I ran Anchorbolt Studios with my partners from 2009 till about 2014. We worked with clients from Switzerland to Vietnam – from low budget short films to low budget feature films, and worked for ABC Television’s internal network. In a nutshell, we’ve done some shit, and here are my top 10 tips on starting your very own video production company.
Note: This advice is for generalists, jack-of-all-trade filmmakers, not specialists like D.Ps. This info is more useful for the filmmakers that make everything under the sun from music videos, short films, commercials, etc.
Don’t Focus on Spending Money, Focus on Making Money
You shouldn’t waste your time or resources buying the latest and greatest equipment. You also shouldn’t waste time trying to find an office space until you’re consistently making at least 10 times the cost of space rental. It’s bad enough being a freelancer with inconsistent income, so you don’t have to exacerbate it by continuously upgrading. However, this isn’t the case if you’re a director of photography. I know many of them upgrade all the time because their profession necessitates it.
If you can rent it, rent it. My suggestion is to consider buying when the cost of the equipment is 20% of what you have in the bank, i.e. if you have $10,000 and the new DSLR camera costs $2,000 then you should be good.
But what if you’re broke?
If you’re broke, do the following
Make an Amazing Reel. Get the gig.
Borrow a friend’s camera and shoot a reel. The ideal reel runs only 1:30 minutes or less. Any more than that and no one will finish watching it. I know because I’ve seen the stats and most viewers drop off after 1:30 minutes.
The ideal reel will have from 7 to 10 projects. If you only have 3 projects and you keep showing the same things over and over, your reel will be stale. It’s better to have more projects in there for variety.
But what if you haven’t even shot 10 projects? You make them up. Your reel is super short, so it’s best to just shoot 15 seconds of a fake project and then do it 9 more times. The client will never know, only you will. The whole point is to get the gig. Remember, GET THE GIG.
You Need to be P.T. Barnum, and Continuously Search For New Clients
P.T. Barnum was a great showman that entertained the masses. He said
“Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!”
And nothing is exactly what’s going to happen if you don’t promote your business. For the first two years, I was reluctant to promote and advertise my company only because it wasn’t in my nature to toot my own horn – it’s a flaw of mine. I thought my good work would speak for itself – that was stupid. However, that’s changed over time and I continuously told people about my company’s achievements. Here are some things we did to drum up business to get new clients:
- Throwing monthly parties (this is how we got our ABC gig)
- Setting up a Facebook Fan Page
- Going to Business networking events, and alumni networking events
- Hire a Virtual Assistant to comb through Craigslist for video gigs
- Edit: Also, a Slick Portfolio Website (I recommend wordpress)
- Doing Free Shit
There are only two reasons when you should do a free gig for someone:
- Because it was YOUR idea.
- Because the benefit will be immediate – a spike in traffic, a connection with someone of value, or because you just wanted to work with someone talented.
Every single time we were CONVINCED to work for free upfront for someone, it always ended badly. When we’ve worked for free because WE wanted to, it always benefited us in the long run. It’s already a bad idea if someone comes to you and tries to convince you to do their shit for free. I wouldn’t do it, even if it sounded very enticing. If you disagree with me, please go ahead and learn a valuable lesson for yourself. However, I’m not saying never do anything for free, just be wise in picking the ones you do.
Put Centered Watermarks On New Client Videos
Back in our early days, 2009, there was a client that didn’t pay us for 6 months, and we worked on this video all this time without pay (noobs right?). Finally, we asked him for payment for our work so far (because the stupid video still wasn’t finished) and he gave us the dumbest response: “We’ll pay you half 6 months from now, and 6 months after the final cut has been delivered.” We said fuck that, and didn’t finish the video. A year later, we find out that he downloaded one of our earlier videos that had a watermark on the SIDE CORNER of the video. He was able to just zoom in to take out the watermark. We told him to take down the video but he denied any wrongdoing. A year after that, his company was shut down by the Better Business Bureau for doing shady shit.
So to prevent something like this happening to you, put a watermark in the four corners of the video, and a small one in the center.
Why did we even work for this client at all, you ask? Well, he was a friend of a friend and we assumed that we could trust him, but now we never do anything unless we get 20% to 50% of the money upfront no matter who it is. Lessoned learned.
Hire a Good Accountant
Do your own research, and select a list of 10 questions. Go to a really expensive accountant (they usually do free consulting), then go to a cheaper accountant, and see if they can answer the same questions with the same type of answers that the really expensive accountant answered. Your goal is to find the middle accountant, not too expensive but not too cheap either.
You should also look at their desk – is it clean? The telltale signs of a good accountant is one that has a clean and organized office. If they have shit everywhere and their file cabinets are bursting at the seams, run away – they don’t have their shit together. I regret going with a cheaper accountant because they take forever to respond, and forever to get shit done. They’re really nice people, but I’d rather pay more money for better service.
But what if I can’t really afford it!? Tough shit – you wanted to run a business, this is what you have to do. Starve if you have to, but a good accountant may save your ass from even more expensive government-raping fees down the line.
Partners are Bad For you
I will write more about my experience with partners in my future ebook, but…
Basically, I highly recommend not getting them. They are usually more trouble than they’re worth. If you have any hesitations, then you should probably not partner up with your friends. After you sign on the dotted line to have a business together, you are married to them, and their problems become yours. Disorganized? Bad habits like smoking or drinking? Or even drugs? You’re going to have to deal with that shit, and sometimes they’ll hide it from you, but it usually comes out anyway. It’s okay to have vices, but if they’re the type of person to get easily depressed or dependent on other shit for escape, then you should definitely not partner up with that person.
They have to be super hungry and ambitious straight-edged motherfuckers. They have to constantly impress you with their ability to get shit done. They have to motivate you, and inspire you. If they don’t do that now, before you’re partners, then they definitely won’t do that later.
Set Up Client Expectations
I recently had a client through craigslist that was not satisfied with our work. He said he overpaid and we did not deliver what we promised. I became angry because I believed we actually did the service for cheap, and that we OVER-delivered, but he didn’t see it that way at all, and it bothered me to no end.
I realized that he had entirely different expectations from us than what we had for ourselves. In his mind we didn’t realize his expectations, thus we did not deliver on the value.
His high expectations came from us charging 2.5x more than the other craigslist submitters, and from having a fancier, better organized, slicker website than the other submitters. Therefore, we had raised his expectations. He wanted 2.5x more bang for his buck. Instead, we gave him exactly what he asked for on the cheap.
For the future, I’ll have to stay away from these kinds of people that have high expectations on a cheap, inexpensive video, because they’ll just end up being a pain in the ass. Or, I’ll try to set up realistic expectations, but that’s really hard to do when you actually deliver what you set out to deliver, so I’m at a loss.
So why don’t you just stick with good, expensive clients?
If you’re just starting out, it’ll be hard to acquire those expensive clients and you have to start somewhere. Even after you’ve gotten a few expensive clients under your belt, you will still need to pay the bills. So sometimes cheap clients are an unwanted necessity.
Go to amazon and order the book “The Sprit of Kaizen.” It’s what many successful companies and factories use to improve efficiency. It means “Continuous Improvement.” For a better overall picture of how effect the kaizen philosophy is, watch this video of Toyota plant managers improving the efficiency of a non-profit food organization in New York:
You are your own worst enemy
Yes, that’s right. When you procrastinate, or when you defer important decisions for later, or when you are just straight up being lazy, it’s your fault.
You are your own worst enemy, and that’s okay.
The battle plan now is to try to apply the philosophy of Kaizen to yourself. Your goal is to continuously improve by changing yourself and the way you do things little by little. You wanna lose weight? Kaizen. You want to be better organized? Kaizen. You want to learn a new skill? Kaizen.
You have to start treating yourself as a business, and your goal is to reach total effectiveness. Every night, you should be saying to yourself “Fuck yea, got a lot of shit done today.” If you can’t improve and change yourself for the better, how do you expect to run a successful business?
Always help others when you can
There was this girl who was an actress. She was a cute girl, and she had seen the actor reels we had created for her friend for free (we did it as a demo to prove that we could). She wanted to know how much it would cost for her to have a similar reel, but deep down, we knew she wanted us to make her entire reel for free as well, because frankly she was broke.
We told her the cost, and she declined our services. There was a pang of remorse at the time, but what were we supposed to do? Give away our services for free, again?? Yes. In hindsight we should have helped her, even if it was for free. She was broke and needed the help, and it wasn’t too much of a cost on our end. But wait a second? Didn’t you say not to do shit for free? Well, yes, but this is different because it’s not about money, it’s about helping someone.
In hindsight, we should have helped her because she then became an assistant working for an agent at CAA. Fuck me right?
So help others when you can, or else you may end up regretting it.
Specialize, Specialize, Specialize
The most important piece of advice I can give is to actually SPECIALIZE. If you don’t specialize, then your business and career will languish in eternity. But wait a second, weren’t you a generalist filmmaking company? Yes, and I regret it tremendously.
What’s better: to be GOOD at three things, or to be GREAT at one thing?
The answer is obvious, and many of the successful people I know all specialize in one thing. I know these days you’re supposed to be good at everything, but the only way you’ll reach any sort of consistency in work is if you specialize.
My DP friends are constantly getting work because they are good at what they do, and they only do DP and camera department work. My sound friends are constantly working as well.
If you describe yourself as a filmmaker, then slap yourself. That means nothing. You need to be an editor, a DP, a sound designer, a writer, anything except just a filmmaker.
“If you’re a jack of all trades, then you’re a master of none.”
Your goal is to become known for just one thing because you’re really good at doing that one thing. Specializing will really help in every aspect of your business, your marketing, your strategies, etc. As a company, if you’re good at commercials, then stick to commercials. Don’t do anything else, just focus on that until you have repeat business. Same goes if you’re good at making music videos, short films, or promotional videos. If you’ve spent thousands or millions on a film, and you’re looking for a colorist, and you had a choice between a filmmaker that was “familiar” with coloring, or a person that specialized as a colorist, who would you hire?
I’ll be coming out with an ebook on Running your Video Business in October 2016. Go to my site www.giordany.com to sign up for updates.
I’m an entrepreneur. I studied film at USC and had my own film production company for 5 years. I then taught myself leather work and started my own etsy business selling watch bands for the apple watch. I am now teaching myself iOS programming.
I plan on releasing an ebook on how to run your own production company by October of 2016. To get updates on the progress and when it will be released, please subscribe below.
New website coming soon.