A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

I cannot believe how quickly the past year has flown by. Just over a year ago, my business partner Maria Springer and I graduated from the University of Oxford with our MBAs. We felt that the staid, old, complex film industry, especially documentaries, needed further disruption, beyond what Netflix and Amazon were already doing.

Armed with the LEAN principles we were taught in our technology and operations course at Oxford, we set out to make films at record speeds on record low budgets. And, as we learned in business school, it gets faster to make a film every time you do it. You will learn tricks left and right.

It took over 5.5 years from the time I landed in Perugia, Italy to start doing research for AMANDA KNOX until the film was released on Netflix. For our first OBSERVATORY project, EUROTRUMP, it took 9 months from the time we conceived the project until it aired on television on VICELAND in the Netherlands and Belgium and on the Dutch national broadcaster. This is a substantial improvement but there is more work to be done. If not for minor mess-ups along the way, we could’ve had this film ready three months earlier. But we will live and we will learn. We will make process improvements, And we will help others along the way.

Here are the key lessons we learned from making EUROTRUMP in 9 months:

1. Run simultaneous processes: At its simplest level, this means if you are shooting a film you should also be gearing up to sell that film at the same time. This means start making trailers for your film while you are shooting it. It might be a pain, but as they say, “Show don’t tell.”

2 . No deal is a deal until it is a deal. The BBC gave us a contract for this project a few months in. We thought we were set. We thought all was good. Then, the executive we dealt with over there went on vacation and all hell seemingly broke loose inside their headquarters. Our project became too controversial for them. And ultimately it was dropped. This was BY FAR the most stressful month for us over the past year. We didn’t know this rule at the time, so we started coasting, thinking the BBC was a done deal and all was good. It didn’t happen that way.

3. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. As an independent filmmaker, your job is to sell as much as it is to create. If you don’t sell your project, nobody will see it. And then you’ll have an audience of 1.

4. If you make something for $100,000 and sell it for $200,000 you’ve made a profit. If you make something for $600,000 and sell it for $200,000 you’re very deep in the hole. This sounds logical, but too often I see filmmakers who want to raise loads of money, especially for non-fiction projects. If I can make a film for well less than $100,000, then you can too.

5. Hire slow, fire fast. During the past year, we’ve had hundreds of personnel working for us on different projects at OBSERVATORY. It’s been a major ride. I’m grateful that so many of the people who have helped us out are super competent at their jobs. However, we have also had to get rid of a number of people throughout the year, including interns, producers, and edit staff. It is painful when a bad apple, intentionally or unintentionally, ruins the whole bunch. There were many moments when I blamed myself or other people for someone’s incompetence. (For example, if you start fighting with someone you previously worked well with, you have to look around you.) I hate to say this because it lacks scientific proof, but at some point, you have to GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel that a person is hurting your team or your efforts to move your project forward, you’ve got to get rid of them. This is the most difficult but also the most necessary part of being a manager. Once you are rid of your burden, you will immediately feel free. Having nobody working for you is better than having someone work for you who is incompetent and will waste all of your time.

More observations coming soon…

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Broken glasses theory

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Last week, I attended an event featuring three Democratic US Congressmen and one Democratic US Congresswoman. The event celebrated the launch of “Future Forum,” a way for Congress to connect with Millennials to work on issues that matter to young hard-working Americans. Amidst an assembly of New York tech entrepreneurs, the event, held at District CoWork (a co-working space), opened with a cocktail hour.

I signed in, popped on my name tag, headed straight to the bar, grabbed a glass of wine, and was shimmying over to a person I wanted to speak with when the unthinkable happened: My sleeve brushed against someone else’s wine glass, set atop a table , and SPLAT, the glass tumbled to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces.

Within seconds, a hundred faces turned to stare at me. I immediately started to clean up the mess I made. Then, I noticed a man helping me. He’d grabbed a plate and started to pick up large shards of glass with his bare hands. I noticed the man’s lapel pin, denoting him as a Congressman. This was Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Long Islander, who I’d never previously met.

What started off as us working together to expediently clean up the mess I made quickly turned into a conversation. He asked me about my work at Skillbridge, and I explained to him what we are trying to build. We ended up speaking for a while, and when the conversation concluded, he said to me, “Here’s my business card. Give me a call when you’re down in Washington.” Steve Israel’s act of humility — he didn’t have to help me clean anything up — may be why he is in Congress today.

This incident immediately jogged my memory back to a similar one from 2011: I was taken out to dinner by the CBS news crew who were covering Amanda Knox’s trial in Italy. Who saddles up next to me at the table? None other than Peter Van Sant, the news anchor and 48 Hours host. Peter’s an ace: he’s won four Emmy Awards, three Edward R. Murrow Awards, two Overseas Press Club Awards, and more.

A dozen people at our table split a couple of bottles of red wine. And then, after a toast, I put my glass back down on the table, directly on the spot where, under the tablecloth, two tables of unequal heights met. Boom! The red wine spilled all over Peter.

Yet Peter Van Sant faced the red wine with humility. Despite his deeply stained white shirt, he insisted it wasn’t a big deal at all. A precursor to my more recent incident with Congressman Israel, Peter and I ended up talking and laughing all night long.

The lesson is that broken glasses and spilled red wine can be the world’s best icebreakers — and they give larger than life people opportunities to show that they’re human too.

Practical note: An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm taught me that, immediately applying club soda and salt to red wine will remove all stains.

Your body is stronger than you think: Notes after two months on ClassPass.

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I am not a “gym guy.” Other than a very brief stint on an elliptical machine as a sophomore in college, and a second brief stint on a stairclimber at Crunch Fitness in LA in 2008 (conveniently located across the street from my place of residence), I haven’t been to a gym in years. I have always preferred outdoor sports – cycling, flag football, hiking, and tennis. Part of this is because I’m an unabashed germaphobe, and I feared what microorganisms were waiting for me in various locker-rooms and workout machines.

I have never been able to motivate myself to work out regularly: I had a small belly that for years I couldn’t get rid of. Eating and drinking right is — or was — easier for me than partaking in fitness regimens.

During the summer of 2014 I heard about ClassPass from my friend Anastasia Leng. I was intrigued by ClassPass’s value proposition, but I didn’t immediately join: I figured that with so many weekends away in the summer, it wouldn’t be worth it.

However, at the start of Labor Day Weekend, on my 29th birthday, I had a mild existential crisis and thought it would probably be better if I lived to 100 instead of 75. So I joined ClassPass. I decided to plunk down $99 per month to go to dozens of gyms (3x maximum each per month). Yes, this sounds expensive at first, but for me, it was a lifesaver.

What do I love ClassPass? It is perfect for Millennials — especially Millennials with ADHD. There is no commitment to one gym, and every day is different. Sure, some classes I love more than others, but all have value in improving the body.

And I’ve realized: The locker-rooms and machines at 90% of the gyms I have attended are sufficiently well-cleaned so my germaphobia was misguided!

Here are some of my favorite ClassPass classes:

1. BCL Fitness (Prospect Park and Central Park) – Melissa Carter is a lovely person and inspirational teacher. This is a simple boot camp held in Prospect Park or Central Park. You are drenched with sweat after it is over, and it feels so good.

2. Swerve Fitness (at 18th and 5th in Manhattan): I love that this is a cycling class with built-in sprints and competitions. I have become (psychotically?) competitive  – I scored an 809 here recently and was #1 in class. Halston is my favorite instructor here, but the others are equally inspiring. I also love that Swerve emails you your scores 15 minutes after class ends, making great use of data.

3. BFX (at 17th and 6th in Manhattan) – From boxing classes to cycling, this (new!) gym is great. Helpful instructors all around.

4. AQUA Studio NY (78 Franklin St – Tribeca) – This is cycling (spinning) in a pool. Yes, the concept is a bit crazy, but it is an intense workout, but it works wonders after a stressful day/week at work.  Anne K. is my favorite instructor as she doesn’t stop pushing you to your limits.

5. FlyWheel (Multiple locations) – Ah, FlyWheel, the redheaded stepchild of SoulCycle. The teachers here (I have had many) are all special and do such an amazing job of motivating you. One small problem: Waiting in line for the showers after class. Oy!

After two months, I have noticed significant changes in my body: My stomach is flat, my legs feel lighter, my hair looks thicker, my disposition is cheerier,  and either I now have delusions of grandeur or I really feel like I can conquer the world. Despite the unending stress of startup life, I am dealing with it far better than I did previously.

There have been a couple of classes that I haven’t enjoyed as much as the ones mentioned above, but it has probably been a mixture of my personal preferences (e.g. lack of showers or difficult to get to) that have led my to these conclusions. I was excited to learn that ClassPass raised $12 million a few weeks ago and will therefore be around for a while. Give it a shot. I promise you, it will be worth it.

Entrepreneurship is hard, so don’t claim that it’s easy.

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Entrepreneurship has definitely become cooler and cooler in the minds of Millennials during the past 10 years: Facebook was founded in 2004. That gave the Millennial Everyman hope that he too could start a multi-billion dollar business and retain ownership of it to the end. Then, the 2008 stock market crash and the subsequent recession erased the traditional job opportunities that Millennials and others had grown entitled to.

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, majoring in English and History. Why? Because I was told by countless professors and mentors to “study what I loved.” In retrospect, I should have probably focused on Marketing or Computer Science in tandem with one of my two humanities choices, but c’est la vie, those days are behind me.

Today, Millennials are unemployed in record numbers, and many see “entrepreneurship” as the only way out of unemployment. Plus, entrepreneurs wear t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops to work year-round, and don’t have to answer to anyone… But let’s get this straight: Being an entrepreneur is hard work. It is far more difficult to run your own company than it is to be a cog in a wheel at a large corporation. There are many late nights, sleepless nights of nervousness, and you never know where you will be in six months time. Plus, working on weekends isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. That’s stressful, and it’s not for everyone, despite what some pro-entrepreneurship organizations would have you believe.

(Yes, many entrepreneurs become depressed from this stress too.)

Before I started SkillBridge, I had worked at 3 funded startups and started 2 of my own businesses. Both businesses “failed” in the sense that they never were acquired by anyone else, but they were both incredible learning opportunities and earned me a bit of money along the way. However, as I wrote on LinkedIn, you are NOT wasting your 20s working at a large company. My article says, “Many of my most intelligent friends from the University of Pennsylvania and other fine institutions started their careers at Google, McKinsey, or other large tech or consulting firms. Some of them are still there — and those who stuck around seem quite happy. For example, my good friend Josh Steinberg works for Google and now lives in Tokyo, his dream city, and has traveled all around the world, on Google’s dime. My other good friend Anastasia Leng founded Hatch.co after working at Google for 5 years. Neither of them would change a thing about their 20s. They were able to pay off their student loans, travel, and live excellent lives.”

Alas, there is also a grammar problem in the world: You don’t have a “startup” if you are not seeking to scale your business. You simply have a small business, and that is an excellent accomplishment. No, your nut butter stand may never achieve the scale of Nutella, but it’s very cool that you can derive income from it.

There are so many “pre-revenue” entrepreneurs out there, who are great at selling themselves, but once you dig a bit deeper realize they’re all fluff. Putting up a LaunchRock page for your idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur: Go build something, and then tell people you’re an entrepreneur. Go assemble a world-class team, and then say you’re an entrepreneur. Go make enough profit to live off of, and then call yourself an entrepreneur.

Too many people out there are selling this entrepreneurial dream but not detailing the amount of work involved to create it. Sorry kids, there are probably 100 people out there with the same killer app idea that you have, yet having the idea is only the beginning. Strategy and execution are everything.

I wouldn’t change anything about the path that I chose, because I value adventure and not knowing what is around the next corner. However, there have been times when I’ve been ready to turn in the towel. Unless you can tolerate high levels of uncertainty, you won’t go far as an entrepreneur.

Raj De Datta Is Wrong: You are not “wasting” your 20s at Google or McKinsey. Here’s why:

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This morning, when I logged into LinkedIn, I saw an article titled “Don’t Waste Your 20s at Google or McKinsey.” And I disagree with it completely.

The article’s author Raj De Datta writes, “Going to work at a start-up or growth company in your 20s will put you on the fast-lane learning curve. It will be the best investment you can make because you’ll find yourself.” Your 20s, are, of course, a period of 10 years. I am now 28 years old, and have spent approximately half of my time thus far working for others, and the other half working for myself. While I may be happier overall when pursuing entrepreneurial activities, I am very thankful for the many learning experiences I had at big companies.

The article’s author, Raj De Datta has worked at a couple of larger firms, Cisco in the tech space, and at the investment bank Lazard. Perhaps he chose not to learn while working there, or he didn’t want to advance up the corporate ladders of those institutions.

I am more and more dismayed when I see wantrapreneurs striking out with poorly thought out ideas, wasting their parents hard-earned money, or having zero idea how to run a business because they have never worked at a successful one.

I am quite thankful for the time I spent at William Morris Endeavor (only Endeavor when I worked there), Mother Jones magazine (a large non-profit, technically), Seamless.com (now merged with GrubHub), and Quirky.com — all far larger companies than SkillBridge is today. At larger companies you learn to deal with people: Sure, not every person will be the best. But it is your job to learn to work with them, come hell or high water — so that you, your team, and the larger company can succeed. These experiences have certainly benefited me as an entrepreneur: My customer service skills are now superb because of my experiences dealing with colleagues and customers over the years.

As for De Datta’s argument that Google or McKinsey aren’t ideal places to work, that is complete and utter nonsense. My most intelligent friends from the University of Pennsylvania and other fine institutions started their careers at Google, McKinsey, or other large tech or consulting firms. Some of them are still there — and those who stuck around seem quite happy. For example, my good friend Josh Steinberg heads professional services for Google in Tokyo, his dream city, and has traveled all around the world, on Google’s dime. My other good friend Anastasia Leng founded Hatch.co after working at Google for five years. Neither of them would change a thing about their 20s. They were able to pay off their student loans, travel, and live excellent lives that will prepare them well for the future.

It is no secret that at SkillBridge, we recruit individuals to become our consultants who have at least three years experience working at large, name brand corporations. This is not an accident: We know that Google, McKinsey, and other top-tier firms have vetted their candidates well. We know that it is challenging to work at these places and that Google and McKinsey employees solve real-world problems every single day. Therefore, we know that Google, McKinsey, Bain, and BCG produce the cream of the crop. Why wouldn’t we want these top-notch people to work for us at SkillBridge?

Plus, not everyone is an entrepreneur; Not everyone wants the stress of starting a new company. And not everyone can afford to take the risk to work without payment for a long time, as many entrepreneurs do. Many people would rather spend time with their kids or spouse rather than working at a startup.

More than 90% of startups fail, despite what some Millennial-focused publications may have you believe. There is nothing wrong with wanting the stability, benefits, and perks that come with working at a large corporation. If you have to pay back student loans, few more sensible options exist.

There are dozens of valid reasons why someone would want to work at Google, McKinsey, or another top firm. Heck, many people treat a stint at McKinsey, Bain, or BCG as a free ride to graduate school in which you are being paid to work. The training that you will get at these firms is incomaparable, and can lead to life-long benefits — being able to bill out at $150 or more per hour at SkillBridge being just one of them.

So, to Raj De Datta — who may have just written that article as a recruiting tool for his startup: Stop spreading your gospel, as it is inherently false. And to everyone who did work at a large corporation in your 20s, I don’t need to tell you this, but you made a smart choice.