3 Things I’m Learning as a Small Media Business Owner

For the last few weeks, I’ve wanted to write down — mostly for myself — some of the biggest lessons I’ve been learning as a small media business owner. These lessons are not original — I doubt these will surprise you. Nonetheless, I’ve wanted to write the following lessons down for several reasons: (1) the way I process information/emotions is very verbal, and writing this will help ingrain these lessons deeper within me; (2) these Facebook essays I write serve a secondary purpose as nice mementos that are, for me, if not ‘better than’ then at least ‘more efficient’ than any picture or video could, which maybe is just a little bit ironic; and (3) who knows maybe you’ll find this interesting in some capacity.

I’ve been doing Jolie Media for several years now, but it hasn’t been until very recently — I’d say the beginning of this year — that I’ve felt truly confident. Yes, I’m booking clients way more than I ever have before (in recent weeks, between my organizing job and my small media business, I have been under-sleeping most days). But it’s way more than just the business side. Deep to my core the business side is necessary but secondary. It is creatively — and this has taken me years of work and practice — that I finally feel that my skill level/artistic output is of sufficient professional quality. Not where I want to be, but sufficient.

And so, my confidence in my filmmaking and photography skills is newfound. As I look back on this essay in the future, I want to keep this context of the following lessons in mind. I feel very much at the beginning of my journey…

(1) Be extraordinarily aware of my mission & values.

In the beginning of Jolie Media, and for the vast majority of its existence, the tagline was “I take photos & make films for progressive candidates & organizations throughout the Sacramento region.” This was appropriate because this is exactly what I was doing. As I started to realize that there was a very real need for a budget-friendly media option for struggling campaigns, non-profits, and grassroots organizations, I updated my tagline into a personal mission: “My personal mission is to become the premiere service creating films & photosets — at a Hollywood-level of quality — for progressive candidates & organizations throughout the Sacramento region.” I found myself repeating some version of this line over and over and over, which has helped brand my business in extremely helpful ways — but more on that in a bit.

In the last six months, I’ve either done work for or agreed to work for the following campaigns & organizations: Katie Valenzuela for Sacramento City Council, Caity Maple for Sacramento City Council, Karina Talamantes for Sacramento City Council, Jaclyn Moreno for Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, Mo Kashmiri for Sacramento County Office of Education, Jasjit Singh for Sacramento County Office of Education, Walter Kawamoto for Sacramento County of Education, Alana Matthews for Sacramento District Attorney, Ian Arnold for Dixon School Board, the California Labor Federation, the Sacramento Central Labor Council, the Center for Workers’ Rights, and several grassroots organizations. At first, I was seeking these clients out and doing a lot of work pro bono; increasingly, I am the one who is being approached, and I have been increasing my rates (by absolute necessity, more on this later). At least in some small way — and beyond my wildest expectations for what would happen by April 2022 — I can be as confident as I can be that my personal mission of becoming the premiere service creating films & photosets for Sacramento progressives, at least for how I personally define “progressive,” may end up becoming a reality.

In the last few months in particular, as the business continues to grow and expand, I’ve been reflecting on what I want Jolie Media to be. For example, if I did corporate videos I could certainly make a lot, a lot more money. But I’ve been a union organizer for almost a decade now — the explicitly political mission is congruent and authentic to who I am, even as I change and grow. The way I view it, union organizing is a service I do for others for others; even as Jolie Media is a service for others for myself, I still very much view it as a service. So with all this in mind — and also in reflecting that I’ve occasionally hired help — I’ve since created a Company Mission: “Jolie Media brings Hollywood to progressives. We promote progressive politics by creating films, photosets, & multimedia events for candidates & organizations throughout the Sacramento region.”

I used to really struggle with making decisions about Jolie Media — but I no longer. At least not most of the time.

The reason I don’t struggle with decision making is I am crystal clear on my mission and my values. “Should I pay any hired help a good wage, even if it hurts my bottom-line and sometimes means I (as the business owner) do not take home much money?” Yes. I’ve been a union organizer for almost a decade, and my labor values will not be changing. “If I am approaching total capacity, how do I choose between clients?” Whichever client will bring me closer to my Company Mission. “But, like, what if you have to choose between a corporate client who will pay you well versus a truly progressive grassroots organization who needs a reduced rate?” Again, I reference my Company Mission. By always referencing my Company Mission and my values, it usually becomes clear what decisions I need to make.

The other thing that being crystal clear on my mission and values has done — I am fairly confident in saying — is that it’s been one of the primary reasons the business has grown. I have defined for myself an extreme niche for myself — and I think this extreme niche is precisely why my client list is the way it is. I’ve captured exactly what I want my market to be.

(2) Way way way overestimate expenses and way way way underestimate revenue.

It’s an open secret: at the moment and for the foreseeable future, my secondary Company Mission might as well be, “Take all of the hard-earned money Ian has made his entire adult life, and all the non-vital money he earns from his union organizing job, and hell why not let’s take even more than that, and throw those benjies into the financial dumpster fire that is Jolie Media.”

My Company Mission is to bring Hollywood to progressives, and so I fully anticipated the expenses on all the equipment it takes to make professional film — which, I’ll just be frank, is tens of thousands of dollars. What I didn’t fully expect are all the hidden costs: replacing and repairing equipment, business fees (I’m currently resisting the urge to become a libertarian hahaha), totally random specialty equipment costs (who knew I would end up needing a bunch of 50- and 100-foot cables that I’ve only ever used on one job so far), random rental costs, etc.

So far, every time I’ve attempted to make a financial plan for Jolie Media, I have way, way, way underestimated expenses and way, way, way overestimated revenue.

When I first started Jolie Media, I hadn’t planned on ever charging a fair-market fee — and moving forward, I have made the firm commitment not to take a fair-market fee for any candidate & organization who cannot afford it. Again, Jolie Media will always have a progressive political mission. But at this point, the reality is I literally cannot afford not to charge clients who are way-more-than-financially-healthy the full value of what I’m worth. At this point, not to seek full-market fees for those who can afford them would mean I couldn’t do pro bono work.

I recently sought the services of a business consultant. Since my consultation, I am now a lot more confident that the business side of Jolie Media will continue to improve, but it has been a humbling learning experience for sure.

Who knew, business was, like, sort of hard? Hahaha.

(3) Have extremely clear communication & have a solid contract.

I recently went through an experience where a campaign (who I won’t name) rescheduled on me three times throughout the entire project. For them, it meant moving around a 4-hour block of time multiple times, but for me — with careful equipment planning, equipment load (which takes an hour), driving, and equipment unload (another hour) — it meant that the job was challenging business-wise, sure, but also that it was destructive to several days of my life as a person. Ever since this experience, I’ve made a point to very clearly communicate that while I understand campaign life is hectic, re-scheduling on me is highly discouraged.

This is just one example of how I’ve learned that clear communication is necessary. And I’ve learned, clear communication is appreciated! I’ve learned that clients — well, at least my clients hahaha — want to know what to expect and how to best work with me.

The aforementioned business consultant wrote me a solid general-use contract that clarifies a lot of these issues, including creative control, cancellations, “sensitive political information” confidentiality, intellectual property rights, etc. This has greatly, greatly reduced my anxiety — legally, socially, politically, etc. And as I said, I’ve learned that my clients appreciate it too.

***

When I first started my union career nine years ago, every new concept I learned was novel, fascinating, and deeply engaging. I still find union organizing deeply engaging — it is one of the deepest loves I have in this life. But nine years in, I no longer have those novel “the first time” experiences. In many ways, actually, my appreciation for union organizing is much deeper. In some ways it has become spiritual.

But oh man — novelty sure is fun.

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