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The Reality of Owning a Studio, with Zac Dixon
Zac Dixon, Creative Director at IV and Host of the Animalators podcast, shares his experience as a studio owner.
In the Motion Design industry the role of creative director and studio owner is glorified. The thrill of owning your own business and leading a team of artists is intoxicating, but what is the actual reality of running a Motion Graphics studio?
The Truth About Owning a Studio
In this week's episode Joey sits down with Zac Dixon to discuss his experience as Creative Director/Owner at IV. Zac is super honest about the reality of owning a modern studio. No frills. No fluff.
In addition to his work at IV, Zac is the host of the incredibly popular Animators podcast. Which you should absolutely subscribe to once you’re done listening to this podcast.
Joey Korenman: This is the School of Motion podcast. Come for the mograph, stay for the puns.
Zac Dixon: As I've continued in this line of work I have learned that the thing I enjoy most consistently and will never change is my ability to learn new things and to take every opportunity to do that and there is no better way to be consistently thrown into that area of unknown than owning a business.
Joey Korenman: If you have any ambitions to make a name for yourself in this industry, to maybe start a studio one day or two eventually build a great business around motion design you are going to really like this episode. Today we are talking to Zac Dixon, who, in addition to hosting the incredible podcast, Animalators, also co-founded a studio called IV in Nashville, Tennessee. The story of how Zac and his partner started IV is ... Frankly it's really weird and it's interesting and now IV is doing some insanely good work for brands like Netflix and Amazon. They even worked on a J.J. Abrams project.
So, I wanted to grill Zach on how the studio got to be where it is and I wanted to know the truth about running a studio. You might be aware that I ran a studio in Boston for four years and this is an experience I wrote about in the Freelance Manifesto, which you can find at Amazon.com if you're curious and I wanted to see how Zac's experience compared with mine, how he managed some of the stresses of running a studio and how he's managed to juggle so many things in his life, including most recently, fatherhood.
This episode is filled with some really honest talk about the industry, about running a studio and about what it takes to compete in today's motion design market. It's an awesome episode if I do say so myself. I think you're going to really love it. You're going to love Zac, so here we go.
Zac, dude, it is so awesome to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for doing this man.
Zac Dixon: Thanks so much for having me. This is awesome.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. It's trading podcasts. This is really fun.
Zac Dixon: I know. I know. By the way, your episode was amazing. I keep getting just consistently incredible feedback. So, everyone should see go listen to it. I appreciate you doing that Joey.
Joey Korenman: Thanks man. We'll put a link to it in the show notes if anyone's not familiar and I'm assuming that most people listening are familiar with Animalators, which is the podcast you're the host of. You've done dozens of episodes, but at this point some of the best artists in the industry, and then Joey for some reason, and it's an amazing podcast, I'm a big fan and I will link to it. Everyone go subscribe to that one too. So, for anyone who's familiar with you from Animalators, but isn't familiar with you as the co-founder of a really cool motion design studio called IV, could you give us like the brief history of IV? Like how long have you guys been around and what kind of work do you do?
Zac Dixon: No, definitely. We are a motion design, kind of animation studio based in Nashville, Tennessee. We've been around for about five years at this point. I am a founder. I have a co-founder, Samuel Cowden. He's our executive producer. We moved to Nashville to start IV in 2012 and right after graduating school. Yeah, and it was just the two of us at first. We were working out of the first floor of Sam's kind of house apartment. It was a great house, but man, a really rough area of town, which was super fun. Yeah, it was just the two of us chilling down there at first.
We actually started with half video, half animation. We were kind of like a director, cinematographer team. Yeah, then we over time slowly moved into only doing animation and at this point there are seven and a half of us. We have a part-timer who produces Animalators and does our social media and then we actually just pulled in our first intern yesterday. So, I guess we're up to eight. So, yeah.
Joey Korenman: That's awesome. That's really cool. After five years you've grown from two to eight. Now, you mentioned that you went basically straight out of school into opening a studio, which is not the way most people do it. I'm curious why you didn't think that maybe you should get a full time gig first or at least freelance a little bit before doing this?
Zac Dixon: Oh yeah. That's something I think about a lot actually. It was an interesting time because we went to a real small school. I didn't go to school for this. I went to school for music and our school had this kind of touring teams. We were the band for like youth camps in the summer and we would just kind of go around and we'd play these youth camps, promote the school, play music, that kind of thing, but we had a screen that would go behind us and that screen had really nothing to go on it unless we were going to make it.
The people who would kind of fund this promo team for the schools, they handed me a laptop and I had done some Star Wars dumb movies with my friends in high school and I was like [inaudible 00:05:27] facts. Let's make some stuff for the screen, and I didn't even know what a lyric video was at the time, but that's essentially what we were making. Yeah, threw those up on Vimeo and like before I knew it ... This was like earlier days of Vimeo. I don't know how, but people started just kind of reaching out and saying like, "Hey, we would like to do some of this stuff for us. We got 500 bucks." And I'm like, "Oh my gosh, you have $500. That's more than I've been paid for anything before in my life."
Joey Korenman: It's like a million dollars.
Zac Dixon: Yeah. By senior year I was basically working full time freelance outside of school hours and met Sam, my business partner, in like a film class that I just took on as an elective because I really enjoyed directing film projects, and we worked together on some stuff and at that time we were actually more of looking at companies like Variable. They were super inspiring to us. They were just kind of a small production company that just kind of started up and were making really cool film projects kind of in the earlier days of Vimeo and that's kind of what we wanted to be at first.
Joey Korenman: Gotcha. I have two questions about this. So, you mentioned Sam, your business partner and I'm curious. Let me just start by asking this. In the beginning, what was the division of labor between the two you?
Zac Dixon: Sure. At the beginning it was ... When we really started pursuing it full-time I was doing pretty much all the animation work and Sam was doing all of our live action work and then when we had live action work come in we'd both be on set and then we'd hire some PA's and stuff, super small stuff obviously. That was pretty much it. That was the division of labor at first, like he was live action, I was animation. We combined them whenever we could. That's kind of how it started.
Joey Korenman: Okay. One of the things that ... I talked to a lot of motion designers who love the idea of opening their own studio and I also talked to just a lot of general sort of entrepreneurs and one of the things a lot of people are looking for, creative people specifically, is they're looking for a business partner who understands business and I'm curious if either you or Sam sort of had that bent already or did you guys just both say, "We'll figure this out."
Zac Dixon: I have a feeling you hear this from a lot of people who start stuff, but we had like no idea what we're getting into and if we knew what we were getting into we probably wouldn't do it, but I'm really glad we did, but no, neither of us really had like ... I would say we have both entrepreneurial tendencies, like we're both self-starters and that sort of thing, but no, the learning curve, it's super high. I mean, both of our dads have business backgrounds and so there's a lot of advice to kind of pull from them, which was super helpful, but no. We were both kind of creative types, but over time Sam kind of really has a knack for it and he's kind of moved into that position over time, but man, I mean, as with everything, we've had to fight really hard to just get better at it, especially the business side of things, because it's just a lot you don't know when you go into.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, absolutely. I'm kind of imagining at this point you got two buddies who meet in college and you guys like each other, you like working together and Sam's kind of got the live action thing down and you've got the animation thing down and you say, "Hey, let's start a company together." This makes sense. This makes perfect sense because you had been getting $500 to make lyric videos. So, you were already basically successful. When you guys partnered up and you moved to Nashville, which is kind of interesting in and of itself, but when you moved there, did you do the whole thing, like get started in LLC and make the URL and turn it into a real business or did you just start basically acting as two freelancers?
Zac Dixon: I mean, when there's only two of you it's very similar to acting like two freelancers. Actually were we were Dixon Cowden Productions LLC. That was the original name.
Joey Korenman: You should've stuck with that man.
Zac Dixon: I know. It's real catchy. It's real, real catchy. I don't know what we were thinking. I hate names in general, though, so. Yeah, essentially freelancers. I mean, but we had massive goals and those goals have definitely changed over time, but we were just like, "Yeah, we're going to be The Mill. We're going to be huge, like 2, 300 employees." And that was kind of our goal. We were like, "We're just going to ride this and see how big we can grow it and see what we can do. We'll have offices in London, New York, LA." That was the dream at first. That's kind of where we wanted to go and we wanted to work with huge clients. We looked up to all these studios that we thought were making great work and we just wanted to get better and see what we could do and we really had no idea how to get there.
Joey Korenman: You were aiming at a pretty big scale. I mean, The Mill is ... it's about as big as it gets and it's interesting because ... Yeah, I've talked to a lot of people and most people don't aim that high right away. Their goals are a little more modest. I'm curious why you guys are thinking so big so early. Was it chasing the fame and fortune, mograph billionaire or was there some other reason that you thought it'd be cool to have 200 or 300 people working for you?
Zac Dixon: It's interesting because I have such a different perspective on like being an employer at this point in life, but some like ... It's actually really difficult for me to put myself in that mindset, but to us like that just seemed from the outside what success meant from a business standpoint. I'm much more of a person who wants to set creative goals and these are more just business goals, but that just kind of made sense to me. It seemed like, "Oh, if you're successful you will have a big staff." And that's just what that looked like to us at that point.
I'm a firm believer that setting huge goals for yourself is like, it's the only way you're going to achieve something that ... I don't know. I feel like why not aim for something like that until you know better. I don't know that we did anything that we regretted because of those goals, but now that we know more, now that we've got five years behind us those goals have ... They're always changing and they're always adapting, which I think is great.
Joey Korenman: That's actually incredible advice that you just dropped. I've heard that, from my business coach and from other people, that if you aim to make a one million dollar a year business and you don't quite get there then maybe you do like a half a million dollar a year or something like that, but if you aim to make a 10 million dollars a year business and you don't quite get there you're still doing five million dollars. So, it's like it the higher you aim the more you can miss by and still end up in a pretty good spot.
Zac Dixon: Totally.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, yeah. That's really cool man. Sounds like you're pretty ambitious. At that point you had these visions of grandeur. What were you imagining your day-to-day would be like running this studio?
Zac Dixon: Since kind of shifting I would thought music was going to be a thing for a while, but since shifting towards this kind of creative career I definitely have always aimed for trying to be a real creative director. Who knows if I am at this point, but that's kind of always been the goal. Being a director, being someone who's in charge of projects, leading a team towards great work. I mean, that was kind of the goal for what I wanted my day to be like. There's been a lot of like pros and cons to that goal as well that I've learned as of kind of like I am at the place where I am, where I have six people that I get to ask questions about projects constantly and no longer have time to animate things. So there's definite pros and cons with that.
I don't know. So part of the issue, you brought this up a little bit earlier, was like neither Sam or I have had any experience at any other studios. We've never worked in an agency, we've never worked for anyone and that has been, honestly, very difficult. I don't think we knew how difficult that was going to be so. To tell you the truth I wanted to be a creative director because I looked at people like Jay at Giant Ant and I thought like, "Oh, that's the job. Giant Ant's amazing. I want to be that." But honestly, I had no idea what that looked like. Sometimes I still wonder if, "Am I doing this right? Is this what creative directors do?" And there are now great resources to get insight into what those positions look like, but to tell you the truth, I don't think I had really any idea what a creative director did day-to-day, but I knew I wanted to be that for some reason.
Joey Korenman: I'm sure a creative director at The Mill, with a team of 60 artists underneath them, is a very different beast than like what Jay is doing at Giant Ant, with a dozen or so people. I was a creative director for four years and I had a very small team. The largest team I ever had under me was maybe five or six people, and I felt ... It sounds like we felt kind of the same way, like you're pretending you're a creative director and if you do that for long enough you start to feel like, "Maybe I am actually a creative director." That's awesome.
Zac Dixon: But it's funny how those goals change over time, once you kind of realize what things are. So that's definitely happened quite a bit in really every goal that we have set for ourselves, which I think is good.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. In business and in life, I mean, goals change and you're a new father, you've got a new baby, the pictures of beautiful and I'm sure that changes the calculus too a little bit.
Zac Dixon: Oh yeah, it definitely does. I mean, I'm still super fresh at it so I don't have any like dad advice yet, believe me. She's seven weeks old at this point so I'm still trying to do what I can. Couple of days after she was born I got an email from Tom Judd, actually, from Animade, after the baby was born, just like kind of reaching out saying, "Congrats." And how he has actually kind of shifted his whole life to be able to only work four days a week just to be able to spend time with his kid. It was amazing to me to be able to see that like someone runs a studio and is able to do that, is able to kind of structure his life in a way around his family.
That's something that I would aspire to do, maybe not work four days a week only. We're not at a size that I think that's possible currently, but I have been pretty diligent about spending one day a week working from home and I'm always trying to get home before rush hour and kind of finishing out my day at home. So, that's been the shift I've tried to make and it's going pretty well so far. We've consciously set up our studio for people to be able to work remotely. We actually have a full-time employee who works from home in Chicago and so we're trying to keep everything online in Slack and Frame and all that type of stuff so everyone is pretty easily able to work from home or go to a coffee shop or something whenever possible. So, that's kind of made it a little bit easier for me to transition into that like ... I try to work from home when I can.
Joey Korenman: I think it's really important that people here that, especially some of the younger people out there that are new in their career and they're thinking about starting the next Mill and you don't realize until it happens to you how quickly your priorities can change. I've written about this in a Motionographer article we can link to and I've talked about it on other podcasts, but as you get older and you start a family, especially if you have children, or you just kind of get sick of grinding so hard, it's important to try to set yourself up to have those options and that's amazing.
I didn't know that Tom from Animade only worked four days a week. I mean, that's amazing. We have set School of Motion up in a way where everyone who works full-time for us has tons of flexibility because I'm a father of three and I want that too. I'm not always successful at it, but yeah, I think it's a very lofty goal as a studio owner to be in a position to work four days a week.
Zac Dixon: Yeah, no, it's an incredible goal. I don't know how to get there as of yet, but there are a lot of things that I don't know how to get to and I want to head there so we're going to try. We'll figure it out.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, baby steps. So let's talk about the first year of running Dixon Cowden LLC. What was the transition like for you going from ... sounds like you were a student doing freelance work and then you moved to Nashville and all of a sudden you hang out at shingle and you're like, "All right, we're here, come hire us." Just give me a sense of what that initial period was like.
Zac Dixon: We used to go to these networking events, like legitimately, put a suit on. We'd print out those business cards and just mingle it up. Man, I hated that. I hated that so much, but that's what we thought we needed to do, like we needed to meet business people here that are going to hire us to make videos for their businesses. I remember doing that a lot and we were just like, "All right, we hate this, but we're doing it. This is what people do. This is how people get work." Because we had no idea. Don't do that, by the way, it's not good. Don't waste your time. I don't know if we ever got a job by doing that, but yeah, we tried a lot of things like that that just didn't work.
We were doing a lot of work for churches and we had some retainer kind of clients that we just we knew we were going to get 20 hours a week or 10 hours a week from them at a decent rate that kind of kept us going and kind of filled in our gaps of what we were able to do from an animation standpoint. And we started to get more of those types of things and we hired our first full-timer. He split both sides. We were a little bit of live action, a little bit of animation and he kind of worked across both of those then we realized like, "Oh, it'd be nice if we didn't have to go to these networking events."
Sam's roommate at the time was going door to door selling AT&T to people in Nashville and hated it just unbelievably and we were like, "Hey, we'll give you commission for any work that you can bring to us." And he was like, "Oh, that'll be way better than what I'm doing right now." And yeah, his name's Austin and he has been with us ever since. We very quickly stop paying him commission that because I think that's terrible, but that's a whole different thing.
Joey Korenman: Wow, you sort of lucked into a business development person because it was Sam's roommate.
Zac Dixon: Yep.
Joey Korenman: That's hilarious man.
Zac Dixon: We went to school together too. He was actually my RA in school. He was one of my best friends from college as well too, but yeah, he was kind of just there with us because he lived with Sam just kind of just around the business. He would be playing Assassin's Creed on the other side of the room while we were working during those kind of early days. Yeah, he's been with us ever since and it's been awesome.
Joey Korenman: All right, so let's break this down a little bit. You said in the beginning you had a few church clients that would kind of give you 20 hours a week and then you were putting on monkey suits and going to mixers. I love the visual of this in my head by the way. So, what kind of revenue were you able to generate in that first year? Do you remember?
Zac Dixon: I don't remember. We actually set it up early. Sam and I didn't take salaries, what we did was ... We were actually try to buy a lot of gear. We were trying to like stock up. We had like a RED camera, we were trying to buy lenses and things like that because that was our goal early on. We said, "Well, you take 25% of whatever we make. I'll take 25% of whatever make and we'll spend the rest of it, the remaining 50%, on computers, hard drives, gear, all that stuff." And man, I don't think we made much. We were just out of school so we didn't really have like much expenses.
Both of our wives worked so that worked out well because we ... they had a salary and it's a first time in your life you've ever had a salary to work with and I was like, "Ah, so much money. Look at all this." It was kind of a low pressure at the beginning, which was great, I mean, that's kind of, I feel kind of what you need starting out. It was not a lot, like we were maybe each taking in like 1,000 a month or something like that. That sounds about right, like personal money.
Joey Korenman: Gotcha. Okay, just reinvesting the rest in the business, which is great. That's one of the advantages, I think, you may have had. You were right out of school. You hadn't had the experience of working in the industry for five, six years and freelancing and all of a sudden you're used to an 80 grand a year salary or whatever and now you want to start a company and immediately make that. That's really, really tricky. I like how you set it up. That's actually a really smart way to do it, where if you can swing that, if you have a business partner you basically split the profits, some percentage, and then the rest you reinvest, that's got to make it a little bit scary too to do that first hire. So, let's talk about that first person you hired. Did you hire them full-time right away or did you sort of ease them in, like hire them contract a few times and then hire them full-time?
Zac Dixon: We were doing like a good mix of both at first. We were doing a lot of like occasional contract work and then ... But no, at the same time we just said like, "Okay, you and I, we are going to start taking a fixed salary and we're hiring enough freelancers to make it worth it to have a full-time person." That kind of helped ease that. I mean, it was definitely scary. It was definitely terrifying, but he was like another single guy and it's not like he had like a big family that was like also counting on it, and I was also very confident like he was super talented guy and he'd do fine if we'd just shut down one day.
That first one, I think, was a little easier than it could have been otherwise. Nobody was moving to Nashville, like uprooting their lives to come be with us. It was kind of this like nice gradual transition from like contracting to like, "Okay, we're just going to start paying you this fixed amount." We were all young. We were all still in our parents' health care and all that stuff too so we didn't have to worry about benefits and things like that. It was just like, yeah, pretty seamless transition.
Joey Korenman: At that point, when you made that hire, did you have to do anything else? Did you need to rent a bigger office or anything like that, or was it just a little bump in your monthly expenses?
Zac Dixon: It was a big bump because I think we also went to our own consistent salary numbers, but, I mean, we were able to kind of show that from these past three months, like we've cleared this, no problem. As long as nothing changes we shouldn't have a problem. So yeah, it made sense from that standpoint.
Joey Korenman: Okay. Did you finance your equipment purchases and things like that solely out of the profits of the company or did you have some savings coming in? How did you get your first you know ... Like a RED camera back then, I'm assuming it was 25 grand or something like that. How did you finance this startup phase?
Zac Dixon: Neither Sam or I came out of school with a lot of school loans so-
Joey Korenman: That's huge.
Zac Dixon: So Sam actually took out a ... instead of the money that he was going to put towards tuition essentially he took out a school loan of $20,000 that we ended up using ... working that around, roundabout way to essentially spend 20 grand on computers, lenses. The Scarlet just came out so we got like the first batch of RED Scarlets. We just did it through a school loan basically.
Joey Korenman: That's a creative financing model right there. I like that.
Zac Dixon: We didn't end up really doing much video production work two years later so in hindsight maybe not the best way to go. We also got robbed at our next office. So very quickly we needed to get out of Sam's house, get our own space. We [rented 00:27:16] the space on Music Row, which we thought ... Music Row, it's kind of a touristy area. It's where all the classic Nashville studios are and it's where a lot of studios still are and we felt like this would be great, but apparently it's ... It looks very residential because all these studios are houses, but it's not. It's almost entirely businesses run out of like small houses around here.
So, after the bars shut down around the area at like one or two in the morning it is literally a ghost town from like two to six in the morning and so there's actually quite a bit of that stuff going on. We actually got broken into twice in that place and that was not fun. We had insurance, which was good and it actually kind of helped us through a bit of a rough patch to be honest. We weren't getting a ton of work and just getting those insurance payments back for our RED and for some of our computers and stuff kind of helped us through a tough time, but yeah, that's how we don't own a RED anymore.
Joey Korenman: Well it's funny because in hindsight you're right. I mean, knowing where you were going to be you would've just bought couple of laptops and-
Zac Dixon: [inaudible 00:28:31] it's great.
Joey Korenman: It is. Yeah. So you started ... Well, it wasn't IV yet. It was a Dixon Cowden, but five years ago ... I mean, even then the cost of starting a motion design studio was essentially like a laptop and 50 bucks a month. That's really awesome. Were any of your previous freelance clients able to come along to this new company or did you have to start from scratch?
Zac Dixon: There weren't too many, but we had a few like consistent churches like I mentioned that we just kind of rolled those into what we were doing and they kind of came along with, but those are really the only things that we had going, I mean. Yeah, so that kind of like propelled the beginning of it, but we were so fresh and it was a new city, didn't have a lot of contacts. All of our contacts kind of grew out of those very few connections that we've started with.
Joey Korenman: Gotcha. Okay. Pretty early on you figured out that you didn't like putting on the monkey suit and going to networking events and cold calling people, but you had this buddy who didn't mind doing those things. Is this guy's name Austin? Am I getting that right?
Zac Dixon: Yeah, Austin Harrison.
Joey Korenman: Austin. Okay. So, Austin, how did Austin get you guys work? What did he do?
Zac Dixon: That has changed a lot over the years, especially as our clientele has changed over the years. Early it was like ... He is the type of person that will talk to anyone at a party not even trying. It's just who he is as a person and we saw that and we saw that he was very good at developing genuine relationships with people. So, to start we were just like, "Just get coffee with anyone who will get coffee with you. Join these local like NAMA." Was it? National American Marketing Association? It's probably not it, but it's something like that. There was a bunch of those. A bunch of those little kind of business like ... I don't know. You pay like an entrance fee and you get to go to them.
So he would go to those and just meet with as many people as he possibly could and most people wouldn't have worked for us, but our budgets were so small, we were such a small team. We didn't know anything. Our work frankly wasn't very good so we were able to be like this kind of like early starting cheap option for smaller businesses, and there's a ton of those in Nashville and the economy was and still is booming. Just lots of new smaller businesses, lots of health care moving here and so yes, slowly, over time, he kind of worked his way into getting to know a lot of health care clients and that was kind of what sustained us through those like early years of learning and just trying to figure out what the heck we were doing.
Yeah, and now that has shifted quite a bit. I mean, we are almost entirely priced out of any local jobs. Most companies here do not have a high focus on video content or animation on the agency side as well as on the client side. So, actually now he doesn't really spend a whole lot of time networking in Nashville at all. We've actually started doing city trips and so last year we went to 12 different cities, one every month and setting up meetings. Sam and Austin would go and we'd set up meetings at major agencies and big clients and that has started to work out really well for us.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I've done those too. I used to call those the dog and pony show. Nice. Now, do you also bring catering when you go do these?
Zac Dixon: We do.
Joey Korenman: Because that's a really good tip. Yeah, that's ... for anyone listening, food gets you work. That's awesome. A little bit I want to come back to this because it's a good point you brought up, which is the things that will make you a successful studio in year one stop working around year two, three if you want to continue growing and you have to adapt that. In the beginning it sounds like most of the work you were doing wasn't super cool, is that accurate?
Zac Dixon: Yeah. Not cool at all and very bad, as it should be. No one just starts doing this stuff and makes amazing things right off the bat, let's be honest.
Joey Korenman: Why was that? Was it the clients? Was it you guys didn't have the skillset yet to do it? Why wasn't the work good?
Zac Dixon: Oh, it was the skillset for sure. I mean, the clients we were getting ... I think in the first two years the only company that we got work with that you would have ever heard of is Dollar General and it was still like a local thing. Honestly, my perspective all along, and still is, is like every project that we get we are getting paid to learn and get better. So that's how I framed that period of life and it's still how I frame a lot of the work that we do, because we need to keep getting better and I want that to never stop. With every project we just tried to push as far as we could go and make the best thing we are capable of.
It was just not good. We didn't know what was good. We didn't have enough experience or developed our taste enough to know the difference between our work and the stuff that a Giant Ant or Buck was putting out. It looked kind of similar and we were like, "Ah, this is great." I think that kind of naiveness is helpful. It keeps you going and it also makes you confident when you come in and pitch to clients who also can't tell the difference between what two kids, two years out of school are doing and like major players on the coasts are doing. Yeah, sorry, I'm kind of to rambling. I don't know where I was going with that.
Joey Korenman: I think that that's a ... It's good to hear actually because I think a lot of people when you're starting out ... one of the toughest things is to gauge where you sit on the ladder and there's really ... I mean, short of finding someone who will be really honest with you and say, "Hey listen Zac, I know you guys want to be The Mill in a few years but you're going to have to get a lot better." Short of someone saying that to you there's no way to know and the ironic thing is that it can work in your advantage because you can get these opportunities that you probably shouldn't have gotten and it'll elevate you. So, cool. Okay. Were you doing anything at that time to try and make your work cooler? Were you doing spec pieces, trying to do little personal projects or were you basically just doing client work?
Zac Dixon: I think at that point we were just trying to do client work and then just kind of take things as far as we could. I mean, since the beginning I always wanted to make sure that my standards were just insanely higher than anyone who would ever hire us. I never wanted to deliver anything to someone that I wasn't proud of, which is kind of weird stuff because I feel very rarely proud of work that I do because I always feel it can be better, but I guess I will say like the really first attempt at like a personal project was a short that we did called SOLUS. It was this kind of very simple 2D spaceship adventure and no dialogue or anything, just like really simple illustrations and animations, and that somehow got a Vimeo staff pick and that was an incredible day. I still remember it very vividly. It was a little unreal.
Joey Korenman: Did that Vimeo staff pick turn into more bookings and stuff like that?
Zac Dixon: No actually. Not at all.
Joey Korenman: I'm always curious about that. You get featured on Motionographer, you get a Vimeo staff pick and you have this celebration, but does it actually move the needle or does it just feel good?
Zac Dixon: I don't know. I think it affects everything in a few subtle ways. It was really helpful coming in and getting ... People like it. It's entertaining. It's pretty, but no ... especially at the level of clients that we were working with, everyone's looking for like very practical explainer videos. There is no need for something like a metaphorical space journey and I don't know that we were capable at the time of really being able to pitch ourselves and pitch maybe more abstract concepts and justified to a local health care's client why something like that would be beneficial for them. At the time I don't think we really knew how to use it well to our advantage, which I've learned is something that you need to do.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, you have to learn how to sell yourself. So let's move on from the early years, from the Dixon Cowden days and now we're into the IV era and, as you said, the studio's been around for about five years and at this point, in the industry anyway, you have an amazing reputation, the work's incredible, you're working with some amazing designers, animators. You've worked with some really big clients, J.J. Abrams and Netflix and you go to iv.studio and it's like, wow, this is a legitimate high-end motion design studio and that's ... First of all, congratulations because it's really hard to get from where you were to where you are now and hopefully you've got the secret coming up in a few minutes, but I wanted to ... So, you graduated from school and you had this idea. You wanted to grow to be this 200, 300 person Mill knockoff and now you've got a pretty small studio, seven and a half, eight people in Nashville, doing beautiful work. What's the best thing about having your own motion design studio?
Zac Dixon: Oh man, what is the best thing? I should focus on that more often.
Joey Korenman: That's a good question.
Zac Dixon: It is a good question. I get to come to work, work with my friends and pursue great work. Well, that's not true. Not every day. The best thing. I get to work with my friends and we get to make stuff every single day and I love that and I feel challenged every day and I feel pushed to become a better leader, a better creator, a better communicator every day and as I've continued in this line of work I have learned that the thing I enjoy most consistently and will never change is my ability to learn new things and to take every opportunity to do that and there is no better way to be consistently thrown into that area of unknown than owning a business.
I do my best to choose to look at that unknown as a positive thing, as something I'm really trying to enjoy and try to enjoy that learning process because that's where I think I personally come the most alive and feel the most fulfilled, is that kind of skill development, trying to get better and be a better leader of my team and a better animator and designer and all of those things.
Joey Korenman: Well put dude. Yeah, I mean, I think the flipside to that too ... My favorite thing about it was ... So, when you're a freelancer or you're just an employee on staff or something like that it's easy to focus internally, like, "I need to get better. Oh, my work got a little bit better. Oh, I'm proud of the thing I just did." But what's cool is when you do get to the point where you're running a studio and you're not only learning, but you're also teaching, and every time you art direct something you're teaching that person to think like you and to think about their own work at a higher level.
I was sort of the lead animator in my studio too so I did a lot of training, after facts and animations, stuff like that, and man, is it fulfilling to see your team get better and to see something that you barely touched turn out really good because of the knowledge that you imparted. It's interesting, we had Christo on this podcast a while ago and I love Chris, he's a buddy of mine, but the conversation we had was a little bit Debbie Downer, about the prospects of running a studio in today's kind of industry and it almost sounded like we were trying to talk people out of doing it and I want to stress that that's not what we were doing and I'm hoping, Zac, that you could sort of provide a little bit of light on that conversation.
But before we do that let's talk about the downside. Growing, even to a small size, like you guys, like seven, eight people, it's still very difficult and very scary for the person who's signing the paychecks once a month. What's been the hardest part about getting to this size?
Zac Dixon: Getting to this size. I actually think that that is a very unhelpful way of thinking in general. I have a mentor and very good friend, his name's Austin Mann. He is a travel photographer and entrepreneur. He does some amazing work for National Geographic and Apple and all those kinds of things, but he also founded WELD, which is this studio that we are in. Our studio space now is part of a larger co-working space and he has major vision and goals for it, but anyways I was ... For a very long time I was thinking I was tripped up on this metric that is growth, that is ... especially staff size. For the longest time.
Even, I told you earlier, like that was one of our major goals was like we want to be a big business. We want to have a big team because that seemed like what a successful studio does, but over and over I found that that is not a helpful way of looking at growth and your own success metric. Something he told me that like, I think it really shaped a lot of it, is like, "Is that why you're doing this? Because there are way better ways to build a company that has lots of people, but even those companies, that's not their point either. Like big tech companies, they're not out there to have 500 people staffs, like what is that? That is not their end goal. Their end goal is to make a great product. Their end goal often is to make a lot of money. This is not what you want, is it?" I was like, "No, it's actually really isn't at the core of it."
I think the thing that needs to drive our success as a studio is, not to sound hedonistic, but are we enjoying the work that we do, are we proud of the work that we do and focus your growth and the way that you build your studio around making the best work possible and making work that you're all proud of and that you enjoy, and those are the goals, not having a bigger studio. So, no longer are my goals to have 100 employees and I've tried to stop thinking about that. Does that answer your question?
Joey Korenman: Yeah. In a way. So let's dig in a little bit there. Let's dig in a little bit there. Okay. So what you're saying is that ... and I agree with you, by the way, this was kind of the crux of the Motionographer article that I wrote on this topic of like being overly ambitious and not really looking at why you're doing something. The way I worked at this point my career where I was running a studio was I just kept chasing the next level. I wanted to keep leveling up and it's very easy to look at certain metrics, to use a business word, and say, "Okay well, we have more staff than we did last year, we have more revenue than we did last year, whatever, we have a bigger render farming."
There's a lot of different things you can look at. You can look at the percentage of work you did that was profitable. You could look at the percentage of work you did that ended up on your portfolio, but in the end there is a size at which your day-to-day changes drastically and profitability drops drastically and the percentage of work you can take that sucks the soul out of you has to go up, and there comes a point where you may want to say like, "This is a good size. This is big enough." For me it was never a conscious choice until it was kind of like too late and I was like, "I'm bailing. I'm out of this." It sounds like for you, you've been lucky. You met someone who kind of planted the seed that said like, "Be conscious about how you're growing."
Zac Dixon: Yeah, and I also think like [inaudible 00:45:49] you touched on there was like defining your own metrics of success. I don't know why, but me personally, it is super easy to only focus on the metrics of success that we have not achieved or we hit a metric of the success, like a big metric of my own personal things that I wanted to do was to work with big companies, like companies that you and I would have heard of and big name people, and that was like a metric of success that I really wanted to achieve. We've been lucky enough to have achieved that. We've worked for a lot of people that I'm just really, really proud to have worked with.
But you know what? Now I have to very consciously remind myself when I start to play the comparison game to remember like, "You have hit some of these goals that you have set out to achieve." But that is not my default. My default is to go to like, "Man, do you see that gunner popping up over there. Their work is so amazing. They're growing way faster than us." I think that is so unhealthy. I think very often as creative people we ignore our own successes and we just try to focus on what's that next goal, what's that next metric that we're trying to hit. I don't know. It can be really healthy and it can get me into some spots where I become very depressed and kind of down and I think that's something that has to be consciously fought every single day, at least it is for me.
Joey Korenman: I think that's pretty typical of any entrepreneur and I think it's pretty clear that you're an entrepreneur, Zac, and so that like ... I struggle with that every day. One of the things that's helped me and anyone who's kind of growing any sort of business, even just a freelance business, one of the things that's helped me a lot lately is to ... because I don't love looking at analytics and stuff like that, but there are metrics that are very useful to drive things. Here's an interesting one, "How many hours have I worked this week?" And you actually want that number to be lower.
So look at it that way and looking at it that way, it forces you to make different choices like, "Okay, well, I don't want our revenue to go down. I just want to work less hours so how do we do that? Are there other ... " And the types of clients you're working for at this level to your work ... you just released something from Amazon. It's a really cool piece for a new product they have. There may come a point where you get approached by ... I'm just going to threw out an example. I don't know if this is accurate, but let's say Google approaches you to do something, and I've talked with studios that have done stuff for Google and sometimes it goes really smoothly and really amazingly well sometimes it takes a year to get through this project in your own version 400 by the time it's done and maybe-
Zac Dixon: That was the exact story Amazon Echo. Yeah. Keep going.
Joey Korenman: Okay. So maybe in the end it accomplished one goal, but it torched three other goals that you set for yourself and so kind of figuring out what that metric is that makes your life better, and not just your life, but your employees, everyone that works at the studio with you. It's interesting. I'd love to hear a little bit more about what you just said. You said that's how the Amazon project went.
Zac Dixon: Oh. Oh yeah. We started that project actually over a year before it came out. They paid us. They paid us very well and they're continuing to be an incredible client, but they are massive and they have a lot of stakeholders and the Amazon Echo Show was a huge product for them moving forward and they just ... Yeah, I've never had a project drag on as long as it could and I've also never taken a phone call with like a more dejected client before, because they were just so bummed that we had to lose some stuff that they were really pumped about. All of us totally understand it.
Jeff Bezos up there, trying to make big decisions that are going to propel his company forward and we're all on board with that and trying to make stuff that is going to be great for Amazon, but we had this whole story that kind of like underlaid the whole project and at the end of the day it wasn't what fit best for what they needed for the product. I think we did that video at least twice full over, which is a little crazy, but that happens sometimes and they are extremely ... They are first ones to say like, "Oh, you're making this change. Just let us know how much it'll cost." There's never a question about whether or not we're going to get paid for a time, which is not always the case.
Joey Korenman: This kind of goes into an interesting place where there ... Motion design is in, I feel like, at a crossroads right now in a good way. It's about to branch out into 50 directions and one of the biggest drivers of that, I think, is tech companies like Amazon and Google and Apple and these companies that essentially can use motion design without having to make it profitable, whereas an ad agency is going to hire you to do a commercial that in theory has ROI, like return on investment attached to it.
This Amazon video doesn't need to do much more than be really interesting and explain how a product works and get people interested in it, but they can spend infinity dollars on it, it's not going to affect their bottom line and there's pros and cons to that and I'm curious if ... because now you're in a position to be able to see some trends in the industry and so are you seeing any trends that make you think, "Okay, motion design is in a great position right now and studios are going to able to service clients like this really, really well and there's plenty of big budgets out there." Or does any of this make you nervous that the traditional clients that were used to ad agencies and TV networks and things like that, their budgets are still shrinking and they're bringing stuff in house. I'm curious what you're seeing from your position.
Zac Dixon: That's interesting. Amazon specifically, I know they're hiring a lot of motion designers, but they are also giving us work faster than we almost know how to handle. Their need for it is exploding. From the outs, we haven't worked with Google too much. We've pitched them some stuff, but it didn't work out, but they do not seem to be slowing down as well. They just pop public with like five new departments every year and all those departments need animation in some way and their motion design team is also huge and is growing and is awesome. So, that side of things does not necessarily scare me, but I don't have nearly the experience that someone like Chris has and I ... So, it is tough to say.
The thing that does scare me though is client work in general. Earlier this year, I think probably January to, I don't know, like March. This kind of started in December. We had a massive slump. 2016 was amazing. Just you look at our like fresh book charts and it's just like crazy climb and we're like, "Oh, this is going great." And we hired two more people. So, two more people started in January, full-time salaries and we're like, "This should be no problem." We've got the numbers to back this up. We will actually save money because we've been spending money on freelancers and over time like that, that would be more expensive than actually having these people in house.
Then two things happened. I was working like a dog, I needed some time off and then we got the call from Bad Robot, which is dream come true. Phone conversations with J.J. Abrams. The hardest project of my life yet. Unreal. So, fighting burnout, working like a dog for one of my heroes. Underneath that no work. Nothing. And it was terrifying and we've been feeling the effects of that all year. We've been trying to catch up. I'm super behind on my own personal salary. We're catching back up now, and to tell you the truth, I don't know if we did anything wrong. I don't know what we could have done differently.
We are super proactive in the way that we go after sales and it's worked out really, really well for us, but it dried up for a season and we were not ready for it. It was terrifying. It was completely stressful and luckily we're through it. Things are super healthy now, but it seemed to come out of nowhere and to be honest with you, that's very frightening. And there were no signs, there were no warnings. So looking forward we're trying to figure out what to do about that, like what to do about that in the future. Yeah, we're still figuring it out, but we've got some thoughts and we've got some plans.
Joey Korenman: All right. Well, I was hoping this would get a little sunnier, but it's going to stay dark for a little bit longer. Let me ask you this. What you just said, I mean, it's a lot like what the Oddfellows guy said at the most recent Blend Festival.
Zac Dixon: I heard it from a bunch of other studios as well. I don't know how public those conversations are meant to be, but if I've heard that from many, many people.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. It's very, very, very, common. I mean, I remember at Toil, which I left in 2013 I think. We were lucky in that we were set up as kind of a sister company to a larger kind of editorial shop, so we had savings essentially from day one. But yeah, this is why a lot of companies have investors and stuff like that, which is ... I've never heard of a motion design studio having investors, but maybe that exist, but let me ask you this, because a lot of people listening ... I mean, if you're a freelancer your personal finances are essentially your business finances. You're not separating them. The idea that that IV can go on and Zac can just turn his salary off for a little while and then catch back, it was kind of weird concept.
I think one of the one of the biggest leaps that you have to make when you jump into owning a studio is the numbers get way bigger. As a typical freelancer ... and actually we just did a survey. I think the average freelancer that took our survey a made $68,000 last year. Okay. So, let's say they're making ... let's just call it 5K a month. If they get booked and someone can pay them 1,500 bucks, a couple grand to work for a week, that's great, they can pay all their bills. What does it take, though, for IV to be able to say yes to job? You said earlier that you've kind of priced yourself out of the natural market. So, what is ... and I know it depends on the schedule and a million other things, but what's a budget that you can say, "Yeah, we can probably work with you on this."
Zac Dixon: At this point it's tough for us to do anything below 20,000, just like right off the bat. I mean, we'll take stuff for less if it's ... Like we're doing something for an incredible non-profit called Best Buddies coming up, which is ... we actually worked them before on some smaller stuff. We like to make room for stuff like that, but yeah, anything that is paid, it's tough for us to do anything under that at this point.
Joey Korenman: If you had a gig that had a $20,000 budget, how quickly would you like to finish that?
Zac Dixon: A month.
Joey Korenman: A month. Okay.
Zac Dixon: Yeah. I mean, try and like drag out ... I mean, our schedule is something that is very difficult to manage and Sam does all that, thank God, and he's great at it, but it's just ... there's so many moving pieces and the clients are often the one moving those pieces and we have to then figure out, "Okay well, Amazon just added four new language deliverables for a project we're working on and those need to be done at the same time as all these other stuff and what are we going to do now?" Those projects generally shift into at least a month and a half with like shiftings of timelines and that sort of thing.
Joey Korenman: Right, and I'm assuming that 20K a month is not what you're trying to net as a company.
Zac Dixon: Oh no, no, no. We need to do at least three of those a month to just take ... I mean, and that is the low end. Our price, our average is 30 at this point and then we would go up to ... I mean, we have six figure projects when we're super lucky, but it just super, super varies.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I'm just trying to give everyone like a sense of the scale that your revenue has to kind of get to, to be able to support eight people in an office and health insurance and ... I mean, you know how it is, yeah.
Zac Dixon: Yeah. We need to clear 60K a month, which when you're not getting work, it doesn't matter how much savings you got, that stuff gets spent fast.
Joey Korenman: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Zac Dixon: You just burn it just crazy quickly and you've got to be ready for it, which is very challenging. That's what makes the grow site so difficult, is because you have to manage that cash flow and as people with no real business experience you have to kind of be able to figure out when those dry spells are coming because they can sneak up on you. It's just something you learn with time. You're going to have seasons that suck and they do suck, but I don't know that that's necessarily a bad thing. It shaped us. Those times were going to come. They come for every single business and I consider ourselves very lucky that we made it through and yeah, and we'll take that and we are very aware that it could happen again and we're trying to figure out how to be ready for it again and make it a little easier for us next time.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, and I definitely want to dig into that in a little bit. Let's go back to the clients that you have now. In order to get revenue to 60K a month, you're right, you can't be doing Craigslist ad, motion side projects. You need legit clients that have legit budgets. The way you get those clients, I'm assuming, is a lot different than putting the lyric video on Vimeo and waiting for them to contact you. I'm curios, from year one the way you got business, how is it different now? What is Austin doing now that he wasn't doing in the first year?
Zac Dixon: Yeah. We're trying to bunch of different stuff. Last year we hit the agency scene really hard, we did a lot of screening. It's where we bought lunch and people showed up and ate the lunch and listened to Austin kind of present and talk about our work for a while and then he plays the follow-up game. Follows up with everybody he's met with and tries to connect dots as much as possible with relationships that we have with current clients that we have and people who are working at other people. You've got to keep track of where all those people quit and then they go move to other places and you've got to keep an eye on all that.
I think Austin is trying to send, he just told me this morning, he's trying to send 60 emails, like personalized emails, to set up a Seattle trip today and tomorrow. So, that's what he's doing today. He's sending out 60 personalized emails to ... this Seattle trip we're focusing specifically on businesses. So, he's targeting businesses in a certain amount of revenue range that we think can ... I wish I remember the exact numbers, I would be happy to share, but a certain amount of revenue range that could afford and would have to use for our services and he's trying to get meetings. Get meetings with those people and just develop those relationships and we know the returns on those emails are very small, it's a very small percentage, but we don't need that many to come through for us and a lot of times those relationships end up being strong and they lead to lots of projects. So we only really need to hit one or two.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, it's interesting. That process is very similar to what I recommend freelancers do, it's obviously a little bit less intense when you're a freelancer, but we've had a lot of freelancers kind of run through that process and some of them get 50% response rates, but as a company you're not going to get that because as a company ...
Zac Dixon: We're asking you spend $50,000 and it's like, "Well." Some of these small companies are like, "That's my whole budget for the whole year for this kind of thing." So it's like-
Joey Korenman: Yeah, and it's a lot easier to like ... if you get an email from Zac Dixon it's like, "Oh, this guy's Zac. Oh, he's kind of like me. Look, he's a musician. Cool." It's harder to ignore them like, "Oh, it's IV, if they're looking for work I'm going to ignore IV." You're not a person anymore.
Zac Dixon: Totally.
Joey Korenman: It's really fascinating that you've managed to build a process for business development and I think you're doing it a lot earlier than most studios do it. The most successful studios I've ever worked for all had full time business development people, but they were much bigger. They were 15, 20 person shops. So, to be an eight person shop and 1/8 of your staff is doing business development, it's pretty amazing and I think one of the reasons you guys have been very successful.
Zac Dixon: Yeah, no, and I completely agree. Honestly, he's been with us from the beginning. He was our fourth and then we dropped down to three for a bit and so for a while we had 1/3 of our entire team was business development, and a lot of people actually told us that that was a terrible idea. It was like, "You need to get more people on your staff that have billable hours." We were like, "Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, but I don't know, we're just going to keep doing this." So, yeah, actually this is the smallest ratio that that's ever been, but no, you're right. It has been a big contributing factor to propelling our sustained growth over time.
Joey Korenman: You mentioned that someone recommended you hire more people with billable hours. That's pretty gross way of looking at it I think, but let's talk about hiring. Let's talk about hiring. This always kind of comes as a shock to me. One of the things I hear the most from people who own studios is that hiring is a huge challenge. Finding people who can do the level of work that you guys do you, keeping them, finding people who want to live in Nashville, probably not as hard as finding people who want to live in Sarasota, Florida, but is hiring a challenge? Have you guys had any trouble finding team members?
Zac Dixon: I think up until this point we've been very lucky in that regard. I can tell you a few of the stories of kind of how this have unfolded. Michael, he's one of our illustrators and that's all he does. He illustrates stuff for us. We've met with him a while ago. He was trying to make it in the children's book world, which is insane, like not insane that he was trying, but just it's a tough [crosstalk 01:05:27] it's really tough. It is rough out there for that kind of work. We loved the work that he was doing, the illustrations he was doing and we were like, "We'd love to get you in on our freelance project."
We had a couple things in mind at that meeting and then maybe a month later we started on the Sierra Club project, which is like ... it's kind of really like painterly piece we did a little bit ago. Yeah, it was kind of a trial run and we did it and we were like, "Oh this was really fun." We liked working with him, we had him in the office doing the work. He showed incredible work ethic, great communication and just an insane amount of raw talent and yes, so it came time to where we really like ... We've been pretty consistently hitting a amount of work every month. We're ready to bring on that next team member and we were like, "We want to do more work like that. We know Michael's great." So we offered him a job and he started working for us.
Similar thing just happened with Taylor. We brought her on at the end of the Bad Robot project, which was insane, super demanding and she did a great job. It came time to hire another person and she was kind of our first option. We offered it to her and she started the next day. That's been our experience thus far. We've never done the whole post a job and read resumes and do massive amount of interviews. We just kind of hired freelancers.
Joey Korenman: Are you guys doing jobs that require you to scale up with a bunch of freelancers, like you're eight full-time, but you end up with 15 working on a project?
Zac Dixon: This is the biggest we have ever had our staff and the whole beginning is here. We had a big slow season. We've been forced this year, up until very recently, to do everything entirely in-house as much as possible, just to keep things rolling, but now we've got so much work that I think we're working with three freelancers right now, which is not a lot, but we will scale up as we need to and that's kind of been always our model. Scale up when we need to and then when it makes sense we grow the staff.
Joey Korenman: Okay, and you're not having trouble finding freelancers?
Zac Dixon: No. We've got Allen Laseter for example, one of my favorite people and animators and works now in WELD, which is great, but he's also always booked because he's awesome. To be honest that hasn't been a big issue. Unfortunately a lot of our jobs will be like the inquiry will come in from an agency or a studio and we need to start like two days from now and it's just like, "Oh, okay." And actually we've got tons of contacts, but a lot of people are booked. That's probably the main challenge, is just like finding people who are available at the moment we need them and it's a little difficult to predict. That's probably the biggest challenge.
Joey Korenman: Gotcha. Yeah. I'm guessing that if you continue to grow, if next year you're at 12 people and you need to scale to 20 with freelancers it gets even harder. You're at a point now where it seems like you've weathered a couple of storms and you've got a great core team and you've got a few freelancers in your back pocket when you need them. Do you have some sort of size in mind that you can just kind of imagine, in five years you'll be here, or are you pretty happy with the size that the team is now?
Zac Dixon: We have some pains at the size that we're at right now. I don't know, I really think there's a sweet spot at that kind of 15 level that I can kind of see over the horizon as far as like ... You've got some producers who like ... I don't know, it seems like a full-time producer right now wouldn't work super well. I feel like they would have a lot of downtime. Sam's kind of picking that up. It's a little bit too much work for him. I am just running around with my head cut off all day answering questions and it's really hard for me to get any of my own work done, whether that's like pre-production or game dev or some illustration and animation stuff.
I don't know. I think we're at this kind of weird in-between spot where there's a lot of things that are falling through the cracks right now that I really wish were not and we need to be better at. I don't know, I've just seen a lot of shops running about that size like a Giant And or Oddfellows or something like that and it seems to be pretty comfortable and I can kind of imagine why that is, just based on some of those issues we're having, like organizationally, if that makes sense.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I think that's probably the biggest pain when you get to the level you're at, which is that you're big enough or you're juggling multiple jobs, which means someone needs to manage those and generally that's a producer, but if you don't have one, you can't really support that extra salary, then yeah, it's Sam, and Sam is probably doing 10 other things too.
Zac Dixon: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Joey Korenman: There's a lot of ways to grow to that size and the sort of the traditional ways you just keep trying to get more work and more simultaneous projects and higher like that and then another way, which some studios are starting to do. You were talking about Animade earlier, they now have an entirely separate division that runs their boards software division. I just talked with Fraser Davidson, who is splitting off this cool side business called Moshare, which is kind of doing like automated mograph generation basically. It's really cool. You mentioned that you're getting into the game dev business and so I'm wondering ... Why don't we start here. Do you think that it's important for studios in today's kind of industry that's shifting and who the heck where it's going to end up, to start diversifying and doing things that are not "traditional motion design"?
Zac Dixon: To tell you the truth, I don't know. I am still fresh at this and I don't have an amazing perspective on the way that other people are going, but really though, I do think that what we are doing right now could be sustained. I think if we were smart about it and if we just wanted to do this we could keep getting better at it and I think within the animation industry there is so many types of work. I mean, we are just starting to tap that Hollywood stream of clients. We worked with J.J. and there's a whole bunch there that we just have not tapped into and I think that could be a somewhat can like just another flow of different networks and different circles that could keep us going.
I think there's actually a lot of diversification to be had within that. I think there's that's only going to increase. I think there's only going to be more opportunities as just everything as a screen on it and that's only going to happen more and more and more and there's going to be interactive motion teams, which I guess is a little bit of what you're talking about, but I don't know, I think there is. My push for diversification is that's the place that I want to work, not because I think it will necessarily be the best thing for money, but I've also tried not to structure dumb in some senses abut the way I think about business around money, I think that money in my sense is a tool to be used to do the work that we want to do and I found that to be helpful, but that's a whole other conversation.
Joey Korenman: Do you think though that ... One of the scary things about running a studio is that it's feast and famine, like you discovered, and you get these giant spikes of revenue and then it just flatlines. When you're trying to manage growth and payrolls and all that kind of stuff, to me that was always the scariest thing about running a studio. So, I could see the appeal not focusing on, "Let's make more money." But focusing on, "How do we smooth that out a little bit and make it a little easier to sleep at night." Diversifying into productization, I guess, is one way of thinking of it, like making a game or building a platform that lets your clients use motion design for their social media and stuff like that. That's a great way to do it. So, is that playing into it at all or is it really just, this is something you're interested in and you want to pursue it?
Zac Dixon: Oh, it's definitely playing into it. I think the current dream and, as I have realized, this shifts very often. I'd like IV to have three kind of departments that all of our staff can kind of freely move between. We have one tier of that right now, which is our advertising side, our client work. The second tier is ... not tier, tier's a bad ... like it makes you think it's like hierarchical in some way, but I guess the second division would be interactive, like products. We're working on our very first game. I'm really pumped about. It's called Bouncy Smash. You can go to BouncySmash.com, check out the trailer.
We were having a blast I think it's really fun. We just took it to a conference in New York called Play NYC and just got incredible feedback from everyone there, but post Bouncy Smash we've got an idea for an augmented reality board game that I'd like to try out. I've got some other ideas of content that I'd like to pitch, make some prototypes for and pitch for some branded experiences and interactive games that will be much like year long projects, like big contracts. I think it could be really, really interesting. So, that's kind of the second tier. I'd like to have like a team of developers that is working on products and tools and that type of thing. Then the third tier will eventually be development of films and television pilots and things like that, but that's like a 10 year role, so we're a little [ways out 01:15:35] from that.
Joey Korenman: Cool.
Zac Dixon: Yeah. So, those three things and then I would ... I mean, the dream is to not work for people I don't want to work for anymore and not waste life on it, and that's how we're trying to do that right now. It could fail miserably and then we'll figure out a different way. The games are not a great way to make money consistently. Some people have figured it out though and I want to try. So we'll give it a shot.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I'm curious to know ... Developing a game to me, I'm very novice in that field, but it seems like a very different skillset than for creating animation for like an explainer video or a promo or something like that. How are you even able to attempt to build a game?
Zac Dixon: It's been something I've been working on a long time. I have always enjoyed coding. It is like a very different creative muscle to flex and I find it very refreshing. It's a little bit more like I'm working on this store functionality to be able to like make in-app purchases and once that's done it is done. It works well and I can move on and it just feels very satisfying, whereas with like a lot of shots I'm like, "All right, yeah, I guess that shot's done. I can think of like 10 other things we could add to it, but it's done." It has that like kind of satisfaction to it and I've really enjoyed that side of it, but also like long term goal is the studio want to run. I want to be able to lead a team of engineers and coders and I think a big important part of that is knowing how code works.
So I've been spending a lot of my off hours learning. Learning C Sharp and Swift and now I'm starting to work with other team members, freelancers on what do leader boards look like, how do we set up Facebook log-ins and authentication and how do we manage a database and how do we host these things. All these things are just brand new and very complicated, but I'm having a blast learning it and I think it's going to propel, I don't know, our team and my personal career forward in being able to lead teams of people to do all sorts of different creative work.
Joey Korenman: Is there someone else on your team that is coding or are you the lead developer on this game?
Zac Dixon: It is me, which sounds like a terrible idea.
Joey Korenman: I didn't say that. It's interesting because a while ago we were talking about personal metrics and one that I've tried very desperately to focus on last few years is just how many hours I'm working or even ... As a business owner it's not even like actively working, but like thinking about work, and you're running a studio and you're teaching yourself to code and developing your first game and you have a seven week old baby. You're an animal, dude.
Zac Dixon: Yeah man, it's too much. It's admittedly too much. I struggle with workaholism and it is something that I battle every single day and yeah, and it's something I'm going to need to get better at over time. I've also, though, looked at game dev and coding and things like that, is just like a personal hobby. It just doesn't feel like work to me. It feels like I'm building a boat in my garage or something like that. That's how it's always felt and as long as it continues to feel that way I'm going to keep rolling with it, but I mean, every day I have to ask myself like, I could get something done on this right now, but I'm not going to do that because I'm going to hang out with my kid and my wife or go hang out with friends or all that kind of stuff.
So I don't know. It's like sacrifices that I've had to made. There have been many nights where I'm laying in bed, wife's asleep and I'm tired, but I'm like, "No, I want to get up and do this. I'm tired, but this is a goal I've always had, to make a game and I'm going to keep [trucking 01:19:29] on it." It's not always easy and you have to know where your personal like cut off points are. It's been something I've been learning and I'm trying to get better at. Now I have way less time for it than I ever had, though, and I don't know, it's going to be a really challenging thing to move forward and be able to manage all of those things that I mentioned to you, which I'm learning.
Joey Korenman: Wait 'till you have two kids.
Zac Dixon: Yeah. Right. Oh my God. I can't imagine. So, who knows. We'll see how it goes. I mean, I'll be around so maybe we can follow up in 20 years when I'm actually building boats in my garage. I don't know.
Joey Korenman: I like that metaphor because it's a good way of looking at it. Motion design, to me, it's really interesting, especially now because it's gone from being a profession to a skillset that you can apply to many professions and there's a lot of studios doing that. I think studios tend to be like an extension of the founders to some extent and so ... My studio was very much driven by animation that was fun and very techie kind of technical stuff because that's what I was into, and then studios that are run by people who are more into illustration, that becomes their voice.
It's interesting to see what IV's turning into and how you've done this and I'm really curious to see where it's going to be in 10 years. You still got a full head of hair, but maybe that'll change, and then a couple extra kids. And you're still really young by the way, too. We haven't even mentioned this, but how old are you, Zac?
Zac Dixon: 27.
Joey Korenman: You're 27. You accomplished a lot by 27. You and my buddy Jorge, two very overachieving 20 or so [inaudible 01:21:21].
Zac Dixon: That is a high praise to put me in the same sentence as Jorge, so I appreciate it.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, no, dude, absolutely. All right. So let's end with this man, and it's funny because the way I wrote this question was you meet a 20 year old talented mographer, but you're not that far from 22, but let's stick with it. So let's say a 22 year old right out of college comes to you and says, "Zac, you're a successful studio owner and you're building your first game using these motion design skills and looks like everything's working out for you. I want to open my own studio." What advice would you give them?
Zac Dixon: Get mentors. Even though it's awkward for a lot of us more introverted people. Find people that you're passionate, that they're doing what you want to be doing, and reach out to them. I've never been disappointed by it, and the worst thing that happens is you don't hear anything back, because there is a wealth of knowledge out there that you can avoid a lot of mistakes and you'll still make those mistakes for sure, and we have many more mistakes to make ahead of time that we'll hopefully learn from, but I think there are many that can help.
There are other people out there that can help ground you and ground your expectations and also just kind of keep an eye on your health, just spiritually and mentally, and I think that's really important to have. That's one of those things. I feel like it's pretty standard answer though. A little bit more practically, as someone who hires freelance and hires creative people, I care way more about design and illustration than I do about animation. If your work is not a pretty frames it will be very difficult to see past that, to see past like some good key framing. Focus on that. That will get you hired, at least at IV and yeah, I guess that's ... [inaudible 01:23:12] a little bit more practical and a bigger, more philosophical one, I guess.
Joey Korenman: If you're not already, definitely subscribe to the Animalators podcast. Zac and his crew have chatted with some amazing talent and he's just such a natural good interviewer. I want to say thanks to Zac and the IV crew for being so awesome and for sharing such an honest take on the trials and tribulations of running a studio, and I want to thank you for listening. I invite you to head over to SchoolofMotion.com to check out the show notes for this episode and to grab a free student account, which gives you access to an obscene amount of free project files, assets, PDF cheat sheets that go along with the tutorials and articles that we post three times a week. Seriously, we are super busy these days. You can also get our weekly Motion Mondays newsletter, which catches you up on industry news each Monday morning with a short and sweet email blast. That's it for today. You rock. You know that, but you do. You rock, and I'll see you on the next one.