Building a branding agency from scratch.
They say that entrepreneurs are the only people crazy enough to trade a 40 hour work week for 80 hours. I am Zach and I am the founder and CEO of Pixel Labs, a branding agency based in Cedar Falls, IA. After graduating from the University of Northern Iowa in 2009, I began my career as a production assistant at a large agency. After spending two and a half years there, it was time to tackle a new challenge. I started at a local cable company as a producer, working much closer with clients on their advertising efforts. Another two and a half years passed as I increased skills and networked with other professionals. After a short stint of working at a company who manufactures camera rigs, it was time. In January of 2014, Pixel Labs was officially open.
Starting from nothing.
At this time, I had a daughter who was almost three and my son who was just six months old. After discussing with my amazing wife, Samantha, we decided that we had about three months of runway saved up. If after three months the projects didn’t start coming in, then I would begin looking for a new 8–5 to help support our growing family. So at it I went. I took my Canon 60D, tripod and H4n and I started calling and emailing agencies that didn’t seem to have internal production, but getting their attention without a solid reel proved to be very difficult. They had their production houses, and this single person crew just had no chance of grabbing any bit of that market share.
So I took a step back and reached out to the local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). I moved my office out of the house and into a 120 sq ft office at the SBDC. This was probably one of the best decisions I could have made when launching this business. Actually, the idea of an agency didn’t even exist when it all started. I met with Dan at the SBDC. We sat down and discussed services, pricing, ideal clients, demographics, geographic locations and future goals. I gave him my back story and told him I wanted to support my family and create content while doing it. It was set, we were beginning the process of building a creative media house focused solely on video production.
Let’s get rolling.
We started getting a couple clients, doing things for lower budgets for exposure and beginning to build a portfolio that was Pixel Labs’. I hired our first summer intern, Taylor, who had never touched a camera, but had a TONS of passion for learning about cinematography. I had no idea what would come from it, if either of us would get anything valuable from the experience, but I figured there was only one way to find out. We didn’t have a ton of client work, so I would send him out with our camera just to shoot random footage and cut together montages to begin practicing with editing. By now, we had introduced the Cedar Valley to 4K with the addition of our new camera and added a cheap light kit as well as some more professional audio gear.
Over the next 9 months, we began to get busier and busier. People were noticing our work and talking about their experiences working with us. I was seeing growth in our client base and production value and I was looking forward to what was to come. In February of 2015, I got 2 calls within a week of each other from what would be our biggest clients yet. One, a local politician, the other, a sports betting consultant from Baltimore. Both of these calls were unexpected as well as new territories for me as a producer. These were both clients that would not simply say yes because someone else said they should. I spent a couple weeks discussing with our potential political client what Pixel Labs had to offer. We had added more freelance talent that I trusted and I was able to present our team as more than just me. I pitched Pixel Labs as an agile, collaborative company that worked with hand picked freelancers to ensure a unique project for each client. It wasn’t a lie, it most definitely was what we were doing. That same pitch is what I stuck to my guns with as I discussed the production process with our potential client from Baltimore. I spent about an hour and a half on the phone with him during the first call, hearing all of the visions he had for his projects and letting him know we had the ability to execute on all of it. He wanted to send us out to Las Vegas for 4 days to shoot on private jets, in penthouse suites at the Bellagio, and in luxury and supercars, Rolls Royce Phantom and McLaren MP12-c. This all seemed so surreal, I had to ask, “How did you find us”. He replied by saying a simple google search. To this day, I still don’t understand how we popped up, but I will consider is some good SEO.
After several weeks of discussing with both of them what Pixel Labs was capable of, I got a call from not just one of them, but both of them, letting me know that they had decided to go with Pixel Labs. These were the two biggest projects we had taken on and really the first time that I officially established what would be our production rates moving forward into the future. This experience lead me to where I wanted to position Pixel Labs in the market. I wanted a more collaborative experience with the clients than I found in the agency world, but I wanted to work with the budgets that didn’t limit creativity. Looking back, I believe this was a big factor in the growth of Pixel Labs.
Sticking to the values (and pricing).
…your $500 client will never be your $5,000 client — Chase Jarvis
In the coming months, we had more and more calls coming in. We were getting to the point of needing to establish something more than a freelance arrangement for each of our producers. Taylor was our first official employee and now, the business was responsible for supporting more than just myself.
This pressured me to take on as many projects as I could and I was always tempted to offer reduced rates in order to earn the business. My thinking was, “I will just explain the discount and let them know on the next project what the rates will be”. In theory, this sounds good, but then I had a conversation with someone who had been listening to Chase Jarvis. I learned that your $500 client will never be your $5,000 client. Meaning, if they don’t have the budget now, they probably never will because they know they can get what they got for the $500 budget. If you raise your prices, they will move on to a new company that is willing to give them that original deal again.
This is where establishing the values of Pixel Labs became important. We wanted to be known as a production company that was budget aware, not low budget. We wanted to be known as premium, not local. We wanted to give our clients, local and national, that big production experience. We wanted our clients to collaborate with us. We wanted to be transparent with all of our costs so our clients knew exactly where we were using the money they were paying us. These values turned into the success of our company and lead to our new biggest client. A client out of the small town of Osage, The Art of Education. Yet again, a new industry we had never worked with.
Building a successful team based on Culture.
With AOE on board as a new client, and understanding what their vision was for the work they had planned with us, I saw the need to begin building a team. This thing called Pixel Labs was beginning to take on a life of its own and became much too large for me to handle on my own. My wife was beginning to get more involved in the bookkeeping side, Taylor was beginning to play a very important role in the production process and we had had a few interns at this point that were talented enough for us to continue working with.
Our hiring process developed itself and it began the steps that each producer would take to becoming an official member of the team. They started as interns, became freelancers, then part time employees and eventually, once the demand was there, they would become full time. At this point, we were just about two years old and our company was still running on a tight budget as we were working on increasing our gear and production value, so this process was crucial to the growth of the team. These steps also gave us the time to audit each person’s actions to ensure they would mesh with the culture that we were building. Each person that has gone through this believed in the vision I had for Pixel Labs and wanted to do what they could to help see it though.
After solving the problem of budget, I needed to have a reason for each of these incredibly talented people to take a chance on our company like they did. Culture is something I feel was lacking from both of my previous experiences and it was a big reason for wanting to build something of my own. While at first I expected Pixel Labs to be just me handling a handful of clients that met my monthly budget goals (Basically a freelancer doing business as a company), it grew much quicker than anticipated and I was in need of creating a culture that people were proud to say they were part of and never dreaded coming to work for. This open culture where everyone feels like an equal, everyone’s opinions or ideas hold as much value as the next, and one where if you didn’t get along with the other people on the team, it really didn’t matter how much talent you had.
This culture has lead to a pool of talent that is interested in working with us on both a employee and freelance basis. This means that we have a ton of talent to work with, new minds to bring in when we are stuck, and a reputation of creating a work environment where we get our work done, but have fun while doing it. The company truly has been built on a culture where the word “job” never describes the feeling we have about what we do and “work” is something none of us have a problem with putting in.
See the country while doing what we love.
These new places allow us to experience different cultures, see things from a new perspective and network with other creatives we wouldn’t otherwise have ever met.
From the start, I wanted to have the opportunity with Pixel Labs to travel. See new states, maybe even new countries. To take this thing that at the time was my passion, video, and mold it into something that would take me anywhere I wanted was the dream. It didn’t take long.
Just three and a half years since Pixel Labs started, we have traveled to both sides of the country up as far north as Minneapolis and Detroit, as far south as Miami and Las Vegas and even spent 2 weeks in Niteroi, Brazil. Every team member we have has life goals that revolve around seeing new places. These new places allow us to experience different cultures, see things from a new perspective and network with other creatives we wouldn’t otherwise have ever met. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a goal to produce content in every state in the United States, and not just the continentals.
It was March 30th, 2016, and the small team we had decided to do a little student outreach breakfast at the local Village Inn. It was this day that I met Devin Harschnek for the first time. I didn’t know it yet, but this would be the event that changed Pixel Labs forever.
We bonded over skateboarding a bit, sharing stories of our skate days and making our “Skate Films”. I even spent a night longboarding for the first time with Devin and one of his friends, I had never longboarded in my life. Between that first time meeting Devin and May, I received 3 emails asking about an internship with Pixel Labs. The word “Persistent” comes to mind when describing Devin. That summer he started his internship with us, and just a few weeks later, our team followed him as he longboarded across the state for RAGBRAI to raise money for cancer research.
Time went on, his internship came and went, and he produced some content for us, traveling to Miami, Nashville and a few other places as an intern. I began to see something in him that I knew I didn’t have, organization. We invited Devin to become a part time employee where we began to see him take control of shoots and orchestrating people. One day, I walked over to his desk, gave him a half assed outline of what a client needed, and asked him to organize this shoot and get it done with Taylor. This was the test. See how he performed with something like this and go from there. It was clear, pre-production and organizing was definitely a strong talent of his, and one that I did not possess myself. Having this skill set on the team would change the way we produced content from here on out.
After about 6 months or so, Devin became a full time employee and his background in supply chain management, paired with the talents of Kyle Stoutenberg, had made us a more efficient team freeing us up to expand our services. This is when Jared Frost, affectionately known as Jfrost, joined the team as an intern. He instantly showed a passion for social media engagement and brand building, something we dabbled in a bit before but didn’t have the team to execute at the level that we wanted. Jfrost wasted no time beginning to build our own presence on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. He started to demonstrate what we could do for our clients at scale. It was from this point on that Jared and I got real friendly beginning to build a strategy that would transform us from the best production house in the Cedar Valley into a Digital Branding Agency. Roles would change, team members would be added, and we were growing.
Building the Pixel Labs Brand
A company’s brand is everything. Without it, they are nothing. There is nothing memorable. If we wanted to build this for our clients we needed to execute it for ourselves. Like I mentioned, Jfrost was diving deep into this one getting the Pixel Labs brand in front of people who had never heard of us. He was helping us tell our story to the world.
Most recently, we added Molly Watson to our team as a graphic design intern. She is just a few weeks into her internship and she has already unified our brand across social media, tweaked our red color to be more compatible across different mediums, and also began showing us all exactly how we will scale as a digital agency that is built with a creative first mentality.
“Why stop at 15? Why put a limit on it?”.
Pixel Labs started in 2014 with one thing in mind. Create content that I had fun creating for clients I enjoyed working with. Three years later while on a roadtrip to a shoot, Devin and I were discussing the future and he asked what my thoughts were. I told him I would be happy if we could create a solid team of 15 or so passionate people that could all be supported by the clients we will work with. He looked right back at me and ask “Why stop at 15? Why put a limit on it?”.
The recollection of this story is from that of my own as the CEO of the ever evolving company company we call Pixel Labs.