How we crafted a sustainable business model out of dreams, debt, and a lot of unfocused energy.
This is going to be a long-ass post. It's specific as hell. A lot of people have been emailing, direct messaging, or calling to ask just how we did this. How did two chix make a full-time living out of nothing but debt?
We weren't born with money. We were broke. And if we did it, so can you.
So, here's our story. (Sorry about the length, but you guys asked. lol.)
The two co-founders of FCF, Julia Trinidad (left) and Emilia Aghamirzai (right) in 2014.
The above photograph was taken some months after the first time that I (Julia) had left my full time job to focus on FCF, and Emilia was still working part time as a care provider.
Our first attempt at entrepreneurship failed roughly one year after this picture was taken. There was no money coming in. We had failed to plan and save appropriately for the feast or famine cycle in freelancing, and we were not nearly as disciplined with our time as we are today.
In short, we were young and inexperienced.
We'd had great success with our first project, a short film we wrote to showcase Emilia's talent, aptly named Emilia.
On the set of Emilia, c. 2013.
It did very well on the festival circuit and we met a lot of great artists and agents that wanted to 'help us' get where we needed to go. We didn't realized this meant we'd be doing all of the work, and they'd be taking half of the credit.
Outside Tribeca Cinemas for the Big Apple Film Festival, c. 2014.
Again, we were young and inexperienced. And the festival success of our very first project made us think we were ready to be filmmakers full time. Unfortunately, we had no idea what that meant in terms of work, equipment, fees, etc.
We started making original content, hoping that it would catch on, but the production value of those projects was based on favors as we had no money to invest in the business. We bartered for cam ops and edits. We didn't have a camera of our own yet or computers that really functioned anymore, and we sure as hell had no money to spare, so we did what we had to. Or what we thought was best.
It became apparent pretty quickly that we were running out of money. Fast.
But we still tried, even though we realized we were going to fail.
On location for NYC: TV Dinner, Ep. 2, c. 2014.
We shot some okay, kind of funny stuff for internet streaming. We made a few more friends, friends that we could rely on in the bad times as well as the good. And we had a pretty decent time sorting out our lives together, despite some pretty dark moments. And there were plenty of dark moments.
I won't say it wasn't worth it, the failure. It was worth every second.
We got stronger during that time. We learned from our mistakes. We learned a lot of things about each other, about business, and about weaknesses that we'd need to fix if FCF was ever going to work.
Em and I have a dream. It's pretty simple: we want to make other people's dreams come true.
We want to make people so happy that they can't contain it anymore and burst into tears because someone finally told them yes.
We want that. Because we were told no so many times. We knew that someday we wanted to be able to hand someone a check that would change their lives.
And we knew that to get from where we were - that place of failure and defeat - to where we are now - with a full-time business that pays the bills - was going to require a total overhaul of our work ethic, our lifestyles, our daily tasks, even aspects of our friendship and the way we communicated with one another.
We needed, in short, to work on ourselves before our business could work.
But it was worth it. It's so f*cking worth it. And here's how we did it:
We got our sh*t together way faster the second time around.
I went back to work full time to take some pressure off of FCF.
We came up with a business plan that would be honed and re-drafted many times over the course of three years. I used to review the new drafts during my lunch breaks, sending updates back to Em just before clocking back in at my day job.
We bought our very first camera - a Canon that holds a special place in our hearts - with Em's credit card and decided she would learn how to shoot. (She's always had an epic eye, so that was now her department.)
We re-wrote several pilots that I'd created and broke them down into budgets, weighed their risks and rewards, sorted them into scripts for us to produce someday and for-sale scripts. In short, we started building a library of content for our future company to utilize when we got too busy to write new material.
We decided I would handle the business-side of things and basically manage our company so that Em could focus on building our visible content. Nobody cares how much work goes on behind the scenes. They care about what they see.
And we decided we'd need to show people what we were up to, which was a lot.
So, I learned website design and built us some sites. They're constantly evolving, but this one's in a good spot.
All of these things cost money. Site hosting, domain names, lenses, backdrops. And even working full time, a lot of our new costs were put on personal credit cards. We didn't want to destroy FCF's credit before we started making money (all of our gigs back then were non-paying ones), so we each took on some debt and slowly paid it a lot of it off with day job money.
I think we spent about 2K each on FCF equipment and bills at this time.
We learned the value of a dollar.
What it can get you, and what doors will open if you have one to spare.
After our first attempt, I went back to the drawing board.
Planning and pre-production are sort of my forte.
Planning for a business isn't that different than planning for a project.
The success or failure of both rely on excellent planning and safeguarding against both foreseeable risks and unforeseeable accidents.
I drafted at least twenty business plans, each one more refined than the last.
Eventually we nailed down a business model that would net the most profits in the least amount of time. I worked in the corporate world after our initial failure for a full two years while we did this.
It was... painful.
But again, it was worth it. And I know some of you have had to do it longer, and we hope that this helps you find your way out if you're looking for one.
Em was in the muck right along with me. It was her job to go after new clients with our camera and she still had to pick up side gigs to pay rent.
Some experiences only serve to make you work faster toward your goals. I didn't want to be stuck making coffee for lazy people my whole life. Em didn't want to be a nanny or working for crazies forever.
So, on we went. Em would tell me how much something would cost and we'd figure out if we could save for it over time or if the rewards of buying it ASAP outweighed the cost. In some cases, like when our computers died at the same time, we couldn't wait anymore without sabotaging ourselves.
I thought I knew the value of a dollar before our failure, but I didn't. A dollar is really a representation of your most finite resource: time. Time is the end-all, be-all in any area of your life. Learn how to master it, make it your b*tch, and you will succeed. Things like necessary equipment, legal fees, site and domain fees - they can't be put off. Weigh the cost next to the long-term reward. Don't be short-sighted.
We spent about 5K each on the business out of pocket by this time (including the 2K each from initial expenses). Most of this cost was due to the high cost of our computers, which are decked out with mad memory and processing for editing.
We shot movies instead of taking vacation.
There was no vacation for us for several years.
Even at Christmas time. I usually only took off 2-4 days.
The first time I took a real vacation in the last four years was this year when I just needed to escape or I'd lose my mind.
No vacation for four years. That's what building something like this looks like.
Instead of actually relaxing, I signed up to produce and assistant direct shorts first, then features for my "vacations" at my corporate jobs.
I got sick a lot because of this. I never rested (still have trouble with this) and worked pretty much all of my weekends. I think my bosses thought I was just ill a lot, but really I was burning the candle at both ends for years because I had to.
(And yes, you can use your vacations for whatever you like as long as you don't do work on the company dime during regular hours. It's your vacation time, so use it for what you want. Just don't be a dick and like... work for your company's main competitor or something.)
Em was no better off. She picked up more gigs where she could and became a pretty great networker (even though we are both introverts and hate it). You get over hating things when you know it's do or die time. And since our business is mostly client-based, we needed a decent network if we wanted to give FCF a fighting chance.
When your whole future depends on getting over being uncomfortable, you kind of just do it.
We were each still in about 3-4K worth of debt by now.
We took our plan to investors.
The debt was hanging over our heads.
It's not even that much, but when you add student loans and any additional consumer debt (which we count separately), it was enough to add stress onto our daily lives.
We needed an influx of cold, hard cash to purchase equipment for the growing demands of our new clients. There were several occasions when we had to turn clients away because we just didn't have the type of equipment needed to do the job.
We were exhausted working full time at home for FCF and full time during the day at our 'real jobs'. We had no extra cash to to buy the thousands of dollars worth of equipment we needed for the shoots piling up. Renting wasn't worth it anymore. We needed help.
Pro Tip: know when to ask for help and when you've earned the right to ask.
We had built a pretty strong trifecta of revenue streams during that time and developed methods of passive income that would net our investors a slammin' ROI if we could nail them down.
But we encountered some unexpected... feedback.
We got a lot of flack just for being women.
I know that sounds like a cop out, but it's the truth. You go into a meeting with the cards stacked against you anyway because you're asking for money.
But add on top of that the fact that you're a couple of chicks that want to get into film and have been self-taught in the arts of film production, cinematography, editing, and photography, and you've got a decent amount of skepticism coming your way.
Not to mention that we didn't have much in the way of personal capital.
We knew we were fighting an uphill battle, but we didn't expect some of the comments.
"Why don't you let a man present these figures for you?"
"Can't you just borrow your boyfriend's equipment?"
"This is a solid plan, but two women in this field... I don't think it's worth the risk."
"I don't think women can run a company of this nature by themselves. I just invested in a bad deal with a friend of mine. What makes you think you'll do any better where he failed?"
Eyebags and Coffee in NYC, c. 2016
Our answers to these insane questions or statements were reasonable, although anyone that knows us knows we struggled not to give everyone the bird.
Some of it was just good old fashioned misogyny. Some of it was just ridiculous.
So, we kept plugging away and eventually made enough of an actual profit off our filmography and photography portions of the business that we became less risky and proved that we could run a tight ship.
We had the business evaluated and got several conservative projections drawn up. Then, we went back on the attack. Same business plan, additional figures. More incentive to prove them wrong.
We got four investors to contribute start up capital based on our business plan and our library of work. It wasn't a lot in terms of startup capital. We were granted 50K, 10K of which was allocated to pay off debt incurred by the business for each of us so we could focus on making net profit faster. That left 30K to be distributed as we saw fit.
We only asked for enough capital that we could definitely pay back within 1-2 years. We were tired of debt. And because we only asked for a small sum, we got money with virtually no-strings attached. It was up to us when we wanted to pay it back and it was up to us what we did with the cash.
We just had to check in occasionally and provide annual reports. Which is pretty amazing for us. It's simple, less risky, easy to repay and since the average revenue for a small business in the U.S. hovers around 44K/year, it was doable in terms of repayment.
Em and I had drawn up several budget plans and soon, our equipment list became a shopping list. We bought what we needed and put the rest in savings. We stayed well under budget, as we do on every project to date.
In fact, most of that money is still in savings. We learned from our first failure, remember? Save, save, save. Keep your overhead low af. Do NOT overspend on anything and only buy what you can't afford not to purchase.
We also keep business finances and personal finances completely separate. There's no dipping into the FCF accounts, no borrowing, no nothing. We are very financially strict with the business. Again, lessons we learned from our initial failure paved the road for our current success.
BTS with Emilia, Hannah Jane Frederick, and Alyssa Kim - Music Video Shoot, c. 2016
Okay. So what happened after we got the cash and bought equipment?
We put ONE of our projects into pre-production - again, we are tight with our cash.
We have produced commercials, web series, music videos, and a feature. We are in pre-production for a pilot and another feature film. We are in production with MFM Transmedia for their web series, Missed Connections.
We produced a short called Peer Review and attended its premiere (Hi, Lindsey!).
We now shoot headshots, portraits, and editorials almost every week when we aren't shooting film.
And we're developing a new line of merchandise.
We basically went after our sh*t like cray.
Sometimes, we escape because we work a lot and we don't sleep enough. We sort of work nonstop if we don't schedule a vacation every six months or so.
Sometimes, we pick up side gigs to pay off personal expenses because most of the money we make we put back into the business.
We don't really pay ourselves very much. We save a lot. And we don't touch our savings.
Some people might ask what we are saving for, and that's a valid question.
We're saving up cash to hire more hands someday and invest in real estate.
Someday, we want to convert a warehouse into a film studio and have enough consistent income to fund five 50K projects a year along with decent salaries for our team and benefits.
We don't want other artists to go through what we did, so we're trying to pay it forward.
Our current projections have us on track. Being on track is different for everyone, but for us it looks about like this:
In year 2016-2017, we were valued at 186K. Projections have us increasing to roughly 273K for 2017-2018. If our business stays on track, we should be making around 450K by 2020 and about 750K by 2021. We hope to top our first million in no later than five years from now.
Where do those numbers come from and do we get to keep that money?
Don't be nuts. We're not walking around with designer bags over here. A lot of that money is given to us in lump sum as production costs to produce something, i.e. a 20K check for a web series or a 60K check for an indie movie.
We use that money to hire freelancers, talent, etc. and pay them living wages.
The rest of the money is split in a 50/25/25 ratio between the company (50%), Em (25%), and I (25%). The money that goes to the company is NOT our money. That's the company's money. We may own the company, but we pay ourselves as employees.
That's the system we've found that works for us.
In five years, we would like to be making about 750K - 1M with about 30% of that in net profit.
We know that's a huge amount of money, but a million bucks is chump change when you desperately want to give it all away to every chick with a camera or dude with a script.
To us, this is a decent beginning.
We aren't in this to get rich. We just want to have enough money to pay artists living wages and fund other people's dreams.
If dreams cost money, then FCF wants to make the money required to fund them. And we'd love to teach other people how to do the same.
And that's basically FCF in a nutshell. How we failed. Where we stand. Where we want to go from here.
It was hard as hell, but we're pretty happy with how everything turned out.
Our biggest tips for you guys?
Develop multiple streams of revenue.
Diversify your income.
Find a method of passive income that will work for you while you sleep.
Get your ass in gear if you want to make it happen.
Don't spend cash on anything until you have to.
Don't quit your day job until you have an actionable plan.
Work smarter when time constraints won't give you a break.
Build your client list and line up gigs before you leave your day job.
Don't ever give up.
We hope this helps you guys out and answers those questions.
We're thinking of making an ecourse or ebook or something if people find this interesting or helpful, so let us know if that's something you guys would like. We are always happy to share our journey and life lessons. :)
And thanks so much to the readers that reached out!!! We heart you!!!