There’s something to be said about getting things done yourself. It can be quite satisfying to move into a new home by yourself for example. However, while some might prefer the solitude of self-starting, when it comes to film and video, working as an army-of-one can be quite the task.

We spoke with one of these army-of-one directors — Ibrahim Zafar from Lens End Media — about his own personal journey turning his hobby into his career, and growing his solo operation into a tight knit, agile team strong enough to tackle any video project.

Let’s explore some of our advice and findings for anyone looking to grow their brand and take on bigger (and more lucrative!) film projects.

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Start small and stay intentional

For many film and video professionals, it can be tricky to break into the industry. However, Zafar recommends starting small and organically. While there may be production companies out there that start big, the majority come from humble origins and scale up as demand increases.

When you do start small, it takes a certain mindset and resolve to handle the army-of-one mentality needed to be successful early on.

For Zafar, this meant he had to navigate the early days of his career working as a producer, director, a shooter and an editor, often juggling the various tasks and roles needed to pitch, produce and deliver a project as a true army-of-one turnkey production company.

“Doing everything from start to finish was my main way of working, so getting people involved into the process was foreign to me. We’ve naturally needed more help as we’ve grown, which I think is the proper way to handle transitioning from a solo director to a company.”
Ibrahim Zafar

Turn your hobby into your job

One element of Zafar’s career that is inspiring is that he was able to transition into it from another career path altogether.

“I was working in consulting prior, traveling to other countries for a large company. In my free time though, I’d go out and start shooting videos for fun and film international “day-in-the-life” content. That started my passion, and let’s just say, things grew from there,” said Zahar.

For Zafar, videography was simply a passion and a hobby which he did on the side as he learned the ropes and developed his style and skills. At the behest of his wife, Zafar admits, he finally made the jump to full-time to pursue his new career shortly after getting married.

It’s been a path with its own challenges though as Zafar’s career change coincided with COVID-19. However, there was a silver lining to starting a new career during a pandemic — Zafar finally had enough downtime to fully focus on his first clients and their needs.

Know when to ask for help

At first, Zafar only needed to rely on himself to handle all the production work from clients. And for many with the same mindset, it can actually be quite productive (and satisfying) to take the reins on handling each stage of a project from pre- to post.

Still, Zafar admits he needed to bring in some extra help here and there to stay on top of the work.

“I knew that I had to grow the company, but there was just so much work with the client management stage, the being on set stage, the bringing in revenue stage, the building your brand and managing your social media stage, so my days were spread pretty thin trying to manage everything at once.”
Ibrahim Zafar

Zafar’s first hire? An associate producer. They’d manage the logistics for clients, freeing him up to focus on the actual videography and editing.

However, as needs and clients continued to grow, Zafar found himself reaching out for more and more help, adding in more team members and contractors to help staff up for bigger shoots where more specific roles like DPs, gaffers and editors were needed.

Keep a balanced budget

Once you begin your transition from an army-of-one to a leadership role for your young team, you’ll need to shift from strictly focusing on the videography. Instead, turn your gaze towards management, producing, and company growth.

Zafar reached a critical impasse. Either he’d continue focusing on his own career, or entertain the possibility of starting a true company. “Once I felt that I reached a level of sustainability, I had to make some decisions. Do I want to just increase my prices and my personal salary, or do I want to reinvest it back into growing the company and bring others on board to help with my direction and vision?”

While it might seem counterintuitive at first, you might find yourself keeping your own salary low to help bring in talent that’ll help you grow your brand and your profits down the line.

Always add value

Zafar’s vision for his own company is to fully transition from his army-of-one — a company where he wore all the hats — to be more of a CEO and film director with team of talented filmmakers at his disposal.

When asked about how others could learn from some of his experiences as they look to build their own companies and brands, his advice really came down to adding value.

“Just find your client network or niche and focus on adding value for them. I think that’s something that we as filmmakers often overlook when you start just focusing on paychecks and jobs. If you can determine the points which you can add value to your clients and their unique marketing needs, the paychecks and revenue will figure themselves out,” said Zafar.

Focus on your craft and how your team can best benefit your clients. This might even mean working for reduced rates as a hook. Ultimately, you’ll demonstrate the true value and full potential of your work later, so you can eventually charge your standard rates.

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