasn't an option for me. It had been hard enough the first time round, in school. There was no way I was going back".
Instead, he did an acting course with the Irish Film Academy. "Even there, the first read-throughs of a script were just awful. I had to get off-book (memorising a part), very quickly, because of the humiliation of trying to read.
"I would record scenes and listen back to them and learn that way. And I had a ball. I got cast in a small role in an independent film, and then another. But I started to figure out that what I really liked was what was going on behind the camera.
"I found myself helping out, organising shoots and eventually producing a low budget film. I tried reading a book about being a producer, but I just couldn't, so I had to use my experience and common sense."
Around this time came what Matt describes as his "low point". He had just turned 30 and was still on unemployment benefit. "I had someone from the unemployment office turn up to the apartment where I was staying, and ask to see my bedroom, to prove that I was actually living there. It was so degrading. My bedroom was just a boxroom, and it was a mess, and I felt humiliated that she insisted on seeing it."
But from that, came positives. That social worker suggested Matt take part in a positivity week eligible to the unemployed, and as part of that, he met Shane Meehan from Inner City Enterprises. "We got talking and he said what do you want to do? I said 'I want my own production company. I want to make TV and movies and commercials that go around the world'.
"By then, I had realised that no one would ever hire me to do what I wanted to do. I had no qualifications and no chance of getting any. I explained this to him and said 'the only option is for me to start my own company,' and he said 'okay'."
By joining the scheme, Matt was able to set up a company, stay on unemployment benefit for a full year, and then on 75% of benefit for a further two years. On August 1, 2014, he set up Bankhouse Productions. "I felt I had been given the tools to do what I wanted," he says. "My first client was a friend with a food business. I made a promo for him, and I think I earned €200. I have boot-strapped every single bit of this," he says.
Bankhouse now employs 11 people and has won numerous awards, including Best Feature at the TMC London Film Festival for South (written and directed by Ger Walsh) and Best Feature at Dublin Independent Film Festival for Dive (written and directed by Daniel F Holmes).
They recently completed a documentary, to be aired later this year, with Colin Farrell on the Homeless World Cup, while a sister company, Bankhouse Media, set up by Matt in 2018, does everything from web development to app management. A year after creation, in 2015, Bankhouse Productions won Most Innovative Business at the Inner City Enterprise Awards.
"My mum came down for that, and she was nearly in tears. So was I," Matt recalls. "I realised then that everything I had thought of as a weakness had in fact become a strength. The things that you think might hold you back, can become superpowers. The road to success doesn't always lie through school and college."
What is dyslexia?
According to the NHS website dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling.
It's a specific learning difficulty, which means it causes problems with certain abilities used for learning, such as reading and writing.
Unlike a learning disability, intelligence isn't affected.
An estimated 10% of the population is said to have dyslexia.