A never stop improving mentality
We passed a new milestone. It's been five years of being an official business on the books. While we've been at this for just under a decade, it was only five years ago we saw an opportunity to make this thing the real deal and a business instead of only a passion. A lot of good and bad has happened over the years. I'd say the most significant thing that's been here is consistency, drive, and direction.
Any business owner or creative will tell you horror stories and challenges that have knocked them down, or they've persevered the journey. We're proud that we've managed to survive so many things, and each year has had similar and new challenges. So what's it actually been like for us?
Our humble beginnings started because any effort in the creative world was failing. What I saw as a lack of respect and drive was poor leadership, direction, and being too quiet to voice feelings on my part. So I parted ways to make my own thing my way. And so a JECP Facebook page was born, and a logo was created. We strived to evolve our creativity for those first five years, build a great reel, find clients who would hire us, and develop projects that got better and better.
Those early years we took anything and everything and poured our hearts into our work with very little long-term planning other than "one day this will pay off." In 2015, we caught a natural groove with our existing artists, our team was shaping up, and we started making better partnerships and relationships through Ohio that we're helping us grow. That year we booked TONS of work, missed several deadlines, drank lots of energy drinks, and pulled many muscles. We were a mess and under tremendous pressure and only doing this part-time, engaging in several sleepless nights. So in March of 2016, we LLC'd and went full time. That year the pressure was on, and we did a ton of great work and started getting more experience in the business.
For year one, the main takeaway was that I was finally not fronting costs from my personal bank account, making taxes a thing I was more eager to tackle. It revealed that we weren't charging enough, and I was never accurately budgeting, just throwing out rates I thought were fair. While we did incredible work, we barely scraped by and finished the year. This revealed what I called "Go-mode" when you focused only on the work, getting it done, and what's next. While we chatted about production, we didn't review numbers, negotiate any costs, and agreed to about anything, even lack-luster proposals. After this year, we started making an effort to analyze issues more critically and frequently than tax time. After that, we started pitching a bit higher and focusing more on a sales process we liked.
UNSDco | Great Work is Made Together (Old Music Marketing Agency)
In 2017, we caught our groove pitching and facilitating good meetings. We built some great connections and felt we were pitching projects we were passionate about with art direction as a core focus. This year was the highest booked year we ever had and the year I became a father. All of this equated to missed deadlines. It was a weird year because we got a lot done with very little time but failed miserably in other areas. We saw a massive increase in our team's drive and technical skills, our work was evolving very fast, and it led to an incredible demo reel in 2018. Even with all of the typical pitfalls, the most significant hurdle we faced was freelancer payments. While the team was growing and we were getting a touch better at budgeting, we were still missing the mark, and clients were late on payments or just ghosting us. At the end of 2017, I owed $7400 in late freelancer fees, and for us, that was a lot.
By the tail end of 2017, the thing that turned it around and got us back on track was a new discipline to time management and pre-production planning. I was hemorrhaging money and didn't want to take a creative step backward. I started looking deeply at structure, information sharing, and systems to make things work better. Tackling collections was the hardest but most significant. I created a system that made it flexible for people to pay yet had strict terms that were clear to understand and made it far more automated so that I wasn't doing so much admin work (Here's a detailed blog on that subject).
Next, I got cautious with time. I started measuring each task I would do and putting everything into a calendar. I felt good routines and practices would become a habit and make the same time available feel like more. These habits started making each aspect I previously hated a lot less overwhelming and more enjoyable. My feelings on business processes started to evolve from stress and annoyance to love and care, a welcomed change.
The last piece of the puzzle was pre-production. If I could start planning and pre-visualizing projects like on larger budgets, I would have smaller teams yet still reach the creative goals. This shift single-handedly allowed us to grow with discipline and strategically pay off all the overdue invoices we had. Once we nailed this down, it felt like we were really on track to somewhere special.
In early 2018 we had all the invoices caught up and paid off and vowed to never go over a net 30 again. This year I decided to focus on financial growth and think more like a producer than a DP. With that, our business approach drastically changed, with me doing more freelance work and less client-focused and releasing the first demo reel we were genuinely excited for the world to see. Honestly, 2018 almost broke us. We released our reel and heard nothing for 4.5 months. Our crew fell off with the lack of work, lost interest, or got real jobs, and for Ross and I, we almost threw in the towel too. Luckily, we found a few things to hold onto, mostly taking time to find ourselves and what we wanted out of this career more than incredible work. It was relationship-focused and helping our clients through strategy to reach goals. Having a focus gave us clarity about who we wanted to work with and who we didn't. While this year was financially devastating and emotionally draining, we caught our groove around June and started knocking anything and everything out.
Just as we were warming up, we got robbed on a shoot (no harm, just a B&E to my car), and like that, $12k worth of gear was gone, and guess who was too silly and cheap to have gear insurance back then? You guessed it, us. Luckily for us, this moment didn't just sting. We had a massive outreach of support from the creative community, and it revealed to us that people cared about who we were, the work we do, and the quality of people we had become. A GoFundMe was set up, and many phone calls were had. To be honest, before this, we felt isolated and alone in the industry. We assumed very few cared about our work or the value we tried to bring to others, but at this moment, we realized we had an even more significant reason to keep pushing than the work we do. We learned how impactful and vital a community is.
In 2018 our hearts grew, and so did our curiosity. We realized we were still on the long-term journey and had something special in us. We started re-building our team and with more care to culture and respect. I started nailing our budgets down, and Ross and I found our strengths and started playing to those. The year had plenty of setbacks, but the drive and growth far outweighed those setbacks. It still shocks me thinking back to those events and how a negative situation still presented positive by-products.
2018 Reel | Ideas Made Possible
The following year, we set out to make our projects a lot bigger and start to create for ourselves. This year's highlight was that we finally had a significantly profitable year, a healthy amount of projects, and turned a terrible previous year around. We started slowly implementing Profit First which was a game-changer, and our team started sharing more feedback about what was unique about our production company. It felt like we were in our sweet spot, lots of people were reaching out, and we had managed to produce educational content, start a few new brand ventures and get our feet wet in narrative work. We even managed to buy back 70% of our stolen gear from the previous year.
What made this year so rewarding was that we had structure and systems playing in our favor. We were more careful about what projects made sense for us and what ones we should pass on. We started viewing how we could be creative directors (direct clients), a production company (other directors, producers, or agencies), and still maintaining freelancing involvement. It was so diverse and focused on serving a better experience for our clients and our crew that the year's growth and rewards created a sense of feeling bulletproof. While I knew we have plenty of development to do, I felt our trajectory was about to take a significant turn upward, and there were opportunities finally validating it.
We've shared deeply about 2020 already, but to keep it simple, we had a lot of momentum built from 2019, and it got pulled away. Right before COVID spiked, we were negotiating a contract 9x larger than anything we'd been considered. Unfortunately, the world turned upside down, and we had a new adversary to survive. Operating for just under a year on the Profit First system created some safety and structure to keep our heads above water. Also, we made more purchases that allowed us to create more freely in 2020, so a large amount of personal content became our focus. The year also revealed to us how important human connection is and different ways to do that safely. If you want to take a deeper dive, (here's a blog on it).
As we advance into 2021, I feel I've completely evolved into a producer who DP's only when I do my job well enough. We're excited about all the stacking up projects and how eager each person is to work with us. I believe surviving this last year has created a unique opportunity to stand out for the values and work ethic we've embodied for nearly a decade. We're trying to scale the teams back up and get creatives in the roles they deserve and want. I'm personally trying to stay in my lane with budgeting and helping make vision possible by giving Ross the creative freedom he deserves to make each project its best. This divide and conquer approach has helped us manage time better, stay more laid back and ensure our best creative output.
JECP | The Music Video Makers
It's been a tumultuous five years, but I know the next five will be even crazier with more complicated obstacles ahead. We're going to handle them the best we can and hopefully add value to others along the way. In 2011 things got serious, and I assumed I'd be in this space for 6-8 years max before people wouldn't care anymore. I'm so incredibly grateful people still love our work, seek us out and enjoy who we are. JECP is still kicking and growing, taking it one day at a time.
Outside of the specific aspects, building a business is something I did by accident. I wanted to do creative work, admire many other creatives, and often even diminish my spirits by comparing myself to others. In the years I've spent building this, I've learned to give myself the appreciation I deserve, manage a healthy digital diet, give back to others, grow people around me, build community, and how important educating the next generation around my pitfalls is. Being bilingual in business and creativity has contributed to as much happiness as it has frustrations. The work isn't easy, and at times, you feel helpless, alone, depressed, and drained, but managing your expectations and controlling what you can give you a sense of peace. I never thought I would be here, with many caring people around me, telling me what we're doing is inspiring or motivating. I appreciate what I have and yet to reach. Tomorrow's problems are my future rewards.