12 Things I've Learnt in 12 Years of Business

This year marks my 12th year of running Shooting Image Ltd. Glad to say I'm still here doing something I love. Here are 12 valuable tips that I've picked up during those years and some insights around them, some more important than others.

1. It's not about the price - it's about the value.

Like many new business starters, initially I did jobs well below a sensible price just to get the work and experience. I soon learnt that was a race to the bottom and no way to sustain any business. A key learning was to establish a good dialogue early on with any new potential client to identify what value (ideally in monetary terms, although this is often difficult to establish) an effective, well produced video could bring them.

For example, one of my Cambridge clients sells specialist scientific equipment worldwide for £50K plus/unit. Sure, that's not all profit - but if the video I produced for them helped sell just a handful more units a year, then my charge for producing their video could be seen as very worthwhile. I got the job.

2. It's about relationships - people buy from people they trust.

Over the last 12 years I've done a heck of a lot of networking, especially in and around Cambridge - but also in Ely, Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and other places. Not only is it good fun (I'm the social type - usually!) but you learn a heck of a lot from other business people. You also make good friends.

And guess what, lots of people become aware of what you do and that you're dependable, trustworthy, wash hands regularly (very important at the moment!), don't smell etc…just insert your own personal qualities here!
Then you get referred to all sorts of businesses that you might otherwise never, ever had any contact with. It's not just your network, it's all the people they know and interact with - which can be huge! In fact, although I do a bit less networking these days, almost all of my work comes by recommendations from people I've either done video work for or referrals from people who got to know me well through networking.

Importantly, don't expect networking to deliver instant results though. People have to be 'ready' for what you might do. My current record is 4 years - from when I first talked to a lady at a network meeting to when she finally phoned me up and said, "OK, now I'm ready to do that video we talked about!"

3. Be straightforward about pricing - it helps!

I don't put my pricing on this website (or any other web/public outlet). However, once I've established a working relationship with a client and have a good understanding of what they need, I always then clearly spell out the details of how much time (filming and editing), travel (time and petrol), music licensing costs etc. - and from that can indicate the total likely costs involved.

Projects often evolve…one film becomes two (or more), extra days get added to the shooting and editing schedule etc. That's fine, but it's important that the impact of those things (on delivery dates and overall costs) are communicated and I get paid for the (often) considerable extra work.

These days, I estimate about one-third of my income is from work which 'gets added' to the project once it's underway and the client begins to realise the potential of what good video can do for their business. In the early days, I soon learnt that some clients are very good at stretching things. Having a straightforward and transparent pricing agreement in place right from the start means everyone knows where they stand if and when things evolve, as they often do. No more awkward feelings about extra work they might want, just sensible business discussions and clarity - and everyone remains happy.

4. Really look after your clients - then they come back!

Turn up for meetings and filming days promptly. Be courteous to absolutely everyone you meet. Keep them frequently informed on progress during editing. Whatever you say you're going to do, do it! All basic stuff but really important.

I always try my level best to create videos for my clients to the very best of my abilities, no matter how big or small the project. Am I the best filmmaker in the world? No way! Do I produce professional content that I and my clients are proud of? You bet! Most of my clients say things like "It's much better than we imagined it would be" and similar - see
HERE - maybe they think all my other work is rubbish! Not only will they then recommend you to all their business contacts, but very often they come back wanting more videos (sometimes within months, sometimes several years later). A large amount of my video production work now comes from repeat, regular clients.

5. It's not about the gear - but knowing how to use it well.

Sure, I'm a techie type (look at my background - see
HERE) and I always want the very best image and sound capture gear in my toolkit. But the reality is, I could spend twice as much (or more, easily!) on cameras etc. Sure, the image quality would be a bit better but my clients (even some of the big multinationals) would probably not even notice any difference. For sure, they are certainly not going to pay me twice as much to create their business videos. Not one single client has complained about lack of image or sound quality in my work, at least not yet. That does not mean that cheap gear will do - it's about choosing what you use carefully to meet the requirements and quality expectations of you and your clients, especially if you want to be regarded as a true professional in your craft.

In my case, what's important is to have good (enough) professional grade gear for use in a huge variety of business, laboratory and industrial situations (which is why I always have several cameras ranging from 4K & HD cinema to run-n-gun broadcast types). Also, know how to use all your gear (including sound, lighting, grip and gimbals etc.) really, really well. Then you can get the very best material out of almost any shooting scenario the client requires.

6. Try to under promise - but over deliver.

Difficult to do - but I always I try! Many ways to do this. Sometimes (especially for larger projects) I see ways to create a short 'extra' and unexpected video that wasn't part of the original schedule. They are often delighted to get this. Out-takes videos are a favourite. Other ways too - it can be simple stuff like telling them the Rough Cut will be ready to view on such and such a date, but then try and get it to them a bit earlier. Try to delight your customers - they usually like the approach.

7. Good people skills aren't just important - they are essential.

A few people just love being in front of a camera. For everyone else (us normal types!), helping people get comfortable and able to shine in front of a camera whilst they get their message across is essential. Sure, I'm often using cut-aways (of their business in action) while their best cherry picked sound bites are used in the edit. But whenever they do occasionally appear on screen, I want them to be pleased with how they look and that they come across well. Patience with people is a very big part of getting this right - luckily, I have bucket loads of it. Enough said.

8. Keep up to date with the finances/paperwork - or get help.

Obviously, you need to carefully identify what the client really needs/wants and quote in a timely and professional manner. You also need to have some form of contract in place before any filming starts - these can vary from a detailed email spelling out the key points to a more involved PDF contract specifically tailored to that client and project (I use both types, depending on the client). Also, once it's delivered, don't forget to invoice as soon as it's due - and chase unpaid invoices. Think about staged payments on really big, long running jobs as that helps too.

I've (touch wood) not had non-payment of a single invoice in 12 years (I'm sure it'll come eventually…) but my record for a late payment was over 130 days - from a big multinational. Incidentally, always be professional and courteous in how you deal with those difficult situations, if possible! In that instance, a senior executive (who was highly embarrassed by the situation when he became aware of it and personally apologised to me) put some internal pressure on their accounting department that soon resolved it. That client has since become one of my biggest, now regular clients, and I'm pleased to say they now pay me (usually) within 30 days. Most clients pay me by return these days, fortunately.

I'm a small business so I'm invoicing only a handful of times a month. It's relatively easy for me to keep on top of my accounts, online VAT returns etc. But if you're struggling with this or have many more invoices to deal with, there are plenty of (good) admin support freelancers out there who can help - as well as apps (Quickbooks, Zero etc.)

9. Get a good Accountant - a bad one could cost you a lot.

I'm lucky in that the Chartered one I've had from the start suites me just fine. He, obviously, makes sure all my (Company and personal) Inland Revenue and Company VAT etc. submissions are legal.

10. When you get really busy - have help.

One common issue in running a small company are the inevitable peaks and troughs in demand - it's either feast or famine. When you're not busy, use the time wisely. Learn new skills, software, optimise equipment settings, work on a blog post, do more networking, or even have a day off! But when you're really, really busy - get help.

I'm lucky in that I have a valued and trusted film making friend who helps me out with shoots when needed. He's also occasionally done some of the jobs I really don't fancy - like shooting in central London for various clients or flying to Zurich for the day to film a company executive - leaving in the dark and getting home at midnight, no thanks! I also have a good mate locally in Ely who offers to be my assistant (which means carry all the bags) when it's really needed. Whatever your business area, you'll likely know someone who might be ideal as a 'peak-demand helper'. Don't be afraid to ask them and establish a relationship that can be mutually beneficial. Make sure you pay them appropriately too (and cost that into the project).

11. Pick you niche - and then do it really well.

I do corporate/business video work - it's what I'm interested in, and basically, nothing else! Yeah, I know, I need to get out more! I especially enjoy making short, 'mini-documentaries' for businesses about what they do, or a particular project they want showcased. My career background (before Shooting Image Ltd) was in multinationals (as a PhD scientist/techie) so one niche that I'm often 'chosen by clients for' (and love doing) is video work for all sorts of science and high-tech companies…and there are a lot of those around Cambridge!

I don't do any wedding videos (ever!) and I only do event videos very rarely - and usually only if it's an existing, valued business client. I don't do photography either - but know lots of good ones to refer whenever I get asked. It works the other way too, several good photographers regularly refer clients to me when asked about video.

12. The most important thing - have fun!

Never, ever, forget that feeling when you started. No not the, 'OMG, what have I done' worried one! I mean the feeling of being so happy that you were finally following your dream of setting up a business that would give you the enjoyment and lifestyle you sought! Get to that place and you'll be as happy as me!

Hope that was interesting and informative. I've already thought of another 12 points that might be useful to share sometime soon - but those will have to wait for another day.