Thursday, March 30, 2017

Going Pro: Website Part Deux

For the past dozen posts I've been chronicling my 40-week journey toward starting my own production company.  The first trimester of the journey has really been about setting up the "back end" of the business.  Today I launched my video production web pages. This is a big milestone for me; even though it’s not “finished” or complete, I now have someplace to refer people to see my work. 

Day 30:

For the time being my video pages are a section of my photography website.  This may change in the future, but while I have limited examples of my video work I am showing my photography as supporting imagery.  You might notice that I’m immediately contradicting myself:  my advice is to super niche, and only list what is important to my videography clients (photography is obviously not it).  Obviously, it’s difficult to follow any advice to the letter—real life gets in the way.  In this case, I’m hoping to create a media production company that combines still and motion.  But I’ll be watching to see if my “muddied” message gets in the way of any clients.
The video section has three pages: an introductory page with my portfolio, a process page that explains how I work with clients, and a contact page.  I have just six videos in my portfolio.   In other words, the bare minimum all around.  But it’s enough to say, hey, I am a videographer.  Until my portfolio includes really top-notch work, I can only expect companies with limited budgets to hire me.  People who can’t afford top-notch.  As a photographer I learned that the way to grow my business was to always deliver higher quality content than what I was being paid to produce.  This not only made for happy customers, it allowed me to pitch my services to bigger companies each time.  Yet again, I’m contradicting myself with the choice of videos.  I don’t have six videos in one niche, so I’m making do with what’s available.

The goal for today was to launch an introductory “website” (in my case, web pages) that would convey competence, accessibility, and creativity.  Most filmmakers aren’t great writers.  Luckily, I am.  I don’t say that lightly-- I’m an award-winning playwright and I write copy for my company.  One of the first things you learn as a copy writer is not to rely on your own creativity.  Being good with words doesn’t mean you know what to say.  My advice is to look at other websites to understand what you should communicate; if you’re good with words, you can decide how you communicate that message.

Keeping my niche clients in mind, I reviewed several websites from other video companies.  I chose companies that were not in my geographic area.  I looked for content categories (like testimonials, process, etc.); and I looked for language I thought was powerful.   I copied content I liked into a Word document-- several pages of content, actually-- and then edited and wordsmithed it until the language was specific to my clients and my strengths.    

My client database has doubled since Day 13.  But I’m not ready to contact any of them.  First impressions are important, even when you expect to make several pitches over several months to close the deal.  If I came to my website I wouldn’t hire me just yet, not if I had the resources to hire someone else.  From working in photography I know these pages aren’t competitive, and neither is my pitch.  One tenth of the way into my 180 day challenge, I still have a long road ahead.     

Just joining us?  You can read about the beginning of the journey here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Going Pro: Website Ju Jitsu

Location, location, location. That used to be the motto of every new business (and the reason I said 2017 is going to be a Why 2017 is going to be a great year for videographers). You want foot traffic, accessibility, and to be surrounded by complementary businesses. Nowadays, though, your most important location is in the virtual world.  Your storefront is your website.

Today is all about maximizing and honing your website.  It’s not about SEO; search engine optimization is about getting people to your website—this is about moving customers who visit your website to hire you.

We’ve already talked about the three main concepts:  sharpening your target consumer population to a fine point (super niching), identifying the unique qualities that make up your competitive edge, and translating those qualities into customer-centric language.  Now we need to apply that to your web page.  Two things to remember: first, your should revise and update your website is something at least every six months.  It’s not a one-time deal.  You need to be continually sharpening your website language, and it will change as your sample videos change and as your company grows.  Second, whatever it is you want to say about your company is probably the ball and chain that will drag you down into the murky, trash-filled depths of the lagoon of bankruptcy and leave your family destitute.  Cuz it’s not about you.  It’s about your customer.

Reverse the lens: we’ve talked about this before. What does your customer want?  That’s the only thing that matters.  Your experience is only as relevant as your customer’s desire to know.  Most people explain way too much.  Be brief and let your samples talk for you.  The equipment you use is meaningless.  As is your schooling.  Everything that appears on your web page has to meet three criteria:

  1. Speaks to your niche.  Wedding clients aren’t interested in your corporate clients, your branding experience, or crowdfunding success.
  2. Highlights how it will fulfill their needs.  The lens has to be pointed at them, not you.
  3. Positions your competitive advantages in terms of how it meets their needs and desires.

This is what marketers mean when they say the customer comes first.

It’s often easier to understand a concept by studying “bad examples” rather than good ones. Let’s look at some examples of video production websites that don’t follow these rules.  All of the companies and websites are real, but since they haven’t asked for my critique I’m going to make them as anonymous as possible.

Example 1

Bad example 1 - D Productions (the names have been changed to protect the guilty):   the home page is a “splash page” with their logo, a quote about overcoming difficulties, and an enter button.  None of that is important to their customers.  Their real homepage has a featured video (good), two sample videos (skimpy), a “Now in Production” statement (who cares unless it’s for a major company like BMW?), “We Specialize In…” such and such videos (good), and “Now Seeking Angel Investors” (are you kidding me?). So little of this page tells the customer that they will fill their needs.  What’s do they shoot?  Who is their client population? It’s almost impossible to tell, except their History page lists a lot of sports games.  So maybe the clients are sports teams and the need is to “capture the excitement of the game.”  But that’s not what is on their page.

Example 2:

Bad example 2 - W Productions:  the Homepage is all text—no images or video.  Their tag line is “Illuminating life through video.”  What need does that fill?  No one wants a video to “illuminate life?”  Unless, maybe, if they specialized in video retrospectives for senior citizens.  But they don’t.  The next block of text declares:

“All THAT YOU NEED CAN BE FOUND HERE.  W Productions has been providing high-quality video production since we opened our doors in 2008.  Every day, we strive to provide you with friendly service and the best experience in Blank City.”  Again, how does this relate to their customer’s needs and concerns?

Example 3:

Okay, you’re saying you’d never create a website as bad as that.  Let’s examine a good website with more minor flaws:  N Productions:  They describe themselves as “A full-service media company located in the heart of Blank City, N Productions is a team of passionate individuals who believe in the power of storytelling to entertain, inspire, and inform. Please feel free to contact us with inquiries, budget requests, or just to connect.” Friendly. Then they describe each of their services with a short blurb for Pre-Production, Production, Post-Production.  This is followed by logos of big name clients they’ve worked for.  The website is elegant, lively, and clean.  But the only thing that separates them from their competition is the list of previous clients.  I know more about who they are from their client list than anything else.  Consider their company description:  “A full service media company….” That’s the only relevant bit of info in the sentence.  Passionate individuals, storytelling, inspiring, entertaining, these adjectives are a dime a dozen, and entirely predictable.  If they said, “N Productions is a scrappy team who tell stories that tickle the imagination and inspire engagement” you’d have a better sense of who they are.  Not because the sentence means something vastly different, but because the description surprises.

You’ll notice in none of the examples have I talked about the quality of their videos.  While that may be the single biggest factor in getting hired, that’s not the focus here.  Nor am I discussing whether their page is "attractive" or not-- I'm focused simply on the content.

Example 4:

Now a good example from the folks at Empire Video.  The name of their company is missing from their Homepage (which is inexplicably weird), but look: we know they service young companies, giving them a “boost,” helping with fund raising and branding.  And since the companies are new, they’ve outlined the process—a completely info-free 3-step description—for what will happen.  And they’ve got 9 samples to view.  We can identify their niche (young businesses), the need (raise money and/or awareness), and their competitive edge is… (simplicity, ease of use).  Is it perfect?  You tell me.

Just joining us?  You can read about the beginning of the "Going Pro" journey here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Going Pro: Mastering the Marketing Language

I am not a master of marketing language.  I am an ardent student with a few powerful tools.  Plenty-o-folks have done this for longer, better, and more quickly than me.  But there aren't a lot of marketing resources that are written specifically for videographers and photographers.  Sure, the basic principles apply, but it's a difficult skill to learn, especially if you have to translate from one industry to another.  It's easy to understand the marketing concept that "Tide laundry detergent doesn't sell soap, they sell clean fresh clothes," but how does that translate to me?  I don't sell pictures I sell memories?  I think I just threw up in my mouth a little-- and I expect the reader has as well.

This post is a look at how to transliterate your unique characteristics (identified earlier) into compelling marketing language.  It builds off of the foundation of things that we've already discussed: identifying your client population (or niche), and identifying those unique characteristics.  Those characteristics, however, are about you. Marketing language is about them.  And that's the most important key to mastering the language.  The goal is to speak to their needs, their goals, and their concerns.  Visit their website:  Tide doesn't just sell bright-fresh-clean clothes, they sell convenience, they sell environmental responsibility.  Those are the needs, desires, and concerns of their buyers.

Brand Profile

A common marketer's tool for creating a brand profile is a three-step spreadsheet that goes from product characteristic to brand tone to brand languageBrand Language, in this case, isn't just the words but the concepts and structure.  By concept and structure I'm referring to things like testimonials, statistics, bullet points, and images.  Since we're selling a combined product/service, I've tweaked my categories to be Brand Attribute, Brand Tone, and Looks Like.  (Just to be 100% clear, "brand attributes" are your unique characteristics.) For example, you want to project an image of your company as "vibrant."  What does does vibrant feel like?  What's the tone?  It can feel like many things, but you want customers to see you as positive, motivated, and inclusive.  That's your brand tone.  But you don't want to say, "we're a positive, motivated, and inclusive team."  You want them to feel those attributes when they visit your website.  So what do they look like?  Fun, original adjectives.  International examples.

There's how the model looks in action:

So let's go back to that sickly idea of "selling memories."  Tide doesn't just say that they sell fresh clothes, they use words and concepts to convey that idea without having to be so direct.  You can convey the idea of selling memories by "capturing that special day" (weddings) or "documenting the moment" (events) or "they change so quickly" (baby).  Or more broadly-- "pictures you'll cherish for a lifetime."

Next post:  Put these skills to use on your website.

Just joining us?  You can read about the beginning of the journey here

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Going Pro: Delete the Distractions

Day 24

Started rehearsals for Second Wind’s next production, Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth.  I’m both a producer and an actor in the show. This means 18 hours a week dedicated to rehearsals and another 10 to production logistics.  On top of my 28 hour a week day job, this 56 hour work-week poses more obstacles to getting the company up and running.  Luckily, I don’t have kids (yet... seven months and counting down).  

How do I make time?  Well, for one I watch very little TV.  We don’t own one.  When I find myself surfing the net aimlessly, I re-direct myself towards accomplishing something, anything towards my goal.  And I’m drinking less.  Anyone frightened off?

Seriously, studies show that the “average” American spends 4.5 hours a day watching TV and 5 hours a day online or staring at their cell phone.  Over the course of 7 days we’ll devote almost a full work-week to our televisions, and another full work-week  to the internet for entertainment.  That’s two full time jobs we could devote to our production company without jeopardizing a meal, a date, or a conversation.

You can work two full-time jobs

in the amount of time you spend

on entertaining yourself

So how do you cut back on the consumption of all that sugary time-wasting?  Bit by bit.  Make a To-Do list and put it off to one side where it won't annoy you. That way you'll never "forget" what needs to be done when you've got a free moment.  Then look at your schedule. Take an hour of "open" time that would most likely be spent watching TV or surfing the net and dedicate it to one specific task on the list.  After a couple of days, add a second hour from your open schedule.  Practice clearing your desk of items-- unopened letters/bills, clutter-- at the end of each day.  Advice on how to use your time better can sound preachy real fast, I know, but your time is one of the greatest resources at your disposal. And you only get to use it once.

A quick summary of the other production activities over the past 24 days:

  • Joined Professional Photographers of America.  In truth, I should have done this six months ago when my workload as a photographer started to become consistent.  My primary interest was the insurance really—you’re constantly putting your equipment at risk.  Moreover, if you work on location, the routine is constantly changing, making accidents more likely.  I can’t say I’m thrilled with the high deduction for claims—making any single piece of equipment under $800 basically uninsured—but I hope it will be a good investment?
  • Continued to expand my database of potential clients.  To do this I looked at client list of a local consulting firm for strategic planning.  I identified non-profits on their list who’s activities were similar to my target group, and prioritized those organizations that had a prominent “Donate” button on their websites.  My video service, remember, is designed to help increase donations, so my best clients will have that as a priority.  Many non-profits also post their annual report in their About Us pages.  This often contains information on both their general budget and their fundraising budget.  Knowing this information makes it clear that I understand something about their needs, and gives me a sense of what I should charge.  

    Launched my video production web pages.  This is a big milestone for me:  even though it's not "finished," I can now respond to Craigslist and Thumbtack postings because I can refer them to my work.  For the time being, my video pages are a section of my photography website.  This may change in the future, but as long as I have limited examples of my video work I feel it's important to show my photography as supporting imagery.  The video section has three pages: a Home page with my examples; a Process page that explains how I work with clients; and a Contact page.  There are just six videos in my portfolio-- in other words, the bare minimum.   
    Next post: Mastering the marketing language

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Branded Content Videos

Branded content is a bit of an umbrella terms for the merger of brand marketing with other content-- either educational or entertainment.  Imagine a tutorial on a subjected related to your product, or short film that features your product, and you've found an example of content marketing.  It works because it either fulfills an immediate need (tutorial) or touches the viewer emotionally (film).

Branded content has taken off in the video world as digital media has become richer and technology has allowed viewers to circumnavigate traditional ads. In today's environment your audience has to want to watch your ad.  Gone our the days when ads are forced on them every 12 minutes.  If your business isn't doing content marketing-- or your video company producing it-- you are waay behind the curve.  Delve deeper, see examples, and learn more on Hurricane Images' company blog

Monday, March 20, 2017

Going Pro: Back to Front

We've been talking a lot about your "identity"-- as defined by your niche and the qualities that make up your competitive edge-- and that's fine. In this definition, Identity is both who you are and what you mean to your customers, so it's logical to refine those before exploring the basics of starting a company.  This post (which I'll keep as brief as possible) deals with what most artists find to be painful drudgery. But you can't get around it.

"You want a flawless experience 

for your customers"

Twenty-five years of producing theatre taught me how manage the craziness of opening night.  Regardless of how well you plan, how much lead time you invest, or how competent your team, the final hours before curtain are controlled chaos.  You want the first experience for that first audience to be flawless-- not just the performances but the flow from doorstep to "lights up."  The mistakes that catch most new producers by surprise is the face that so many things are being done for the first time on Opening Night (or Preview, if you're lucky enough to have one):  the first time you put out the sign, the first box office, the first petty cash, first refreshments, seating, curtain speech.   Opening a business isn't so different.  You want a flawless business experience for your customers.

The technique I learned for managing those final hours before the first customer is to work from back to front.  The front is your doorstep... or the customer's first "awareness" of you.  In the theatre this was putting out the street sign that says OPEN.  But there's no point in having customers walk in the door unless you've cleaned the lobby, stocked the box office, etc.  So I would start with the back of the business and work forward.  In theater, the "back" is the seating area.  Then you've got the lobby.  Then the refreshment bar, the box office, the elevator, the street.

For a production company, the "front" might be your website (or maybe your contract).  Before worrying about those, you need to set up your back end. So what's back there?

  1. Business license
  2. Bank account
  3. Book keeping system
  4. "Office"
  5. Phone system
  6. Marketing Plan
  7. Video gear
  8. Contracts & paperwork
  9. Website

Have I forgotten anything?  Chime in?

Many of these items I'll discuss in depth later.  In the mean time, I'll dispatch the first two items quickly. You know what a business license and a bank account are, get them. The US Small Business Adminstration can link you to all the info we need to know about setting up a business in your county (most states require county-level registration).  Hopefully you can find your bank.  You'll need forms from your county to set up a business bank account.

Now, since I'm being completely truthful on this blog, I'll confess that I didn't get either of these in the first two years of working as a part-time photographer.  Or the first six months of working as a part-time videographer.  Even though I used the name Hurricane Images, I considered myself a private consultant (not a company) and used PayPal for processing credit cards and my own bank account for checks. (I'm not fond of PayPal's politics, so that may change in the future.)  Since I wasn't a "company" I skipped the business license.  My income started around $150 a month and grew over time to a whopping $500 a month as a part-timer, so I really didn't think it merited a license and an account.  I'm sure my county government sees it differently.  My strong recommendation to you is to knuckle down and get the tedious stuff out of the way immediately.  Two years ago when I started part-time, I wasn't committed to becoming a professional.  You are.
Just joining us?  You can read about the beginning of the "Going Pro" journey here

Friday, March 17, 2017

Going Pro: Reverberation

Day 11:
Our first sonogram.  We heard our baby’s heartbeat. I can’t tell you how awesome (and how frightening) that is.   All of one’s sense of responsibility reverberates in those frantic beats.  160 counts a minute, which (like my own heartbeat in this moment) is a little fast.

 (not my wife, by the way-- a shoot I did last year)


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ikan Beholder 3-Axis Gimbal - 180 Review

There are few products I use regularly, and the Ikan Beholder 3-axis motorized gimbal is one of them.  Hurricane Images Inc. recently shot a Fremo EVO commercial with it, and it was put to extensive use in Jaz Danz’s music video for “Justify My Love.”  
EVO 2 for Amazon Echo Dot

I purchased the larger EC1 model, even though my camera is well below the specs of the cheaper DS1.  Essentially I wanted both the ability to attach heavier lenses and upgrade to a larger camera and the EC1 can balance a 4.5 pound rig.  I wanted my gimbal to be able to grow with my kit.  However, I’m not sure if it was worth the extra $350, so weigh your options carefully.

The wide handle base helps with balancing the Sony A7sii.  You can set it on a table and quickly adjust.  The knobs are easy to find and turn.  Most importantly it does an excellent job of keeping my footage steady.  The Beholder rarely jitters under stress.   I’ve yet to run out of battery, even on the EVO commercial in which used the Ikan exclusively for 4 hour shoots.  I don’t have an estimate on battery life because I’ve yet to run them down.

There are some limitations. It doesn’t work so well with larger lenses because you can’t slide the camera back far enough to find the center of gravity.  Also, you can’t charge the batteries and use the unit at the same time, even if you have a spare set of batteries.  You need to buy a separate battery charger.  The design of many of these motorized gimbals make it difficult to see the screen, but that’s not unique to the Ikan.

Having used it on roughly a dozen shoots, I've become aware of how the "feel" of gimbal/steady-cam footage differs from sliders.  Sliders have a precision that is mechanical in their otherworldly texture.  Gimbals feel more organic, like an otherworldly creature is behind the camera.  Handheld-- done properly, feels human.  $900 is a lot to spend on a piece of equipment, but this is one product I use constantly and it can drastically increase your game.  I've tried cheap, non-motorized equivalents, and they just aren't consistent enough to use on a professional set.  The Ikan Behold gimbal review... worth the money. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Going Pro: Everyone has their own unique... oh forget it.

Everyone has their own unique story?  Yeah.  Maybe.  Or not.  

I’m an entrepreneur.  I’m a Start Up.  These are the hot terms, the lingo kids speak.   Frankly, I’m a workman and when I want to get work done I look for other workpeople.  As the son of one of the few living geniuses in the music world, I know that art is sweat and calluses.  It’s a relentless commitment to the work.  

Do we all have a unique story?  Okay, the answer is “yes,” but I’d prefer we find a less silly way to ask the question.  Something befitting the work we want to accomplish.

 What is my competitive edge over the competition?  Isn’t that the real question?

Define what you do 

in terms of what they want

You’ve chosen your niche, right?  Now it's time to identify the competitive advantage you have over other videographers in your area.  These are the qualities you will highlight your website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube channel, and elevator speech.  The most important rule-- and I’ll repeat: most important rule-- of marketing is to define what you do in terms of what the customer wants and gets.  Which means you don’t talk about what you do or make.  You talk about what they get, based on what they want.  There are a billion good examples in marketing.  You don’t sell laundry detergent, you sell clean, fresh smelling clothes.  You don’t sell beer, you sell a good time (or a pretty girl).  Not eyeglasses but vision. Not carnival tickets but thrills. Not laptops but creativity.  Not... and on and on and on.

Your niche defines your competitors

In defining your niche, you’ve found your real competitors. Articulating what differentiates you from them can be the difference between (business) life or death in the beginning. So do two things:
1.       Go to 3 of your competitors' websites and make a list of the qualities and capabilities they highlight.  If they have testimonials looks at those, too.
2.       Make a list of your own (unique) qualities.  What makes you stand out?  Go beyond “cost”—you don’t want to be the cheapest forever

Here’s an example from one of my competitors:  They used the word “creative” 8 times on a page with barely 200 words of text.  They used the word “story” six times.” They push “concept development” as their strength. They highlight experience and team.  They provided case studies.  In testimonials, their customers used words like fresh, compelling, creativity, joy to work with, worth every penny.  The message is clear:  they make creative concepts that will tell your story; they make creative concepts that tell your story; the make creative concepts that will tell your story.  The making is worth every penny and fun.  The creative is fresh. The concepts are compelling.  They do it through story.
Here’s what I decided were the competitive advantages of Hurricane Images:
·         Personalized service.  I’ll meet with you before contracts or money is discussed
·         Is video new to you? We’ll guide you. We’re hands on, not canned.
·         We have extensive production experience
·         We scale services to fit your budget
·         We’re exceptional at creating compelling concepts and script development
·         We’ve created multi-award winning scripts
·         We provide on-camera coaching for clients going before the camera
·         We connect you to your customers and fan-base.

So what are the “wants” that my customers will get? I'm very geared towards customers who are making their first (professional) video. 

Just joining us?  You can read about the beginning of the journey here

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Going Pro: Case studies in Super Niche

For many, the idea of “Super niching” feels like a pair of handcuffs.  Like you will be limiting potential clients.  If you want to build a company quickly, the natural instinct is to cast a wide net.  The benefits of targeting your audience, however, is central to every book on marketing you’ll ever read (and I recommend you read a couple if you’re just starting out).  Seeing it work in action is impressive, and far more convincing than anything you’ll read in a book, though. 

Hurricane Images Inc - Illy Coffee barista
Illy Cafe Shoot - Illy is a super niche within the coffee world

Case study, Shmuley Hoffman 

Shmuley Hoffman at Hoffman Productions is an excellent example of “super niching.” In fact, that’s who I borrowed the term from.  His company’s primary focus is not simply promotional videos for summer camps, he’s honed it to Jewish summer camps.  As of this publication, he keeps a wonderful-if-brief blog with great business tips for starting out.  In his videoblog interview with Thomas Roberts he doubles down on the super niche idea.  Thomas took his non-video career in medical instruments and turned his contacts into lucrative video clients. It’s a great example of using your existing relationships to identify your niche, and he gives a first-hand account of his experience here:  I always look forward to Hoffman’s amusing and helpful posts.  And Shmuley’s video production is first rate—worthy of study.

Spark Shop Creatives (  is another company that started as a super niche.  I worked on a project with them a few years back and got to share more than a few Indian beers with Chuck Fryberger and his team.  His company grew out of a love for rock climbing.  Chuck started by filming their climbs.  Their self-produced videos attracted the interest of companies like Cliff Bar and climbing equipment companies.  It expanded to Red Bull and detoured into other areas.  But they’ve kept their identity around climbing, sports, and the outdoors.  When you think about it, that’s a huge market.

It’s worthwhile to note that “super niching” (and yes, I’ll stop using that word soon), also positions you as an expert in creating videos for that audience… even if your skill level isn’t above average in general.  If you “specialize” in creating videos for non-profits, you present yourself as an expert in the field just by not catering to everyone.

So how do you pick your niche?  There’s no science to this process, but here’s a tool that might help:
1.       Divide a sheet of paper into three columns
2.       In the first column, make a list of the types of businesses you already interact with professionally; include personal relationships with business owners.
3.       In the second column, list the areas in which you’d say your knowledge borders on expert or near expert; include hobbies.
4.       In the third column, make a list of the clients you’d like to work with.  This might include businesses from your first column, but also dream clients.

Now look for common elements across these three columns. Any item that appears in two or more columns is a potential niche.  Give the first column preferential treatment, because these are potential clients you already know.  Circle the businesses, knowledge areas, and clients that overlap in some way.

Now comes the time for a heart check.  Make another list of the kind of video you’d like to create.  This list can be genre’s (testimonials, documentaries, short film), and also how they will be experienced (uplifting, grand in scope, gritty).  Do the descriptions from the heart check list fit with the clients?  Where’s the most overlap?

Just joining us?  You can read about the beginning of the Going Pro series here.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Going Pro: Conquering Uncertainty

Because of some complications, I know the exact date of conception of my child. Knowing that isn’t exceptional-- most couples can guess-- it’s knowing on the day itself that life has begun.  People don’t tell you how poor the odds are in those first few days. First few weeks. First few months.  It starts below 15% likelihood of survival.  As the cells multiply those odds ever so slowly grow.  One’s heart is bent around the possible child from the first hour-- pinned to hope as embryos show promise, stall, die, grow in fits and spurts.  It is ridiculously unreliable, our reproductive system.  There were times I wondered how anyone was born. 

By the end of the first trimester your odds are looking pretty good (though frankly, still terrifyingly uncertain).  I had a sensation similar to stepping on a broken escalator.  You know intellectually that it’s not moving, but instinctively your foot falters, anticipating the familiar motion below.  And even as I climb the stairs of my own volition, my feet are not quite steady.  There’s an ever so slight sense of vertigo... the anticipation of movement below my feet.  That’s the first trimester.

But you hope.  And hate that hope just a little, for fear of it all falling apart.  There’s a correlation here, to starting ones own company.  The ridiculous, uncontrollable odds.  The vertigo. The anxiety and fear of failure.  My mantra has become a simple cliché:   more dreams have been destroyed by fear than by failure. 

"More dreams have been destroyed

by fear,

than by failure"

So go out and do it, fear be damned.  People say life is short.  That doesn’t motivate me.  Life is long motivates me.  You’ll live with your mistakes, your fears, your missed opportunities for a long, long time.  So if you’ve made a mistake, fix it.  If you’re afraid of something, push it aside.  If the opportunity presents itself, grab it.  Reasonably.  Strategically.  Passionately.

Next time: case studies in successful super niches.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Going Pro: Pick your poison-- super niche

Day 4:
Picking my poison.  The most common advice for photographers embarking on a career is to specialize.  Be a portrait photographer, or an architectural photographer, or product photographer.  When you can, subdivide that specialty: don’t just be a portrait photographer, be a high school graduation portrait shooter, a fashion shooter, or an actor’s headshot shooter.  Super-niche, because there are enough people interested in whatever fraction of the photographic world you choose to sustain you, and the customer wants to know they’re in the hands of a specialist.  It’s good advice, and I think it applies to being a videographer as well.  

Of course, I didn’t follow that advice as a photographer.  But that’s largely because I didn’t start out trying to build a career as a photographer—I wasn’t paying the mortgage with that income so I could afford the lean months.  In fact, I never made more than $1600 a month as a photographer, and most were closer to $500.  I’m glad I chose that path; it gave me a broader base of work, and because I wasn’t in a hurry, over time I created a broader base of clients. 

But this wasn’t a gentle stroll towards a client base.  I needed a grab—the fastest, surest path to generating income while staying true to the types of shoots I found satisfying. 

Pick a specialty

So here is step number one:  you need to pick your niche.  This comes before a business plan (though some would say it’s the first step of a business plan), your marketing plan, your website-- everything.  Pick a niche that is both of interest and can generating income for you.  Not for someone else.

 What does that mean, exactly?  The temptation is to pick the most attractive niche… what you really want to be shooting.  Set that aside.  Look at who you are right now: what field do you work in now? What hobbies do you immerse yourself in?  Those are your best bets because you’ve got connections… trust in those areas.  Don’t think, “wouldn’t it be great to make documentaries” if you’ve never created a documentaries.  That’s your 2-year plan.  Your today plan is to partner with potential customers that are already in your circle.  Don’t rush this decision. You probably have more history to draw from than you think, and those connections have other connections.

You already work in your niche

I’ll repeat myself:  examine your current business and your hobbies in order to find your niche.  If you work at Dairy Queen, fine.  The first company you should approach is Dairy Queen.  Then boutique ice creameries.  Then specialty deserts.  Then specialty restaurants and major ice cream makers. 

Here’s the misconception about picking a niche.  You’re not picking the genre  you’ll shoot for the rest of your career.  You’re picking your first bread a butter clients.  Branching out to other forms of videography is much easier when you have a body of work and a regular flow of income.

My work had been environmental health, specifically in chemical exposures that affect human health.  Over the past couple of days I researched other agencies that do similar work. Those included companies that do almost identical work, and then expanded out to companies that do similar work. Even if I don’t know anyone at those companies, they’ll recognize and respect my agency.  And they’ll treat my correspondence with professional respect.  They won’t ignore any email or call, because they may end up in a meeting with me next month—even if they’ve never met me before. 

I put together a simple Excel spreadsheet.  The categories were:  

Organization   Type   Contact Person   Email   Phone   Address   Outreach

My “identical” companies included competitors for my current employer.   These groups did environmental health research and education.  Then I added companies that did environmental advocacy and education.   These included both small community based organizations and governmental agencies.  On this list I also included my own company as a potential customer.  I started with 10 names on this list, knowing that it would… should grow over time as I made more contacts.  These included my company’s current competition; another company that had interviewed me for a position I didn’t get; another that was the colleague of a CBO I served on the board of; a government agency that had funded other projects for my company years ago; and a couple of organizations I didn’t really know. Out of these 10, the goal is to land 2.

Next time:  conquering uncertainty

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Going Pro: Doomsday

Day 1 (December 24th, Christmas Eve):

The decision:  become a filmmaker in 180 days.  I didn’t reach this decision lightly—wait, did I say 180 days? 

 I did.  

A New World in 180 Days

Initially, I planned to do this in just six months-- though in truth my goal was to land my first truly professional job... something that paid close to a living wage.  The gulf between one gig and sustained income is enormous. however, I wrestled with the wisdom and practicality of making this career change at my stage in life. I didn’t reach it of my own volition—I was driven to it. 

My wife was ten days pregnant when my boss sat me down and explained that my job would be ending.  I was grant-funded, and the opportunities had dried up. They could keep me on at 30% time for the next ten months, or 60% time for six months.  After that was a mystery. 

Currently, I was a 70% time employee, filling the rest of my work-week with either theatre production (which I had done part-time and for peanuts for decades) or photography.  I had done a smattering of video work on top of my new part-time career of photography… just enough to wet my interest and make it clear that I did not have the skills to create video at a professional, competitive level.  My videos were muddy, ungraded, with mediocre sound, and choppy edits.  Luckily, they had been created for an organization with even lower standards (and a greater sense of pleasant surprise) than I, so at least the customer was happy.  But they wouldn’t have passed any reasonable critique from even a film student, let alone professional.  I was fifty-one years old, a ridiculous age to start a new career.  I had a mortgage and a child on the way.  I was also tired of getting close to the work and security I wanted from my job only to have it shaken up by outside forces.  

"Showing irritation is rarely 

to your advantage."

Sitting across the table from my boss, I sighed inwardly.  We'd faced lean times before.  I believe that showing irritation or unhappiness is rarely to your advantage.  I knew the real difference between ten months at 30% and six months at 60% was insurance.  At 60% I would have health insurance.  For a new family that would be $800 a month on the open market.  But I also knew that in my particular field—environmental health education-- ten months had the possibility of stretching longer; we were constantly searching for new opportunities.  

I told him six months at 60%.  One hundred and eighty days of guaranteed employment, and then….

And then.  Before the clock ran out I needed to develop not just a plan for my new company, but book enough production jobs to accumulate the working capital needed to support a mortgage and a child.  In (what later became) 40 weeks, I needed to almost double my monthly income so that I could not only walk away from the day job but have the resources to sustain a new business.  And last week I did just that—walked away.

This is precisely how I did it.

Next post: picking your poison-- the art of the super-niche.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Going Pro: A New Series

This series is about how to start a successful video production company in 40 weeks.  Forty seems like an odd number in this situation.  Sure, it’s four groups of ten and there are plenty of lists of 10—ten best, ten worst, ten tips, ten commandments….  Groupings of ten just work.  But that’s not why I picked 40 weeks.  It’s the length of a human pregnancy, the ultimate metaphor of creation.  And that was one of the little earthquakes that rattled my world: my wife had just gotten pregnant.  (Okay, that sounds like she did it all by herself when in reality I’m at least 50 percent responsible—50… 50… hmm, that’s a good number.)  

Hurricane Images Inc - Magic bridge, China

In 40 weeks I had to not only start a company, but make it successful.

"Let go of your day job; 

live off your videography"

What do I mean by successful? I believe that anyone who makes money at their craft—whether it’s $25 a shoot or $2500—has earned the right to call themselves a professional. But I’m setting the bar higher for this series.   By successful I mean you’re positioned to let go of your day job and live off your videography work. 

This Going Pro series outlines the steps, theories, and practical bits that went into my 40-week evolution from part-time photographer to full-time videographer/photographer.  It's not a road map, precisely, because there are many ways to make this journey. It's more like a suitcase for the journey.  A suitcase that someone else has packed for your journey, full of surprises-- and hopefully vitally useful items.  The series will spread out over the next three months or so.

To accomplish this in 40 weeks you must have some knowledge of videography.  If you don’t, you better add another “pregnancy” to your timeline in order to get up to speed on the technical aspects., because this isn’t for absolute beginners.

Hurricane Images Inc - Forbidden road, Turkey

Nor is this for established cinematographers (in fact, I hope some of them chip in to make this series more useful). This is designed for skilled crafts-people who are planning to make the leap into a professional career.  This includes the business structures, strategies for reaching clients, the products I use the most, and advanced techniques that will help separate you from the hobbyist.

"Nuts and bolts of business and art"

So I won’t write about 3 point lighting; but I’ll may discuss 4-point lighting, which is the difference between an amateur lighting design and a beginning professional.  I won’t talk about how set up a website; but I may write about what should be included and how to coordinate across web platforms.  I’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of contracts; I’ll balance production approaches with business methodology.  But mostly—and I hope most usefully—I’ll give a blow-by-blow account of the steps I took to establish a production company. I believe a honest personal account can yield more gems than a dry instructional guide… and is harder to come by even in these days of self-promotion.

I’ll post at several times a week.  It may take a few entries before the meat and potatoes of “how to” start to appear.  But trust me, there’s a method to the madness of going pro. 

Next post: we’ll get in the time machine. We’re story-tellers; we need to start at the beginning.