Dan Hall on Balancing Creativity with Business
Dan Hall, often referred to by his creative moniker @decaturdan, is the Founder of Los Angeles based creative studio, Where It’s Greater. Specialising in commercial projects, Dan has worked with several of the world’s most respected brands including Nike, Beats by Dre, Gucci and Red Bull. Such opportunities do not happen by chance; Dan’s path from hiphop videographer to commercial photographer and director is underscored by a rigorous attention to detail and business acumen, as I found out during our chat.
From the outside, you seem to be a person who is very business oriented whilst maintaining a balance with your creative vision, is that a fair assessment?
I love business – business is the best art form, to quote Andy Warhol. I’ve always said since I first started, it’s one thing to do whatever it is that I’m doing really well, whether it’s a music video or something else, but it’s another thing to also run a tight ship and a good business. My uncle has always been very good at business and he’s something of a mentor to me, even though we’re in completely different fields. He’s someone I’ve always looked up to and admired.
I think that’s what Andy Warhol meant when he said that – you could be the best artist in the world but if you’re not generating revenue or making money and maximising your potential financially speaking, then it’s kind of like what are you really doing?
I think that’s what he meant by that – and I imagine it’s a result of him being taken advantage of a couple times, for him to understand that.
Pricing services can be much more difficult than pricing products, as the value of the direct costs involved is arguably much more subjective. How do you approach pricing for your services?
Pricing – your rates, your fees – those are all very sensitive subjects in my field because we’re always scared that we’re going to be too high and we’re always nervous that we’re going to be too low. We don’t want to scare the client off but we also want to maximise our profit margin, so it’s just always a sticky subject.
Ultimately it just comes with experience, it takes a while to be a master at it. Some people have agents and things like that but the average creative doesn’t have access to an agent or a manager or someone who can talk for them who is business savvy. And quite frankly, from my perspective, these agents often aren’t very good at this either.
The reality is, if someone is approaching you for something, that means you’re good at what you do and you need to be compensated for it. Of course, there’s times where you do what I call an investment job or an investment project where I’m kind of paying it forward or to build a relationship. That’s a big part of business, to be able to see opportunities and not just say “oh you don’t have this much money, I’m not working with you.” Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t – but you do it.
Knowing your cost of business is also important. Photographers for example, there’s all these things that photographers have invested in and it’s not just equipment, some of it is seminars or school – there’s just this laundry list of things that we’ve invested in in order to take one photo and sometimes all the clients see is that one photo and they question the price. There’s been years and years of investment and that is what you are paying for. That goes unconsidered because everyone is running around with a camera, especially in this day and age. Everybody is a photographer.
How do you balance retainer work vs one-off projects – do you like to keep a good mix of the two or do you lean on one more than the other?
I think retainer work is more critical when you’re first starting out. Once you’ve built up your business you don’t have to rely on it as much but even the big agencies exist because they’re on retainers with these brands and it definitely helps – it takes the edge off your overall expenses.
But it’s also tricky too – when you do a retainer you’re committing to something for a year or however long the contract is. We have a couple retainers and those have been very critical in helping build the business. Clearly, there’s a lot that goes into building a business and building a brand but the reality is that retainer work often isn’t that exciting – it’s not something that everybody wants to be doing but that’s why businesses exist – why successful businesses exist – you have to be willing to do the stuff that no one wants to do in order to make money. If everyone is out here and wants to shoot these cool editorial campaigns, what about the work that needs to get done that’s not cool or fun, that requires some real brainpower to figure out the economies of scale and how you’re going to pull it off and make a profit?
Have you taken any investment as your business has grown?
I recently got a business loan to purchase some equipment, this motion control robotic arm but I didn’t get a business loan to start my business which I imagine a lot of people do. It was very expensive and whilst I ultimately had the cash, obviously cash flow management is very important in my business and so, even though I had the ability to purchase it, it made more sense to get a loan. In California especially, equipment loans are very attractive in terms of interest rates so it just made sense. Other than that, I’ve not had any investment or anything along those lines.
Do you struggle with perfectionism?
I used to, especially when doing personal work or working on my business’ brand or content. Part of the way that I’ve dealt with that is giving the power of those decisions to other people because I think when you’re doing something for yourself, you know all the options that are there and you can tweak and tweak until you’re blue in the face. Task someone else with it, let them do it and then look at it from a different perspective. You just have to be okay with it not being exactly perfect. You have to allow yourself room to grow and room to get better.
What’s more valuable than being a perfectionist, I think, is understanding timing – when you need to release something. That will carry you way further than whatever it is that you’re trying to perfect, being perfect. Your perfectionism is only going to increase the value of something maybe 10 – 15%; the average consumer isn’t going to know the difference. It’s easy to spend hours thinking about things that no one else is ever going to think about. Obviously, I want to be proud of my work but we’re not making work for the 1% of creatives. It’s okay if it’s not perfect, just make a decision and move on. You’re just wasting your time – there’s so much more you could be doing.
How do you approach building your client portfolio?
I’m big on relationships. One of the things that my uncle told me that stuck with me pretty early on is that business is all about relationships. You know. there’s a million photographers, a million production companies – it’s about your relationships with people. My uncle would tell me how his biggest clients are his best friends. It’s not a manipulative thing, he is genuinely good friends with these people. So, I look for that in my clients. I look for good people to work with who can be my friends both onset and offset. It’s important to work with people you care about, not just clients but also my vendors, and it doesn’t matter if they’re working for themselves or another company, they want to see me win just as much as I want to see them win.
For me, it’s not as black and white, it’s not transactional. It’s like, we’re about to make something together, we need to be on the same page and if we’re not, if we don’t have the same goals, then I’m not into it. Usually those jobs too, they’re not a lot of money anyway, so there’s just no incentive for me. I’m either going to make something great, that I really care about, or I’m going to make a lot of money. If it’s not going to be either of those things then it’s a waste of time.
Massive thanks again to Dan for his time.