Small Steps to Big Success
COW Library : Business & Career Building : Walter Biscardi : Small Steps to Big Success
Me? Thinking big? I really don't see myself that way. My entire operation has been about 1,000 square feet, with no more than seven people. Still, we find ourselves booked solid for the foreseeable future, with projects coming in from around the world. We have gotten here with a series of small steps.
In 2001, I saw an HD-capable Final Cut Pro editing system at a reasonable price. Did my clients need HD? No, but if Final Cut Pro can already do it, why not set myself up so I'm ready when the first client asks? For the "reasonable" price of $30,000, I have the computer, video card and storage to do SD with multiple effects in real-time, with an upgrade path to HD, plus a BetaSP deck, set up in a spare bedroom in my house.
Yep, a spare bedroom. But we didn't treat it like a spare bedroom: it was my office, my edit suite. (You can see it, circa 2001, in the title graphic for this article.) Clients were paying me to edit professional video that lived up to the reputation I had spent years building. Custom console, comfy chairs, no distractions during the edit, etc. - and we turned out high quality, broadcast material.
About a year into the operation, I realized that one of my clients was dubbing their DigiBeta material to BetaSP, just for my edits. Doing a little research, I found the Sony J3/902, a player-only machine that supports BetaSP, DigiBeta, BetaSX, and IMX with SDI output and RS-422 control. Price tag: $11,500.
That's a lot of money for just one client, but I figured that the ability to capture directly from Digi- Beta would be a good thing for the business moving forward. We took a leap of faith on that machine, and where it might take us.
I built the company for two years in that room, until I got to the point where we needed something bigger. One of the things I really wanted was NOT to be downtown. I'm just not a "downtown" kind of guy. I like trees and open space, and since we live 45 minutes north of Atlanta, I wanted a short commute.
Most folks felt that the location would hamper my business growth because nobody would want to drive "that far" out of the city. But we live in a quaint, "Main Street USA" type of town. I knew it might have a creative appeal to the client, as well as lowering the price I'd need to charge them. Sure, it might hurt me in the short run, but it's my company and I wanted to be happy.
We ended up building a new office very close by, with room for two edit suites, a client lounge with video entertainment console and a fully operational kitchen. And not just four walls with sparse furniture, oh no. We have theme rooms. Wally World has a Toy Story motif, complete with the actual paint colors from Buzz Lightyear. Jungle Land took a week to paint with 5 shades of green sponged on the walls. The front room started out as just a front room, but has since morphed in Rialto Room with a 50's movie theater motif. The kitchen is Rebecca's Diner and done up in a 50s diner motif, complete with tin ceiling and checkered floor.
Above, the latest rev of Wally World. Below, Jungle Land.
The motifs create an instant atmosphere. You know you're in a fun place, not some stuffy, high dollar edit facility looking at you as money rather than a client.
About this time, we made another big leap of faith. I had been working with the Food Network series "Good Eats" for a few months, creating some fun animations. When FN made the decision to switch to HD, this was one of the first series selected to make the move.
Since I already had an HD-capable system, the DP asked me to assist in developing the HD Post workflow for "Good Eats." I decided to purchase a Panasonic AJHD1200 VTR to support the Varicam production testing.
This was without any sort of contract. I just knew we would need a deck for a period of months, so it made total sense for me to spend $25,000 to buy, rather than rent. I essentially partnered with the show, and offered my time to help make the transition to HD as seamless as possible.
The testing went so well, we ended up doing the HD post for the first 66 HD episodes of the series. I learned a lot about HD during those three years. Having full time access to that VTR gave me a real advantage over many other post facilities in the area, even those much larger than ours.
As you can probably tell by now, I never go into anything just getting "what I need." I'm always thinking about what will help me tomorrow. This means I may not make any money on the next two jobs, but I can use it to make money after that.
LOCATION, LOCATION...AND TIMING
I mentioned earlier that I built the space where I wanted to be, not necessarily "the best location" for my business. Clients really did take to the location, and enjoyed the fact that we had windows in the edit suite that look out onto the woods out back. But I started to look at ways we could work remotely to cut down on their drive time. FTP was the obvious answer.
Funny thing about clients, though. Most of them had the darndest time trying to figure out how to use FTP software. It was annoying them. So I learned about Media Batch, software created by a fellow Creative Cow Leader and Cow Magazine author, Marco Solorio. It allowed me to create what are essentially different websites for each client to watch and download content.
Clients loved it, immediately. All they had to do was bookmark their site and enter a single password to see their stuff. Now they could decide when and if they even needed to come out to the office. Before long, many of our clients were working with us remotely, from all four corners of the globe - including our biggest client, who is in the western United States, 1500 miles away.
Now about that J3/902 deck I mentioned earlier. Former CNN Africa Bureau chief Gary Strieker calls. He has a DVCAM project to edit for a web-based environmental series he produces, and wants to know if I have some edit time available. Sure, come on over.
I'm giving the tour of the place and proudly showing off the 1200 HD VTR we use for Varicam projects, my HD-capable AJA Kona 3 cards, my HD multi-format Monitor, and, by the way, I'm doing HD post for "Good Eats." Isn't this cool? I'm a small shop, but delivering the #1 show on the Food Network in HD.
Oh yeah, and this is the J3/902. It plays every flavor of Beta: SP, SX, Digi and IMX.
Gary stops. "Did you say SX?" "Yeah, why?" "I have a ton of SX library material, and there's nobody in town with an SX deck outside the news stations."
That revelation eventually led to Gary contracting me to take over his series, with stories appearing on NBC and PBS stations nationwide. This led to the halfhour HD environmental series, "Assignment Earth," which will be appearing on PBS Stations nationwide as well as multiple feature documentary projects.
Creative COW's Bob Zelin, of Rescue 1, Inc., rewiring the Biscardi Creative Media studios.
READY TO GROW
Next, I purchase a third editing system and cut down the producer lounge out front. Yes, the game room is fun, but I need another edit station. Even if that room sits empty half the year, it's there. A couple of jobs paid for the gear.
After that, I re-work my entire infrastructure with Orlando engineer and Creative Cow leader Bob Zelin, and the WH Platts company here in Atlanta. Moving cables around between systems was getting very old. Bob came up with a plan involving 3 HD-SDI patch panels, 3 audio patch panels, about 4,500 feet of cable running through the facility and some really nice equipment racks. All of this greatly improved our efficiency immediately.
[Ed: you can read more about that in the online edition of this article, at magazine.creativecow. net.]
The next step was to build a strong roster of freelance editors. I've been blessed to have a really good crew of editors to call on as needed, who are also very fun to work with. Most of all, they respect what I'm building here, and treat both the clients and each other with professional courtesy at all times. A really good artist who annoys the client isn't worth all the skill level in the world.
By the same token, I don't let my clients abuse the artists. There has to be a level of professional courtesy both ways.
2006 came along with a request to deliver a project on Blu-ray - just one disc, but 40 copies. We call a couple of commercial replication houses and find that the costs will exceed $12,000. No thanks.
Apple doesn't support Blu-ray authoring in the Final Cut Studio package, so I find a Mac Blu-ray burner from FastMac for $600, and a Blu-ray replicator (two burners) for $2,500. Adobe Encore DVD software, included with the Creative Suite, promises Blu-ray authoring, Tapeonline has BD-R printable discs for sale, and Best Buy has a nice Sony Blu-ray player for $999. Around $6,000 later, we're now a Blu-ray authoring house, even if that first job didn't pay for all that equipment.
Okay, "sort of" a Blu-ray authoring house. Encore turned out to be a bust for me, so I knew I'd have to look outside the Mac world.
Yeah, I hate Windows more than just about anything else on the planet, but it looks like if I want to do serious Blu-ray authoring, I don't have much choice. My clients want Blu-ray now. So I purchase an HP Workstation for only $1,500, and pick up a license to DoStudio authoring software from NetBlender. We've been doing Blu-ray for two years now.
All that Blu-ray software and hardware has paid for itself many times over while many folks are still "waiting for Apple." It's money in the bank instead of money to someone else.
Maybe that's why we're steadily growing while so many colleagues complain how tight the market is today. I don't sit and fret about the fact that my new Mac is going to cost $7,000. After one or two jobs, it's paid for, and then we have a really fast machine that makes us more efficient.
I really didn't have $20,000 to spend this past December on a Final Share Ethernet SAN, but when I thought about the fact that the same system would be $65,000 in Fibre Channel, and it would make the shop incredibly efficient, it was a no brainer. We found the money, and now, that SAN is the lifeblood of our facility, with six workstations all sharing media and information. The darn thing is earning me so much more money that I'm going to need another unit very shortly to keep up with the growth.
I guess it's that old adage, "You need to spend money to make money." If you're too scared to spend money wisely, you're not going to advance. Does all this cut into my profit? For that one job, you bet, but we're a stronger company for the options we can offer our clients.
More than anything, these client relationships are the key to "thinking big." I never go into a job with a new client planning to do just one gig. I want them to enjoy their time in our facility, be pleased with our work, get more than they expected and start a long-term relationship with our shop.
To that end, I have always included all sorts of extras such as window burn DVDs for free, all meals during edit sessions, all sorts of snacks and drinks in the shop and such. People want to feel appreciated when they are paying for a service.
Take care of the small things, and the "big things" take care of themselves.
Former US president Jimmy Carter, winnter of the Nobel Peace Prize, from a documentary being edited by Walter Biscardi, Jr. at Biscardi Creative Media.
So what are my truly "Think Big" moments so far?
The day I started posting at The Cow. My posts at CreativeCow.net led to me being noticed as someone who is knowledgeable about Post Production. They directly got me the gigs with "Good Eats" and Gary Strieker. They also brought me to the attention of many vendors and manufacturers whom I have great relationships with today.
The day I learned to say 'no.' As in, "No, I'm sorry, I can't do that project for your price. Best of luck on the project, and definitely call me again if you have something else I can bid on." Once you do one job for that "special price," the client expects all their jobs for that same price. I started saying "No," and sometimes those clients suddenly found some extra money after all.
The day I bought that J3 / 902. Our company started moving to a whole new level that first day I introduced Gary to that machine. That one job has led us to where are today, a company steadily growing, even in today's economy.
Molly the Wonder Dob wonders how her ball got under one of the equipment racks.
Taking the leap of faith on that particular machine paved the path I still take today with company decisions. I take chances. Settling for the product that's "good enough" to do the job is a short-sighted way of working. Clients will eventually have to choose between staying with you, or looking to someone else who has the skills, equipment and atmosphere to do what they need.
I could make a lot more profit if I didn't continually re-invest my money back into the company, but I am certain we would not be enjoying the work we do today if I did not do this.
Now we just need to get through our next "Think Big" moments: a new, much larger Biscardi Creative Media, and releasing some creative control.
I'm not entirely sure what the new company will look like, but I can tell you that we're looking at something in the neighborhood of 2,400 to 4,500 square feet right in the heart of Main Street, USA - hopefully with a big old deck out back, and maybe a fenced yard so Molly the Wonder Dog can entertain.
And I'll be relinquishing the full-time edit chair full time, and sliding into more of a creative director type of role, though I plan to stay active as a colorist.
Sure, it's a "down market" out there, but it's an incredibly great time to buy new property. Like everything else we have ever done with this company, we're looking for opportunities to buy now, so that we can deliver more to our clients in the future.