Survival Skills at China Animation Trade Show

Bizmatch01
At most western animation trade shows, you can arrange meetings in advance. At a recent China animation trade show I went to (one of the largest animation trade show, outsourcing & investment event for IP – tv/film, animation, games, comics, toys etc), I realise in China, they do not seems to have a practice of arranging meetings in advance at animation trade show.

It wasn’t easy for someone new like me who do not know anyone there. It’s like a fan hunting for your superstar. (The top executive from an important organization) But the best part of the game is you do not know who is the superstar. So you need to do your research. Find out which talk your superstar is attending. It could be a press conference of an animated series they have invested in. During such an event, pay attention to the host when he made an introduction to the VIP at the event. Normally the VIPs sit in front. They are part of the evaluation panelist for project being pitched. The host will announced who the VIP are. Once the event is over, you need to go straight to him asap as many will do the same. And when you meet the VIP. Getting the namecard is not enough. You need to scan his WeChat account so that you can get in touch with the top executive from these big companies. You have to do this as email is not sufficient to reach them. They hardly read their emails. At the event, many will be there, crowding around the VIP.  It’s like you are a fan hunting for the autograph of the superstar.

Another opportunity is during networking party. Walk around. See if you can hijack into others conversation. (Sorry. I know it sounds horrible. Seems like this is the mode of survival there at the market)

Bizmatch02
At the one to one business matching, I was told that Chinese companies do not like to have a schedule of appointments every 30 mins like what we used to do in Western market. So it is really like a market place. You walk from table to table to look for the buyer. (They will put a badge on the table) You do not know which company (buyer) is there at the table before hand. And the buyer is different in the morning and afternoon. So you need to walk around. When you see a good buyer, you need to circle around the table like a vulture. ha ha Once you see a vacancy, put your yourself on the seat immediately ha ha. Else someone else would.

I know it all sounds crazy. Its a world of cowboy. If you are shy, you might end up going home empty-handed. I felt uneasy at first. But there is no choice. In order to survive, one must seize every opportunity. Once you get the attention and interest, do your best as this is the only chance to impress them. I guess once you have established your connections, you do not need to do all these in future. Its all about connections and relationships.

Coming to China is really a good training for survival.

 

Making Connection in China

wechat-logo1In most market, once I gotten the name card of that important person, I will be overjoyed. Thinking I have now gotten the person contact and I can start communicating.

In China, it is very different. You must get connected with that person via WeChat. (Very often you offer to let him scan your WeChat account or you scan his) That represents one step closer. I didn’t realise this initially and lost some good contacts. This is very important.  In other markets, we seldom do that as sometimes it feels like you are going into personal space. But in China, it is different. Its all about relationship.

For email, I realise many Chinese executive seldom check it. Or your Gmail might be blocked by their firewall or their company email at times cannot send or receive email outside China. Hence WeChat is crucial.

At times if that person do not offer to connect you via WeChat account. It almost feel like your relationship hasn’t reach the close level yet. Ha ha.

The Question of Being the First Mover

stereo3d

A member of our group feedback to me about his thoughts on being the first mover in business. ” In businesses, first mover advantage often proves otherwise. The first one to do something usually fails. It’s more of a trap, really.

Usually, the followers observe and see what works and take out what doesn’t, then gain critical mass and soon people forget about the first mover while crowning the first one to gain critical mass. 2 cents.”

This is my answer below:
“You are right. I have another approach to this. I can only speak for my own experience.

When I said first mover, I don’t mean that you blindly go into it. One still need to evaluate the risk. My objective for being the first mover is for branding, publicity and awareness of our company. (Which is very important since we are a small company.) It is almost like jumping the queue. From no one knowing who you are to the global players pay attention to what you do.

A little case study of what we did. When I first discovered there is strong interest in stereoscopic 3D content, I start to evaluate if I should make our series into stereoscopic 3D format. There was some risk as the format at that time was not determined. Hence not many producers want to move into it.

I did some detail evaluation of the cost, the risk, the economical and technical viability before making the decision. I was weighting between money invested and potential returns.

With blessings, eventually it pays off.  With this decision, we manage to penetrate US by selling our Stereoscopic 3d series to the first 3d channel.  After we have sold our series to US, we started to create awareness. Today, Dream Defenders have sold to 5 platforms in the US in total. That deal also leads to another one with Cartoon Network where we get the chance to work on Award Winning Ben 10 Destroy All Aliens in normal format and Stereoscopic 3d format.

Now 3DTV is dead. So was it a wrong decision? Not exactly. We have achieved what we needed above which is creating awareness for the company and help us penetrate US. On top of that, it creates opportunities for some outsource projects for us.

After that we move on to work auto stereoscopic 3d content. (Stereoscopic 3d with no glasses) Then AR and now VR. Next will be MR. At every stage, the knowledge gained actually brought us forward to higher grounds.

Our current VR venture has given us an advantage. We are not just doing VR. Something more of a breakthrough that solves the current VR commercial viability issues. In the US, I have gotten many major players excited. So we will see where it lead us to next.

In conclusion, my main reason for being first mover is meant to create publicity, branding and awareness for our company.  I must emphasize that you need to evaluate the risk. In business, there is always risk.  With this move, Tiny Island has now known to be innovative and forefront; always ahead of the curve in the global market. This is useful for our future growth in consultation business.”

When you are small, how do you keep yourself alive.

img_6372

Met a friend in LA today. He used to be a senior management in a major studio. He asked me today. How did you manage to survive? The market situation back home is so bad. Regional countries provide cheaper services. You do not have huge investor’s money to back you up. Your company is so small. “

This is my answer.
” At times, I do ask myself whether this is my last month. ha ha.

I applied some of the principles of how our late Prime Minister build Singapore.

1) Build strong relations and connections with major players in North America and in Asia. Make yourself useful to others. As long as you are a useful chess piece to others. You will become important though you are small.

2) Identify new trends that can propagate. Move into new areas and take advantage of first mover. Provide unique services that others cannot provide.

3) Anticipate changes. Prepare new business model and adapt fast to the change.”

The challenges you should know in producing an animated series these days

(The following is written based on my own experience. It is meant to give independent producers a clear view of the current market situation. The following does not apply to big studios who has deep pockets or with strong commercial channels)

I have attended a Children TV Trade Show in the US recently. At the event, I have met a couple of independent producers. When they presented their IP to me, I am quite surprised that they are still trapped in the old system; expecting the TV licensing fee alone to cover the production cost. (Covering production cost is hard these days. Not to even mention profit. Even DVD market is dead.) One really need a licensing/merchandising strategy. It is no long an option. It is really hard to create an animated TV series or IP just to tell story without a commercial strategy in mind. I know it sounds horrible in a creative stand point. It is really not easy to raise funds these days.

I hope the numbers below will help you. When I first started, I was looking all over for such facts. Its not easy to locate them. This is first hand experience.

When I first step into the US, I heard that you can sell a half an hour episode at USD$50k. In 2007, (my personal experience) I sold at USD$25k per half hour  episode. In 2010, it drops to USD$15k per half hour episode. Now I have buyer in the US asking for free. I am not joking. The market kept changing for the past

Assuming your full production budget is about USD$5M (When I first got into the market, I was told that this budget should be able to recoup just by TV sales) and you are able to sell the TV series to 80 to 100 countries (which is not easy for indie producer) The TV licensing fees add up for these countries  can only cover between 1/4 to 1/5 of your production cost. I have seen independent producers still looking at producing it at USD$7M to USD$9M at the recent trade show. Its going to be very risky.

I am not saying there is no exceptional case. If you have a strong executive producer to back you up, hopefully it could be more. I am just being conservative. Last I heard is that some US OTT channel is looking for original content . They can finance up to 60% of the production cost. This does not include additional dubbing cost of 20 languages. Payment is made in every 3 months and can only come in after you have delivered the entire series. It takes up to 1 year to pay you back the 60%.

Typically, there are only about 6 countries who are able to pay between 4 to 5 digits per half hour episode. Or if you are lucky, you can get a couple of pan regional deals (e.g Pan Asia or Pan Europe Deal) which will also pay about 4 digits per half hour. The rest of the world is paying only 3 digits per half hour especially in Asia. If you add all these numbers up, you will know it is not easy to cover more than USD $4M of your production cost.

Currently, some of the countries that you might be able to get subsidy or investment to offset your cost is Canada, France, Ireland, Malaysia, Korea and China. The rest of the world is not that easy.

One need to have a strategy in place. Your IP needs to be able to engage the sophisticated audience not just on TV. But also on all new digital platforms. Your concept and designs probably needs to have Toys, Computer Games and Themeparks (China) in mind. (Now even Netflix has started to look at Toys now.) There are some  strategic investors looking for good IP to feed their business. These strategic investors will come in right from the beginning. No longer after the release of the series.

Korean producers are very savvy and focus. You will see many of them armed with concept based on the needs of strategic investors. The only challenge is you might end up having too many similar concepts. Hence to challenge your creativity, you need to find a way to create a concept that stands out from the rest.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not discouraging indie producers NOT to work on your own IP. In fact, if your primary survival is servicing (outsource work), you should work on your own IP as competing in prices in outsource work is not the way to go for long term survival. What I am trying to put across here is to change your strategy. Know the market. Build your connections. Get yourself updated with the latest trend. The world economy and technology is shifting its place. In business, there will always be a change. As long as you move with the change. You will survive.

Something I wrote previously. Hope you find it useful as well.
https://entrepreneurshipinanimation.wordpress.com/2016/05/14/various-potential-strategic-investors-for-animation/

 

Lessons learnt in Leadership

davidsae

One of my staff asked me the following question :
“Sometimes what is sad is after training someone to be a good leader, they will go away and move on. Isn’t it tiring to keep training new ones?”

Here are my answer.
“If you are a good leader. Your disciple will stay. If he choose to go, it could be because he does not fully understand the true meaning of the leader’s work. It’s a transition and growing up. Sometimes when he goes out there to see the world and experience himself, he might slowly appreciate what he has learnt from his previous leader. And maybe someday he will return.

If he does not return, then I can only say that I have to work harder as a leader to deserve him. That is how I consistently improve myself.”

Her Second Question:
“When you give a connection to people, do you feel afraid that they will take that potential job away from you?”

Here are my answer.
“In business and entrepreneurship, it’s all about relations and trust. If one is afraid of everything and do not trust anyone, one cannot get things done.

It’s all about integrity of your disciple and the client you choose. And most of all, the values you bring together in a company. I am selective over my long-term clients and most of them became my friends. That is how I run my business.

If your disciple can easily steal your client. Then you know that you are weak in your business relationship and you are weak in evaluating the right person to be chosen as a leader. So you have to pay for the price. The more mistakes you make. The sharper you will be.

Treat people with your heart and sincerity. You will attract the same kind of people to you. (Both client and employee) With this, no one can steal anything from you.”

Even if you are not a rich kid, you still can be successful.

img_8499

During the peak, we grew up to 120 artists with no external investment

Recently I have come across 2 articles. After reading them, I started reflecting my own journey.
“Entrepreneurs Aren’t A Special Breed – They’re Mostly Rich Kids”
“Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk—they come from families with money”

These are from my own experience. Hope it encourages you. Sometimes the more you have, the more you are afraid to lose. Its only when I lost almost everything. (My bank went zero a few times) Only then I have more courage to do what I am doing. When you are hungry, you will fight to survive. So not being rich is not a disadvantage. It helps you understand some valuable lessons in life.

I didn’t come from a well to do family. My dad was a taxi driver. I didn’t take a single cent from my parents or myself or investor to start my business.
“Reference: How did I first started the studio without external investment?”

Entrepreneurship has taught me some valuable lesson in life. It has taught me to stay clam during crisis. Stay focus, make fast decision and solve problems. Most importantly is the will to keep fighting until you reach your goal.
Reference: It’s the journey that matters. Not the destination.”

I am not saying all rich kids cannot make it. But I have witnessed quite a few in the following situation. When they do not understand the value of money, they tend to anyhow burn their resources. When they face crisis, they tend to give up and go back to their rich parents for more money easily. When they fail, they will just wait to inherit their family business. As they are not hungry enough to fight. When crisis come, their family business will go down with them. So not being rich might sometimes better prepare you for the journey.

In business, not everyday is Sunday. There is always a wind of change. It’s a cycle. One must remain clam. Focus. Hold on tight and fight on through this change. If not, they will be wiped out. Look at the situation now. The current Digital Disruption is changing how business has been running. Those who do not change their business model, will probably have to shut down eventually. (E.g e commerce killing shopping mall etc.)

When I first started, I only manage to borrow a room from my brother’s back office that fits 4 freelancers. In 2007, we eventually move to a 2000 square feet office. One year later, we were fortunate to be able to expand and move to a 10,000 square feet office. From 4 artists, we grew to 120 artists during the peak with no external investment. I am not saying it is easy. I am not saying we are successful. In business, we go up and down like a roller coaster. We have come a long way. But it is possible if you are persistent.

Next year will be our 10th year. The last 10 years, this is what I have learnt. Investment is not what matters most. It’s the strategy, the persistence to hold on and the core team who has the same values to fight side by side with you. (And not to forget a supportive family) Strategy is the key. This reminds me of a Chinese Chancellor (or prime minister) in the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms period known as Zhuge Liang (Kong Ming)  I have learnt a lot from his stories and applied in my business at times. His victory proves one point. Size does not matter. It’s all about strategy. This is how we have come this far.

Hope what I wrote encourages you. Even if you are not a rich kid, you still can be successful. Don’t give up your dreams.

(An abstract from the movie Red Cliff  and the part on Zhuge Liang using his intelligence to win the enemy of a much larger size)

How did I first started the studio without external investment?

tipmainbkup

Many people asked me how I bootstrapped my company when I first started. In fact, for the past 10 years since I first started, I’ve been bootstrapping my business, till today. (Read past article with regards to getting the right investors)

(Reference: Bootstrapping in business means starting a business without external help or capital. Such startups fund the development of their company through internal cash flow and are cautious with their expenses. Generally at the start of a venture, a small amount of money will be set aside for the bootstrap process.)

When you first get started, try to keep your overhead as small as possible. We have tried working from home and linking everyone up via FTP. DIY most things on our own. From assembling our own PC / network to basic decor of the office.

In 2007 – this was the first time – I setup my own permanent facility. I was first offered to produce 3 episodes for an animated series project. The project only lasted for 6 months. (Don’t do it like me. Ha ha. Try to ensure you have a project that can last you for at least 12 months. Else it’s too risky.) That is how I started.

ourtalents_bkup
projects_bkuppress_bkupcontact_bkup

(Our first permanent office at Beach Road. We did all the decor and installation, ourselves)

1) FINANCES

When I first started, I had maxed out all my 4 credit cards to buy equipment and furniture. 2 of my cards and the 2 cards of my wife. You need to ensure the first 30% down payment can repay your credit card bills and at least last you for 3 months.

2 Important Things to cover: Labour and Rental. (Try to get an office with at least some basic renovation e.g air conditioning to save cost) If there is something simple you can do on your own to save cost, do it. (I have painted the office myself. This time, the network is more complex. Luckily my lead TD helped me to set it up as I have to doubled up on training and line producing.

For Hardware and Software, pay by installment: Else, it will wipe out your down payment. One of the sources I used was Hitachi Credits. This is known as hired purchase. There are also other sources of installment plans in the market. (Its fortunate that 3d software these days allow you to pay by usage per month) There are a lot more resources these days as compared to when I first started.

You need to ensure you control your cash flow well. Else, you will be in trouble later. If your down payment CANNOT cover your initial cost – (3 months rental, 3 months labour cost, 3 months installment for the Hardware / Software) then you know the project budget probably cannot sustain you and it’s too risky to go ahead.

You also need to make sure the second payment comes in at least one month before you use up the down payment. Therefore, make sure you deliver the milestone on time so that you can collect the second payment.

2) KNOWING THE WHOLE PIPELINE

Before you start working on a series, make sure you are familiar with the whole process and pipeline operations. If it is not you, someone senior in the team must have experience in this.

3) ASSEMBLE YOUR KEY PEOPLE

You need to ensure you have a few key people (or your close friends whom you can trust) who can fit into some of these key roles. (Modeling, Texturing, Rigging, Layout, Animation, Effects, Lighting, Compositing, Editing, IT support.)

Besides the above roles, we were also working on story development and pre production. Hence we also needed to ensure we had expertise in these areas.

4) HUMAN RESOURCE

You cannot suddenly assemble so many people at one go. You probably need to build your network and relations through time. (Read our past article on Maintaining Healthy Relationship with Potential Employees ) So that when the time is right, you know you are ready to assemble the people together. Based on my own experience, you need to have at least 50 artists (from start to finish) to produce 2 episodes a month.

It might sound very straight forward. But one really needs to plan carefully before execution. End of the day, you need to ensure you will not be in debt if the deal does not work out smoothly. Do the above only when you have secured a project.

Hope the above helps you.

 

The Future of VR Goggles

The FUTURE of VR goggles?

At Tiny Island, we started working on Stereoscopic 3d in 2010 and eventually went into auto stereoscopic 3d.  Followed by augmented reality. And now Virtual Reality. What we have researched is not wasted.  As the above is all linked and integrated.

I think VR is only at its beginning. Soon it will be integrated with AR to form mix reality. My anticipation for the future goggles will not be like the current VR ones. So heavy.

I think the goggles will be able to pair up with the smart phone in wireless mode and probably with cool ear phones eventually. The ideal of such glasses pairing with the smart phones already existed. And more will come in years ahead.

Eventually it should look something like this in Blizzard Overwatch. So that when you use it with mixed reality, and when you look up. It will cover all angles. (With glasses, it will break the connection when you look up) And it can switch in between VR and AR.

Mr Keiichi Matsuda has created a shortfilm to give a glimpse of what the world will probably be like viewing through these goggles. Its an interesting perspective.

“Hyper-Reality presents a provocative and kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city is saturated in media”

He has also launched a kickstarter campaign to raise money to support this film. Interesting perspective indeed.

Thinking Out of the Box

Baros

Speaking at the Baros Animation Festival 2015. Cimahi, West Java, Indonesia.

Whenever I mention about IP Creations, some people thought that I am suggesting to produce an Animated Series. The market has been changing and moving very fast. Given the current new resources and opportunities, if I were to re-execute my plans for Dream Defenders again. I will do it differently.

Last year, I was honoured to be invited to the Baros International Animation Festival 2015 (Cimahi, West Java, Indonesia) as a speaker to share my experience in IP Creations. The government, organizer and audience treated us really well. I am looking forward to work with their government and organizer to run a workshop this September to share more with the companies. At the event, I met an interesting Indonesian company that uses augmented reality to teach kids alphabet and animals. I am really impressed with their idea. When the tablet or smart phone was placed over the alphabet cards, you will see animals & food popping up. Example: When you scan a card with letter M with a tablet/ smart phone, you will see an animated Monkey popping out. When you scan the card with a Letter B, a bunch of Bananas will pop up. When you put the card M next to card B. The Monkey will eat the Bananas. From here, the company can sell a series of Cards to the Kids market to educate them about Alphabet and Animals. I thought that the idea was amazing. This to me is the beginning of the journey of IP Creation.

The next thing the company could possibly do is to work with children’s book company. Creating animation that is activated by augmented reality. Example: When you scan the book with the tablet or smart phone, you can see the animated video running. (This could just help to revive the publishing sector as well.)

This is an example to demonstrate the idea.

Or create a AR Colouring book like this. Allowing its character to come to life after the kids finish colouring it.

Now with Virtual Reality, even more can be done. From here, more fans will be created to support the brand. The brand can then spring off to other platforms. Games, Animated Series, Books, Comics, Toys, Merchandise etc. And the IP could be monetized in a variety of new platform.

When I was first developing a master plan to promote Dream Defenders, the first step was to identify growing trends in technology.  Next is to apply our creativity to integrate/utilise these new technologies to produce a new product to engage the audience of this new generation. From here, we add value to the IP and expose them to a larger market. That is why we move from Stereoscopic 3d to AutoStereoscopic 3d to Augmented Reality to Virtual Reality. In today’s market of rapid change, you no longer can just build an animated TV series and call it a day.

Moving forward, if Singapore want to move our industry to the next chapter, we should start thinking of how to build leadership in this field. Looking at ways to prepare our University Graduates for these new changes. (Using the above Alphabet / Animal Cards as an analogy) Instead of just focusing on attracting MNC here and then mass produce a bunch of graduates creating animated monkeys and bananas. The next phase is to groom graduates to come up with new ideas like the above. Hopefully encouraging them to setup their own companies. This is the SkillsFuture we need to build a new economy with higher value jobs.

It seems that Singapore next 10 years’ strategy focus more towards Technology. I am not saying Technology is not important. Technology without creative application will make the technology become useless. We should start building a whole new leadership with new creative ideas to make use of growing technology to create new engaging product to meet the business goal. (Integration of Art, Technology and Business)

There is nothing wrong with prioritizing on technology. I just hope that we do not neglect our education in creativity and sliding from Technology to Manufacturing where Singapore seems to slowly lose our competitive advantage.

An example to illustrate what I mean. In the US, some companies are spending a lot of money on R&D and creating the VR headset that cost between USD$600 to $800. In China, they follow the technology and manage to create a better VR headset that cost USD$30 to 65. The expensive batch of headsets manufactured in the US company will then get stuck.

Another example to illustrate what I mean by not just focusing on technology alone and not neglecting creativity. A startup seeks for my advise recently. He wants to create a plugin for VR production. Each plugin cost $300. He plans to sell 500 of these plugins in 2 years.  So he made $150k in 2 years. If someone else were to copy the plugins and come up something better. His sales might get stuck. Instead, maybe he can try to use the plugin to create content for the US market. In 4 months, he can charge up to USD$150k a single customized content.

Last but not least. We should no longer separate our strategy into games sector, publishing sector, film sector etc etc. Its all about creating an IP. With this, it springs off to different platforms or sectors. Hence creating multiple revenue streams and opportunities.