How I Did It: Yellow Box Studios
In fifth grade, I tried making a movie. It was a western. It had a twelve person cast. It required a desert. It was ambitious and it never got made, though I did host a few table-reads.
Four years later, I made my first film – The Ballad of Chuck Carlson: A Semi-True Story. It was about ping pong. It was super original. And while I was editing, Balls of Fury came out and that originality, arguably all it had going for it, was gone. Two years after that I made a short film about a guy in high school who joins the Marines because he knows he isn’t getting into college and feels stuck. That one had relatively good acting (that’s going out to you, Mr. Pistorius!) and, most importantly, a great crew.
My friends and I made it in a few days over spring break, and then realized that it wasn’t too hard. “We should do more!” After all, we had already produced a short webseries (Glenn Richard Barr III: Zombie Killer), to marginal success. There was nothing stopping us. So we got together, thought of a name, and then Yellow Box Studios was born.
We started off with the goal of making films, and doing web commercials on the side for local businesses. But soon, the summer ended and we had done zero of the things we had set out to do. Down in Champaign, I hit up a local business expo. Much to my surprise, everyone I talked to there (and I went table to table to table) wanted a video. Great! But there was just one problem – they didn’t know where to put it, how to use it, or what to do with it after it was done. So we started to branch out as the team started to dwindle.
By the next summer, it was just me, another guy who was one of the original team, and one of our friends. In addition to video production, we offered social media management first, then moved into web design and development, and then into email marketing, SEO, paid search, local listings, and finally print.
As of today, I am the only original team member left (more on that in a moment). Yellow Box recently celebrated it’s third birthday and third straight year of rapid growth. It’s been fun. It’s been tumultuous. It’s kept me in on a lot of Friday nights. It’s driven me crazy. It’s been a lot of things to me and those close to me, but it’s always been a great experience.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned over the last three years:
- Friendships really matter. That’s silly advice. We all know that. That’s why I wanted to start a business with my friends – so we could all hang out with each other all day. We even had a plan to make $50k our first summer, drop out and work together (which didn’t happen). But rule number one is that work isn’t always fun. Being a boss isn’t always fun. And sometimes, especially with pre-existing friends, you find yourself falling into your old habits. Are they talking with work Nate or friend Nate? They just blew a deadline, but you can’t be mad at them, right? It just complicates things. I’ve lost a few friends out of my experience, and while I’m happy with where Yellow Box is today, I’d still love to be able to meet up with them at Starbucks.
- Keep your promises. Again, this is silly advice. We all know that we have to keep our promises. But as a student entrepreneur, I’ve found myself having to make lots of tough promises – like making sure that a video is done in the same week that I have a paper to write and a midterm to study for. And while the obvious choice is to just not promise that video for that week, that choice can cost you the client. Although most people are reasonable, and would cut you some slack if you tell them your situation, it starts you off on a slippery slope. Plus, the challenge is pretty exciting.
- Be confident. So if you’re a student entrepreneur, you don’t have your degree yet. Potential clients are likely to remind you of that. But, if you’re already sitting across a conference table from them, they clearly see some value in what you’re offering. Remind them of that value. Experience in today’s tech world is no longer only attained through a degree.
- Give yourself a break. I haven’t done a semester less than 15 credit hours. That’s not a lot, I know. But that, plus two student jobs I had on campus, plus Yellow Box, plus some semblance of a social life and you’re pretty exhausted. Take a break wherever you can. I’d chill out on my bed and read while a video would be rendering. It’s not much, but sometimes it’s all you got.
- Don’t be too proud. The corporate ladder is long. Even if you’re the one building it, your CEO title doesn’t mean a six-figure salary right away. So over the summers, even on campus, take a job. Getting money to start a business is hard, especially when you’re in college. I worked two jobs on campus at any given moment, and worked breaks at Tommy Bahama for a while. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t my dream. But it enabled the kind of cash-flow, albeit out of pocket, my business needed to get things rolling.
- Don’t try to be everything to everybody. It won’t work. And it will send you down a path of confusion, chasing each possible client and bending what it is your company does just to close a deal. Pick what you do. Do it. Specialize and soon people will be knocking your door down.
- Have fun. Yup. I know I just invoked the world’s greatest business cliche – “do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life.” And, well, it’s partially true. I do what I love every day, but some days are still full of work. So make sure to always have fun. Get a goofy poster. Watch that Dollar Shave Club video for a 93rd time. Think of wacky slogans for your business. Maybe even make a Harlem Shake video.