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7 startup lessons from the film industry

At first glance you might not think there is much in common between the film industry and tech startups. I’m here to tell you differently. Both industries have their own set of challenges, whether you’re starting out, or refining your craft/company down the line. I’m not here to tell you that one is tougher than the other, but rather that startups can learn from the parallels between them.

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Each member must know their ‘craft’

In the film industry you have to know your craft. Whether you’re a scriptwriter, cinematographer, director or simply a gaffer or runner, you have a set of skills that are integral to the quality of the finished product – the commercial, film, music video or television show.

It’s a collaborative process and if one person drops the ball, it can hamper a shoot to the point where people might get fired and a new ‘team’ replaces them overnight. This is not a luxury of the film industry, but a stressful, tense situation for producers to deal with.

Tech startups don’t need this kind of stress in their company lives, especially during the early days. Picking the right partners, and making the right hires is pivotal to your company’s reputation, and the output of your product or service. While the film industry might be able to rectify a blunder overnight, a startup does not have that luxury, as reputation is everything in the beginning.

Know your industry… before you begin

There’s a glitz and glamour appeal to film. When most people enter the ‘biz’ they think it’s all about red carpets, movie premieres, awards and parties. While this lifestyle aspect of the industry does exist most people don’t realise how much work goes on behind the making of even a 30-second commercial. Days to weeks of planning – scripting, storyboarding, sourcing locations, castings – to coordinating huge and specialised teams all to film for two-three days… weather permitting.

It’s not easy work, and neither is running a startup. The Omidyar Network’s incredible report on African Entrepreneurship found that a ‘lifestyle’ approach was prevalent to the mindset of young African entrepreneurs too. There is a Romanticised notion of “a bold and rich entrepreneur who conquers markets and lives a life of luxury.” This mindset needs to be addressed by providing awareness of the reality of starting a business. You have to know your industry… before you begin, not only because hard work will give you a step up, but also because knowing the industry will empower you to be able to innovate and compete.

You’re not the tools, you are the execution of your idea

Digital advancements in film have made it easier and cheaper for amateur filmmakers to create incredible pieces of work. From lighter, and more intuitive cameras, to more streamlined editing processes, there are no longer any excuses – you can even make a decent film on your smartphone these days. Importantly though, you need to know the limitations of that technology, after all you can’t make Inception on an iPhone.

When looking at startups, especially a web-startup, there are similarly no more excuses. There are tools out there to get you on your feet, but being aware of the limitations of those tools is essential, as bootstrapping can only take you so far, as Omidyar Network’s Malik Fal told Ventureburn:

In tech industries you need to move fast. Innovation has limited shelf life. If an idea is worth spending time and effort on, you can be sure four or five of teams of developers around the world are working on the same problem… You need to have funding to hire the talent, scale your product and distribute it quickly. If you’re bootstrapping it makes you move much slower than other teams around the world that have the cash to move fast.

After all, it’s about how you execute your idea and, especially in the tech industry, how quickly you can do it.

Prioritise and find your identity

All budding filmmakers start out with the best of intentions. They all want to make films that are close to their hearts, that tell their stories. The reality is performing a lot of grunt work on other people’s creations. Staying true to why you entered film in the first place is key to nurturing your love of the medium, and also your happiness within the industry.

This is particularly telling for startups that are considering joining an incubation programme. An incubator can mould you, change your company idea, even its identity. Incubators are businesses after all and you are an investment they want to protect. The time, money and effort they put into developing your company is a barter for equity, and the dynamics that comes with this relationship must be taken into account.

You need to decide what your priorities are. Are you open to being moulded, or is there a component to your initial idea that you wish to stay true to? You have to find out where you place value, and where you think you might provide value to a market.

The television versus film dichotomy (what type of startup are you?)

Creating content for television or film is completely different to one another, especially when it comes to their business models. Film is geared towards the large box office opening weekend. It’s a quick money-making model. Studios will determine whether a film gets a sequel, how long it will run on the circuit, how much merchandising should be created around it et al, all from the opening weekend. Generally speaking, the model tries to get a film watched by as many people are possible (across the globe), with the goal to get as much money as possible to make up for the budget.

Television though, is in it for the long-haul. Shows cater to much smaller audiences for longer periods of time. This model relies on getting a core audience, which is more engaged, to watch a show repeatedly over a number of years. Money is made on merchandising and peripheries such as DVD/Blu-ray sales and selling advertising that targets those niche audiences.

So, what type of startup are you? Are you a short-term, profitable company that can be exited early? Or are you in it for the long-haul? Would you like your product or service to have global reach in terms of scalability, or do you cater to a smaller, more niche market? These are all questions you have to answer before you seek out funding. Both are viable business models, you simply have to know which one your company suits, because the strategies going forward are decidedly different.

Nurture your community

The television business model relies on shows having an actively engaged audience. From social media interaction to tester screenings, television recognises the importance of community to a show’s success. Startups, especially with a service slant, must find and nurture their community. Listen to your community’s members, ask them to engage, and even engage with them in return. It can only result in good things… just look at the YuppieChef approach and the success it has garnered.

Know where you are going

Television shows, especially high-concept shows, often write themselves into corners. For example, Prison Break – the show had nowhere to go after season one – yet it was an international hit and was picked up for three more seasons much to the woe of many fans.

Startups need to have a roadmap. You might be able to begin by winging it, but if you don’t know where you are going, especially in terms of scalability, you are going to hit some roadblocks along the way. It doesn’t have to be set in stone, but have an idea of whether you might enter another region, or what other products or services could offshoot from the core idea – this can only help, especially when it comes to seeking out funding.

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