I’m Cameron Woodward the executive producer at Sprinkle Lab, a video production company based in Oakland California. Sprinkle Lab produces broadcast commercials, music videos, video art installations, and short films. My role at the studio is to help organize talent around a common mission; at Sprinkle Lab that means:

To discover and support the most talented directors to create commercials, films, music videos and moving images for audiences, clients and ourselves.

I do this by overseeing the strategy behind building our marketing, sales, production and business operations. I wanted to start this company, and have continued to do so with our amazing team, because it’s fun, profitable and a deeply rewarding challenge; oh, and people in the industry throw pretty good parties.

What are the steps someone needs to take to start a commercial production company?

The steps are easy: start-up, sell, shoot, reinvest your profits, and spend less than you make. There are tons of details and sub-steps in-between these, but at the end of the day that’s the gist of it.

Starting up can be, and I’d wager is, one of hardest parts about starting a commercial production business (or any business). Unless you don’t have a job, or hate it (hi, wtf crowd) starting can be incredibly difficult because of the most addictive drug ever made: paychecks. Not to mention, family, debt, fear & other personal responsibilities. This is challenging in two parts, first, when you start-up you’re not going to be making a ton of money. This will strain you for all of the aforementioned reasons. Second, if you’re not going to fully commit and go all-in to put the hundreds of hours of labor into your business, you’ll have an even higher chance of failure - especially in this industry. This means that you’re likely going to be poorer than you are right now, and working a lot more; and I almost forgot, you’re still very likely going to fail. All of this said, personally speaking, I look back and think it was totally, absolutely, 100% worth the risk. My co-founder and I, we figured that even in the worse case scenario, we have the privilege of coming from working class families. We knew that our parents would let us sleep on their couches to re-collect ourselves if the market chewed us up and spit us out. We’re lucky to have the comfort of a mom’s cooking safety-net.

In terms of selling, you already know what you want when you spend your own personal cash on a product or service. So if you’re wondering how you’re going to sell to your theoretical future clients - you should already know what they want - the same that you would want if you were in their position: reliability, value, and a friendly experience interfacing with your company. This is true whether you’re selling a latte at Intelligentsia, a Soviet space rocket, or a commercial video. However, it should be noted, selling a video is tricky because it’s not a product that already exists; it’s an idea. Your process will be selling the idea of a video, and then turning an idea into a video.

Shooting video is hard, and yet, obviously essential. If you can’t perform for your clients consistently, you’re going to fail. Word of mouth is going to build your business and if you don’t perform, they’re not going to hire you again; or more critical to your mission, tell their friends to hire you. Not to mention, you’re going to feel sad if you’ve done a bad job. It feels good to do a job well done, hence, it feels fucking terrible doing a job poorly. Here’s the bright side, when you are starting a commercial production company, lots of founders think that their work needs to look amazing like a $1,000,000 dollar Super Bowl commercial. As great as a Super Bowl commercial would be to shoot - Rome wasn’t built in a day - and the reality is that you don’t need to make beautiful content to be a successful production company. However, what you must to do is deliver value for your customers. This means that when a client gives you $500.00 dollars to make a commercial for their magic and illusions kiosk in the Mall of America, you are going to be so god-damn efficient at your job that their commercial is going to look like it cost $700.00 dollars to make - that, my friend, is delivering value. Even better, and this is the secret, it will only cost you $200.00 dollars to make so you profit $300.00 big ones. Bingo, you’re in business.

Now you’ve sold and done a bunch of jobs. Conferences, kiosks, corporate talking-head guys, Saul’s Legal Hotline and you’re getting really good at making your product look and feel like it cost more than your client paid for it; and you’re earning a profit. Yet, burning inside of you is a desire to make your videos look better, you want even more profit, and you want to work for clients that seem super passionate about their products and services like you are for yours. The way to do this is by re-investing your profits. It means spending your hard-earned-profits on people, services and products that will deliver for your business the way you’ve been delivering for others. These investments (if they pan out) will make you even more efficient at making videos, they will also make your videos better, and they will make you even better at your job. Investing this way can be difficult to do mentally, you’ll have spent so much time earning your dollars and you’ll want to spend them on the trip-around-the-world that you see that guy on Instagram doing, and yet, you are going to give many of your dollars away. However, if this is done correctly and with thoughtfulness, it will be worth it - you’re trying to grow your pie, not steal the last slice.

This brings us to the last step in starting a commercial production company. Spend less money than you make. This is hard. Many companies fail the same way, they spend more money than they make. It happens in all kinds of ways. Maybe they stop delivering for their clients because some other company can deliver even more value than you can, for less. Sometimes it’s because you get so excited about investing in your company that you spend your dollars expecting that your business is about to boom and the market crashes. Maybe you and your co-workers get so caught up in the politics of your company and egos that you all lose sight of how you got you to where you are - by delivering value for your customers and focusing on your mission.

All companies come to an end eventually. They don’t all fail. If your company fulfills it’s mission, whatever it is, you have not failed; you have achieved success, good work! However, if your mission is to not to have your business crumble and die because it spent more than it made, you’ve failed.

All in all, the steps are easy: start-up, sell, shoot, reinvest your profits, and spend less than you make. Oh, and one last one: survive. If you focus on the steps and keep your company alive throughout the years, it’s really amazing what can happen.

What are startup costs?

Milage may vary, Sprinkle Lab started with $2,000 dollars and a sublet in Oakland. On the other hand, David and Megan Ellison’s father reportedly gave them billions of dollars to start their production companies. The money does not matter, the steps matter. Do Megan and David deliver more value then they take? It seems like it. Good work Ellison’s.

What is the pay like?

It’s all dependent on the scale of your business, the value you deliver, the profit captured, and the market conditions in the economy.

What are the best parts of being having your own commercial production company?

I get to work with people who often put passion above profit, which often creates profit. We also get to build a product that scales to millions of people with a single click of a mouse or purchase of a commercial slot. It’s also amazing to make stuff, just to look back and say, wow, we all made this stuff and here it is, would you look at that.

What are the biggest challenges in having your own commercial production company?

The challenges are vast. I’ve come close to spending more than we’ve made. I’ve been distracted by opportunities that are not opportunities. I’ve wanted to give up. The challenges are awesome though, because when you’ve overcome them, there are still more ahead. It’s choosing to do hard stuff, all the time.

Any other helpful resources or links on this topic?

AICP National Guidelines
The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker's Essential Writings on Management
High Output Management
Confessions of an Executive Producer
Now I Know Video Series
Insurance for every kind of filmmaker.