10th January 2010, the day I started Visual Culture.
It’s been successful and challenging, I’ve learnt from the wins and mistakes. 2019 really clarified the type of business I wanted moving into a new decade.
When I first set out, my priorities were:
✅ Build a comfortable life for my family.
✅ Work directly with clients on purpose driven projects.
✅ Build a team of reliable creatives to help deliver these projects.
👍 Check to all of those.
Success is measured in many different ways.
These 10 lessons are from my perspective as a small business owner. There are many aspects to consider, many hats to wear, it’s not just about your skill set.
LESSON 1 – STAY HEALTHY 🏃
This lesson I feel is appropriate today with people setting new years resolutions. I cannot stress enough about the importance of having a healthy mind and body.
My time to exercise these days is squeezed (add three young kids to running a business). I’ve reconnected with my old personal trainer and adopted healthy eating plans.
After being in the wilderness of unhealthy habits, lacking energy and even stress, going back to a healthy lifestyle has made a world of difference for my focus.
LESSON 2 – The customer experience is as important as your skillset
This I learnt early in my career. My old boss always focussed on great customer service. It’s not all about producing a great product, it’s the journey of giving that customer a positive experience throughout.
You could be the greatest cameraman or editor in the world, but you also need a good business acumen that gives a well-rounded solution.
People don’t always care about your editing process or the cameras you use – they care about the final outcome.
Trust your instincts – it’s essential you understand the client’s needs, even if they aren’t 100% sure on what they need, they just know the outcome they want the video to deliver.
I didn’t want to develop a cookie cutter style of business, an intuitive approach is so critical.
It also includes the value you bring – go above and beyond without the need for recognition. The more work done behind the scenes, the smoother the whole process.
And embrace the clients request for help if they want to do certain production elements – writing scripts, buy their own filming gear, editing. Offer support and training, it all adds to a great customer experience.
LESSON 3 – Business doesn’t last forever.
I really wish this wasn’t the case. Our world is ever changing, particularly in video production.
One of my earliest lessons in business was the 80/20 rule – don’t rely heavily on one source of income. One of my first clients was fantastic, over a 3-4 year span we were producing on average 50 videos per year. But I knew one day things could change, so during that time I set about starting new partnerships, trying new forms of marketing and building a reputation in the industry.
And then it happened – their business transformed, key team members I worked with directly moved on, the business shifted their operations interstate and no longer had a need for our services. It was a slow burn, one that I saw coming, so when the work dried up, my business didn’t feel the effects – we had numerous other clients to service to cover this income.
Also by developing those personal connections and staying relevant (thankyou LinkedIn!), we have been able to work with those people in new roles in other businesses.
Things may be going well for you in business, but unfortunately things may not remain the same year after year.
Don’t get complacent, always think ahead and importantly, always look after your clients.
LESSON 4 – Treat all businesses the same way.
Whether it’s a small business or large organisation, I approach my dealings with any business the same way – same amount of detail, customer service, creativity, quotations, value etc.
It doesn’t matter what logo is on the front door, we are still working directly with individuals and their departments, with their own budgets and requirements.
This next comment will make some business advisors cringe, but just because we work with a large organisation, it doesn’t give us the right to charge substantially more ‘because they can cover it’. I’ve heard this often, but this statement doesn’t fit comfortably with me. Completely the wrong way to go about things, it shows a lack of respect.
I want to build trust and a personal connection with everyone I work with. I also want to build lasting relationships, not just one off jobs.
Be grateful for every opportunity you are given – I still get the same buzz every time I see a new enquiry in my inbox – whether from an existing client or potential new one. The way to respond to that enquiry is the same, no matter the business.
The sooner you understand that you are working with people and not necessarily the entire business, the greater the connection.
LESSON 5 – The 3 month rule
This is my own unwritten rule I’ve followed for a long time. If there is something I’m a bit unsure about when adopting it into my business, I’ll give it roughly 3 months to see if the idea will benefit the business in the long run.
It could be a new marketing idea, new system to implement, new software to trial, new team members or suppliers, need for new equipment, the list goes on.
Am I wasting time, money, resources and energy or in that three months are there clear signs of progress?
Even with things that have been part of the business for years, perhaps they are no longer working. I’ll assess it for three more months and decide whether it needs to be removed.
You need to trust your instinct in making a definitive decision when that three month period comes close to ending.
When I’ve broken this rule by not moving on after three months, the results haven’t been great for the business. Move on decisions quickly, don’t linger.
In three months, you can get a good sense on whether something will work in the business (this rule applies in most workplaces for a new recruit and a trial period of employment).
It’s a rule that has held me in good stead for most of my career, not just running Visual Culture.
LESSON 6 – Keep an eye on your financials.
Every year, every month, every week, even every day. You must take a close watch on your finances and cash flow.
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been caught out at times with lumpy cash flow. My business in video production is service based, meaning we rely mostly on project to project income.
I have a policy I try to adhere to by paying our contractors within 30 days. However, many of the payment terms of our clients extend further than that, so it all comes down to planning.
When I first started out as a one man band I was very naïve. The business grew revenue year on year and on paper had a decent profit. But then the company tax hit and I wasn’t prepared with cash. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
But the benefit of 10 years in business is having 10 years of financial data to analyse, review and plan for the future on.
Having that data also means I can confidently estimate my monthly fixed costs. I can also work out how many projects we need over a certain time period.
The data also helps me simulate many ‘what if’ scenarios – what if I cut out certain expenses, what if we increased our workload and clients, what if I hired in house team vs contractors.
Revenue and profit is vanity, cash is king.
LESSON 7 – Always be willing to adapt.
This is true of any industry and role, video production is always evolving.
The truth is, many styles of videos around today didn’t exist 10 years ago eg. social media video. How can you expect to work the same way?
You need to adapt to your audiences preferences to engage with them consistently.
The service we provide has gone through significant changes, what worked last year may not work this year – interactive DVD, social media video, television….
And for the gear heads, restricting your ability to adapt can be a good thing. No need to always have the latest video gear on the market. Upgrade only when you need to.
From a creative perspective, there are often times you need to adapt within a project. Sometimes on location, things may not go as planned so you need to adapt quickly. I remain calm if something is not quite right and quickly look for solutions. The better you plan, the less need there is to adapt.
Finally, it’s not about you – lose the ego. Many professionals long for the old days and fail to adapt to new ways of working. I’ve seen creatives refusing to give an inch on ideas with clients leading to disastrous outcomes – including no future work.
Learn to let go and adapt to what the client asks for.
LESSON 8 – Managing a team is a whole new skillset.
I’m a creative, so jumping into the role of managing a team has been an ongoing challenge for me.
I’m very much the visionary/artist/technician. I’ve always had a great team around me, internal and external, bringing unique skills to help the business.
But I didn’t realise the energy it would take to manage and how much it would take away from doing the creative work. If you want to grow a business, you have to let go.
I’ve tried to be hands off and also micro manage, everyone I work with is different. As a manager, you need to be across all the different aspects of the business and roles. I’m continually learning and adapting the business structure.
Back when I was an employee, I was quite happy to work from limited briefs, but I realise not everyone works that way. I didn’t realise how much of a perfectionist I am. Positive reinforcement goes a long way.
There’s a lot of information out there about how to grow a business, the glamour of marketing and making X revenue. But once the work comes in, less info on how to manage a team.
We consistently deliver a good finished product, but there is a lot happening behind the scenes to make it work.
The best compliment to hear “Your team did a great job, so easy to work with.”
LESSON 9 – Systems set you free.
I’m onboard the systems train – for far too long I left this as an afterthought. I was always one to be able to work autonomously when I was an employee, surely everyone else is the same? Wrong.
Having systems and processes in your business is critical. Early on I spent ages writing the Visual Culture Operating Manual – 70+ pages long. No one ever read it.
So it’s one thing to develop the systems, it’s another to have a good resource for the team to easily access these procedures. For us, SystemHub from David Jenyns was the way to go.
Don’t expect systems to be designed and implemented overnight, it takes time to document via screen captures, emails and meetings. Find a systems hero.
I’ve tried many production management tools, but what works best for our business is good ol’ fashioned Dropbox, spreadsheets and Google Docs – our Production Manager Liana Warner is the master of this.
I’m sure many creatives would think ‘having systems won’t work in a creative business’. I have to agree somewhat to that statement, every project is unique. But I would argue that 75% of the project setup, briefing, planning and delivery can all be documented in a system that is repeatable – giving you more time to spend on the creative.
LESSON 10 – Don’t go it alone
I thought it would be an easy transition when I started my business considering I had spent a decade working full time in a production studio and then freelancing for numerous others in Australia and the UK.
But what I didn’t always see was the back end of those business operations. Much of the ‘business’ side of things I tried to teach myself but I realised I needed a support network to guide me through.
My first mentor was Simon Banks from Tallboy Media who I freelanced with in London. I saw his business as one I wanted to emulate for myself in Melbourne. We started the coaching a number of years ago and still catch up every fortnight.
But it’s also advice from other mentors such as Leigh Powell for a business perspective and Den Lennie who has built a great community of likeminded production professionals. My old boss Pete Weston who I learnt so much from.
But above all my biggest support has been my family, I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. The business would likely be on the scrap heap like so many others if it wasn’t for their support.
I’m always keen to learn from the endless business books, podcasts, networking, colleagues – there is so much advice out there.
There is still work to be done, but that support is invaluable.