5 Lessons I’ve Learnt From Starting a Business at 17

In my first year of college, I started working on Ocrux Studios with a couple of friends, a creative production company in Kuala Lumpur offering photography, video and post-production services. We created Ocrux because we wanted to find a way to fund equipment to produce short films, something that we had been doing since high school. Also, owning a business actually opened up an opportunity to earn decent pocket money as broke college students. Thus began my journey as an entrepreneur, with the many successes and failures encountered whilst growing and managing the business. Here are some stories of the lessons I’ve learnt:

1. Be Creative in Finding Ways to Make Money

When we first started we didn’t have any capital, we only had our own entry-level DSLR cameras and some basic microphones. During our first summer holidays, we didn’t have any work lined up and we didn’t know how to advertise for work. As I had previously been on the school debate team, I knew that the summer holidays was the peak Malaysian debating season where there would be competitions held every month. Some of these competitions were live-streamed on YouTube but were recorded using poor quality laptop webcams and microphones.

I saw a very niche opportunity to offer low-cost but good quality YouTube live-streaming services to these debate competition organisers. You see, the only live-streaming services available in the market then used professional broadcast cameras costing thousands. I was not an expert on web streaming at that time. Nonetheless, armed with many nights’ worth of YouTube tutorials, countless Google searches and the confidence that I would be able to pull it off, I cold-emailed every debate competition organiser in KL I could find. I told them that I’ll offer our live-streaming services at the introductory price of MYR100 per session and if anything goes wrong, I’ll be happy to offer a full refund.

Image above: Our live-streaming equipment set-up.

As expected, most of my unsolicited emails went unanswered. However, one of the bigger organisers got in touch and asked if we could stream the entire competition, all 12 rounds! Including other costs, that quotation came to MYR2000 which was our biggest job at that time. We purchased a Logitech HD webcam, borrowed a friend’s sound mixer, rented a few microphones and figured up how to set it all up on the Wirecast software. When they told us that the WiFi was bad, we very cleverly figured out how to run the whole live-stream on 4G mobile data and even helped the organiser set up their own mobile WiFi network.

Since we only had to pay for the equipment once, we enjoyed a clean 46% profit margin from that job to be used to buy more equipment for Ocrux. Any future live-streaming jobs would also have been profitable since we already had the equipment.

Most of the time, you just need to go beyond your comfort zone to market yourself and get creative with the tools you already have.

2. Run Your Business Like It’s Worth Millions

But don’t spend like you have millions.

The key point here is you need to exude the maximum amount of professionalism in the way you communicate and conduct your business. You want to appear as a bigger company than you really are. It’s not deception, it’s called branding.

That means using proper domain names such as @yourcompany.com for your emails and building a professional website and social media presence (more on this in the next point).

Some other things I did included getting nice round-edged business cards printed. They didn’t cost me much (MYR30 for 100) but was always looked really neat when handing them to prospective clients at meetings.

When it comes to documentation, I always ensured we had proper contracts done for both employees and clients. I think this is really important because it’s a common occurrence in the industry where companies and people don’t get paid because there was no proper contract put in place. Make sure you’re really clear on your payment terms in your invoices. I would normally take a 50% deposit upfront. We also set up a company bank account to provide reassurance to our clients that they were dealing with a legitimate business.

Use proper accounting software to keep records of your income and expenses. This really comes in useful when you have do your annual filings and taxes. I used one called WaveApps for free and it allowed me to generate professional-looking invoices which I could then send to my clients and keep track of.

3. Marketing Is Money

Try going to Google and typing “Ocrux Studios”.

You can be the best skilled photographer/filmmaker out there but if nobody knows what you can do, you still would not get hired. It’s more of how you present yourself because skills can be improved over time. (the same applies to life, really)

When we first started out, I made it a priority to get a professional website set up to showcase our work and I did this myself on WordPress for free. We also created our social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Although purchasing our own domain ‘ocruxstudios.com’ did cost a small amount of money per year (around $10), I hosted our emails for free on ZohoMail (great for small businesses). I think it’s really important that any legitimate business invests in their own domain because it adds to your branding and just think, if you will be working on a multi-million dollar contract in the future, do you really want to be contacting your clients using a gmail.com email address?

Make sure your online presence is clear enough so that when people Google your business, you look like a proper company in the results. This also allows clients to browse your previous work.

I also listed Ocrux Studios as a service provider in the most popular international directories for production companies such as KFTV and Mandy. This meant that we appeared in the list of Malaysian production companies whenever someone searched for it on those sites.

We actually received a few email enquiries from international companies and organisations through these online presences so I would say its definitely a good investment to build an online presence to expand your potential client base beyond word-of-mouth.

We also invested a small amount of money into Facebook Ads to boost visibility in the local community although to be honest we did not gain any new clients using this route, probably because we were more geared towards B2B(business-to-business) services.

4. Build Meaningful Relationships

Most of the clients you get would be from recommendations from friends and existing clients (at least in my line of work) so it is absolutely crucial that you put a 100% into every job and leverage upon your network.

I know there’s always a fine line when it comes to working for free just to build your portfolio. I think this is somewhat unavoidable in the initial stages of starting out. The way I approached it was I chose to work on projects that I was genuinely interested in or we worked out another way to cover the costs. We helped film a friend’s dance school concert for free. In exchange, we received a portion of the profits from the concert DVD sales, which was quite substantial. A year later, they recommended us to another client for a bigger paid project.

In university, I helped film events and promo videos for a society I was in (again, genuine interest). This was widely shared on social media which caught the attention of the university’s marketing team and they later commissioned me to work on a paid project that would become our biggest job ($$) so far.

Image above: Behind-the-scenes on one of our Southampton mini-documentaries.

5. Invest Time In Your Business

The optimist in me likes to believe that I would have become a millionaire by now if I had worked on the business full-time. (Haha maybe not a millionaire.)

Having to juggle between being a full-time university student and a freelance filmmaker wasn’t exactly the ideal recipe for business prosperity. The most painful part over the years was having to turn down countless jobs (some of them worth 5-figures) simply because we were in different cities for university or someone had exams coming up. When I moved to the UK, I had to give up working on Ocrux altogether because of that pesky Tier 4 visa restriction which prohibits self-employment.

To a limited extent we did make this work by taking up editing jobs that we could do remotely, embodying WFH (work from home) in the good ol’ pre-pandemic times. And we each pitched to our own universities for paid projects.

My advice to student entrepreneurs: choose a business model that allows you to work remotely or something that generates passive income. I wouldn’t recommend dropping out of uni to work on your business full-time unless you have regular income that can sustain your lifestyle and you are absolutely sure you don’t need that degree.

Investing time also relates to spending time on building your business skills and knowledge. I spent many hours (often during my exam procrastination season) reading articles and watching videos on topics such as accounting, taxes, web design, marketing and keeping up-to-date with film-making techniques and equipment.

My Final Thoughts

This year, Ocrux Studios will be shutting its doors after 5 long years of fun and happy memories. We are grateful to all our clients, crew, friends and family that we’ve worked with over the years. Chun Zhe, Danial and I have decided to end the business because we will all be pursuing our own personal careers in different countries so we would not have as much time to spend on managing the business.

Would I call this a failure? Absolutely not. Financially speaking, we weren’t in debt and us partners would walk away with a decent split of the profits on a business we invested almost zero capital in (stonks).

On the less material side of things, Ocrux has taught me so much on entrepreneurship which I hope to apply in my future pursuits. This is definitely not the end of my entrepreneurship journey and perhaps, one day you will see me return to the world of business.

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