3 Ways to Run a Lean (Yet Competitive) Business

Jan 11, 2018 | Stephen Jackson

The holiday season is behind us, and if you’re like me you are now kind of fat. Maybe it was the general melee of the previous year that led to my particular overindulgence, or maybe it’s what happens every December and I just forget about it throughout the warmer months. Either way, it’s January, I’ve kicked booze for a month, and I’m generally thinking about staying lean.

From a business perspective, you should be treating every month like January, figuring out different ways to shed the fat off your operation so that you’re agile, profitable, and ready for any challenge that comes your way.

But staying lean isn’t easy, especially when you are doing something with a large overhead — like say, running your own production company. Even if it’s a one-man operation, equipment costs are extremely high (cameras, mics, lights, etc.), and these demands can easily sink your profits, especially if you’re just getting off the ground.

Greg Maximov is a video producer living in San Francisco who’s been running his own production business for several years, and he knows a thing or two about staying lean and agile in an industry that can often be quite taxing on the wallet. He’s essentially a one-man show, and has been able to make a living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

So, what’s he doing right?

Provide the Client with Options

In the world of video production, you aren’t always going to be working on the next Jay-Z video. In fact, a big chunk of your work will likely come from smaller, local clients that may not need the best equipment in the industry. For this reason, Maximov has a stable of solid equipment that will get the job done for low- to mid-budget jobs, but chooses to rent the pricier stuff only when the need arises.

“An issue that a lot of people will run into is that they’ll buy tip-top gear and it just gets totally superseded in like five years, since the tech lifespan these days is pretty short,” says Maximov. “For example, I have a lighting setup. Is it top tier? No, but it’s great for an interview. I also have a camera setup that shoots full-frame and it’s great, crisp, and clear… but when I need to, I will just rent the gear that I don’t have.”

In this way, Maximov is able to make his gear available to clients not looking to spend a ton of money, but scale his offerings to meet higher-paying, more-demanding jobs when he needs to. This multi-tiered equipment offering has proved a great way for him keep overhead low, and even do some pro-bono work for those who don’t have any budget to speak of.

He also points out that building your professional network can be valuable, as colleagues will often have a piece of equipment you might need that they’d be willing to loan or rent — and vice versa.

Cast a Wide Net

While it might not be the right approach for everyone, Maximov says that he’s been able to stay lean and gain an edge by not specializing — something that might seem counterintuitive for those endeavoring to fill a niche market of some kind.

“I’ve learned a little bit about a lot of things, and that has allowed me to control every level of production,” Maximov says. “A lot of times, if you’re just an editor you’re stuck with certain gigs, and the same goes for just being a shooter, or just being a gaffer — you can only take on certain work. But for a lot of these smaller jobs, a full production team isn’t needed, and if you’re too specialized, you’re never going to get called on those shoots.”

Basically, Maximov has learned how to a little bit of everything, so if need be, he’s able to take on a smaller gig without the type of budget he’d need if he were using even a tiny crew.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

When you are first getting started, it’s tempting to just take any job that comes your way. And while this is sometimes necessary to build out your portfolio or to make connections in the industry, you can also get overworked for not a whole lot of return — the opposite of staying lean.

“There are going to be times, especially in the beginning when you’re going to have to say no to projects,” says Maximov. “It’s all about recognizing your value as a freelancer and being honest with the amount of time that goes into each production. When a new project comes in, you need to look at every aspect of it and bring together a comprehensive list of where your time efforts are going to go.”

He continues, “If you end up taking low budget jobs, it’s really important to figure out whether that’s going to work for you. If it seems like you will be hiring too many people, than you don’t want to end up essentially being a middleman for other work.