A wedding filmmaker shooting in Acapulco—sounds like Act Three of a great career, right? You pay your dues, establish yourself in your local market, outgrow it, then hit the destination wedding circuit with the jet set and cash in on all your hard work. For Matt Davis, the Chris Jones-dubbed "Head Coach" of the wedding video industry, WEVA CEA winner, and EventDV 25 All-Star, Acapulco came at the beginning, not the end, of his rise through the event filmmaking ranks. And it was a humble beginning at that.
Yes, the story of Matt Davis' career begins in an Acapulco orphanage. But I'm not sure the North Carolina born-and-bred wedding video business coach can claim quite as humble a beginning for his own life as the phrase "Acapulco orphanage" would suggest. Nonetheless, he found himself there as a college graduate, doing missionary work, and ended up behind the camera quite unexpectedly in the process.
What's interesting about Matt the missionary—especially given the business knowledge and acumen that's become his calling card in our industry—is that his missionary work was always business-related. With a degree in international business and a minor in Spanish, his immediate goal was to put his business degree to work as a missionary with faith-based organizations. "There are actually organizations out there that go to third-world countries and, instead of building houses and bringing food, they actually teach people how to micro-finance and how to run businesses," he says.
While a public relations intern at Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, Davis got connected with one of the leaders of an orphanage in Acapulco that took in not just orphans but children who had been abused and exploited by their parents. "Acapulco sounds great but it's not," he says. "There's a strip of nice hotels, but the rest of it is slums. I felt called to go down there because the orphanage had a need for someone in the office who could handle the finances, to bring in funds and to bring in support from organizations and businesses in the states." So Matt and his wife, Melissa, who had just graduated with a degree in Spanish, moved to Acapulco, where she taught English as a Second Language (ESL) while Matt went to work at the orphanage.
The biggest challenge of Matt's job, he soon discovered, was fundraising—specifically, communicating the nature of the work the orphanage was doing and the need for support. "I noticed they had no way of doing that, no system," he says. "I had to explain myself the same way every time. I thought, ‘They need a video.' I had my little personal Sony Handycam. I thought, ‘Why don't I just make a little documentary?'"
The result wasn't exactly great art, but it met the needs of the organization and awakened a love for video storytelling in Matt Davis that changed the course of his professional life. "I totally fell in love with video. Obviously, I didn't have the tools, but I really enjoyed telling the story of that orphanage. I put together a DVD, made it on Windows Movie Maker, and sent it out and distributed it to organizations we were trying to call. I thought it was the best thing ever in the world. Looking back, it's terrible quality, but that's what got me hooked. I said, ‘Melissa, when we get back, let's just learn this thing and start a business. What's the easiest way to do that? Weddings.' I thought it would be easy, but, of course, we found out it's one of the hardest things you can do."
After 9 months in Acapulco, the Davises moved back to Matt's hometown—Charlotte, N.C.—got some loans, and bought some equipment. They didn't know the first thing about wedding videography or the challenges that starting a small business would entail, but Matt says, "We thought, ‘We're already poor, we're missionaries coming back. What do we have to lose?'"
Unimpressed by the video work he saw being done in North Carolina, Matt looked for influences more far afield. In addition to studying what he saw in TV and movies, Matt ordered a copy of John Goolsby's The Business of Wedding and Special Event Video and purchased and studied training DVDs by Mark and Trisha Von Lanken and Steve and Laura Moses—even though he'd never heard of any of them before. "We started the business in Charlotte and made a vow to do the opposite of everything we saw in North Carolina. We started with that and what we learned from John Goolsby and the Von Lankens and the Moseses."
In addition to those well-selected guideposts, as befits missionaries-turned-businesspeople, the Davises also had a mission: "I wanted to impact people's lives. I still had that fire in me from when I made that video in Acapulco where I wanted to tell stories that aren't being told. No one knew about that orphanage; no one knew about those street kids that are abused. Part of my mission when we started the business was, ‘Let's do weddings, but let's also find ways to tell stories that people don't know about all over the world.'"
So they had a vow, a mission, and a few far-flung mentors. And 1 year and nine weddings later, they had a growing love for wedding video production and editing. They also had a name—Focused Life Video Productions—although that name wouldn't last long.
Just a year into the business, in 2008, the Davises decided to move to Melissa's hometown—the beachfront community of Wilmington, N.C.—which proved a fortuitous decision. Not only did it give them a fresh start and a chance to rebrand their business as Life Stage Videography (now Life Stage Films), but it allowed Matt to make contacts in the local business community and refocus his efforts on the business side of the company.
The Davises' work had continued to evolve, of course, as their techniques improved and helped them distinguish their videos from the slo mo-heavy, cinematic bombast that dominated their market at the time. They developed a style that their clients found more authentically emotional.
But the real turning point for Life Stage Videography came when Matt established a "board of directors," joining a colloquium of local business owners who could provide an outside perspective on each other's businesses and help each other grow from a business standpoint. "We would meet every other week and bring our own problems to the table," he says. "All of us had different areas of expertise. Having a board of directors is especially good when you're a one-man band editing in your bat cave every day, and you really don't have anyone to talk to."
This type of assistance was crucial to Life Stage for two reasons: one, because (by Matt's own admission) they made so many mistakes in the early going; and two, because they had a vision for the future of the business that they had no clue how to achieve. "We wanted our business to be the kind of thing where, 10 years down the road, we don't necessarily need to be working in it if we don't want to," Matt says. "There aren't many models in this industry of setting up teams of people and setting up as a business. What if I break my leg or have a heart attack and we can't make money? I don't think a lot of people understand that."
The most important contact Matt made was a Wilmington business owner and business coach named Reggie Shropshire (www.coachreggieblog.com), who became Matt's business coach. But it didn't happen right away. After meeting Coach Reggie at a free seminar, Matt wondered, "What's a business coach? I wasn't sure I needed one and was sure I couldn't afford one."
But Shropshire, a veteran of 20 years in business running 10 different operations, convinced him that he needed direction. "We started meeting every week with him, analyzing our business," and thus began the dialogue:
Reggie: "How much money are you making every week? Where's this money going to? Do you know how many leads you've gotten?"
Matt: "What are leads?"
Reggie: "How many leads have you converted? What's your sales process? What's your script when you talk to people on the phone?"
Matt: "I don't have a script."
Reggie: "Do you have instructions written out for how you edit a video?"
Matt: "No, I don't."
While Matt didn't learn anything about video from Shropshire, he learned loads about business, and he saw the impact on his company almost immediately. "He would keep me accountable. We would set goals, which I still do to this day. Every 3 months we'd set goals: big goals and smaller ones. When you're paying someone to help you meet this goal and then you don't meet it, you feel like an idiot. I learned very quickly how to do time management. He also helped me with marketing, figuring out the right way to do marketing and sales. I told him, ‘Here's how most people in the industry do that,' and he said, ‘You know why that's wrong? It's x-y-z.' He infused everything he knew into me, and I adapted it to wedding video. Over the last 2 years, that's what happened to our business. We skyrocketed. We leapfrogged over everything that it would have taken us 10 years to get to. It's all second nature to me now."
Over the 2-year period after Matt hooked up with his coach, he grew his company to a six-person operation, with an office manager, editors, and multiple crews-allowing Melissa to step back from day-to-day management tasks (even though she still shoots) to devote her time to raising their now-18-month-old daughter, Penelope. And as the business grew, with an increasingly regional and national (rather than local) outlook, the awards and accolades followed, culminating with international speaking engagements at WEVA Expo 2009 and In[Focus] 2010, a local association speaking tour, and election to the EventDV 25 in February of this year.
After a while, Matt realized, it was time for the coached to step forward and become a coach himself. "You get to a point where you're not necessarily an apprentice anymore," he says. One of the things Coach Reggie had encouraged Matt to do was to get involved with videography forums. Contributing to these forums helped him become better known in the business, to the point where people began looking to him as an authority. "We got emails a couple times a day, starting about a year and a half ago: ‘Hey Matt, love your work-real quick, how do you do this?' As a business owner I don't have time to answer all those, but I really felt guilty and wanted to answer these questions. That's where I got the idea of coaching."
Thus began his successful "Business Coach" webinars, one-on-one coaching, and group coaching sessions—as well as his business-oriented seminars at WEVA Expo and In[Focus]. Matt feels that his efforts are answering a basic need in this industry: helping videographers who have goals to achieve but who don't have the business skills to achieve them. "A lot of people don't necessarily want to have a business. But everyone's desire is to be great at what they do. The better you get, the more popular you're gonna get. You're kind of stunting the growth of your business if you stay small," he explains. "I know the potential people can have-if they just ask for help from someone else."
So at his grizzled, old, 5-years-into-the-business age of 27, where does Matt Davis see himself in 5 years? Like many event filmmakers, he sees 10 weddings per year at $10,000 as an eventual career goal. Part of that is continuing to do wedding work that sets Life Stage Films apart from the crowd and advances the company's mission of telling stories untold. "A lot of couples we talk to say, ‘We watched your videos on your site, and your couples look so happy and so genuine.' That word is what we're all about."
But not all his goals have to do with weddings per se. His hope and plan is to see business coaching become not just a sideline or service to the industry but a profitable part of his business-maybe even more of a focal point of his efforts than production and editing, with 2-3 coaching gigs per month, and community-building around his coaching work. Meanwhile, Matt's bimonthly EventDV column, The Business Coach, kicks off this month.
And if it seems too soon for Matt's career as a missionary-turned-filmmaker to come full circle, think again. Increasingly, Matt is finding meaningful—and gainful—employment as a missionary filmmaker, which, in one sense, makes him feel like he's "back in Mexico" but is different because he comes at the video side as a professional now. Matt has recently done extensive work with HOPE 127, a ministry established by Port City Community Church, the megachurch in Wilmington attended by the Davises. Last year Matt signed on as videographer for Port City's Kenya Project, a "sponsorship program for orphans and street children now living at Mama Hellen's Rehabilitation Center in Nakuru, Kenya." Matt's job, appropriately enough, was to produce a documentary to draw attention to the project.
HOPE 127 Project from Matt Davis on Vimeo.
With the Kenya project and a more recent project in Nicaragua under his belt, Matt's goal is to convert Life Stage's corporate wing, Your Best Salesperson, into a missionary video business, "to focus on humanitarian aid organizations and nonprofit organizations nationally" and to do videos for them. "My plan is to contact large churches, megachurches, and be their video department. ‘Hey, you're going to do this mission over here, sounds like a cool thing. Wouldn't it be great to have your story told? Instead of having a volunteer go and do a little dinky thing with their camera, why don't you look at what we've done and think about having it done this way?'"
Matt makes clear that he's been paid for these projects and intends to make paid missionary video work not just a personal pursuit but an integral part of the Life Stage Films business plan (even if it operates a separate brand). Being paid to shoot these films "makes me love it even more," Matt says—"not because I'm greedy but because I'm actually making a living doing what I want to do, and I get value doing it. Whether we travel overseas or not doesn't really matter; as long as I'm able to tell stories and impact people's lives, that's what I want to do with those missions videos, because it goes back to my faith, and it goes back to the reasons I started my business in the first place."
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and programming director of EventDV-TV.