Inspiration, Pro Tips

Sandwich Video and the Art of the Start-Up Commercial

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You may not know the name Adam Lisagor, but if you’re a fan of startups and cool technology, chances are you know his face. Adam, the founder of Sandwich Video, has been alternately recognized as the Square guy, the Flipboard guy, the Coin guy, and, as he puts it, “the guy who tries to sell you a car while you’re at the gym.” But he’s not an actor — he’s just a guy who’s really great at getting to the essence of a product and relaying it through video. It was only out of necessity that he starred in his first video (for his own app, Birdhouse), but once he realized his true calling was making brand videos, he found himself continuing to appear on screen.

Since that first video, Adam and his constantly expanding team have made dozens more, working with everyone from Lyft to Starbucks, and creating a ton of content that is both informative and entertaining along the way. So, despite the fact that he started his successful business almost by accident, Lisagor stands today as an example of how to succeed in the competitive world of videomaking. As the Sandwich Video crew are extremely fond of using Pond5 music in their productions, we wanted to shine a spotlight on their work, and see what advice Lisagor has to offer other emerging commercial video artists.
 

 

An Accidental Career

When Lisagor made that first video, it wasn’t with the intention of making more. He just wanted to advertise his app, and with his film-school background, it seemed like the best way to approach it. “It took a couple of inbound inquiries from notable companies with budgets before I realized that I could actually not just supplement my income doing this, but do it full time,” he remembers. “I wasn’t really a director before that. I was working in post-production, and had been since I got out of film school. So it was when I started to build up the confidence that I could do these kind of projects successfully, and turn that into a sustainable profession, that it clicked.”

Starring in his own video wasn’t the only thing that Adam did to cut costs early on, either. Even on his next projects, he worked with as minimal of a setup as he could manage. “The first few were just me and a DSLR — a Canon 7D that I saved up to buy — and some rudimentary sound gear. I would enlist the help of a friend here or there,” he explains. “The real game changer was the first time there was enough budget that I could actually hire a professional director of photography to help shoot something. That was what ended up proving out the model that I could operate more like a studio or production company, rather than a one-man band.”
 

 

Be a One-Person Crew

If there’s one thing that Adam looks to as a key to Sandwich Video’s success, it’s that DIY background — not just for himself, but those he works with, too. “I think that’s a huge part of the story of the company,” he says. “Being able to be agile. Coming from one-man-band film making and knowing all of the parts of the process. I prioritized that for all of the people on my team — they all know all of the parts of the process and have come from a place where they can do it themselves. They can all pick up the camera and make something on their own. That way, we don’t take anything for granted when we’re working with six-figure budgets, and we’re never using the excuse of, ‘There’s not enough money to create something good.’ You can always create something good.”

And sure enough, they always do create something good. But with all of those videos under his belt, we had to wonder if there’s one that stands out as his favorite. “The one I always go back to, because it was so much fun to make and the stakes were low — and the product it was for was so cool, and still is — was Warby Parker’s home try-on,” Lisagor says, humbly choosing one of his early projects that he doesn’t appear on-screen for. “I got to work with my friend Noah as the guy on camera, and I got to shoot in New York, where I went to school. It was low-budget, so it didn’t feel like we were under the magnifying glass, and it was introducing something that not a lot of people had heard of yet. The idea for the video was just so silly, and they let me do every piece, every element that I wanted to do. It turned out exactly the way I wanted it to.”
 

 

Why Advertising Is Like Pop Music

In timeless fashion, Adam learned by doing, meaning the lessons he can share come not from a textbook, but from his own experience. And while he’s hesitant to say that there’s a wrong way to make a video, he does offer some sage advice. “You know you’re not going to resonate as strongly with as many people if you’re not doing it in a unique, special way,” he explains. “I wouldn’t say that it’s doing it wrong, but I think that there’s far too much tendency for people who make these types of videos to do it the way they’ve seen it before — to just imitate what they see as a successful model, rather than trying to speak with their own voice or stand out.

“It’s a lot like pop music,” Lisagor continues, “where so much of what you hear on the radio will blend together. You might be able to be amplified so that it reaches a lot of people in the short term, but there’s nothing special about it that’s going to make it the summer jam or something. Pop music has to be special in order for people to retain it and pay attention to it and want to go back and hear more. The same thing can be said for this kind of advertising.”
 

 

Music Is a Main Ingredient

Of course, the question arises about what you should do when you’re working on a project and it isn’t turning out the way you planned. Do you scrap it and start again? Keep pushing forward? “You don’t necessarily start over,” says Adam, drawing another analogy, “but it’s like cooking. You can add ingredients that make it unlike the thing that it was turning into. Post-production plays a huge part, and music specifically plays a huge part in that process. That’s a big and specific error that I see video makers making — I always thought of music as a character in the piece, and I don’t think a lot of video makers prioritize music that way. They would rather think of the music as the lens you use, or the wallpaper in the set, or the color of paint.”

This is one of the reasons Sandwich Video turns to the wide variety of royalty-free music from Pond5 for many of its productions. “To me, the music is the opportunity to differentiate and to shape the tone of the piece in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise been shaped,” Lisagor adds.
 

 

Lose Money, But Don’t Work for Free

As for guiding other video makers who are looking to start their own business, Lisagor speaks once again from his own experience. “There are two pieces. The first is very, very broad: Do good work where people are going to see it,” he says. “The second, more instructional piece of advice is that, when you’re first starting off, you’re going to have to do a lot with a little. Plan to lose money on a project-by-project basis. Definitely be economical. That’s what my company had to — we had to rely on a lot of what were essentially favors. We never asked anyone to work for free, nor should anybody. Nobody should work for free, but you can ask people to work for lower than their standard market rates, because there’s always the opportunity later on to grow and have more resources available.

“So step one is to do a lot with a little and plan to lose a little bit of money, or not break even. Once you’ve done that enough times, don’t do it anymore. If you keep having to do it, and keep finding yourself losing money on every project, then it’s probably a good sign you should figure out another model. As quickly as you can, start billing your clients for the actual value of the work that you’re doing. That’s the kind of thing that allows you to grow. Then, eventually, once you’ve figured out that growth piece, you’re going to be able to charge your clients a little bit more than what you’re providing. Once you’ve proven yourself enough in that way, there’s a real premium to what you’re offering. That’s when you can really grow a business out of it.”

For more from Adam and Sandwich Video, visit them online at sandwichvideo.com.

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