Diary of a Film Startup Part 16: Top Ten Lessons, So Far

By Roger Jackson

Previously: Film Marketing Tools

Train to Stockholm We get amazing indie films submitted to KinoNation almost every day to our Private Beta launch. Here’s one that’s beautifully shot, with a theme of cross-border connectivity that will, I think, appeal to many video-on-demand platforms. Keep submitting movies!

10 Lessons As we close in on year’s end -- and 4 months work on KinoNation -- I thought I’d share some lessons we’ve learned that really apply, I think, both to startup ventures AND to indie filmmaking. They seem obvious to me with hindsight, but they weren’t obvious when we started just a few months ago.

1 ASSUMPTIONS -- the premise for any startup or film is based on a series of assumptions which may or may not be true. It’s critically important to accept that your assumptions -- about market, audience, revenues, etc. -- may be fundamentally flawed. Job # 1 is to identify what your fundamental assumptions are. For KinoNation, the assumptions are that: a) filmmakers and content owners will want to use a service like this, b) that VoD platforms will be prepared to take our films, and c) that the numbers (costs vs future revenue) will actually add up to make the venture worthwhile.

2 TEST & VERIFY -- it’s much faster and cheaper to test your assumptions before you start shooting or writing code or hiring people. The key is to test & verify in a thoroughly objective way. Avoid what many entrepreneurs and filmmakers do, which is to hear only what they want to hear (positive validation) and filter out what they don’t want to hear (negative validation.) We tested our assumptions in #1 by making hundreds of calls and asking people, before we wrote a single line of code. And we continue to test and listen and test again. You really can do similar verification before making a movie.

3 PIVOT -- be prepared to change course, based on testing, feedback and early results. We were pretty sure we’d use the industry leading software for transferring huge movie files (Aspera) until we discovered it would cost us $100 for each film uploaded to us. So we built the software ourselves. That was a pretty major pivot, with significant risk, but we did it fast, and within less than a month we had people using our Upload Manager to transfer their ProRes files to our cloud servers.

4 BE TRANSPARENT - talk to competitors, be open about your plans. So many entrepreneurs and filmmakers want to keep their idea secret. Bad idea. Ideas are ten a penny. It’s execution that’s really hard. The upside from sharing your idea -- and the feedback you get -- far outweighs the risk that someone will take your idea and execute on it themselves. Startups or screenplays or ideas in “stealth mode” tend to die from lack of exposure to the real world. I’ve had meetings with most of our competitors, and I’ve learned enormously from each one. Competitors can be remarkably open, friendly and supportive.

5 LISTEN TO YOUR AUDIENCE -- in the case of KinoNation, audience means filmmakers and VoD platforms and consumers of on-demand films. Talk to everyone, invite criticism and listen carefully, even if the feedback conflicts with your own beliefs. They may be right, you may be wrong. Many of our beliefs about the world of on-demand films have been significantly amended after listening to feedback.

6 RELEASE EARLY AND FAST -- there’s no better way to verify that you’re on to something (or not) than by having real people check it out, use your service, watch your dailies, etc. Get it out there fast, at least to a limited audience, and shorten the feedback-loop. In the startup world it’s known as MVP -- Minimum Viable Product.

7 DON’T WASTE TIME AND MONEY ON STUPID STUFF -- there are so many “busywork” items beckoning to you when starting a business or prepping a movie. Setting up a company, printing stationery, opening a bank account, etc. Don’t let it distract you. It doesn’t achieve much. Do it only when you absolutely must, and not before. e.g. open a bank account after you first get that first check!

8 STRIVE FOR FIRST MONEY -- keep your sights on the point where your first income arrives. That’s actually the crucial target. It’s not launching the website or wrapping the shoot. It’s getting that first check. For KinoNation the first income will be in Q1 of 2013, and once it comes it -- even if relatively small -- it will be the first “real” validation of our business assumptions.

9 BE CHEAP, LEAN & MEAN -- startup companies and startup movies die because they run out of cash. You’ll never have enough. Be incredibly cheap. Run things lean and mean, but always be aware of the 3 factors “fast” “inexpensive” and “high quality”  -- you can only ever have 2 out of 3.

10 IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT -- making movies, or starting a business is a long haul, always longer and harder than you expect. You’ll have times when you accomplish a lot, and times of intense frustration. You have to pace yourself, take fun breaks, and bust the stress with exercise. You will fail to finish this marathon if you don’t balance life, work and passion.

Next Up: Post # 17: From Upload to Cash in Hand: How KinoNation Works

Roger Jackson is a producer and the co-founder of film distribution start-up KinoNation. He was Vice President, Content for digital film pioneer iFilm.com and has produced short films in Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.