From Student TV To Corporate Video Production

9th July 2020 No comments

Recently, I was invited to speak at the Student Opportunities Festival on behalf of NaSTA, the National Student Television Association. The festival was a week-long series of presentations, lectures and panel discussions designed for students and recent graduates who have a passion for student media.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event was fully virtual, although I’ve delivered this presentation a few times over the years – including at my alma mater Solent University, the University of Reading, University of Bath, at the National Student Television Awards & Conference and at regional NaSTA events.

I always enjoy the opportunity to give students an insight into what many consider to be the story of my “success”. Although of course, to me, my story is one of working incredibly hard for many years to build my business – and one that is very much still ongoing. It is a story far from finished, I hope!

Because the presentation was virtual, I took the opportunity to record it. If you’re interested, you can watch the full thing above. It’s also on YouTube.

SonarTV - My Student TV Station at Solent University
SonarTV – My Student TV Station at Solent University. Some of the team pictured have gone on to work at the BBC, Viacom, Sony, and of course Southpoint Films!

What is Student TV?

If you don’t know what student TV is, here’s a quick summary…

Like student newspapers and radio stations, many universities have student television stations. These are student-run groups, which means that students take on all aspects of running the media outlet. There are no professionals involved beyond the University and Students’ Union staff, who are there to provide guidance and support when needed. (Although they don’t typically have any involvement in running the station day-to-day.)

This means that all of the content production, all of the management and everything else involved with running the station is handled by students. Being involved with student media isn’t a part of a student’s course, so any involvement is voluntarily. It’s a fantastic way of learning new skills, especially for students who aren’t studying television or media. (Student media groups are open to all students at their university, not just those studying a media degree.)

My Experience At SonarTV

Students are typically elected into management roles through a vote within the station. During my time at university, I was elected as Marketing Officer, then Station Manager of SonarTV.

Under my management, our station hosted its first live broadcast, and many others. We also created our first sports-based studio show, and provided coverage of events like the Students’ Union elections for the first time. We were honoured with awards like “Most Innovative Society” at our Students’ Union’s society awards in 2013, and I was personally awarded the “Most Outstanding Contribution to Student Media” award in 2012.

Although I was part of the “management”, I was very much hands-on at the station. I’d often be out on shoots with other members of the station, and I was also responsible for a lot of the editing. (Nobody else seemed to like doing it!)

About NaSTA – The National Student Television Association

Student TV stations can also affiliate with NaSTA, the National Student Television Association. Affiliation allows student TV stations to enter NaSTA’s annual awards, which are announced at their annual conference every April. In my final year of running SonarTV, we were recognised as the third best broadcaster in the country by industry judges – quite the feat! (We were rated against 40 other student TV stations!)

Being a part of NaSTA also lets stations take part in national inter-university live broadcasts. At SonarTV, we co-hosted a national broadcast called NaSTAvision, which was a student TV version of the popular Eurovision Song Contest. This involved taking live feeds from different universities around the country and broadcasting them out as one coherent programme.

Like student TV stations, NaSTA is also led by student and graduate volunteers. In 2013, I was elected as Marketing Officer for the association by the various stations around the country – although I had to step down at the end of the the year to focus on my business.

Members of student TV station SonarTV, including yours truly, at NaSTA40 in Exeter, 2013
Members of SonarTV, including yours truly, at the NaSTA40 awards and conference in Exeter, 2013

My Transition From Station Manager to Managing Director

For those who don’t know, I studied Television and Video Production at Solent University. It was a very practical course and most of our assignments were about making videos of some description. Sometimes I’d be making a short film, other times it would be a studio show. On some occasions we were even given “client” briefs that we had to work to.

It was a fantastic degree, and gave me a lot of practical experience. (I received a First Class Honours.) Combined with my student media experience, when it came time to graduate I felt cooked and ready to go. I knew my way around cameras, I knew how to edit, and I’d even started picking up freelance projects for clients around Southampton.

Career Options In The Creative Industries

For a soon-to-be graduate looking at their options for getting “into” the creative industry, there are three options:

  • Find a job.
  • Go freelance.
  • Start a business.

As someone who was very much at their happiest behind a camera or editing videos, I was desperate for a job that let me put my skills to practice. I knew very early on that I didn’t want to get stuck making the tea at some major broadcaster in London. I wanted to be out filming, I wanted to be editing and I knew I probably wouldn’t get that much flexibility from most traditional employment opportunities.

As my graduation grew closer, I started looking at ways to continue doing what I loved (running my student TV station) but in the real world. In my final year of university I took a newly developed unit that offered to help students learn about going freelance. Although I already knew I was going to go freelance, this cemented my plans, and clarified my ambitions even further; I wanted to start my own business.

My Sony PMW-EX3 filming at the Royal College of Music
My first “proper” camera, a Sony PMW-EX3, being used during a live streaming project at the Royal College of Music in 2015

Funding The Business

Starting a video production company is not cheap. You need to invest in high quality, professional equipment. This includes a camera, microphones, lights, tripods and all kinds of grips and accessories that help you move a camera in different, interesting ways.

I didn’t start my business with a trust fund or external investment. I also don’t have a wealthy family who financed it either. Instead, knowing that the road to a career in media was going to be tough, I saved my student loan and lived on the wages of a part time job I had while studying.

By the time I left university I had a fair amount saved. I used that money to buy my first ‘serious’ camera – a Sony PMW-EX3. It cost me just over £5,000, I recall. It was the biggest purchase I’d ever made in my life. It’s probably still up there as one of my most sizeable investments, even today.

Filming A Music Video As Part Of The River Studios Development Programme
Many of my early freelance projects were for local musicians who were happy to throw me a bit of money in exchange for a music video. This was great while I was getting started. It helped me build my portfolio.

Building Work Ethic

Having the foresight to save my money helped massively. But more importantly, by the time I left university I had been studying, working 16-24 hours per week in the local Apple Store, running a student TV station and freelancing all at once for almost a year. Money doesn’t buy attitude.

As a result, I developed a strong work ethic. When you have a full schedule there’s no time to spend a day feeling hungover. When you work in retail there’s no such thing as a weekend. Admittedly, like many students, I attended some of my lectures begrudgingly. I even skipped a few here and there – although I would argue that my absence was for the purpose of getting more work done (and for getting more hands-on time with camera equipment) as opposed to spending an extra few hours in bed.

When I left university and eventually left my part time job, I worked hard to maintain the same momentum. This was especially important when I started working from home, which is where many freelancers and small businesses stumble. With nobody to hold you accountable, it’s far too tempting to spend all day laying in bed, playing video games or watching TV.

The Design Chapel – the place where Southpoint Films first opened business.
The Design Chapel – my first office away from home.

Starting My Production Company

As my business formalised, I started renting a desk in The Design Chapel, a shared office space in Southampton. I also starting exhibiting at business networking events, although these were ultimately (in hindsight) not very successful for us.

The real key to my business’ success, however, was that I sought mentoring. Initially, my mentor gave me guidance on setting up my business and helped me navigate a rather tricky situation with someone else I’d foolishly gotten myself into business with. Although I was completely out of my depth, having the guidance of someone with more experience was absolutely critical in getting through it.

I highly recommend mentoring to any small business owner, and I’m lucky to have had many mentors over the years. Having an outside perspective on what’s happening within your company can be hugely beneficial. Not every suggestion a mentor makes will be right for your circumstances, but even a bad suggestion will help you clarify how you feel and give you perspective on the issues you’re facing.

If you’re looking for a mentor, I suggest reaching out to someone who’s a couple of years down the road from where you are. It doesn’t need to be a formal arrangement, and often doesn’t involve any kind of payment. It’s simply a case of having someone to turn to when you’re stuck and don’t know what to do. (Someone who is happy to answer your questions and offer you an educated perspective.)

How Does This Relate To You?

Southpoint Films Managing Director and Former Student TV Station Manager Rowan Johnson Graduating from Solent University in November 2013 During The Transition From Student TV To Corporate Video
At my graduation in November 2013. While I was having this photo taken, I was paying a freelancer to do some filming on behalf of one of my early clients…

A Reality Check

When I was at university I was one student out of 90 in my year group. There were ninety others in the year above me, and a further ninety in the year below. There were 270 students on my course at any one time, which was one media course out of over a dozen at my university. And my university was one of hundreds across the country that offered media degrees. The reality is that there are thousands of students leaving university every year looking for a career in the creative industry.

This should make your palms sweaty. It makes mine sweaty. Because these graduates are not just competing amongst themselves. They’re competing against people who’ve been in the industry for a year, two years, five years, ten years, and so on.

But actually, is this something to worry about?

Rowan Johnson filming for Europump in June 2020
Here I am filming for one of my clients last month. Even during the largest medical crises of our lifetimes, people still need video.

The Good News

While the creative industry is highly competitive, there’s never been a better time to make video for a living. The industry is truly thriving.

When I think back to what the media industry looked like when I started university ten years ago, the landscape has changed dramatically. Back then Netflix wasn’t available in the UK. Amazon Prime didn’t exist. Nor did NowTV, Disney Plus, AppleTV+, YouTube Premium… The list of video-based subscription services goes on.

Additionally, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat and even TikTok have pivoted their platforms or have simply built their platforms from the ground up to focus on video content. Video drives engagement, and social media platforms are hungry for it.

When you take a step back, lots of very big, very wealthy companies are pumping money into video content. This isn’t an overnight fad; this has been a decades-long repositioning of how audiences consume media. This is a huge win for those of us who make videos.

Using an iPad (an iPad!!) to assemble rough cuts of a video earlier this year
Using an iPad (an iPad!!) to assemble rough cuts of a video earlier this year. I was in a restaurant waiting for my dinner to arrive. Ten years ago I still used DV tapes in my workflow.

“Am I Out Of Touch? No, It’s The Children Who Are Wrong…”

Additionally, for people who are graduating soon, you have a major, but often hidden advantage in the job market. Many of you have grown up with technologies that people in the industry have had to learn.

When I graduated from university we didn’t have drones. We didn’t have 360° VR cameras. These are things that I’ve had to pick up. I was never taught them.

As a recent graduate, “new” technology is far more likely to be normal for you. Your perspective on technologies like social media will also be different, too. If you’ve been on a course that covers visual media, I would be very surprised if you haven’t touched on social media as part of your degree. And if you haven’t, you‘re almost certainly using social media a lot more than those who came before you, and potentially in different ways.

What feels “old hat” to you (and even to me) is not that “old hat” to a lot of people currently working in the industry. When you’re in the bubble of academia, you don’t realise how new a lot of the technology you’re used to is. There are lots of people who don’t understand it. (And, sometimes, don’t want to understand it.)

These people need help from other people with yours skills. That’s a major advantage for you, as a job seeker.

Thinking About What’s Next…

To put in perspective, it’s been ten years since I started university and seven since I left. I feel like I’m very in touch with what’s current and where things are going. Yet I’ve never made a TikTok. I’m willing to bet that most students who are leaving university this year have.

I think of my sister who’s eleven years old. She’s growing up in a world with Fortnite. Her perspective, and that of her peers, will be vastly different to yours and mine. As these children grow up, they’ll have different expectations for how businesses and organisations should engage with them.

As a recent graduate, you’re the bridge between now and what’s next. You’re going to help define what the consumers of tomorrow will expect. That is a very, very valuable thing that you can bring to the table.  Don’t undervalue yourself.

Filming a promotional video for the Care Friends app last year.
Filming a promotional video for the Care Friends app last year.

Demonstrating Your Passion

The reason I attend events and share my “story” is because, ultimately, I think that the majority of people who make it to university have a relatively equal opportunity for creating their own success. The biggest hurdles are often mindset and passion.

I genuinely believe that if you’re passionate enough about what you do you’ll be successful at it. If you’re passionate, you’ll have the determination to keep on at it when things aren’t going your way.

Good Things Come To Those Who Work Hard

I often think of a friend of mine who was on my course at university. He was incredibly reliable, highly skilled and a great guy to work with. When he graduated, he would keep applying for jobs and – sadly – kept getting turned down. The feedback he’d get from interviews was never consistent, which made it really hard for him to know what to improve on for future job searches.

After 18 months of his job searching effort, I met up with him for a catch up. He revealed to me that he had gone for yet another interview, but he felt that this one had gone very well. A few days later he called me and told me that he got the job. He would now be working for Sony, one of the biggest companies in the world.

Had he given up his search two months, six months, twelve months, or whenever else ago he would have missed this opportunity. He was passionate enough not to give up, despite the challenges.

With Southpoint Films, I’ve been very fortunate that the path behind me has fallen the way it has. But let there be no doubt that the path to this point has been full of challenges that would otherwise have killed many small businesses. Those challenges and the battle scars from them are natural for almost every successful company. The only weapon that can get people through those situations is passion.

The Student Media Advantage

For students who engage in student media, I think the chances of success increase dramatically. Students who undertake voluntary activities like student TV prove that they have some initiative. They also prove that they’re dedicated to their craft. Their involvement with student TV is evidence that they’ve gone above and beyond the bare minimum of what their course expected from them.

When I’m looking at people to hire, I look for people with the ability to think for themselves. Let’s say it’s a slow day. Do I want to employ someone who’s going to sit on Facebook all day because they’re bored? Or do I want to hire someone who’s going to come in, even on a slow day, and find things for themselves to do? I want to hire the person who’s got some initiative and is going to start doing things that are useful, even without being prompted.

Being actively involved with student TV tells me, as an employer, what sort of mentality you have. It proves that you’ve got the right attitude and that mindset.

Our Edit Suite In Southampton, UK

A Few Words Of Advice…

To wrap things up, I’d like to share a few pieces of advice for students and recent graduates.

Always take advice as a grain of salt, though. It’s often subjective, it’s based on conditions that are different to yours, and it’s not a sure-fire recipe for success. What worked for one person at one point in time will not necessarily work for everyone else. That applies to any advice I give, too.

Make The Most Of Your Time

The most important thing I stress to students is that you need to use your time effectively. This is especially important when you’re studying, when your workload isn’t particularly intense. (As in, your time is not consumed by working 40 hours a week to pay the bills.)

I remember my time at university and in my third year I was only required to be at university for three hours a week. That’s no time at all. So use the rest of that time to build your skills. Pick up a camera, edit footage, and watch as many After Effects tutorials as your brain can take in a day. (Or whatever the equivalent of these things is for your area of expertise.)

What you do with the time you have as a student, and and how you utilise your time, is what will count and get you those initial jobs. This is why I highly encourage getting involved with student TV when I speak to first year students.

Don’t Compare Yourself To Others

In the world of social media, where you’re seeing the highlights of everyone’s life all the time, it’s easy to feel like you’re lagging behind. But what you’re seeing is everyone’s highlights. You’re not seeing the times they’ve struggled. You’re not seeing the number of rejections they may have received. Nobody celebrates the bad times.

This is particularly important to bear in mind when you graduate. You’ll start seeing your peers get jobs. They might start finding clients. They’ll start posting about the things they’re doing and it will probably look enviably great. Don’t forget that you’re not seeing the full picture. They could be struggling just as much as you are. (Or – hopefully – aren’t!)

Everyone has different circumstances that open up different opportunities for them. Don’t let others’ successes get you down. There is no set timeframe for succeeding. And there is no “right” or “wrong” path to success.

Put Yourself Out There Like Mad

Whatever you do, whether you start a business, go freelance or search for a job, you need to put yourself out there – like mad. Unless you put yourself in front of people, they won’t know you exist. The world is not waiting for you. You need to put yourself in front of it.

To help with this, don’t be afraid of asking for things from people. The worst that can happen is people will say no, but both of your lives will carry on. Yet if one person says yes, it could alter your trajectory massively. Those “Yes”es far more important than the “No”s that you’ll receive. As sad as they are sometimes, as disappointing as they are, you mustn’t let the fear of rejection hold you back.

Embrace rejection. Sometimes it works in your favour. You may end up in a position where one “yes” you get outweighs every “no” you’ve received.

Good Luck!

If you’re a budding video producer, I encourage you to check out our careers page. Any opportunities that we have available at Southpoint Films will be listed here. (If there aren’t any at the time you’re reading this, please consider submitting a freelance application.)

You can also sign up for our careers mailing list to be notified when new opportunity become available. Sign up.

Either way, I hope you’ve found this article / presentation useful. I wish you the best of luck in your career and hope we can work together at some point in the future!

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