Play As Well As You Dress

(originally published in Screen Magazine 6/27/12)

Recently I sat down with my dad and played cards. He’s a good man, my dad. He worked his butt off to help raise his seven kids. For most of his life, he had a full-time job, a part-time job, and then did what he could on the weekends to make ends meet.

He never sat me down to talk about a proper work ethic, integrity, or even relate some of his business skills knowledge. He probably didn’t have the time. No, my dad (like so many others) led by example.

Every once and a while, he threw out small pieces of advice that I put in my brain bank, and would use throughout my career. One such piece of advice came when I was getting ready to play golf at the age of 17. My dad said, “You play as well as you dress, so dress well.” He continued to explain that if you respect the game and dress appropriately, the game will respect you back and you will play well.

I don’t recall if I played well that day, but I’ll never forget those words of advice. Play as well as you dress became a constant reminder in many things I embarked on.

Many people dress up when they go to church, have a big meeting, go on dates, etc., but what is their everyday dress code? On several occasions, I wore a suit and a tie to my recording studio. Not because I had to, but to serve as a physical reminder that I needed to be professional that day. There was nothing on my agenda other than to be good at my job. For years, I never wore shorts to the places I worked. Not only do I have the ugliest legs in the world, but I also thought that the simple act of wearing full-length pants would remind me that I was there to work, and not be on summer vacation. Now these days, mind you, I sometimes wear shorts to work. But they’re not the same shorts I wear to clean the gutters at my house.

This by no means is a knock on anyone who wears shorts or ripped jeans to work. In fact, if your job is to be creative, I think you should dress as funky, cool, and creatively as possible.

My point is: respect the position you hold, and dress appropriately. If you dress in sloppy, unwashed, or disheveled clothes, there’s a good chance your boss will think you don’t care about your job.

I’ll leave you with this, a quote from the movie Bull Durham.

“Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.” – Crash Davis

The Power of Words

(originally published in Screen Magazine on 6/13/12)
As I picked up my pizza last night, my son asked the owner of the restaurant why he named his place Prima La Pizza when he obviously serves much more than pizza. Frustrated (as if he’s been asked that same question many times before), he turned to me and said that adding that single word ‘pizza’ has cost him sleepless nights. He continued, “All of my pasta recipes were brought directly from Sicily, but the sign outside suggest that that the only thing I do well is pizza.”

I wasn’t really in the mood to have a lengthy business conversation with my ‘pizza’ guy, so I simply shrugged my shoulders as if to say. What are you going to do?

As I got into my car, I concluded that A) The owner of Prima La Pizza should have read my recent column about having a road map for success before naming his business, and B) People still don’t understand the power of words.

I see it all the time in business, someone comes up with a clever name, incorporates their business, and then immediately realizes that they may have chosen to be clever over profitable. Or perhaps they name their business after themselves, and then years down the road, when they want to phase themselves out, they’re forced to re-brand & re-invent. Seriously, whoever came up with the name Just Tires should be fired immediately if he or she hasn’t been fired already. By the way, Just Tires has added tune-ups and oil changes to their repertoire.

Poor word choices are also being made in business emails, texts, social media updates, and more. There is a great deal of power in words, and often times the person on the other end of your message isn’t receiving the same thing you’re sending (if you know what I mean).

I have also found that a lack of words can lead to confusion, and even keep vendors from getting awarded projects. I don’t know how many estimates I’ve seen that didn’t include a descriptive summary of the project. In my opinion, it’s hard to conclude if you’re right for the job if all I see is numbers. When I receive an estimate with a well written paragraph or two describing what needs to be done, and how the vendor intends to go about doing it, I get a sense that this company was really listening to me. Even if it basically repeats everything mentioned in a conference call, I feel that this company understands the scope of the project.

It’s not just the written words that can get people in trouble. I know an editor who answered a client’s question with a one-word answer. They rarely worked together again. To make a long story short, the client asked if a specific effect was possible. The editor took a minute, and finally said “Yea”. The combination of the long pause and the word “Yea” suggested to everyone in the room that the editor didn’t want to take the time to do the effect. It appeared that the editor was frustrated that he was being asked to do one more thing. In actuality, the editor was just thinking about how to pull off the effect, and what devices he needed to accomplish the goal.

I guess my point in all of this is… choose your words carefully.

• When starting a business, take the time to consider a name that reflects your capabilities as well as your business personality.

• When writing an email, make sure that if a complete stranger skims through it, they would read that email exactly how you intended it to be read.

• If you’re putting together an estimate, tell a creative and quick story about what’s happening on screen, it just might help you get the job.

• When speaking to clients, understand that every word you say can and will be used to determine if they will keep coming back.

The Pursuit of Profit

(originally published in Screen Magazine 4/25/12)

Profit. That’s the life-blood of any business. But how do you get there?

A client once asked me how to set aside money for marketing, small equipment purchases, and other incidentals. He complained that although he was busy, there never seemed to be any money left over to grow his business. “Sixty five thirty five” I said. “What’s that, your ATM pin number?” he responded. “Nope, that should be your per-project profit margin” I said.

Many small start-up companies live their business life from day to day. And that’s just fine if you ask me. Do what you have to do to survive your first couple of years in operation. But after that, the best way to set aside cash is to set some benchmarks. The best benchmark is obviously an annual budget. But as I’ve recently learned, very few creative companies put together annual budgets. So, the next best benchmark is a per-project profit margin.

My benchmark has always been a 65% profitability mark on a per-project basis. If a piece of music is going to cost me $4,200 to produce, I believe a fair estimate would look like $12,000. If a video project will take 10 days to edit, transfer, and finish at an average cost to me of $1,500 a day, I’d like to see the estimate at approximately $45,000. The same math can be used when looking at a project’s budget from the other side. If a producer tells me they have $100,000 for the entire production, I need to find a way to exceed their expectations without spending more than $35,000. And if you’re wondering, that $35,000 is a combined daily calculation of both freelance and full-time staff directly assigned to the project.

Of course 65/35 is just a benchmark, something to shoot for. I’ve spent 110% of a job’s budget in the hopes that the work could expand my company’s capabilities and future revenue. I’ve also seen profit margins as high as 90% on occasion. In both cases, I did everything I could to make sure the client was thrilled with the outcome.

So let’s say that you’re meeting your goal of 65% profitability, what does that mean? Well to me, it means that you have 25% of profit you can allocate towards paying your rent and utilities, 20% you can use to pay administrative staff, and 10% you can invest in marketing, small equipment purchases, and other incidentals. So technically, none of that is actually profit. Oh, and the final 10%? The actual profit? Put it in you pocket. You’ve earned it.

Is it time to re-invent your business?

Is it time to re-invent your business?  I’m not talking about a major overhaul, but perhaps a little tinkering.  Can your business model be better?  Thomas Edison continued to upgrade his inventions well after their initial patents, why can’t you do the same?

Much has changed since you started your business, and I don’t even know when that was.  About ten years ago, a friend of mine suggested that it was necessary to re-invent your business every 5 years to stay competitive.  In the current climate, it might be beneficial to look at your business model from a different perspective every year.  Perhaps it’s time to take advantage of some new technology, bring on young creative talent, eliminate redundancies, or even develop a new logo and company personality.

Drawing inspiration from the latest round of DirectTV spots, let me finish with this… When a creative shop stops moving forward, it becomes complacent.  When it becomes complacent, it’s known for offering mediocre services.  When it’s known for offering mediocre services, clients will stop working with them.  When clients stop working with them, the business closes.  So re-invent often, and don’t ever stop moving forward.

A short distraction goes a long way

Don’t let being a business owner consume your life.  And yes, this is coming from the same guy that suggests you should work at least 4 hours every weekend (It’s 5pm on Sunday…).  A short distraction can go a long way to maintaining a successful business.  I played video games at lunch to clear my head, but that was usually a short-term fix.  Playing golf might help some folks, but I always found thoughts of meetings and financials twirling around in my head between shots. Going to Vegas is a great distraction, I usually forget all about work when I go there.  Even if I lose money at the blackjack tables, the experience inspires me to re-focus, and concentrate even more on sales and new revenue streams.  But the best distraction for me over the years was the Simpsons.  Every episode is so stupid, funny, obnoxious, and brilliant, that it was impossible for me to think about work.  Watching mindless TV really helps your mind rest.

So remember to take a break every once in a while.  Do something that physically or mentally takes you away from the office.  Play Space Invaders if you need to blow off some steam. Take a trip to Vegas and “lose” yourself.  And for the love of God, watch the Simpsons!

It’s 5pm on Sunday, are you working?

Talk to any small business owner and they’ll tell you that they spend at least 4 hours working over the weekend.  Talk to the spouse of the same business owner and they’ll tell you that it’s more like 12 hours.  This non-billable time includes:

• thinking about accounts receivable while you watch a game on TV.
• wondering (while in the shower) if your accountant is doing everything they can to reduce tax liability.
• considering the conference call you have scheduled for Monday morning while you take your daughter to a birthday party.

During regular business hours, most creative business owners have a job to do.  They might be editing, directing, or putting a bid together, so there is no time to consider business growth while running the business.

So when and where is the right time to brainstorm?  I’ve watched plenty of MSNBC biographies to know that really successful people tend to put family low on their priority list.  Does this mean family time is just a casualty of a successful business?

I believe thinking about work over the weekend is unavoidable, so you might as well embrace those moments.  But instead of getting distracted by inspiration, capture it.  Write down your thoughts and questions over the weekend and then set aside time in during the week to pursue the answers.  Dream about your company’s future on your time.  Execute your vision on company time.

Be Better.

There are two McDonalds across the street from you, which one do you choose?

It sounds like an opening line to a riddle, but it’s the same choice your clients face every day.  Substitute McDonalds with editorial shop, graphics vendor, or sound studio, and you’ll see where I’m going with this.  If you’re worthy of being in the running for the job, you probably have the same equipment as the guys next door.  And if the producer that’s calling you is worth their day rate, he or she can probably get you both to agree to the pre-determined budget total.  So from across the street everything looks the same.  Your job (if you choose to accept it), is to prove to your client that you’re not the same.

So be funnier, be on-time, be on budget, be more creative, be responsive, but basically, be better.  Doing all of this won’t guarantee you every future job with these clients, but it will lock you in for many years to come.  After all, the key to long-term growth is building long-term relationships.

What A Ride

originally written & published in Screen Magazine in December 2010

In 1990, I was two weeks into my new job at Editel/Chicago when I was called into President Bob Coleman’s office to help organize the company softball team.

In that meeting, Bob told me “I can tell you’re going to run your own company, some day, you seem to have an eye on the bigger picture.”

Turns out, he was right. About six years later the well-respected post-house announced that it was closing its doors. At the time, Editel had a small music division headed up by Steve Zoloto and Brando Triantafillou, and I was the company’s sales rep. I never looked at it as a sales position, though, because if you have passion for the industry you serve and talented people to represent, you don’t have to “sell” anything, you just have to build trust.

Besides, everything I needed to know about being in that role I learned from Reid Brody, which was to treat every potential client differently. Don’t treat each client like a golfing buddy, because some clients don’t care about golf. In retrospect, maybe that’s one of the reasons Editel slowly closed; they had so much work that they began treating clients as if they were luggage at an airport. This one goes in this direction, that one goes in that direction, very efficient, but very impersonal.

A word of advice to anyone reading this thinking of opening up their own business: even with all the technology and creativity needed, at its core the industry is still about people.

But I digress. I don’t want this to turn into a “how to succeed” sermon, because I’ve made more than my share of mistakes (I’ll highlight those mistakes later). Anyway, within a few months of Editel closing in 1996, Brando, Steve and I started the Rhythm Café. It’s a pain in the ass to start a business. I remember begging 20 clients to write a letter to the Small Business Association (SBA) saying that I was a nice guy and they plan on bringing me plenty of work over the next few years. Of course, most of my clients ended up asking me to write the letter and they’d sign it on their letterhead. I don’t think that’s illegal, is it? I digress, again.

The first year was the roughest; in addition to taking everything I had out of my savings account, and agreeing not to receive a salary for six months, we decided to build-out our first studio ourselves. So, we would each come home to our wives dead broke and completely exhausted.

In year two, we started making our mark. We were doing some great work with some great clients. Folks like Dan Fietsam, Michael Rafayko, Bruce Alcock and others put a great deal of trust in our new company. Early in 1997, I remember Cheryl Lindquist stopping by the office with a case of beer and a check to say thanks. She said it wasn’t much, but it was huge to us. First, I like beer, and second, it was a clear sign that we were doing something right.

In year three, we hit our stride. We composed a piece of music for Minute Maid that everyone seemed to like. The rhythm section and vocals were recorded in Chicago and the string section was tracked at Capital Records in L.A. It was so well-received that, while we were in Prague recording an 80-piece orchestra for Maytag, I was sent to Paris to retrofit the Minute Maid music to a new spot out of Leo Burnett/Paris.

Sears spots from Ogilvy & Mather, McDonalds and Coca-Cola from Leo Burnett, and Wal-Mart from Bernstein-Rein are just a few of the highlights from 1998 to 2000. The cool thing about running your own business is that you get to decide how you want to go about doing it. At one point, we became friends with two young creatives at Leo Burnett named Justine Frosolone and Teddy Brown who designed several print ads for us. Most of the stuff they submitted was fun, but weird. At first we weren’t sure if it would even work with the Rhythm Café direction. But who were we kidding? We didn’t have a direction, and we were getting all this great work for free.

In the end, I think we went with a tag line that read: “Rhythm Café…The passion of a street corner musician, the soul of a street corner whore.” I guess my point is, sometimes throw the risk-reward thing out the window and try being fun and weird.

Anyway, we were fortunate to build many client relationships/friendships that would serve as the foundation of our business for many years. Brad Slaughter of Bark Productions in Kansas City comes to mind; he’s a really nice guy. The only problem was, I didn’t enjoy the success as much as I should have. I was stressed when we had too much work and I was stressed when we didn’t have enough.

You would have thought that I would have stopped and smelled the roses a bit more. After all, we went from a start-up to one of the best music houses in Chicago, making 1.2 million in annual gross sales. So why wasn’t I happy? Perhaps I thought I would get complacent. Sitting still was difficult for me. I often compared running your own business to swimming across a river. You have to continually fight the current to make it across. There was no coasting. Every day brought on new challenges. I finally told myself, you don’t always have to jump in the river, just enjoy the view.

By the end of our third year, Rhythm Café faced the same dilemma that many businesses face, should we expand? Our financial advisor once asked me, “How much money do you want to make?”  I thought it was the stupidest question I’d ever heard. Then I realized that it was a great question to continually ask yourself when making big decisions. How much do I need to spend to make as much as I want? How many people do I need to do it right? What is the true goal?

We thought about a Santa Monica office and even looked at spaces on Wilshire Ave. In the end, we took all the money we saved and bought a 6,000 sq. ft. commercial condominium space. It turned out, buying the property was a great investment, but it kind of sidetracked me. I put too much on my plate, and still asked for seconds (as it were). By 2000, I ran a music company, a real estate investing company and took over the building’s condo association.

Remember the mistakes I mentioned? I took on too much.

I love challenges, always have. I thought I could take on just about anything and succeed. My business ego was inflated. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. For example, at one point I thought I would get into the record business. We had  the money, so why not give it a try? I remember asking Tom Duff if I could lease the studio space above Optimus so we could produce records with Ramsey Lewis and his son Frayne. Tom said no, and, at the time, I thought he was making a mistake. Who would say ‘no’ to $10,000 a month?

His reasoning was something I’ll never forget: “I don’t want to be a landlord. I don’t want to worry about whether or not your air conditioner works. I need to focus on my core business,” he said.  Good advice, why didn’t I listen? I didn’t lose any money in my real estate investing, in fact the investments always worked out for the better, but it didn’t make me a better music producer either.

I digress, again and again. Another example of a misstep came in late 2001 when we produced a Gatorade project with Doug E. Fresh. The spot itself led to much more work with Foote, Cone and Belding, but for the next several months I was consumed by a new business idea that had Doug acting as a Creative Director/Conduit to celebrity recording artists. It was a really good idea, one that could be quite successful even now, but then Doug blew off a dinner meeting with Juan Woodbury in New York and I fell out of love with the idea. The point is, how much time did I waste on that when I could have been focusing on my core business?

Over the next couple of years, it seemed the music business changed. Although we were still very busy, it seems our focus was more on the business aspect of the organization and less on creating the music. I expressed my concerns to friend/client Stephanie Blocksom about what I was going through and how it all seemed to be getting more difficult.  It was becoming a job, she summarized for me.

I had never looked at it like that. Everything I did until then was fueled by my passion for the industry. I followed my instincts and I was fortunate that they were right a majority of the time. I went into business for myself because I trusted those instincts.  I think my partners soon realized that it was becoming a job, as well. Not that it wasn’t a great job, but once that realization hits you, you start wondering if it’s the right job for you and your family. Does the investment of stress, money and time equal the return?

By the end of 2003, my partner Steve Zoloto decided it didn’t balance out, so we bought out his shares and moved on. In 2006, Brando Triantafillou came to the same conclusion, so I bought him out of his Rhythm Café responsibilities.  There I was; a guy who doesn’t even know how to tune a guitar was the sole owner of a music company.

So I re-invented the shop to be more of a music broker business. I would match the creative direction of a project to the skills of a composer. It worked. Rhythm Café had a great 2007. We composed a four-spot package for DDB/State Farm, assembled a great team for Spyder Motorcycles/Cramer-Krasselt and even reunited with Doug E. Fresh to produce a PSA track for HBO. The PSA went on to win an Emmy. And when HBO called and asked me if they could fly me to New York, pick me up in a limo and I be their guest at the $10,000 a plate premiere, I said “Hell yeah. I’ve learned from the past, I’m going to enjoy this.”

I sat between the HBO president and the star of the PSA, Jamie Foxx.

I was revitalized. It wasn’t a job anymore, I just needed a reminder. After our studio was seen on the Oprah Show, people started calling to see if they can rent space there. Sure, why not. I leased office space, and rented the lounge out for parties to people like rap star T.I./Atlantic Records.

Then, I got distracted again. My passion for business development coupled with my love for the industry led me to start consulting. I think I did it well. I went to the Grammy’s with a recording artist, I helped a company find new revenue streams and helped bring attention to a great record label.

But in the end, my business consulting hurt the Rhythm Café brand. I should have known this when Shirley Portee asked me: “Why are you calling me from Red Car?”

Over the last year, Rhythm Café has done well, but not well enough to survive. So, after 14 years, I’ve decided to close up the shop. I’ve explained to a few people that I can do more by doing less if that makes any sense. My passion for this industry extends beyond what I can provide at Rhythm Café. I want to work for someone again and put all of my focus towards their goals, not mine.

I’d like to thank all the Rhythm Café staff and clients with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to work over the years. It has been an incredible journey and none of it would have been possible without you.