How sharing stories can take you from being confused about career choices to building a business that feeds your soul.
Ever since I was a child, I was passionate about storytelling. Even more, I felt a fun duty to document and archive events in my life so that I could preserve them in the form of future stories. I played in a band and saved every live show poster, every photo, every video, every newspaper article, and any other piece of memorabilia in the spirit of preserving the memory for a future time. Interestingly, I never thought I would later become a filmmaker — I thought I was going to be a drummer in a rock band!
In grade 12 I was in a media studies class and I was able to make my first video as part of a class assignment. Of course, I made a music video for the band I was in Playdough Fish. The process was thrilling for me. It was my first experience using video cameras and editing using three VHS VCRs. After we screened the video in front of the whole school I realized that it was time to talk to a guidance counsellor about the possibility of going to film school.
Check out this artefact! Produced in 1994 I believe:
In 1996 I applied and was accepted to the Niagara College of Applied Arts and Technology for their Broadcast, Radio, Television, and Film Program. It was an excellent three years of hands-on learning. We shot and edited everything on actual film! Film school was fun, in large part because I was among a group of friends who respected one other, and that created a safe environment to be creative. Looking back I laugh at these early films, but they were the foundation of my future storytelling.
Why did I want to become a filmmaker?
I wanted to accomplish so much as a filmmaker. I wanted to graduate film school and take part in making movies that inspired people, made them laugh, perhaps moved them to positive action. Even more powerful was my inner desire to do something different with my career than all of my friends had done. I never wanted to conform. In fact, I was afraid of doing the same thing everyone else did. This probably stemmed from a deeper fear of wanting to be accepted by seeming exceptional (a blog for another time I suspect!)
I graduated from film school in 2009. I immediately joined the union and started working on feature films in the camera department. I learned so much more about filmmaking by actually being on set than I did at school. Film school did, however, prepare me with a knowledge of the language and fundamentals of the industry, which proved to be critical when entering the film industry for the first time as a training professional. I worked on a Disney Movie, feature dramatics, a number of television Movies of the Week and even a sci-fi television series.
Film school did NOT prepare me, though, with the tools I needed to navigate the high pressure, militaristic, shame-based learning environment that seemed to be the standard on Hollywood-style feature film sets.
For the first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to be bullied… and this experience came as an adult in the workplace! Thankfully I do have a thick skin and a healthy sense of self-worth, which helped me push through for a couple of years, but eventually, I was led to quit my career. I felt that the creative spirit that was always alive in me was slowly dying. Creativity gets squashed in oppressive work environments, I was quick to learn.
Quitting came along with a sense of failure, and oddly this was the first time in my life that I really understood what that felt like. For so many years I had dreamed and planned on being a director of feature films, my identity was tied to it. My community, my friends, and my family were proud of my path, and I threw it all away because I felt like I didn’t have what it took to survive in this industry
I invested four years of education and three years on set trying to make my dream of being a film director a reality. But now I was leaving ‘the biz’. What would become of my purpose? Where would I invest my energy and passion? What was my passion if it was not to be a famous Hollywood film director?
Literally, the weekend after I finished my last union gig and “quit” my career, an odd door was opened for me in the form of an opportunity. The opportunity was a life-changing experience living at sea on a 110 foot, gaff rigged schooner called the Avontuur, which was, at the time, the only independently-run cargo sailing vessel in the world. I was one of four humans who worked on this ol’ pirate ship under the leadership of Captain Paul Whalen.
I lived in the Caribbean for a few years and lugged my cameras and paper journal everywhere I went. Captain Paul was not only a great captain and social entrepreneur, but he was also a wise mentor who encouraged me to document as much as I could on this epic adventure. I visited so many cool places and met so many wonderful people. All I wanted to do was share the experience with others, so I filmed everything and everyone during my adventures in the Caribbean and South America as we delivered cargo to underserved and hard to access communities.
As I edited my videos and shared my stories with my family and friends, I started to see my filmmaking dream re-ignite. After a few years of adventures in the tropics, I moved back home to Canada, and I continued to shoot and edit stories that had a lot of meaning to me.
As people in my broader community started to hear my stories and watch my videos, an odd thing started to happen… businesses started calling me to produce videos for them! It wasn’t Hollywood, but I was thrilled to start making some money again by being creative! Before I knew it, I had to hire employees to manage all of the videos I was hired to produce!
I had an epiphany.
If I didn’t share my videos publicly, no one would have known my story. If no one had known about my story, I wouldn’t have been hired to produce videos for companies. If I hadn’t been hired to make videos, I wouldn’t have incorporated my production company Hemmings House Pictures, nor would I have grown a team made up of some of the best humans I have ever encountered. If I hadn’t shared my story, I would have had to have found a new career, one that may not have been in the creative sector at all (which I suspect would have been very difficult for my soul).
But I still was not making the broad-scale impact that I imagined I would have I stayed on the Hollywood track. Could I re-enter the film industry, not as a filmmaker per se, but as a film company? Perhaps we could make a change for the better of the film industry by encouraging technicians to respect one another more. Could we create a film industry based on true creativity by ensuring a safe, respectful, joyful environment?
I believed that the dream could become a reality. But we needed to attract the attention of a much wider audience.
How we went from corporate videos to globally sold television series’ and docs.
To reach a larger audience, and share with them that Hemmings House is a company that produces not only commercial videos, but social impact storytelling in the form of feature documentaries and television series, I needed to share my story in as many mediums as possible to get the attention that would help us grow our company by commissioning larger budget projects.
To do this I started engaging with the following content marketing tools:
- Podcasting — My friend and executive coach Dave Veale and I started producing the weekly podcast for entrepreneurs, ‘The Boiling Point Podcast’. Every week for almost three hundred weeks now, we have been releasing intimate interviews with entrepreneurs, social change makers, and leaders. Wow — what a great way to meet incredible people — by interviewing them, honouring their stories, and letting them know our stories!
- Blogging — For years I published a blog called Airplane Journals, but recently I have been blogging on medium.com and LinkedIn.
- Videos — This one came easily to me :-) Today I mostly use Facebook and YouTube for my video distribution when it comes to sharing my stories.
- Events — Events are a fun way to get real humans together in a room, so not only do I get to share my story with an in-person audience, I get to learn their stories as well. Magic happens when events are pulled off successfully. I am involved with hosting film screenings, film festivals, dinners, parties, talks, outdoor adventures… the list goes on. Bringing real humans together to experience something special is one of the best ways to share my vision with others.
- Public Speaking — I joined Toastmasters a number of years ago, and in fact was a founding member of one of the clubs. This experience allowed me to fine tune my ability to share my stories from any stage. I have spoken in front of thousands of people at conferences and events, I have been blessed to share my stories from the TEDx stage three times, and I even had a chance to present a workshop about content marketing at the International Toastmasters conference in Vermont! Public speaking with confidence is incredibly powerful. I find it is a great way to share valuable information with the audience, as well as to share a bit about who I am and what my vision and story is. Here is my public speaker's page
- Traditional Publishing — There is power in traditional media, despite what others say :-) I have been writing a column in the Telegraph-Journal newspaper for over five hundred and fifty weeks. It’s a travel piece, where I show a photo from my travels (travels usually related to film projects at Hemmings House) and I write a few paragraphs about the adventure behind the photo. This has helped me spread my name to people in a whole different demographic, many of whom have become customers of mine. I am currently republishing all of my stories on my Instagram feed.
And we reached a wider audience!
It did not happen overnight, but over time, the more I shared stories through different mediums to different audiences, the more people knew what Hemmings House was up to. In a way, we didn’t have to spend a dime in marketing dollars to become one of the most recognized video production companies in the social impact film storytelling space!
Sharing your, and your company’s, story through consistent content marketing works.
It didn’t come without challenges.
The tough part of this low-cost approach to being heard in a noisy marketplace is the time commitment and the discipline to share content consistently. I really enjoy creating content and sharing stories, so it has been quite easy for me to “put the pen to the paper” as they say, but the struggle for me has always been time.
So I asked my team to support me in opening up my calendar more. They, being the professionals they are, had no problem taking a few burdens off of my desk to allow me the time to think, create, and publish.
But like all things, some approaches worked, and others didn’t. I would say the biggest hurdle for me was to connect the dots between the effort of this form of storytelling and sales. I know for a fact that it has helped grow our company significantly, especially on an international scale. But without hard data, it can be confusing for my inner-circle of team members, family, and friends.
“Greg is a filmmaker, why isn’t he slinging a camera instead of writing these blogs?”
“Greg is a CEO, why is he spending so much time in the podcast booth celebrating other entrepreneurs’ successes?”
Sometimes the people who care about me the most feared that I was chasing shiny objects too often. I would heed their concerns, and then be empowered when I would look at the significant brand reach that our company has enjoyed as a result. We do not advertise, yet marketers and social impact movement makers throughout Canada and the USA know who we are and celebrate our stories. Just because there may not have been hard data directly connecting a piece of storytelling to a sale, does not mean that I was wasting my time, quite the opposite in fact. I would argue that this soft-metrics approach was absolutely critical in getting the attention of my potential target market.
I am so proud to see what my team at Hemmings House has been able to accomplish. So much of our commission work came to our doors as a result of our own brand storytelling. What a gift to spend next to nothing on marketing, and not rely on knocking on doors and making cold calls to drum up business. We have also developed a strong brand name in the ‘Business as a Force of Good’ business communities throughout Canada and the United States as a result of our consistent telling of stories that express the values and vision of our company and our people. We have sold well beyond ten million dollars of videos in a hyper-competitive commercial video market. And I am happy to say that all of this hard work has resulted in a team and crew that can pull off big-budget television shows and documentaries. It was not an overnight success, but we are now enjoying the fruits of our labour (or hustle?) and the process of our own brand storytelling has been the foundation of this success.
The part of this story that I am most happy to share is that with the help of my amazing team, we were able to redesign the film industry in a way that celebrates and encourages creativity. We have experienced bumps on the road getting here, but we have been able to create an on-set culture that encourages, not demeans. We have built a collaborative management structure that values all voices on the team and we are proudly certified as a B Corporation that measures what matters… people, planet & profit.. And most of all, we have built a company that serves our vision to make the world a happier and kinder place with passionate storytelling.
Because you read this ALL THE WAY, I would love to gift you a free link to watch a film that Hemmings House produced that I am VERY proud of. It’s called ‘Millennial Dream’ and it features incredible thinkers like Seth Godin, Steve Beauchesne and others as they examine what the American Dream looks like from the Millennial perspective. You can rent or buy the film on Amazon Prime or iTunes, or you can check it for free here. Thanks for reading my post!
Here is the film’s trailer: