Multi-Service Veteran Uses Military Tenacity And Confidence To Turn His Hobby Into A Business
Tom Moore, Navy & Army Veteran, Founder of RL Film Productions
Tell us about you and your military background:
Hi, I’m Tom More. Beware the advice you take, for it may put you on a long road. One year into college I decided I was definitely going into the service when I graduated. I wanted Naval Spec Ops and began preparing in earnest. To help pay for school, I worked in the university’s maintenance department surrounded by lots of former enlisted vets whose counsel was all the same…"don’t enlist, they pay you bad and treat you that way, too. Use your degree and become an officer’’. Not realizing chronic undermanning on the enlisted side of special operations meant you could head straight into training for it if you enlisted I heeded the advice I was given and applied for a commission. It was 1992, the height of the post-Cold War drawdown, and no one was hiring. Two years later with four applications out there, the Air Force finally said “yes.” Even my Navy recruiter said I better take it if I ever wanted to get in so I spent a year as a 2LT in the missile fields of Montana but it wasn’t a good fit. I applied for an interservice transfer to the USN, something that everyone said: “never happens.” Six months later, I was an Ensign reporting to Surface Warfare Officer School and had a pretty steep learning curve. Through postings on two ships, I qualified in everything as fast as possible so I could apply for Special Warfare, a once a year opportunity.
Instead of shore duty, I took another sea tour as an OIC in the Special Boat Teams and continued applying for a spot at BUD/S. It didn’t happen despite 9/11 and staying on at that command as long as I could delaying a promotion that would kill my chances. I didn’t want to go back to the fleet and decided to resign when I heard about Army Special Forces units in the National Guard. When I contacted one, they wanted to sign me up on the spot because they were so undermanned. Eight months later, I was an Infantry Captain in a National Guard SF unit prepping for the Q Course…and I thought transferring to the Navy had been a steep learning curve. I busted my butt and did well in all the prerequisite courses graduating from the Q in 2006 with a 1+ in Arabic…a language I would never use again;-)
After two years as team commander, I left the Service for good in late 2008. So why this long, detailed story? Tenacity. I proved to myself that when I wanted something enough I would move heaven and earth to get there and make all the personal sacrifices that came with it. The takeaway is a lesson in owning your own business…if you don’t start with that same tenacity and confidence in your ability to achieve the goal you are sorely behind the curve. Taking your start-up from the money-loser they always begin as something that supports you to true profitability will tax you in ways you can’t yet imagine.
Tell us about your business:
I have two sides to my company currently. RL Film Productions (est. 2012) focuses on corporate videography and video freelancing for other companies/production houses and television. I have infinite scalability depending on the needs of the project from one guy with a camera to a full crew and actors performing on a studio set. My key client demographics are larger, small-and-mid-sized businesses with an understanding of and focus on their marketing efforts, ideally with a marketing person on-staff. Also, marketing and ad firms looking to add video to their client’s campaigns and out-of-town producers/production houses that need filming in the DFW/Ark-La-Tex region. I’m happy to travel farther and with our big airport, that’s pretty easy. The other side is On This Site Productions, which is producing a show about Texas history called “On This Site: The Historical Markers of Texas.” Each episode will take one of our state’s 12,000+ markers and tell its story along with giving context and how it matters to us today. The mystique of the Lone Star State travels far beyond the state line and, considering I grew up here and have a history degree, it seems a great way to combine all my interests and resources into another stream of revenue. We almost had it sold before COVID, and our executive producer is now working on a private investment deal that could get it independently syndicated. I continue to work on several TV and film concepts, primarily for sale, but some that I might be able to produce in the future. These projects outside corporate work diversify my potential revenue and will act as some protection for wild events like the pandemic and the current economic troubles.
Describe how you got the business started:
I moved back home to Dallas, Texas following my Service career and, after four years of doing security and defense contracting work, I was ready for another change. Innovation tends not to be particularly welcome in these industries and I was a firm believer in always looking for a way to improve the mousetrap. It was my wife who suggested making my longtime hobby of video recording my own commercial videography business. Video marketing had become the new rage, equipment was way more affordable than in the recent past, and how hard could it be? I got a loan, gear, website, went to networking groups, joined the chamber of commerce, did free jobs for non-profits, all the stuff you’re supposed to.
I did it because starting cold in a new industry is the hardest thing to do. Despite your best research, there are a thousand details and nuances of your industry that you still won’t know. First off, you have no colleagues or support structure to turn to and you can’t market yourself based on experience, one of the most important factors to getting better clients. Second, there’s fishing in the wrong ponds. You can have the best elevator pitch and know all the stats to prove your value but if you aren’t talking to the decision-maker who already knows the value you can bring, you’re pushing a flat rock up a hill. Third, getting found through all the noise. I thought I could do enough SEO and maintain the website. I was wrong. It’s a time-consuming and never-ending process that I find as enjoyable as doing my taxes. Without those elements working for you 24/7, it’s down to how many hours you have in a day to find clients. In a world that no longer wants to be sold directly, the answer is…you don’t have enough.
My remedies for these three are to find a way to get experience BEFORE you start. Learning an industry from the inside is the most effective way to keep from making stupid and costly mistakes. Plus you’ll have work friends and maybe even a mentor to turn to when the time comes.
You have to understand clearly, beforehand, who and where your target market is. Develop a detailed plan of how to reach them and know what problem you’re solving for them – that’s the center of every conversation.”
Most importantly, put a HUGE emphasis on your online presence. You don’t have to have a fancy site but it must make your value proposition clear from page one – ask yourself “how are you solving the client’s problem?” Be willing to pay what it takes to be near the top of the search results for key terms unless you’re one of the weirdos who enjoy doing it yourself;-). I should have gotten double the size of my initial loan and put the extra 50% into the site and SEO. It hurts up-front but it will pay you back in the end.
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
Starting down the road of entrepreneurship was totally unexpected but driven by seeing no enjoyable future where I was headed. I had resentment of management that stifled innovation and I’ve always been happiest with projects where I had the freedom to improve what was being done and build more efficient and effective frameworks to deliver the best result. If I can fully immerse myself and bring all my knowledge and experiences to solve the problem I definitely find the most personal and professional satisfaction. A vast majority of corporate and government jobs are…..not that;-) The flip side is that you can fail, of course, even repeatedly, and you will own that without the “safety” of an established organization and procedures.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
There is a natural organizational bent that I have that was refined a lot during my service time. One of the key lessons was working with really large groups, both of people and things. Understanding how processes and procedures must develop as a project expands and integrating individual parts was really brought home to me. While I’ve said I chafed at the rigidity of the corporate/military system, I came to fully appreciate WHY things were being done that way. I now have the freedom to modify how things are done but I see the larger picture. I’m not just experimenting for kicks. When you arrive on set to find there’s no parking for the crew, the shoot has moved to a room you never saw on the other side of the building, your on-screen talent has laryngitis, the sound guy is stuck in traffic, and the client’s CEO needs to start 45 minutes early…you’ll truly appreciate applying the Troop Leading Procedures to get everyone moving in the right direction while you redesign the plan on-the-fly!
Effective communication might have been an even bigger takeaway. One of the producer’s biggest jobs is getting everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction while encouraging and without giving offense. My industry is peopled by a lot of artistic types, socially awkward geeks, and fragile egos that assess and process information differently. There were many occasions in my 14-year career that I got to work with foreign militaries, diplomats, politicians, intel people, State Department bureaucrats, and ordinary shop owners and tradesmen. I sometimes feel I’ve simply traded one group of characters for another. You have to be able to read people quickly and speak their “language” with clarity and conviction. The wheels may be coming off and someone’s hair is on fire but I have the skills to talk to everyone, make a plan, ensure everyone understands, and get it executed. Someone once told me being a producer was simply a full day of solving problems you couldn’t imagine existed while holding a camera. The military got me ready.
Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:
Perhaps the best shield a new business owner has is not fully understanding what they’re getting into. If we did, probably fewer of us would do this. I think the truth is, just like marriage and parenting, you can never be fully “ready” to run your business…you have to become the best of who you can be by doing and nothing less. If you have the right mindset, I cannot overstate how rewarding it is.
“To focus all of your knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences, and energy to make a life for yourself and your family is risky and daunting, but to taste the success is intoxicating.”
Yes, you did build that and now you’re in a position to help others. Whether it’s clients with your product or service, employees with a paycheck and great workplace, or other business owners who might be in need.
Between being more of an introvert naturally and then spending 14 years as a “quiet professional,” self-promotion and selling are REALLY hard. I much prefer to be very good at what I do and simply available if someone wants my services. That can work but it is a slow process relying mostly on word of mouth, though word of mouth is the strongest referral you can get. For a long time, I beat myself up about resisting grabbing the spotlight and yelling “lookie here!” whenever there was a chance. I’ve come to accept it’s ok to not do that and find other ways - even if the experts tell you differently. Ultimately, I have to lie in bed at night proud of how I carried myself that day. Trying to operate in a fashion that runs counter to your nature only creates more problems for you and those will negatively impact your peace of mind and the workings of your business.
Four years into my business, 2016, was when things bottomed out and I really thought I was going under. Too few jobs and pretty poor budgets. What probably saved me was a lack of a “plan B” and Lord knows I tried to find one! The truth was I had found something I really liked to do rooted in a hobby I liked that stretched back to before high school…and was very good at it. I had simply underestimated the business requirements and backed myself into a financial corner. You can’t reinvest or hire help with money you don’t have. I mentioned elsewhere how I should have gotten a bigger loan to establish a better online presence and that probably would have made the difference. Especially without anywhere else to go, I dug in my heels, took a part-time gig in a related industry and began a climb back to profitability starting in 2017. By 2018, there was breathing room and in 2019 I was able to start advertising on a number of industry-specific sites which gave me a good leg up. The post-pandemic business really began moving forward fast and there has been no looking back.
Describe how you're doing today and what the future looks like:
While there’s still plenty of room for growth, 2022 was a banner year and much better than 2021 which was a really good year. I have four “anchor clients” who have about three or four projects for me each year, providing much greater stability than a schedule full of “one-off” gigs. Freelance camera work has been plentiful and, while not as profitable and taking a project end-to-end (I make more in post-production…editing…than shooting) several of those gigs have led to repeat work and been with name clients. I passed the 11-year mark in April and I believe double-digit experience is very helpful when advertising and bidding on projects. Revenue from the past two years has allowed me to make significant upgrades to my production gear which in turn means the rates I charge can go up, too. SEO, my old nemesis, remains a weak point, which I believe is the reason I’m not being contacted about more end-to-end productions. By late this year, I hope to be able to outsource the SEO on a regular basis and see if I can turn that around.
“On This Site,” the Texas history TV series, is still alive and proceeding, albeit slowly. Just prior to Covid, we had a network that had gone as far as to line up sponsors and talk contract details but everything was put on hold for the pandemic. When things opened up again, they switched their focus to rodeo and lost interest. However, our executive producer has found the potential private investment to syndicate on our own and we hope to have something concrete going on by the fall. This would be a huge game changer not only as additional revenue but because it would position me as a producer with a show actually on TV. It’s a big credibility boost and moves you into a different professional circle. Success tends to beget success and this should mean access to and gravitas with “money people” and, potentially more of my show/film ideas getting considered. I would also love to become a recruiter for other good show ideas. DFW is awash with creatives who have great ideas but lack knowledge of the business side of the industry and, most of all, can’t secure distribution – one of the first things investors want to know about. Our EP can do all that, I just need to bring him good ideas…and get a percentage ;-)
So, better corporate projects, more interesting freelance gigs, producing my own show, and helping others turn their ideas into reality…I’ve got a direction, a variety of work types to keep it interesting, and lots of room to grow.
Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
I’ve tried to include advice and insights as I’ve written this but it’s LONG (that’s what you get when you ask a former officer for their thoughts ;-) so let me sum up:
- Take time to choose the right thing to get into…you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it.
- Have tenacity: You might have to change directions (and even uniforms;-) several times but it must be completely worth it to see your mission through.
- Get on-the-ground experience before you own it if at all possible. Cold start-ups suck.
- Pursue the right clients or you’re wasting the time you don’t have enough of already. It’s ok to imitate your competitors, too, just be able to differentiate yourself.
- Web presence and SEO…they’re a must-have that’s worth paying for.
- Work in-line with your natural gifts and interests…outsource or hire someone to do the stuff you dislike. It’s far better for time management and you lessen your chances of burnout.
- Most of the translatable skills you learned in the military are soft skills like communication and organization and they’re sorely lacking in the civilian world; I see this in my client’s businesses all the time.
And here are some of the inspirational quotes I keep on my office walls:
- “…if something is successful in giving you meaning and purpose and energy, there is no failure.” Scott, the nametag guy
“We achieve mastery not because we are the best at what we do, but because we are the most of who we are.” Scott, the nametag guy
“7 Signs You’ve Found Your Calling”:
1. It’s familiar – A calling comes not just by looking forward to what you will do but also looking back at what you’ve done.
2. It’s something other people see in you – Sometimes our vocations are most obvious to those who know us best.
3. It’s challenging – It must be difficult enough that not anyone can do it.
4. It requires faith – It cannot be something so obvious that you can easily explain it. It must be mysterious.
5. It takes time – You have to fail your way in the right direction before you find it.
6. It’s more than just one thing – And it integrates well with the rest of your life, not competing with but complimenting your top priorities.
7. It’s bigger than you – The talk must be so large that without a team of people you cannot complete it on your own.” Jeff Goins
Where can we go to learn more: