The Question of Being the First Mover

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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.”

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

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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.”

Lessons learnt in Leadership

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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.

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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?

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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.

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(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.

 

Action Movie Kid – Another case study on how one can creates an IP on the side

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Remember one of the article I wrote about how one can create its own IP or Brand of their own during their free time.

Here is another case study of how Daniel Hashimoto, an artist who has worked for Dreamworks for 10 years has created a bunch of cool VFX videos of his son James Hashimoto during his free time. Daniel has used his skills to turn his son into a superhero with super cool powers and gadgets in a series of videos called “Action Movie Kid.” These videos have won the hearts of 100 million viewers.

These videos have slowing help to build their fans via all social media platforms. From here, an IP has slowly been established. This has now brought them a whole new opportunities ahead.

Read on below:


BACKGROUND
(Reference from Wiki) Action Movie Kid is an action web series created by Daniel Hashimoto. It contains his son, James, as the main character. Each clip is a short home movie of James playing, when something dramatic happens: explosions, death-defying feats, and other crazy stunts. All of the dangerous effects and stunts are added in post-production by Daniel Hashimoto, who is a Dreamworks Animation vis-dev artist and freelancer. He uses Adobe After Effects to make the short videos for YouTube.

Building your fans is the key for IP creations. In order to keep the fans interested, one must keep feeding the youtube audience regularly. This is never easy on top of your regular job. Creating VFX from scratch can be costly and time-consuming. It’s interesting to see how Daniel pull it off by creating these clips so quickly on his own by using some clever techniques as well as stock footage.
https://www.youtube.com/user/theActionMovieDad

Besides the above, one can also use a variety of Visual Effects Apps to create these vfx quickly. End of the day, it’s the story that matters. So not to worry too much about the effects.

FLOW OF OPPORTUNITIES
1) In June 2014,  the Escape Pod Ad Agency contacted Daniel Hashimoto to co-write and direct commercials for their client Toys”R”Us. In addition to writing and directing, Hashimoto also did much of the VFX work along with Eric Miller Animation Studios.

2) There will be a book adaption based on the web series in May 5, 2015. According to James in the book’s trailer, he will fight a gooey monster and claims to be a bedtime story.

3) James and his dad Daniel Hashimoto are now starring in their very own commercial for the 2015 Toyota Sienna   

4) Field Day is a new YouTube channel highlighting some great creators and taking their creativity to the next level. This time, they’ve teamed up with Action Movie Kid, a channel where an animator dad turns his son into an action star using special effects.

5) Fox 2000 and Temple Hill are taking the viral webseries Action Movie Kid to the big screen.

I am sure there are many more opportunities coming up.

You can view the Action Movie Kid Youtube Channel is here.  Hope you feel all inspired now. https://www.youtube.com/user/theActionMovieKid

Maintain Healthy Relationship with Potential Employees

Besides running an animation studio and an animation school. I also provide consultation to companies in Entrepreneurship in Animation.

Something I shared in class the other day that I have learnt in my journey. There is a Chinese saying.

“养兵千日 用在一朝: Soldiers are to be maintained in the course of long years, but to be used in the nick of time.”

Application:
Establish healthy relationship with good talents that you are not ready to hire.
1) Having a strong team is more important than having lots of money. With a strong team, you can overcome anything in future.

Good and loyal people are hard to find. Money cannot buy loyalty. Some times you meet good people but you do not have the capacity to hire them. Put in effort to maintain this relationship. Be sincere. Even though it might take years. Don’t go to others only when you need them.

Identify what role they can play in your team ahead of time. Map out a rough plan. It’s like an assembling plan your best soccer team. Prepare for the backups as well. Only when you have a plan, you can identify your missing jigsaw pieces. This will take time. It’s ok if you are not sure when will you hire them. Don’t do this only when you have urgent needs. When the time comes, you know that you are ready. Overnight, you are unable to bring a good team together.

(That is why when other companies asked me to recommend talents, we always have someone in mind)

Maintain relationship with good talents who has left you
2) When I was in Indonesia giving a talk in Entrepreneurship in Animation, several founders of companies told me this. We always have manpower problems. We lose our talents after training them. It’s frustrating.

I don’t believe a company can be successful with only mercenaries. Money cannot buy Honour and Loyalty. Use your heart. Not money. Trust and Loyalty takes time to build.

I want to share another approach of ours to manpower.

Make an effort to maintain the relationship with those you value but has left you for whatever reasons. (Could be contract is up) Especially those who are loyal and has contributed to the company in the past.

At times, when we identify a new skill needed for the industry, we will engage foreign expertise to conduct internal training to upgrade our staff. Besides training our internal staff, we also invite those who has left us to join the training at our cost. This is a little effort to show appreciation to those who has contributed to the company in the past. This includes the freelancers and those who are currently working for other companies.

When those who have left us have finished their contract with other companies. When we have new projects and money, we welcome them back to rejoin the crew. From our own experience, these talents will become more dedicated than before.

Hope it helps.

Dreaming the Impossibles

A very inspiring story and interview by the founder of Baidu. Robin Li / Li Yanhong (Baidu, Inc., incorporated on January 18, 2000, is a Chinese web services company headquartered at the Baidu Campus in Beijing’s Haidian District. Baidu offers many services, including an amazing Chinese search engine for websites, audio files and images. In December 2007, Baidu became the first Chinese company to be included in the NASDAQ-100 index.)

Something Mr Robin said touches my heart deeply. In the early years of his journey, he went for a job interview to be the assistant of a US Professor. At the interview, he was asked a series of tech questions. He felt that he has performed badly. At the end of the session, the Professor asked him the last question. Till this very day, this question left him with a deep impression. The Professor said. “Do you have computers in China?”  That question has a deep meaning. He wasn’t exactly asking him if there are Computers in China.  At that time in China, no Chinese could afford to buy a computer. At that instant, he was almost speechless. Deep inside him, he has an impossible dream. He wish that he could tell the professor that one day, he wants to build the world’s greatest Chinese Search Engine. He wishes to buy many computers to make this happen. With the professor’s question. It makes everything sounded impossible. This incident cuts him real deep.

This reminded me a story of my own journey. This was in my early years too. I was given a chance to meet the president of a major MNC (Multi National Corporation) in the US. I was really touched and excited. How often do you get such an opportunity! Filled with hopes and dreams I arrived at the meeting. The first thing the President asked me was “If you have nothing fruitful to discuss, don’t waste my time.” (These words make me feel like a nobody coming from a small country. Trying to dream the impossibles) The night before, I was well prepared with the presentation. Feeling high with hopes and dreams. This one second, the message has melted me from top to the ground. At this point, I almost do not know how to go on.  However the show has to go on. I have to hold back my tears and emotion. Bringing myself together. And continue the meeting. It is really hard. Very hard.

The world is fair. What goes around comes around. Several years later. A bigger MNC bought over the MNC I told you. The president I met got replaced. I met him in Cannes. Outside a Korean restaurant. He walked over and said hello. “So what is my friend doing here in Cannes.” he said. I told him that I am here to present Dream Defenders. Eventually he came by our booth and has taken a look at Dream Defenders. He was impressed and offered to represent us in the global market. We didn’t take it up as I was already working with Dreamworks. But I remain in good spirit and let the past go. Now I am still in touch with him.

At times, things like this do happen. Looking back, it is not a bad thing. It makes you stronger. It makes you become who you are today.

 

Thinking Out of the Box

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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.

Being Innovative is the Only Way to Survive

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During my recent trip to US, I have met with an executive producer of a major studio. He is an old friend whom I have worked with in the past. We were sharing with each other how we have been doing.

At the meeting, he told me that currently in the US, more and more TV shows are produced in 2D. He suggested that I should change my business model since I am running a 3D animation studio.  I can become a middleman / broker and take the 2D animation work from US. Then re outsource it to the 3rd world country. (Its  more challenging for us to produce animated series in 2D due to cost effectiveness and also we have limited 2D Animation talents available here in Singapore.)

If I were to turn our studio to become a 2D animation studio now, my entire 3D crew will lose their job. I am very close to our crew. They are like my family. The priority is my crew. But at the same time, I was lost and stuck thinking what should I do next.  In addition, if we start re-outsourcing the 2D Animation work to 3rd world country. What is stopping the client in future to go straight to the studios in the 3rd world country. We will probably ended up competing on lower price in order to stay alive.

Later in that week, I have scheduled to meet some major studios in Santa Monica. I was there to present our studio’s new initiative in using VR to tell story. We have been doing some internal development in interactive VR for the last few months. At the meeting, we presented this new initiative to the studio executives. When the studio’s executives saw it, they were surprised and impressed how fast we have moved ahead in this area. They said to us “This is the future. I am impressed with your new ideas and strategies for the proposal.” I am glad that we have stood by our principles. This initiative has now open a whole new opportunity for us. Nowadays, toys and computer games companies are investing in series. They seems to have more money these days than broadcasters. I will probably be going back to LA to discuss this further.  After these few meetings, I felt more encouraged and hopeful again when I saw their reaction.

A valuable lesson I have learnt here. If we want to compete globally, being innovative is the only way to survive. We must always find that new business model to stay competitive. Making ourselves cheaper and going backwards is not a long-term solution. It might even kill us eventually. If we can only do what others have already done before, then why should others pay us a premium or give us work. Over the years we have always strive to stay ahead of others by exploring new grounds. (From Stereoscopic 3d to auto stereoscopic 3d to augmented reality to virtual reality) I am glad that we are on the right path.