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Issue: April 1, 2002

Musings on surviving 25 years in post

By: By Tom Angell

The year was 1977, Jimmy Carter had just ascended to the White House, Steve Jobs was introducing the world to the concept of the personal computer with his revolutionary Apple II and the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Afghanistan. I had recently finished overseeing the production of television advertising for Gerald Ford's unsuccessful bid for the presidency and was wondering what to do next with my life. The possibilities of the then-fledgling concept of computer-managed tape editing were intriguing. Perhaps I could start a small company to offer this totally new approach to A/V producers here in our nation's capital. This year we are celebrating a quarter century of service to that community.

Yet, when Post asked me to write an article on surviving in fragile economic times I felt a bit nonplussed. Yes, we're still around after all these years, but what did I know? It was probably due to blind luck. However, there were many lessons we learned the difficult way over that period, so I set about rummaging through my suppressed memories of a hard-knocks education in the hopes of surfacing some that might prove of value to others. Here are a few:

Being a bit crazy isn't all bad. Remember, the concept of computer-managed tape editing (that's what it was called then) was so foreign in 1977 that as I attempted to explain my ideas for this new business I was met with blank stares from friends and lot of acquaintances in the movie industry sais I was crazy. Instead of dissuading me, this universal skepticism actually reinforced my determination to go ahead. If everybody thinks your idea is nuts it either is, or you're on to something very big. This is an important point to consider as we all struggle to reinvent our businesses to better serve in these changing times.

Is it a business or a vocation? It took less than a year of trying to do serious editing while attending to the business of running a business before I realized that doing both was inevitably shortchanging one or the other. I reluctantly gave up the creative side to concentrate all my energy on making the business a success. If the creative aspects of the actual work are your real calling I wouldn't suggest this route. However, don't expect the business to grow much larger than your individual talents can carry it if you remain the top and only attraction on the bill while no one is seriously running the shop.

Technolust, the eighth deadly sin. The '80s brought a lot of rapid technological improvements. Our not-so-trusty old 3/4-inch decks slowly got replaced with 1-inch type "C" VTRs, character generators replaced art cards and matte cameras. Quantel brought out an early version of the DVE, we called it the "squeeze and freeze." Paint systems, still stores, then another round of VCRs - Betacam this time - and we needed it all, and we had to be the first on the block to have them. However, we soon learned early adopters might gain a short term market edge with their "not-available-elsewhere" technology, but they also pay a price in high purchase cost as well as lost billable hours while functioning as the R&D lab for many a piece of unfinished equipment. I slowly came to the conclusion that what we really wanted to be was the first to be second.

Computerizing the business side of the business. By the mid-'80s the enterprise had grown to the point where we realized we would need to computerize the business side of the operation if we were to have any chance to effectively keep on top of it. We knew we needed to schedule, track and bill for services more efficiently, but we also knew that computerized databases were key to generating the reports that would help us run the business better. Today, the MBA guys call it metrics; we just knew it as doing our "numbers" homework. However, at that time no such software existed so we set about designing it ourselves. What seemed simple ended up taking years but the instant insights into our business that the system still gives us daily makes the pain of those early developmental years all worth the effort. The moral of this story: if you're planning to grow, computerize or forget it. However, corollary number one states, "It's a lot cheaper to buy a system [there are several good ones available today in addition to ours] than to build one yourself."

Defining your corporate culture. From the original group of three our staff grew - slowly at first, then faster. By the early '90s we were pushing toward the 100 mark and the original ethos that we had so carefully nurtured early on - that special sense of who we were that helped guide our every action - was in danger of being lost. Up until then it was passed on from one employee to the next purely by example. That attitude, that unwritten set of values, was one of the most important elements in whatever success we had had. So early in 1992 we set aside a day and gathered everyone together to try to write out what we would call our Statement of Corporate Culture. That original statement has stood the test of time informing each of us in quotidian matters or in unique and difficult situations as to how we want to best relate to each other, to our clients and to what we feel is the real importance of our work to the world we live in. If you would like to read it you can find it on our Web site at www.interfacevideo.com in the "about us" section.

Learning to breath with the economy. Like everything else in nature, business is cyclical and we are obliged to live in harmony with those seasons or suffer the consequences. Much of our work here in Washington has classically revolved around politics, which has a natural four-year cycle of boom and bust tied to the federal elections. This peculiar circumstance taught us early on to allow our business to expand and contract with the work. Growth is important but so is profitability. It's rarely a good idea to totally ignore the latter in favor of the former.

Creating an institutional memory. With any staff, attrition eventually takes its toll. And with every departing veteran we also lost a lot of hard won knowledge on how best to do each job. We finally realized what we needed was to memorialize this "institutional memory." Consequently a series of manuals were slowly developed that codified all of our standard operating procedures, best practices, helpful hints and solid resources that the old-timer could pass on to his replacement. These books (they number more than 1,000 pages at present) require constant updating but have proven well worth the cost in bringing new hires quickly up to speed on how we have chosen to do things.

Being hostages to fortune or accomplices in your own destiny. The seeds of our dissolution most often lie in our own inability or unwillingness to adapt and innovate to the changed circumstances in which we all eventually find ourselves. Today, more than ever, we are called upon to "reinvent ourselves" or create "new business models" as our cherished traditional approaches to A/V production and post no longer find currency in a changed technological world. It ain't easy but, as they say about old age, consider the alternative. By the mid '90s it was apparent that the high cost of equipment as a barrier to entry was coming down. The market was fractionalized (some say atomized) and the advantages of scale were disappearing. Composite analog was gone and it was apparent that component linear didn't have much life left either. Instead of admiring the difficulty of the problem we studied it, then focused in on what we believed our core strengths were and how to leverage them using those coming changes. By 1995 we had sold off almost all of our linear, analog and composite gear, then rebuilt the entire facility around an all-digital, datacentric concept. We emphasized our creative talent and their expanded abilities to work collaboratively in a plant restructured to specifically accommodate their special needs.

This was a painful, costly - but essential - transition that so far has stood us in good stead. It catered to what we sensed were the evolving needs of our core clients, growing those long-term relationships. It repositioned us in our market as the preeminent provider of high definition creative services at one end, and as the go-to experts for new media at the other. We think we got it right, undertook it at the proper moment and managed it well. Of course, time will be the final judge of that.

Seeking an alternative vision for your business. When will business get better? Do the manufacturers have a new killer application on the way? Will the industry survive? I hear queries like these frequently. To me they simply reveal a certain passivity on the part of the questioner. Capitalism and our free market economy demand of us that we each individually do the heavy lifting, that to survive we must all continually reinvent ourselves. The world is not consuming less audio/visuals, if anything it is consuming more. The means of acquisition, processing, distribution and display have changed and in each of those changed areas lie unexplored opportunities. Our job, should we choose to accept it, is to be rational enough to recognize, embrace and exploit those new realities while remaining just paranoid enough to keep our edge.

As I write this in the closing weeks of winter 2002 George W. Bush now leads the nation, Steve Jobs has just introduced his latest iteration of the Apple personal computer (the iMac flat screen) and the United States has replaced Russia as the struggle in Afghanistan continues to evolve. The more things change, the more they stay the same. What has remained the same for production and post facilities is our real mission: to support our professional community by offering a service that adds value to their ability to efficiently and effectively tell their stories. Accomplish that goal and all other business problems will dissolve in the mere process of living itself.