Recently, I decided to combine my interests in teaching, media making, writing, and drawing to create a business where I make explanatory videos. Luckily for me, Le Lefever, of Common Craft, has documented his process of making explanatory videos in detail on the Common Craft blog.
Here’s the video that started it all for Common Craft:
I decided it made a lot of sense for me to scan all the entries on the Common Craft blog to glean business and creative insight from his documented experiences. It was a fascinating experience, and I’m glad I took a couple of hours to do this. By no means did I read every entry, but I did at least scan the headlines, When the fancy struck me, I dove deeper to read the content of particular posts.
So here is some of what I learned.
1. Lee has been blogging at the Common Craft site for over 5 years.
2. Common Craft first started as a consulting practice to help organizations make the most of online community possibilities.
3. Lee and Sachi LeFever started creating their popular explanatory videos less than 2 years ago with RSS in Plain English. The response was so huge to their first video that it became clear that there was a huge niche waiting to be filled.
4. Lee has deep history and interest in the world of online social interaction and the technologies that underlie those interactions. This is important because:
a) He knows how to do stuff online effectively
b) You know the old English teacher advice “Write what you know”? Well, he and Sachi are making videos about what they know. They have branched out into new areas since their video making debut (e.g. explaining how the electoral college works is new territory for them), but they got their feet wet making videos about stuff they were quite familiar with. I think this makes a lot of sense to refine their media making process before jumping into unfamiliar content areas.
5. Lee is interested in explaining stuff clearly.
6. Lee and Sachi have stuck to some clear limitations in making their work. Here are a few.
-Only vocal sound effects in Lee’s voice. No music or voice overs by other people.
-Maximum video length 4 minutes
-Sachi and Lee are the only people involved in producing the videos
-Videos are made using cut paper moved by hand on whiteboard. No digital animation.
7. Common Craft’s self imposed limitations have created a recognizable, useful, commercially successful product.
Their limit on keeping their production staff to two people has pushed them to innovate their business model (toward a licensing and network building model, from a model where they create work for specific clients).
Spending a few hours scanning the Common Craft blog was great investment on my part. It’s so useful to see a record of how their practice evolved. It helps me give myself license to let my own stuff evolve, not to force it.
It also helped me value my past more. It’s not like the Common Craft video efforts sprung forth fully made. They grew out of a past—a past that included exploration of online community and a past of explaining processes and technology for clients. I have my own past, with my own skills and pools of knowledge that I can bring to my videos that includes teaching, counseling, blogging, drawing, information architecture, running my own business, storytelling, and performing. All good stuff.
Some big takeaways:
- Figure out what your principles are
- Stick to your principles
- Create some stylistic guidelines and stick to them
- Keep making stuff and refine techniques and approaches as needed
- Change course when it makes sense (If Lee and Sachi hadn’t seen the opportunity that video presented, their business would be very different)
- Work on the art of business and the business of art. Oh and work on the art of art too.
- Put your process out in public.
My last thought: Find someone who blogs in a field you are interested in. Go back and scan their entire blog from beginning to end. I can’t think of a faster way to learn deeply.