This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on Starting and Running your own business in the creative industry. We start out this week by asking, Are You Ready? Are you really ready to step out on your own and become your own boss? Before you say yes, consider these thoughts.
Recently I posted a blog entry detailing the wonderful experience we had upgrading our facility with fellow Creative COW leader Bob Zelin. An unexpected response to that entry was someone who found the setup of our facility somewhat overwhelming. He was questioning what would he need to start a company and compete after seeing something like our upgrade.That post gave me pause and the inspiration to write down my thoughts for anyone thinking about striking out on their own in this creative business. We all start at Square One and a facility like mine doesn’t just happen overnight. So over the course of the next few weeks, I'm going to give you my ideas about starting and building your own company. Take what you want from my advice and experience and when you find something that works for you, be sure to pass along some knowledge to others. I’m going to start at the beginning with this entry and end up with thoughts for expansion in my final installment. In between we’ll talk about setting up shop and running / building your current business. So let’s get started.
Are You Ready?It’s a simple question. Are you ready to run your own business? It sounds great, equipment and software is relatively cheap, your friends think you’ll have no problems building a successful business. So why not? Well, there’s a million reasons “why not?” but if you never take a chance, what’s the point of living, right? Ok, here’s some things to take into consideration if you’re seriously considering your own business.
Dude, Where’s My Project?So how much experience do you have in the industry? And be very honest with yourself here. It’s easy to watch a commercial, a movie, a music video, a TV show and say “I can do better work than that!” Maybe you can, but have you? I mean have you actually done work that looks better than what you’re watching and did it on a tight deadline while staying within the budget constraints? First and foremost this industry is driven by the deadline. Whether it’s a church video for the service on Sunday or the next episode of “The Office” for NBC. Your must make the deadline that is set for your project each and every time. Failure to do that even one time can ruin your entire business. Creative skills honestly mean nothing at all if you can’t get a project done on time. The deadline pressure is the one thing that I see which dooms many new people to the business. It’s something that you really can’t describe because it is a completely different pressure than any other industry I’ve ever seen. With most industries, everything is black and white. The product was delivered on time, the new contract was signed, building was completed and so on. Generally something that is very black and white where you can look at the product, hold it in your hand, see it in front of you, witness the signed contract. When a product is delivered under deadline, say a new tennis ball, there is it, you can hold it in your hand and see it.The Creative Industry just sells ideas. Sure there is usually an end product attached to those ideas, such as a DVD or TV show, but we’re just selling creative ideas. So we’re at the complete mercy of our client’s moods, ideas, changes of heart, even just a change of mind. I’ve been in a situation where we have been working on a project for 9 days only to have the producer completely change their mind on the look and script 36 hours before a show is about to air. The deadline hasn’t changed, the show is going to air in 36 hours. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent 9 days following the script and editing in the agreed upon manner which has been reviewed at the end of each of the 9 days. They’re changing it now and they just want it to happen in 36 hours. So what do you do? You can’t tell them it’s too late because the products have already been produced and shipped to the stores. You can’t tell them it’s too late because you can’t get the necessary supplies to build the widget in time. I mean it’s just a video so it can’t be that hard to make the changes they’re asking for, right? Do you miss the deadline or drink a lot of coffee and work up a miracle in the wee hours of the night? Don’t forget you’re running this business so it’s your decision. There are some amazingly talented people coming out there who get drawn into the relative ease that exists today to open up your own shop. Software and hardware is very affordable so why not just take the plunge to go it alone? The software and hardware is just one very small part of starting up your own production company, creative suite, editing boutique, whatever you want to call it. The ability to handle the pressure of the deadline, no matter what is thrown your way is a very large part of running a creative company.So be very honest with yourself here and decide if you are ready to do whatever it takes to meet each and every deadline you take on. 9-5 is out the window. Each day has 24 hours and you better be prepared to use every last minute if you want to make it on your own. Your reputation is riding on it. Handling the deadline pressure can only come from experience.In case you’re wondering how the story ends, I had already been working 12 hours that day when I got the news to make the change so I ended up editing for 48 hours straight. The show aired on time and I was nominated for “Editing in a Television Series” at the New York Festivals. I haven’t been able to kick my coffee habit since.
You’re the Boss of Me.If you’re new to the industry, whether right out of college or looking for a 2nd career, working for someone else has some very distinct advantages.Soaking it all in is one thing. I mean what does it take to run the company? Whether you’re working for a small company with one other person or a huge group with 1,000, soak in what is going on all around you. Notice how your room / workstation is set up. What do you like and not like about it? Ask someone why the room was set up like it was. How are the clients treated? How does the billing work and what are the rates? How do they figure out the rates? What extras does the company provide, like food and games, and why? Now don’t be obnoxious about this and ask a question at every turn, but just observe, ask polite questions when appropriate and soak in everything going on around you, especially if it is a successful business. If it’s not successful, try to figure out what could be done better, maybe even make some suggestions to management if appropriate. Working for a company also generally means working around other folks more experienced than you. Learn from them. In my own experience, I started at CNN and had absolutely no clue what a Waveform or Vectorscope were until someone explained them to me. Funny how many posts I see about this very thing on the COW these days. I also discovered that while I could edit very well, I had no idea how to tell a story. I just slapped down what was on the script without a thought to how all the shots really cut together. Two amazing editors took me under their wing and taught me how to really craft a story in the edit suite, not just push buttons. Could not have learned it this well from books, the internet, or in the classroom. You can generally focus on your singular task when you’re working for someone else. If you’re a graphic designer, then all you have to do is work on making the best looking graphic to meet the specs of the project. Of course there are exceptions when working for a smaller firm, but for the most part, your only concern is what is immediately in front of you. You can spend your time practicing your craft, trying out techniques and so on. At CNN I played with every single piece of equipment I could get my hands on, including this new thing that arrived one day call an Avid. It was all sitting there and I would even come back to the office on my time to practice on the gear and my editing style. You get exposed to a variety of clients and styles, regardless of whether you work for an independent company or in the communications department of a company. Each client is different and what works for one client won’t work for them all. After CNN I went to work for Foxwoods Resort Casino in their media department and I worked with very real clients, even though they were all Foxwoods departments. Marketing, Dining, Entertainment, Transportation, Hotel, Maintenance, Museum and so on all had projects that needed to be done by our department, about 200+ projects per year. Each department and even different people within each department had varying styles and needs. I had never been exposed to anything like this at CNN where we pretty much did the same thing no matter who the Producer was. Now I had to please about 100 different people who all had their own idea of what their project had to look like. This was some of the most valuable experience I ever received and it wasn’t anything anyone could have taught me in a classroom.Working for someone else also means you will most likely be exposed to a bunch of different equipment. No better way to find out what the equipment looks like than to get your hands on it. If you’re really lucky, your shop will have an engineer. These guys are awesome to talk to. Any question you have, they’re usually happy to answer. I use every opportunity I get to speak with engineers as very often some nugget of information gleaned comes in very handy as we plan, troubleshoot or make changes to our facility. Finally, working for someone else gives you the opportunity to make a reputation for yourself. Your boss, clients, producers, other creative workers all get a chance to see both your work and your work habits. This business is all about word of mouth and the more you can build on your reputation before you start your new venture, the better chance your business has of succeeding.In my own experience, I spent 5 years at CNN, 2 years at Foxwoods, 1 year at another corporate job before I started my first company with a partner and finally 3 years later I started Biscardi Creative. I saw each step along the way as a learning experience. CNN taught me how to tell a story, Foxwoods gave me confidence in designing a facility, the partnership showed me I could run my own business. So ask yourself, are you truly ready to go out on your own, or would you be better served spending time at someone else’s facility? If you’re working for someone else right now, have you built enough of a positive reputation and learned enough at that location to step out on your own?
Focus, Focus, FocusThe number one biggest mistake I see in this industry is the inability to focus on what you do well. You can’t be all things to everyone. If you try to do everything, you’ll end up doing all things ok. If you simply focus on one or a few areas, then you have the potential to be very good at what you do.In my case, I’m an editor and over the years I’ve picked up a lot of skills in After Effects and Graphic designs so my focus since striking out on my own has been Post Production. Editing, graphic design, digital compositing and some special effects are what we concentrate on. So all of our marketing and our money for equipment is spent to better our Post Production. I can shoot with a camera but there are dozens of photographers here in Atlanta alone who are so much better than me, why would I waste both mine and my client’s time? The client deserves the best shooter I can give them and it’s definitely not me. So I have made my main focus Post Production. So what is your focus going to be? Whatever it is, that is what you need to really expend your energy and money on. This industry is literally changing by the month with new equipment, new software, new technology, new standards and so on. It can literally make your head spin and theirs is just no way to stay on top of everything. So stay on top of what you can control. Stay on top of what it is that you do best. To help you stay on top of everything else in the world, befriend some good folks locally if you can and of course use the tremendous resources of the Creative COW.In my case, I get a lot of questions about cameras because I work with so many formats. Honestly, all I know about them is what I see on the screen when I watch footage shot by them and what I glean from D.P.’s and the manufacturers. That’s about it. If I have a question about a camera or about something to do with cameras, I ask my D.P. friends or research on the COW. Really my biggest question about any camera is what format does it shoot and what frame rate am I working with? That affects me in Post. Lenses, filters, matte boxes, shutter speeds and the like are the domain of the shooters, I just want to know how to get it into my system and edit with it. As my business has matured, we do offer now offer full turnkey services from script to screen, but that’s only because I’ve built a great team of colleagues I can call upon to complete any project that walks in the door. But my focus is still the Post side, I hire other folks to write, produce and shoot the actual material.So what is truly going to be your focus? Who can you call upon to help you with areas outside of your focus? Two questions to ask yourself.
Man of 1,000 HatsIt’s a wonderful idea to open your own business. It’s truly a dream come true. But one thing even I overlooked is the fact that you’re now responsible for every single decision. I mean, the creative stuff, that’s easy, that’s what I do. But where is the office going to be? What chairs do I need? Where do I get the furniture? How many paperclips will I use?My point is quite simple here. Once you’re the boss, you are now responsible for every single decision for your company from what font to use for that corporate commercial to what long distance service are you going to use. It’s all those little mundane things that many of us never take into account when deciding to go out on our own.You will have to set up and manage your finances, the equipment, the software, the clients, the marketing, your skills, your demo, the office supplies, the tax returns, the research and the list goes on and on. Oh yeah, don’t forget you’re also going to have to be very creative and meet all your production deadlines to keep the clients happy. Not trying to scare you here, just being honest. Whether you want to or not, you will be wearing about 100 hats the moment you decide to open your office. If you’re not prepared for this, it becomes overwhelming very quickly. Fortunately I have a wonderful wife who is my partner in my venture and she oversees many of the financial areas of the company allowing me to concentrate on technology and creative. Make a list of all the things you need to take care of and think about whether there is anyone you can call upon to help you out with some of the details.
Swallowing your prideThose of you already working in the industry have experienced this. All of you entering this industry and ready to start your own place, here’s the rude awakening. The client is always right. Repeat. The client is always right. Keep repeating until it sinks in. If you don’t believe this, then don’t start your own business.I’ve had situations where I’ll describe an idea to a client, complete with sketches and pantomime with an enthusiastic response. I’ll go create the project, show them the rough cut and their eyes glaze over. “Oh, that’s not what I thought you were describing. I really don’t like this. Can’t you just do this other thing instead?”Now the artist in me wants to tell the client exactly what I think of this other thing they’re suggesting. After all I described to them what I was going to do, I spent 5 days executing that idea and NOW you tell me you don’t get it? But the business owner in me takes the suggestion and I tell the client, “Absolutely I can do that, let me go back to the office and get right on that.”Ideas and pride will not pay the bills. Checks from clients will. If you want to run your own business you have to be accepting of the fact that the Client always gets what the Client wants. Your primary responsibility is to give the client what they are asking for in the most creative and professional manner possible. One thing I always tell people is I don’t care if the client wants the sky green, the grass blue and the people red. As long as my levels are broadcast spec and the client is happy and they pay me, then that’s exactly what they are going to get. Sure I’ll offer my input, but ultimately, I will put on the screen exactly what the client wants to see. It’s the client’s money, not mine.Look at it this way, you’re not going to like every single thing that leaves your shop. If you don’t like it, don’t feature it on your website or your demo. So can you swallow your pride and produce exactly what the client wants and not just what you think the client needs? If you fail to grasp this basic concept, you will not be getting checks from clients for very long.
Show Me Some Money…. PleaseFinally, a very simple question to ask as you consider your own company. Are you prepared to not make any income for any amount of time, up to 12 months? Is your financial situation stable enough that you can afford to not make any money at all from your new venture as you start up?It’s the old adage, you need to spend money to make money. You are going to have to purchase some equipment to get started. You’ll need to some sort of marketing, maybe a website, definitely business cards, probably a Demo. Your personal bills are not going to stop coming in the meantime. So can you afford to all of the expenses incurred in starting a business and continue to pay all of your personal expenses if you do not earn any actual income for up to 12 months?Not much else to add here, just something for you to seriously think about. It takes time for the checks to catch up to the expenses and you can start paying yourself, just be sure you’re financially stable enough to not back yourself into a corner. In my own situation, my wife was extremely supportive of my new venture and she carried the financial burden for us until my business was able to earn us some income.
Well there you go folks, a lot of things to consider whether or not you’re truly ready to start your own business. And don’t get me wrong here. I’m not trying to scare you off and say don’t start a business. It’s a very exciting thing to start your own business and it’s easy to look at all the positive reasons for doing so. When done right and done well, it’s the most amazing thing you will ever do for your career. I’m just trying to give you a reality check before you jump feet first. And don’t just take what I say here as law. Be sure to do more research on the internet, talk to family, talk to other friends in the industry. Get as much information as you feel you need to make the best decision for you.In Part 2 of this series, “Setting Up Shop,” I’ll look at setting up your business. From location to type of company to client comforts, we’ll explore the next steps in taking your decision to start a company to actually opens the doors. Future blogs will cover Running your Business and Expansion Decisions.
Walter Biscardi, Jr. is a 17 year veteran of broadcast and corporate video production who owns Biscardi Creative Media in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Walter counts multiple Emmys, Tellys and Aurora Awards among his many credits and awards. You can find Walter in the Apple Final Cut Pro, AJA Kona, Apple Motion, Apple Color and the Business and Marketing forums.
Part 2 - Setting Up Shop: http://blogs.creativecow.net/node/277
Part 3 - Running and Building your Business: http://blogs.creativecow.net/node/300