Lee Kemp tells us how Vermillion Films, a creative film production company sits comfortably between being a creative comms consultancy and a film production agency.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Lee Kemp: We are doing very well, as a business owner, it was difficult in the early days of the pandemic to understand how it would affect the business.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Vermillion Films.
Lee Kemp: I am the founder and owner of Vermillion Films, an award-winning company that makes commercials, branded content, and corporate video. I started the company 10 years ago. Originally I was in the British Army providing communications in hostile environments such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. I wanted a change, so I went to university to study film and started my own company shortly afterwards.
How Vermillion Films innovate?
Lee Kemp: We try and innovate in a number of ways. People often think of innovation as new technology, and in our industry, that would be cameras, lenses, lights, and software, but we simply use those tools as best we can. Our innovation is in two main areas; firstly, there is creativity, observing trends, and trying to use new technology in new ways to get client’s products in front of new and larger audiences. Then we innovate in service delivery. Trying to find new ways to use technology to pass on efficiencies and savings to our clients. We’re a very systems led company so using new technologies such as Airtable and large scale storage solutions means we can be very efficient in delivering a better service to our customers.
One example of how this worked is we had very limited parameters in which we could continue to do creative work. We have always prided ourselves on being able to make smaller budgets work for clients. We were approached by a new client, Cotswold Distillery, who had found that will all bars and restaurants closed, most of their business had disappeared overnight. They asked us to come up with ideas for video campaigns to promote their new gin during the pandemic. We provided them with some ideas, and we were able to shoot the whole advertising campaign during lockdown with only 2 crew members.
The result is here: https://vimeo.com/411370818
And our case study is here: https://vermillionfilms.com/drinks-advertising/
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Lee Kemp: It had a larger impact in the first three months, and we weren’t sure how we would survive, but as this was a problem that affected everyone in the company, I was very open about it, and we brainstormed ideas to manage the difficulties. We already had a strategy to improve our customer acquisition using the website, and this began to work very well for us. In the 12 months since the first UK lockdown began, we have acquired more new customers than in any year previously.
We also recognized that even if we could film, some companies would be reluctant to send out film crews, but animation could be completed remotely, so we put a lot of work into our SEO for animation to build upon that skillset.
The result worked well for us: https://vermillionfilms.com/animation/
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Lee Kemp: The UK government provided a lot of support for small businesses, and this helped in the early days. But when we were testing scenarios, we realized that human resources was our biggest cost, so I took the decision to reduce our headcount. We offered voluntary redundancy to the whole company, and we had various scenarios ready depending on who was interested in leaving. 20% of the company took this, and others responded vigorously to say they really wanted to stay, so we had a good idea of where we stood. Later, another 20% of the company left, and we plugged this gap with freelance resources, so we only paid for what was needed out of the budget that was coming in. The key lessons for business owners here are to be open with your team about the situation, inspiration can come from anywhere, and that it’s better to act early. Many business owners find it hard to let people go, but people choose to leave companies all the time; it’s only fair that sometimes companies leave people too.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Lee Kemp: Again, openness is a key attribute here. We spoke to all of our major clients to understand how the pandemic was affecting them and what volume of work we were likely to see from them. We were also clear that as a small business, we rely on their work. Our clients were very open about their future spending and the current situation. We were able to work together to make smaller budgets go further.
We use airtable for all of our project management and basecamp for our client management.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Lee Kemp: We did benefit from government grants. The local councils were instructed by the central government to offer one time payments of up to £10,000. This helped in the first three months.
There were also business continuity loans. We took one of these very low interested loans and actually used it to replace our own borrowing, which was much more expensive.
Finally, the UK government offered a furlough scheme to pay the wages of staff that weren’t needed. We took advantage of this. The end result was that we were at about 75% of our capacity with 50% of our staff, so those of us still working were incredibly busy. But we kept in touch with all staff to make sure everyone had regular contact with other people and knew what was going on.
Your final thoughts?
Lee Kemp: It is hard to run a business at the best of times, so it’s a real character test to manage it during a pandemic. In this case, we prepared early, not because we thought the worst would happen, but because we understood that if it did, then it would happen very quickly. I think the team was surprised to get the instructions to begin preparing for fully remote working and even more surprised when the order was given to start. I don’t think you need full on disaster recovery plans in small businesses, but I do think some contingency planning really does help.
I also realized my business was vulnerable to things out of my control, so I used the lockdown period to create a technology startup as well.
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