“I’m an artist, forced into management. I didn’t pursue management, it just kind of ended up this way,” says Chris LeDoux, one of the Co-Founders of Crafty Apes, a full-service visual effects (VFX) studio. It looks like he’s managed okay—with Crafty Apes now spanning three offices, employing over 120 people, and working on some of the biggest movies in theaters. Their credits include A Star is Born, Hidden Figures, various films from the Marvel franchises, and La La Land. Take a look at their website. It’s pretty darn impressive.
I welcomed Chris and one of his brothers, Mark LeDoux, a VFX Supervisor at Crafty Apes on to CEO Exclusive this week. And, like many of our guests, Chris and Mark are working to stay true to their craft while running a rapidly growing business and keeping up with the disruption and consolidation in their industry. They would love to stay in their workroom all day and night. In fact, that’s just what they did in the beginning. But now, they have a business to run.
So, how exactly do they balance their craft with company demands? Here are four recommendations that came from our conversation.
Tip 1: Stay in Love with the Work
Chris explains that the creative spark runs through everything at Crafty Apes. “We’re in this because we have a passion for storytelling. Growing up on an island in Alaska, the video store was where we lived… And that’s why we’re in it– we’re all storytellers. When you’re on a set, and every single person there, from the camera to the crafting department is into storytelling, that’s exciting.”
The passion that Chris describes simply cannot be faked. The kindness in a nurse’s smile, that extra phone call from the accountant, the attention to detail in a movie scene are different examples of people’s love for their work. It’s real. It shows. And, it’s critical to the quality of any service being delivered. If you are in a service business and you want to be around for the long haul, people need to feel the love. Crafty Apes lives this principle as the source of their ongoing growth.
Tip 2: And, Still Take Risks
It would be easy, at their current size, for Crafty Apes to start playing it safe. But, risk-taking is a critical part of sustainable success, especially in a creative industry. In its article Here’s What Science Says You Should Do to Achieve Greater Success, Entrepreneur Magazine writes, “Elimination of risk is a guarantee of failure…If you refuse to take any risks in your life, you will pass up every opportunity in front of you in favor of a stable, certain future. That stability may be comforting, but it won’t provide you with growth or advancement in any dimension.”
In fact, Chris sites loss of “edginess” as one reason four out of the five VFX firms he used to work with are no longer in business. “That edginess is what keeps you on top of things. When you see NFL teams up by three touchdowns and they just start running the ball, and then they lose the game, because they’re playing not to lose. It’s infuriating. So, I try to keep a very risky attitude. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off, and that’s what [my] brothers will yell and scream about. But, that’s what happened to a lot of people in this business–they were artists that had to convert.” That loss of artistry eventually made them out of touch and took them out of the game.
Tip 3: Deftly Manage Client Expectations
A movie director wants a desert in the background. No, then they want to change the setting to Antarctica. Well, then no—what about the beach… actually, rainforest sounds great. This is Crafty Apes’ daily challenge. You can imagine that in an environment with demanding clients, high-expectations, big budgets, and even bigger personalities, one has to be masterful at account management. It’s a survival skill. “I’m doing a dance with people,” Chris says.
This issue, called “scope creep” in project management jargon, is almost inescapable when dealing with an ambiguous work product and a project of enormous scale, which is exactly what Crafty Apes does. Here are the top five causes of scope creep according to the Project Management Institute:
- Ambiguous or unrefined project definition
- Lack of any formal scope or requirements management
- Inconsistent process for collecting work product requirements
- Lack of sponsorship and stakeholder involvement
- Project length
The solution to the director who keeps changing his or her mind (or scope creep in any form) is always communication. Clear definition of the project and the initial vision. Setting boundaries and pushing back when necessary. Renegotiating terms. This is the blocking and tackling of managing clients.
Tip 4: Remember the Most Important Part of the Job
The people. CEOs agonize over their employees. Chris is no different. “There’s a lot of people to worry about. And, if you’re a human, you’re worried about their families, you know the names of their kids. You’re worried about them. You’re concerned, and your job is to make sure that they can eat every day. So that’s a major concern — it’s not necessarily the position I went in looking for when I started.”
Contrary to the picture of a greedy Ebenezer Scrooge, many founders and business owners care deeply for the well-being of the people with whom they spend the majority of their waking hours. For example, business owners work hard to protect their employees during the sale of their businesses. According to the most recent 2017 Market Pulse Report, “Over 70% of business owners looking to sell their companies responded that taking care of their employees is an important consideration when evaluating potential buyers.” In fact, it was the second most important concern after the financials of the transaction. Just like the passion for the work product, passion for the people shows, as well.
Sitting in the interview with Chris and Mark, it was easy to imagine them as wide-eyed kids at the video store in Alaska growing up loving movies from the 80’s and 90’s. Goonies, Stand By Me, Back to the Future, She’s all That. Now, decades later, they have industry disruption, challenging clients, employees and payroll. While a part of them has been forced out of La La Land, it’s clear their hearts and imagination will always be there.