The method of transitioning from film student to business owner isn't exactly an obvious path. There are a number of useful strategies you must to add to your game in order to successfully make the jump. Once you master these new skills you will be facing a whole new set of entrepreneurial challenges far beyond what creative education has likely prepared you for. The key to overcoming them consists of seeking the right mindset, people, and tactics.
We're going to breakdown 5 pivotal steps to take if you are interested in starting your own production company after film school. I used many of these same strategies during the creation of my own video production company Clum Creative. Following these steps provides a clear outline for scaling up your business from one ambitious film student to a full fledged CEO.
Step 1: Have a service you can sell
The fact you attended film school doesn't automatically qualify you to make marketing videos for businesses. You have to build a portfolio of sellable work with examples that are relevant to the companies you are pitching. This means that aside from demonstrating the ability to produce high quality video, your work will need to reflect the specific needs of your clientele. The 30 minute short film you made in school is unlikely to impress someone who wants a business overview video, explainer video, training video, or sizzle reel. Go learn how to produce these styles of video and do it well, then you can begin to build a reliable and profitable list of clients.
The easiest way to get experience making corporate videos is through doing free work. Working for free isn't always ideal but in the beginning it allow you to develop new skills and expand your portfolio. It also helps to establish relationships with clients who could offer paid opportunities in the future. I'd recommend this strategy even for people who are trying to get a job in video production. Reach out to the marketing director of 100 companies and offer to do one free video project. Choose small to midsize businesses that are likely to respond but will also provide meaningful portfolio pieces. You want to do this strategically and make it worth your time.
Once a manageable handful of companies have agreed to accept your free work you can then start to build your new business focused portfolio. Remember to take these projects seriously despite the fact they are unpaid. The videos in your portfolio should reflect the best you can do as an individual. Get 3 or 4 solid example videos showing what you can offer potential clients.
When you're finished with your initial list, reach out to an additional list of companies after that.
As time goes on you will develop a strong body of work that will make it easier to gain paid gigs.
Step 2: Get to $5000 a month
If you're just getting out of college, you have to develop a profitable client list. You need 1-5 projects a month that are totaling at least $5,000 in revenue. This will require you to master the art and science of finding good leads. Your best weapon in the beginning will be cold outreach through Linkedin, email, and over the phone. Learn how to network and package your services on a website and vimeo. The goal is to create a personal brand and get that in front of people. As a freelancer, you must build a pipeline that can support the demand of 1-6 projects a month.
The big key here is mastering the concept of time expansion. You can't simply manage time, you need to expand time. Optimize your business in a way that allows you to get leads even while you're working on other things. You have to be able to do everything at the same time. If you can't do that it will hinder your ability to establish a functional business. Finding a way to streamline and juggle your workflow is the secret to becoming a one person company.
Maximizing your time is best done though smart shortcuts and careful planning. Keep an organized calendar, maintain direct contact with clients over the phone, and regularly track the status of each project. Becoming an effective project manager is only way to succeed here.
Step 3: Hire subcontractors
Freelance life isn't an actual company just yet. If you want to reach that level you have to build a subcontract model. Recruiting other people to do some of the work enables you to take your sales from $5000 to $15,000 a month. That will require additional outreach, more business development, and utilizing existing accounts to sell them more services.
As you bring on subcontractors for projects you will have to split a portion the profits. If you are able to sell a $5,000 video you need a shooter and editor that you can pay $500 to shoot and $1000 to edit. There is a risk that comes with spending money to save yourself time because you are betting that the extra time is going to make you money. When you are able to successfully leverage the extra time you saved the total revenue can then compound.
In order to make this work, you want to find groups of freelancers who can do high-quality work but aren't charging at a premium. Creating a network of people who are charging a standard hourly rate will allow you to pay them a lower percentage without them feeling compromised.
Step 4: Hire a full-time staff
Once you are approaching $30,000 to $40,000 a month in revenue with contractors you should transition to hiring a full time workforce. Initially, you can start with a shooter, producer, and editors. It is of great importance that you hire people who are the right fit for your company. These employees should enjoy the work and have a deep understanding of the industry. Always lean towards hiring an experienced production team. The $10,000 difference in salary is worth it in the case of critical job functions such as shooting and editing.
Here are some signs of an experienced employee:
- A clear sense of accountability
- The ability to work independently
- Comfort while mentoring others
- Strong portfolio they can explain
- Enthusiasm for their duties
Start to develop a company culture that new employees can assimilate to. Along the way you will discover that your business must become more formalized in certain areas. Get a payroll system, iron out your policies, and find a CFO. During this stage your duties will begin to focus more on management. You are likely to still be selling but you must also learn how to lead.
Step 5: Become a true business owner
At this phase you are bringing in $100K a month in sales with a team of about 10-15 people guided by middle management. Your main focus aside from monitoring general operations is being strategic on how to support your sales team. Rewire how you think about work and what you are doing. You should be supporting the efforts of your employees instead of doing the work yourself. Getting to this point provides you with freedom, time, and money. There is still plenty of work involved but the decision to build a company will ultimately be worth it. With all the time, money, and energy you put in as a freelancer, you may as well strive for this stage of business.
For anyone who is aspiring to succeed at this level of business I strongly recommend a book titled “The E Myth" by Michael E. Gerber. The book uncovers common pitfalls that keep a small business from growing and shares an insightful perspective I've found useful in my own journey.
As a film student you have already honed a sense of creativity that will assist you in the path to becoming a business owner. From this point on your success relies on your ability to scale and adapt those sensibilities to the corporate world. The path less traveled is now at your feet.
Mike Clum is the CEO of Clum Creative, a video production company serving marketing departments and entrepreneurs across the US. Clum also produces the Teddy Baldassarre YouTube show which is one of the leading online media outlets in the watch industry.