Startup Lessons From My Screenwriter Life, Part 2: Movie Sets

Editor’s note: Dave McLaughlin is CEO and co-founder of Vsnap

This is the second post in a two-part series on the lessons I learned as a filmmaker that have value in my life as a startup founder and CEO at Vsnap. In the first post, I covered stuff that comes up before you go into production. In this post, I will discuss how a few of my lessons learned on sets apply to startup life.

Fast Decisions in a Live Environment

Unless you’re making some crazy CGI blockbuster, the most expensive phase of filmmaking is when you’re on set. Naturally, pressure goes up. Being effective in this environment is different from being effective at an early-days whiteboard session. A few of my lessons learned on sets apply to startup life.

First, be a director not a selector. In other words, the team is not looking for you to pick your favorite color out of the three choices that they provide you. What they need is for you to direct them as to what color the story needs in order to work for the audience, and then they’ll give you that. Believe in your choices and direct people with conviction.

Second, the director is the editor of ideas. On a movie set, it is totally possible that a good idea can come from the craft services person. And a good filmmaker will keep herself open to good ideas, wherever they come from, without losing focus. This may feel contradictory to the last point, but the two actually need to co-exist. Both filmmakers and startup founders need to have a funny blend of utter humility and bulletproof conviction.

Third, be the eyes of the audience. When you make films, you learn how to both wade deeply into the details and while at the same time distancing yourself and sitting out in the audience watching the screen. The director Costa-Gavras is known for saying that the job of the director is “to be the eyes of the audience.”

The actor needs to know that the director has a firm hand on the rudder of this thing and understands deeply what makes the screenplay (the startup) work.

I find that’s precisely my existence as a startup founder. I have to be in the story, shaping it, correcting it, building it. And I have to be sitting in the 10th row, listening to whether it works, and watching where people’s eyes glaze over and where they light up. This is kind of a learned talent, and it’s heavily dependent on being more prepared than everybody else.

Fourth, and very much related, people will test you, so know your shit. On movie sets, it’s commonplace for a powerful actor to start changing lines. This can be perceived as throwing their weight around for empty, ego-based reasons, and it may be that. But I prefer to look at it as a case of the actor testing the hand of the director.

What actors do is incredibly vulnerable. The risk is enormous. Once they present their naked emotions, they are then in the position of trusting the director and the editor to assemble those scenes just so — and there are a million possible mess-ups. The actor needs to know that the director has a firm hand on the rudder of this thing and understands deeply what makes the screenplay (the startup) work. So, sometimes without even realizing it, the actor manufactures a little test as a way of deciding how much to trust this director, and how much risk to take in terms of the truth of their performance.

You will see the same things from members of your startup team, especially those with more success under their belts. Those players have very good alternatives other than working with you, which means they are paying a high opportunity cost to be part of your team. They need to know how authentic your leadership is, so don’t be surprised when they test it.

How do you handle this? One, know your shit. Two, depersonalize the situation. See this as a chance to help that person make a gut-level decision to go ahead and give more to your startup.

I’ll use a filmmaking example. Big Actor says “Dave, I want to play this scene this way and I’m going to change these lines like this. It feels more right to me.”

I need to get what the story needs, so I have to know my shit well enough that it’s clear to me what that is. And I don’t have a lot of time for deliberation, because on-set schedules are tight and union overtime is pricey. I also need to be careful to protect the actor’s ego. Here’s how I do that:

“Well, Big Actor, if you change that line here, then we’ll lose the connection to this other scene 30 pages later. And the other actor in that scene won’t have that reference in terms of her performance. And without that, we’ll miss such and such…”

In other words, I’m showing Big Actor that I know how this thing fits together at a highly sophisticated level. His confidence in me goes up, and he’s grateful for how I didn’t demean his idea. Now, in his eyes, I’m a leader who’s both strong and caring. That’s a person you can take big risks for.

Fifth, beware of suck-ups. When you lead the way I just described, your confidence and skill attracts suck-ups. Film sets and the whole film business are full of suck-ups. They tend to circle around startups, too, especially right after funding rounds. Sometimes they’re quite accomplished people, and so you think this person can’t just be sucking up right now. But sometimes they are, because, well, sometimes that’s how they managed to create that perception of past accomplishments.

The trick here is to challenge gratuitous endorsements. For example, you’re exploring an idea that you think could be impactful, but there’s a piece you have doubts about. When the Possible Suck-Up tells you it’s brilliant, ask him directly about the hard part and see if you deem his answer credible. A good answer means he shows you something you missed. A dumb answer either means he’s sincere but not so sharp, or he’s a suck-up.

Sixth, say thank you. A lot. Most people forget to do this. But people are working hard for this crazy vision of yours. Damn hard. Yes, it’s true that you’re giving them an amazing opportunity. But it’s also true that they’re smart, capable people who could be doing something else. Employee churn is very costly. And moreover, they deserve it.

That’s a Wrap — Now What?

The completion of filming feels like the moment your development team wraps up your first big series of sprints. It’s awesome and exciting because now you have a product that expresses so much of what you were envisioning, and you can finally put that in front of real people.

The next emotion is often depression, which comes from the realization that you’ve only just begun the journey. This is where you will learn that anything that’s not explicitly someone else’s job is in fact part of your job. I’m finding this right now at my current company, where we don’t have an office manager yet. Is it really my job to coordinate when the cleaners are coming? Yep.

I saw this in the film business around distribution in the indie film world. There’s this never-ending set of things that have to be done well in order for your completed film to actually rise above the noise and reach its audience. It’s a common mistake that people don’t plan and budget for that, because frankly it was such a monumental challenge just to get the freaking film made and made well.

Distribution Shapes Everything Else

Not only had I missed the joy of making a great film, I had also completely confused the market as to who I was.

Realize that the dynamics of distribution will color everything you may have accomplished up to that point. For startups, you need a great idea, a smart team, a solid market, and dogged execution on a distribution strategy that creates some unfair advantage. Miss any piece of that and you’re dead.

The last film I made, I made precisely this mistake. We had the incredible gratification of making a movie that was exactly what we wanted it to be. That’s pretty rare. But then we had the great frustration of realizing that it didn’t fit the evolving distribution landscape, and that we hadn’t budgeted to be successful in the context of that set of events. That’s pretty painful.

Make Sure You’ll Be Proud

The first movie I made, I didn’t like. I had spent four years writing and rewriting drafts before finally seeing the screening. When the credits came up, I just sat in my seat and thought, I can’t believe I just spent four years of my life on that thing.

That hurt. And it really sucked spending the next years going to studio meetings and having people start the conversation with comments about that movie, which didn’t actually represent me. Not only had I missed the joy of making a great film, I had also completely confused the market as to who I was.

Like that misguided movie, your startup is going to take a lot of your life. Whatever else you do, make absolutely sure that you are proud of what you build and how you carry yourself. Make sure that when some future contact mentions this product you’re building that your shoulders shift back and your chest puffs with pride and that you sort of can’t help but smile. Whether you win an Oscar or not.