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

About 5 months ago, I wrote an essay titled “3 Things I’m Learning as a Small Media Business Owner.” The title of that essay was pretty self-explanatory.

I wrote that essay as a nice personal memento — for while the 3 lessons I had learned were not exactly profound & earth shattering (the first lesson in that essay was simply “be extraordinarily aware of my mission & values”), those 3 lessons were profound… at least to me. I’m sure you’ve been there. When you sincerely throw your full self into a new pursuit, abstract concepts that might seem banal (like “be extraordinarily aware of your mission & values”) suddenly take on a sort of ethereal embodiment that personally feels way deep.

I am extremely verbal in how I process my experiences — so writing the first “3 Things I’m Learning as a Small Media Business Owner” was a selfish and (dare I say) self-indulgent endeavor. So too will this essay be a self-indulgent endeavor.

My media business has grown substantially — and in a way that feels absurd to me. I just told you twice that these essays are self-indulgent, so let’s review highlights of what’s happened in the last 5 months: in June, I was able to create 7 campaign ads for 7 of Sacramento’s most progressive candidates; in July, I teamed up with Bright Coast Productions to create a (soon to be released) documentary on the Sacramento homelessness crisis; I’ve been continuing my exhaustive quest to network through the Sacramento film & media community, and because of these intensive networking efforts, I’m getting regularly invited to work on other people’s productions and attend media-related events; and I now have more offers to do film & media gigs than I can possibly handle. That is, even while raising my rates on clients who can afford higher rates, I still have to occasionally turn down gigs.

…look, I warned you. Three times! Here’s a fourth: it’s about to get much worse.

Lesson #1: As a business owner, I am responsible for everything.

A political campaign reached out to me at the height of the recent heat wave, a few weeks before Sacramento was about to hit its highest temperature in decades of 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The campaign wanted both film & photo of the candidate participating in a historic political action. (For the sake of privacy, I’m going to keep the details of this story — and frankly, the next story as well — pretty vague.) I was concerned about the heat, but my much deeper concern was that the campaign was asking me to do both film & photo. Doing both film & photo at the same event is a tricky affair, and even veterans who cross the videography-photography divide warn against doing both at the same gig. I explained my concern to the campaign, and the campaign came back with a generous compensation package. I thought about it for a second, and figuring I could just subcontract the film half of the gig to a close friend, I said yes.

I was delighted — I could do half of the work, and arguably the easier half of the job, and still keep half of the compensation package! I was delighted, until… the actual gig. It was a physically grueling gig. We had to run around for hours, carrying our equipment for several miles, while in 109 degree heat. Given that this was my media company’s reputation on the line, and given the stakes of needing to document the candidate at a historic political action, I pushed and pushed and pushed myself. I felt exhausted by the end of the production, but it was worth it: the photoset I came out with was one of the best I’d ever done in the genre. My video subcontractor on the other hand? He felt exhausted within the first 10 minutes of the production. He captured very, very little usable footage, and did not physically keep up with the candidate; indeed, most of the footage did not include the candidate at all, and the footage that included the candidate was poorly framed, unclear, and way under-stabilized.

Later, when I was at home reviewing the footage, I remember being so, so mad. In truth, if I had taken the whole contract for myself — without a subcontractor — I could have done a much better job (and gotten double the pay). Worse, I felt that the subcontractor had put me in a situation where I was the one who was going to have to bear the consequences of turning in mostly unusable footage to the client. And I hated being mad not just at my subcontractor but my close friend.

Of course, time creates the space for empathy, and the next morning I felt a lot more compassionate. Running around for miles in 109 degree heat was a ridiculous work situation to be in, and had I been a union representative defending a worker whose boss had gotten mad over a similar work situation, I would have passionately defended the worker. Who was I to flip my values suddenly now that I sometimes employ people? (Hey, maybe “be extraordinarily aware of your mission & values” isn’t bad advice after all.) Moreover, I realized that sometimes things go wrong on productions. If I were going to get mad every single time someone who doesn’t have as much personal stake in my media business as I do does something wrong, I would be an extremely unpleasant, unhappy guy.

I’m realizing that as a business owner, I am responsible for everything. And what I can and should focus my attention on is what I have control over. What could I have controlled? I could have selected a subcontractor who was much, much more physically fit. I could have mentally prepared my subcontractor for the fact that this job was going to be extremely physically unpleasant, check in with them before the gig, etc. After I noticed that the subcontractor wasn’t doing their job, I could have taken over and let them rest. Etc., etc., etc.

Later that month, I did portrait sessions for the employees of a large organization. The portraits came out great… except for the fact that a significant number of the employees did not groom themselves. It was initially pretty shocking. The amount of hair frizziness was way, way above average. And I knew that the employees’ lack of grooming would lead to a lot of time and work for me in Photoshop.

I caught myself being annoyed just as the feeling came up, and then I forced myself to turn the situation into a learning moment: “Next portrait session, I’ve got to remind everyone to groom themselves the day before, and for those that forget to groom the day of, I must bring combs and a spray bottle.”

Again, as the business owner, I am ultimately responsible.

Lesson #2: The experience of the service is just as important as the actual service.

Before Jolie Media ever became a serious thing, I was a union staffer for more than 8 years. I’ve been doing work in the community for longer. (And even now despite how busy I am, I still do organizing/political work outside my union organizer job.) It’s because of these relationships — built over a long, long period of time — that my media business had any significant start at all. (Being super blunt, these relationships were how I was able to create 7 campaign ads for 7 of Sacramento’s progressive candidates for the June election cycle.)

Even as my business continues to grow, the vast majority of my gigs come through referrals.

It’s almost as if — as the union organizer in me knows deep in his bones — feelings and experiences are always, always socially informed and constructed. I know a few videographers/photographers who — truthfully, in my opinion — are not very good, but who still get plenty of work because they are genuine, good people. Meanwhile, I know a few extremely talented videographers/photographers who — despite their talent — struggle to find work because they are difficult to get along with.

I was reflecting on all this a few months ago, and for all the above reasons, I’ve made it a point to put lots of effort into upgrading the experience of my services just as much as I try to improve my actual media work. For example, (1) if I am filming a campaign ad, I now send a video feed of what I’m doing to a large monitor so that campaign staff who are on set can watch exactly what I am doing with my camera; (2) I now bring fancy wireless ‘stage headsets’ with me to the multimedia events I produce so that no matter where campaign staff happen to be or what they may be doing, they have the ability to communicate with me in a way that feels novel and special; and (3) before I ever even come to an agreement with a campaign to do any work, I now send clients fancy brochures that explain my creative philosophy and what the process of working with me is like.

Recently, I’ve gotten feedback that the experience of working with me feels highly professional, and I strongly desire to continue upgrading the Jolie Media experience.

Lesson #3: Your Network is Your Net Worth

Here are things that I am good at: writing, photography, videography.

Here are things that I am not good at: graphic design, social media ad targeting, VFX.

As the scope of Jolie Media grows, I am having to sub-contract more and more. And truly good creatives are busy and hard to come by. Even within videography, the reality is that really, really good film takes a crew to create. (And increasingly, I’m having to bring more and more people on set with me. For my shoot with ‘Dave Jones for State Senate,’ for example, the producer who hired me will be on set, as well as a unit production manager and a gaffer/grip. A shoot on my documentary recently included 5 extra people on set.)

The more I delve into building my media business, the more I’m simply relearning what I’ve learned the last 9 years as a union staffer: we are stronger when we are together. We are greater than the sum of our parts. And together we can create great things.

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