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What founders can learn from filmmakers

Witnessing a pickup truck hung mid-air above a huge water tank is not something that happens every day. And yet, when you’re a filmmaker, a small part of you gets used to remarkable things. As I was standing there watching people submerging the truck in the water in preparation for a scene, I couldn’t help thinking about how an absurd idea I had one night materialized into this weird event.


Now, as a founder and CEO of a fast-growing startup company, I look back at two decades of making movies. These include action films with martial arts, intense dramas in remote locations, and blockbuster comedies in foreign languages. Can experiences such as these be leveraged when starting a business?


Everyone Tells You No

“What if…” is the most common question leading to a film’s birth. “What if a kid from 2021 is teleported back in time to 1991?” Movies are born out of crazy (and sometimes silly) ideas. Posing ‘what if’ scenarios is just the beginning of the journey, though. What follows is endless rejections and criticism: anyone from relatives to seasoned professionals explaining why an idea is terrible, outdated, unoriginal, or impossible to execute. Some of the best films started this way. For example, producers and actors initially rejected Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” It later won an award at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to be a critical and commercial success. Good directors know to trust their instincts even when others reject their ideas. However, they also know when to accept good advice.


Similar to movies, startup companies can also start with an idea that may, at first, sound crazy. For example, the founders of Airbnb came up with the idea that people can pay to stay in other people’s homes. As you can imagine, there are many reasons to believe why this idea wouldn’t work. Still, they persisted and launched one of the most successful companies in the last decade. Much like a filmmaker, an entrepreneur must have conviction in their idea. It cannot be a question of “if” but a matter of “how.”


By A Storyteller

Before a movie is ever created or even written, it exists as an abstract story idea. The first step to making this idea into a film is communicating it to other people and inspiring them. Whether or not the movie gets made often comes down to the ability of one person to tell a story to another. Take Get Out for instance: once the producers heard director Jordan Peele’s vision, they knew no one else could direct it.


Good directors know their story inside-out. They don’t just believe that it’s a good story. They know it must be made into a movie no matter what. Successful film directors deliver that certainty to future partners enthusiastically and compellingly. Entrepreneurs are also storytellers. The story they tell prospective investors or partners has an idea or a product at center stage. Much like film directors, entrepreneurs are judged by their ability to articulate their vision and the likelihood that they will be the ones who can make it a reality. A well-designed slideshow and a rehearsed pitch can help, but it ultimately is up to one person’s ability to look someone in the eye and tell them a story.


It's All Very Technical

Movies are made with the use of complex tools. No one expects the director of a film to be a technical expert, but they must know enough to distinguish between what is possible and what is not. Good directors know their way around lenses, for example. Stanley Kubrick famously used lenses originally designed for the NASA Apollo lunar program in his film Barry Lyndon.


While directors need to have a practical understanding of the technology, they are not technicians. Directors stand at the intersection of art and craft, and story guides them, not some new camera technology. Similarly, entrepreneurs in a technical industry must walk a fine line as well. Some arrive at their position with a heavy technological background. They may soon find that being a technician is not a prerequisite for the CEO role and may in fact stand in their way when talking with investors or clients.


On the other hand, entrepreneurs with no technological background may be intimidated by talking about their products in-depth. The founder of a startup is akin to an orchestra conductor. They don’t need to know how to play all the instruments, just what to expect from them.


You Can't Do It Alone

The credit roll at the end of every film shows just how many people it takes to make a movie. There’s a significant difference between teamwork and collaboration, though. Few film directors can take on more than the task of directing. An exception is Steven Soderbergh, the director of films such as Ocean’s Eleven and Traffic, in which he was also the cinematographer. Most directors bring in high-level creative people to collaborate with. They then allow their collaborators to participate in creative decisions. In other words, the opinions of the leading actor, cinematographer, or editor fundamentally affect the film. Had the director chosen a different collaborator — the movie would be entirely different.


It is often difficult for young directors to relinquish any creative control. However, those who do often benefit from collaboration. Young CEOs should take note. At an early stage of a startup, it is often difficult to distinguish between the founder and the company. The faster the entrepreneur makes that distinction, the easier it becomes to make decisions that benefit the company. This includes hiring the right people and giving them the freedom to be creative.


Many filmmakers attest they would not have embarked on the adventure to make a movie if they had known how difficult it would be. The same can be said about starting a successful business. Successful filmmakers and entrepreneurs find common ground in the fact that their ambitious visions require a willingness to collaborate and a refusal to yield to naysayers.