The Secret Sauce: How to Build a Creative Business

For this blog post, we reached out to our filmmaking friend Matt Davis of Studio Sherpas. We asked Matt what he believed was the secret sauce to building a creative business. Below is what he had to say.

Creativity always comes with a cost. Filmmakers and photographers develop their talents through education, forging their portfolios and donating much of their talent at steep discounts or even payment-free. Their hope is that market-price paying clients will one day show up.

Meanwhile, customers are eager to pay for any elusive magic that they can’t duplicate. Yet, their only requirement is financial. No blood, sweat or tears, no experience necessary. For clients, they just refer to the bottom of the invoice and sign over a check.

Yes, creativity has a price, but it also has value. And people will pay for unique.


So how do you get paid for being creative, beyond landing a salaried position at someone else’s firm? There are two ways: start freelancing, or hang a shingle all your own. What many creatives don’t realize is how these two options greatly differ.

Landing a paying gig as a solo specialist is certainly not easy. However, it’s a path that’s simplified by lining up one or more clients, and then completing their assigned projects. The real test is how do you transition from freelance to endeavor your own corporate identity? This is a process that brings challenges many freelancers aren’t ready to tackle.

The secret is in the sauce. The difference between working gigs and running your own company are the unpublished details. These require planning and acceptance of four phases unique to creative companies. They are: fear, risk, authenticity, and relevancy.


There aren’t many words that immediately strike a profound level of imagery in one’s mind. Fear is foremost a sensation, a ying and yang scenario that can either motivate or freeze action. It can replace confidence with self-doubt or spur success purely based on refusing to fail. It can make you stop before you ever start.

Fear is the antithesis of creativity.

Yet, professionals need to find a way to coexist with fear, and not allow it to dominate their fragile psyche. Fear is a survival tool, and creatives need it for success.


Sasha Souza is an award-winning wedding planner from San Francisco, and recently talked about the importance of delegating. Ms. Souza believes that by farming out certain objectives to her trusted employees allows her to feel refreshed, confident that tasks are being handled by folks with compatible expertise, and proud that she is empowering those she has trained and mentored. Unlike some creatives she has encountered, Sasha does not let the fear deter her delegation of project details. Her ability to give up control has propelled her to successful heights.

Freelancers are used to doing everything themselves, from the actual creative to the administrative. It’s easy to get burned out, over-worked, and lose focus of details if you’re trying to do too much. Transitioning from project work to client work can relieve some of these issues and while positioning your new company for long-term success.


If starting your own business was so easy, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

Freelance assignments are short or long-term projects that provide an exclusive benefit of flexibility. They are low-risk to both parties because of this low-level commitment.

Building a company also requires building a brand, a network, and a customer base. It involves hiring, providing benefits to employees, managing and maintaining a reputation. Overall, molding everything together ensnares much more responsibility and risk.

What’s the old saying? With great risk, comes great reward. Jason Magbanua explains how his investment in his employees has paid out exponentially. There’s an inherent stigmatism and risk in the wedding film business that training your employees will only result in them leaving you, wasting valuable time, capital and even future business.

The nightmare scenario for any business owner when talking employee retention is to hire, fully train and then have those mature employees leave to start something successful with a competitor or on their own.

Jason ignored this and set out on a path to train, empower and reward his employees anyway. The results have been staggering, with most of his employees having stayed with him for more than a decade. He currently possesses a staff of over 50, and books more than 100 weddings per year.

Jason took a risk and it’s rewarding him handsomely.


One of the most difficult risks to balance when erecting an organization is creating and maintaining the company’s brand. Its importance cannot be overshadowed and encompasses the totality of its existence. From its logo, to how the receptionist answers the phones, a company’s brand is only as strong as its weakest link. Successful brands define being authentic as a concept that is part confidence, truth and consistency to its demographic.

Special guest Sean Low of a recent Studio Sherpas podcast determined the definition of a creative business is owning the responsibility when a doubtful client blindly trusts you. It’s up to you to get them the rest of the way. This example of authenticity shows a creative professional must take the reigns at the behest of a needy client.


Professionals who make their living selling their artistic talents need not apologize for their value determined not by the market, but only by the limitations of their abilities. So why do so many feel it necessary to de-value their own currency?

Sean advocates being careful about setting your creative business pricing model. Many have stalled with the emphasis being put on production, basing costs and profits on an hourly wage. With technology constantly improving and becoming less expensive, production costs are hurtling towards zero. As Sean says, “when creativity is all that is left, real money can be made!


You’ve overcome the fear of transitioning from freelance to building a company. You’ve mitigated risk and even let it inspire you to hire young, on-the-rise talent. Now you have to plan to stay relevant.

Will you angle to keep these new employees or do you find your company to have high turnover? Besides treating them well with training and incentives, make sure to listen to them, too! Jason Magbanua has found the best way to stay relevant is to listen to the millennial talent he employs. Absorbing their tastes in things such as music, dancing, filming, technology and design is vital in order to be current with potential clients.

This competitive advantage is exacerbated by Jason’s belief to hire based on culture fit and not experience. He seeks out those future stars whose character align with his company’s values. This method has always worked well for him.


No matter the plan, there are some standard blueprints everyone must follow when starting a business. What separates a creative organization are the phases that it experiences during their journey. Fear, risk, authenticity and relevancy are all part of a process that are as unique as the creative service the business provides.

Though the blueprint is common, your company’s talent is not. Keep your creative juices flowing fresh, and it will help transition from freelance to building your own brand. After all, the secret is in the sauce.

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