Kris Simmons has no formal training in business, but he has plenty to say on the subject (and an impressive track record to back it up). A videographer by trade, Simmons began thinking of himself as an entrepreneur (and acting accordingly) after reading Robert T. Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad—a gift from his wife, Christy, in 2004. "We’d heard that it was a must-read for anyone who wishes to find success in business," he says of the best-selling book that has generated both rave reviews and harsh criticism since its 2000 publication. "It helped me connect the dots between my professional aspirations and what was actually required to achieve them."
His commitment to learning and mastering the principles of business, acquired through self-teaching and mentor relationships, won him Young Entrepreneur of the Year honors from the Tennessee District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2004; awards for excellence in video production from the Chattanooga Advertising Federation and the three international videography awards would follow. Simmons’ business acumen also has helped make Fire Eye Productions, his Chattanooga, Tennessee-based studio, profitable—he says it now ranks among the top three corporate video production companies in the city, with 100-plus clients at the local, regional, and national level—and spawned MindYourVideoBusiness.com, a separate venture through which he helps fellow videographers nurture their own studios to prosperity.
To hear Simmons tell it, "The key to improving a video business is to dedicate time and energy to being a better entrepreneur. If you’re struggling to survive, I bet it’s because you lack a basic knowledge of how to properly manage, grow, and sustain a successful business. Let’s face it: There are thousands of videographers out there who produce great work but can’t figure out how to generate enough money to earn a living.
"The only way to radically improve your business," he continues, "is to become a student of business. Read books, attend seminars, search for and develop mentor relationships with successful business owners. Anything you can do to enhance your business knowledge will have a huge impact" on your overall success.
Easier said than done? Simmons says it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how he did it.
Something from Nothing
Simmons’ love affair with the video camera began innocently enough. "I had always been fascinated by my dad’s full-size VHS camera," he says, but one night in particular changed the way he thought about the technology. He was in eighth grade, attending a high school play on the Okinawa, Japan, military base at which his family was stationed, when he spotted several students shooting the event. "To see kids my age doing this sort of thing got me excited about what would be possible when I started high school," he explains. "As it turned out, my school had a state-of-the-art video production curriculum with the best equipment money could buy." He enrolled in three video-production classes each semester, assembling a résumé of credits that included directing his school’s daily morning newscasts and producing, directing, shooting, and editing live multi-camera events (such as sporting events and graduations) and PSAs. "I produced, directed, shot, and edited close to 100 video projects before I graduated," he says. "Most were part of the curriculum, but several were paid gigs. I started making money in this field at age 14."
Later, as a student at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, Simmons took courses in video production and worked as a freelancer on a variety of projects throughout the Southeast. He interned for local television stations and video production companies; participated in a work-study program; shot and edited The Ken Sparks Show, the Carson-Newman football coach’s broadcast airing on the local cable television network; and won an award for a film he produced as part of his senior thesis.
Collectively, these experiences convinced Simmons that videography "would not only allow me to create cool projects but also provide wonderful financial opportunities," he says. "I really loved the fact that I could create something from nothing. A few scribbles on a napkin could result in a short film or television commercial. A group project with several dedicated students could result in a full-blown newscast."
Following his graduation in May 2000, Simmons began working full-time at a studio just outside Chattanooga. After six months of "being overworked and grossly underpaid," Simmons’ employer promised him a $1 per hour raise. Unfortunately, the next paycheck "only reflected a $0.50 raise," he says, "so I resigned that afternoon." For the next several hours, Simmons sat in his car calling everyone with whom he’d worked as a freelancer, and by the time he left the parking lot, he had "secured enough freelance work to cover a year’s worth of salary" at the job he’d just left behind. "It was pretty apparent to me at that time that the only option I had to move forward with my career was to build my own video production company," he says of that day. "I simply couldn’t make the money I needed to achieve my long-term goals unless I was the one calling the shots."
Simmons founded Fire Eye Productions that November. Initially, he freelanced for other production companies throughout the Southeast and shot and edited video for wedding videographers around the country and an Atlanta-based local access television show. But by 2002, Simmons’ focus had shifted: he wanted to build his own corporate clientele. From the freelance gigs, he says, he’d learned "that corporate video paid better" than most of the types of work he’d been doing up to that point, so he purposefully changed his strategy "to become less of a freelancer and more of a full-blown turnkey video production company serving local medium and large businesses and organizations."
Luckily, Simmons already had a sizeable portfolio of work and a strong network of professional relationships from which to draw as he set out to rebuild his business. In the ensuing years, he’s wooed corporate clients (BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce among them) by promoting the fact that Fire Eye has produced projects of all types for organizations of all sizes, both large and small, both established and nascent. "This gives us instant credibility with prospects because it eliminates any question as to whether or not we’re capable of successfully managing their projects," says Simmons. "We’ve done television commercials and programs; safety, training, and corporate communications videos; corporate and special event videos; websites and webcasts—just about every kind of video there is."
As CEO and executive producer, Simmons now heads a team that includes his wife, who serves as business development manager; Wallace Braud, senior producer/director and director of photography; and Jason White, senior editor and motion graphics designer. They average roughly 2-5 shoots per week and price their work, on average, at $150 per hour.
Mind Over Matter
Simmons says his evolution "from video producer into a full-blown CEO" began in 2004, with Kiyosaki’s book as the catalyst, but it wasn’t until late 2006 that he decided to share all he’d learned via a platform of his own making. "Last December, I was reintroduced to several industry forums that I hadn’t visited since I first started my business," he recalls. While seeking advice on "how to further grow my business, I found that a large percentage of videographers were struggling to successfully grow and sustain theirs. In fact, many of them were having a hard time just surviving!
"Eventually," he continues, "I realized the reason so many videographers were having trouble was because they didn’t understand how to run a business." With that realization, Simmons decided to launch a subscription website that would "offer solid advice based on my experiences." For $10 a month, subscribers to MindYourVideoBusiness.com get unlimited access to a minimum of 10 new articles each month on topics such as business strategy, cash flow management, financing growth, marketing, sales, account management, project management, accounting, and employees and freelancers. (Select articles are available to site visitors at no charge.) Simmons also offers "video business coaching" services (at a rate of $100 per hour) to videographers who need help with any and all business-related topics.
"I think the main challenge videographers face when trying to build their businesses is their lack of basic entrepreneurial skills," he says. "It doesn’t matter if your focus is on weddings or corporate video: you still have to master basic business skills before you can grow. I know I would have experienced success much sooner if I had focused my attention on this earlier in my career."
Simmons clearly spends a lot of time thinking about improvement and advancement—for himself and for others. Ask him about his long-term goals, however, and he’ll say only this: "I know that I want to do whatever it takes to steadily grow my business each year and learn how to effectively manage each level of growth." That, he adds, and to "never go backwards."
Marla Misek is an editor and freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia.