Running an Animation Studio by Grumo Media – Interview by Animation Orbit

Grumo Media headquarters

I was interviewed by Adam Fraser from Animation Orbit about the ins and outs of running an animation studio:

Click on the questions to jump to the answer for each:

  1. Could you start by telling us by how you got into the animation industry and how you ended up starting Grumo Media?
  2. At Animation Orbit were huge fans of your videos and their emphasis on using story to keep viewers engaged, could you talk a little bit about the process you go through to create the videos?
  3. How long does each video take you to produce? How many people work on each video and what roles do they have?
  4. What are the biggest challenges you face running your own animation company
  5. Do you have animators working at your studio? or are most of your animators remote / freelance? How do you deal with communication issues and making changes to videos etc. with people who are working remotely?
  6. What is a normal day like for you running grumo media?
  7. How much feedback / interaction do you like to have with your clients? Do you find most of the companies know what they want coming into each project or are you free to take the video in any direction you want?
  8. We read about Ashton Kutcher tweeting about one of your videos, how much impact did that have on Grumo media?
  9. You’ve have experience making a wide range of content, from music videos to short animations, how has your experience in these different fields helped you now that you run your own company?
  10. How do you keep inspired and come up with original ideas for you videos?
  11. How does being a small company effect the way you work?
  12. How do you deal with competition from bigger, more established studios?
  13. Do you have any advice for animators / filmmakers who are thinking about starting their own animation company or making their own films / videos.

Interview answers:

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1. Could you start by telling us by how you got into the animation industry and how you ended up starting Grumo Media?

Back in 2000 I was hired as a Mechanical Designer by Raute, a big wood machinery manufacturing plant.
Raute was a big old company and it took only a few months before my job started to get very boring and repetitive.
I have always liked to keep the challenge levels in life high so I had to make a decision. Whether to leave or mold my job to something more fun and challenging.

I chose to give my boring 9-5 job a second chance by self teaching 3D modelling an animation.
I saw an opportunity to provide some value to the company by creating animations of their complex machinery.

Two months after the taking that decision I had modeled and animated a quite complex machine and sent the animation company wide via email.
This was a risk, since nobody knew I was doing this during company time. My take was that if they did not like it I would moved on but if they liked it and asked for more my bet would have paid off.

To my surprise the animation was extremely well received and immediately the company CMO offered me a full time position doing marketing, sales, and training 3D animations of their products.

I was thrilled and for the next 2.5 years I animated almost every piece of machinery they had.
Eventually I ran out of fun things to animate which together with the fact that the wood industry was taking a hit made the perfect recipe to lay me off.

Here is my 3D animation reel:

After Raute, I freelanced doing 3D industrial animation for about 3 years.
Eventually, I put animation aside to pursue my new interest, filmmaking.

I took an film internship, worked on many TV commercials and music videos and at the same time taught myself web programming.
For several years I made money as a cameraman and web developer.

Eventually, I decided to start my own company to develop web applications and spent 1.5 years developing a project management solution called PointKit.

Pointkit was an utter failure for many reasons (mostly first time entrepreneur mistakes) but an amazing learning experience.

So it turns out I did a screen cast to sell PointKit and some friends of my that run a cool startup call Summify saw it and asked me to do one for them.

At that time I had barely any money left in the bank cause I had been burning all my savings developing PointKit, so I took that job, although I had never produced that type of 2D animation.

Anyway, I produced that video for Summify, they liked it a lot so I decided to try out if I could actually make a business around producing demo videos.

So for my next demo video I strategically chose a really cool startup in Silicon Valley that did not have a demo video yet.
After looking for a bit I zeroed in Hipmunk.com.
I loved their product and their founders so I spent 2 weeks creating a cool demo video for them.

When I finished their demo video I sent it to them via their support email and the rest is history.
They loved it and introduced me to dozens of similar startups in need of demo videos.

In just one week I received over 40 leads for demo videos and that gave me enough confidence to realize there really was an opportunity to build a business around promotional video production.

You can find more details about the path I took to start Grumo Media and my own tips on how to discover your true passion in this article.

And read this other article if you want to find out more about the philosophy behind the strategy I followed to land a success with just my 3rd demo video ever!

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2. At Animation Orbit were huge fans of your videos and their emphasis on using story to keep viewers engaged, could you talk a little bit about the process you go through to create the videos?

Of course, the first part is to really understand core offering and benefits behind the product or service we are going to promote.
This is tricky because many business owners have not figured out themselves what is the best way to verbalize that core proposition.

It turns out I end up being both a video producer and a business consultant.
I really enjoy helping entrepreneurs tell their company’s story in a way that anyone can understand.

To prove my point here is a testimonial from Justin Nassiri of VideoGenie.
Listen to how he appreciates the fact that I was able to take his story and make it into a concise fun to watch demo video:

Any good story should be able to be told in less than two minutes.
It is amazing how some times the clients takes over an hour over the phone explaining me what their company does.
My job is to condense all that information in to a 1 min or 2 min script and that is a challenge I love.

Many times the client is amazed at how I take their long winded explanation and throw it back at them from a total different perspective in just a couple of sentences.

One would think that the business owners should be the most qualified individual to explain their product.
However, it turns out they are so deeply involved in the development of their product that it is very hard for them to step away and look at their creation from the perspective of their target consumer.

Out of all the production process, this step, the step where I distill the magic of their business in to a few effective sentences is the most valuable of all. The funny thing is that is the shortest and easiest step for me but in reality should be the one that pays the most!

I must say that not everyone has the ability to condense sometimes complex business concepts into a concise and animatable script.
If there is any magic behind grumo making is precisely there.

I think one of the reasons why I am particularly good a coming up with scripts is because I am a complete startup fanatic with a pretty deep technical background.

A lot of writers have art backgrounds so it is harder for them to understand the technology and concepts behind many of the startups I deal with. To me technical stuff is music to my ears and writing scripts is like composing sonatas to Mozart.

However, I strongly believe almost anything is teachable if it is broken down in to a series of digestible steps.
That’s precisely what I have done by creating an online video course where I teach everything there is to know about the process and skills required to create similar videos to the ones at Grumo Media.

For anyone that it is interested the course is available on sale at http://grumoschool.com.

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3. How long does each video take you to produce? How many people work on each video and what roles do they have?

Typically about 2-3 weeks if everything runs smoothly, meaning if there are only a couple of simple revisions during the process.
But sometimes the client has a different approach and needs to see several variations of a shot before choosing one.
This can extend the production process considerably together with the costs.

Our contract allows for a reasonable amount of revisions as part of the base price
All clients know in advance that if they choose to change their mind, the extra production time will be added to the final tab.

The longest video I have produce so far took almost 3 months and it was for inDinero.com.
You can read more about the story behind inDinero here.

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4. What are the biggest challenges you face running your own animation company?

There are many challenges common to running any kind of business.
Mainly keeping work coming, finding the right talent, and keeping customers happy, all while trying to grow the business.

One of the main challenges I have faced is actually a good indication of success.
Basically, getting too many animation requests and having to turn down many projects, some times even returning down payments because I was not able to meet deadlines due to sheer workload.

The other challenge is to find great talented animators. I have gone through hundreds of reels and I am extremely picky.
I only work with about 5 animators. All of them need almost no supervision and are very fast.

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5. Do you have animators working at your studio? or are most of your animators remote / freelance? How do you deal with communication issues and making changes to videos etc. with people who are working remotely?

I run everything from my apartment. I am still debating whether to open studio or not.
I really enjoy running as lean as possible. A studio means more overhead and more things to worry about.

It would have its advantages but we live in a world where 100% digitally based companies do not really need common physical spaces anymore.

I do prefer to work with local Vancouver freelancers. The main reason is because I like to meet them face to face at least once to establish a closer personal relationship.

For most projects I meet them at a coffee shop at least once to go over the storyboard and discuss any doubts they may have before they start animating.

After that everything is run via email and Skype and it works fantastically well!

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6. What is a normal day like for you running grumo media?

I wake up late because I work better at night. So I stay up usually until 3 or 4 am.
I find the quietness allows me to be more creative when writing scripts or storyboarding.

I like to schedule most calls on Tuesdays and Wednesdays afternoons.
I book them 1 hour apart each.

Most days I get up and have instant oatmeal for breakfast. Then I check my email and reply to any new leads I may have (these days I get about 2 or 3 leads a day). Also I reply with feedback to any animation drafts submitted.

I then check my Facebook Grumo Media page and my twitter and try to keep my audience engaged by replying to any mentions or comments on Facebook or my blog.

I like to take some time to read my RSS feeds on Google Reader where I am subscribed to over 80 technical online publications.
If I find something really cool to share that is is relevant to my business I post it on my blog first and then on Facebook, Tweet it, Digg it, or post it on Reddit.com.

If what I find is relevant to the tech community I share it on Hacker News (Like when I interviewed the guy that hacked Plenty of Fish here).

Many times I forget to eat cause I am so into what I am doing. I literally spend 24/7 thinking about my business and how to grow it.
I have very ambitious goals for Grumo and there is much leg work to do to take it to where I want to.

Then my wife gets back from work and luckily she cooks for me so I don’t starve to death. While we have dinner we always watch an episode of either Dexter, Weeds, or some other fun TV series. I don’t have cable or have watched cable television in over 14 years so I always try to find free websites that stream the TV shows for free (I subscribed to NetFlix recently though). I also love to watch MythBusters!

When it gets dark and quiet is when I start doing the more creative work like script writing and storyboarding, and that usually takes me into the wee hours.

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7. How much feedback / interaction do you like to have with your clients? Do you find most of the companies know what they want coming into each project or are you free to take the video in any direction you want?

Most companies look at my product demo videos and want something similar for their product or service.
At the beginning they would try to force their vision more on me but as my portfolio has grown they trust more and more my abilities to handle the whole creative process.

There is no doubt that the happiest customers so far are those that have given me the most freedom to do my job.
The ideal client talks to me once and 3 weeks later they have an awesome video that helps them promote their business and make more money.

In most cases the first script goes over 5 revisions before we move into the storyboarding stage.
Most revisions are about slight wording changes or things I may have got wrong about their core proposition.

I put a lot of thought into every sentence and I am willing to and capable to defending almost every sentence to the word.
I don’t make changes on the script unless the client fights hard enough and with enough convincing reasons to win the argument.

I am actually very stubborn about this and in two occasions I have refunded in full clients that would not provide convincing arguments for major changes on a script. If I think the script and final product are going to suffer because you insist on adding or changing something that I don’t agree on, I simply don’t move forward until you convince me or I win the battle.

Having said that, there is always a certain level of compromise on all my videos. Some of them I am less proud of because the client was better than me at arguing their position. But in most cases this friction ends up being productive and helping the final product.

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8. We read about Ashton Kutcher tweeting about one of your videos, how much impact did that have on Grumo media?

Good of course! basically Ashton told 6 million people on Twitter and 7 on Facebook that he liked one of my videos.
That has the best free marketing push anyone could ask for.

I am not a fan of most Ashton Kutcher movies but I must agree with his taste for demo videos.. haha!

I was lucky enough to meet Ashton and Demi in person at SxSw in Austin this year and had the honor to produce a video for their foundation which is trying to end child sex slavery across the world. Good things!

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9. You’ve have experience making a wide range of content, from music videos to short animations, how has your experience in these different fields helped you now that you run your own company?

A lot. Actually my technical background has helped me the most since it has allowed me to put myself into a very unique position where I can apply my creative brain to explain fairly complex technical products and services.

In terms of running a studio, my experience producing over 35 professional music videos has been invaluable.
The process of producing a music video is quite similar to producing an animation. It takes about the same time for both.

Music videos are quite fun but unfortunately is very hard to make a living as a music video producer or director unless you regularly work with A-list artists.

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10. How do you keep inspired and come up with original ideas for you videos?

I have always paid a lot of attention to what make stories memorable and interesting.
I love to dissect movies and get very excited when I watch a well written TV series like Dexter, Weeds, or Seinfeld.

It is not easy to come up with new ideas all the time. Many times I feel I don’t want to use a good idea because it seems as though when I use it once I will never be able to use it again, so in a sense ideas are only a one time use deal.. like clean-ex.. so sad.

Realistically, coming up with ideas is not a problem, my biggest problem is coming up with ideas that fit the script and product adequately. It is a tricky balance and you never want to go too overboard by trying to be too funny or crazy.

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11. How does being a small company effect the way you work?

Well, it makes my company very nimble and allows me to provide my customers with a very personalized experience.
When someone approaches Grumo for a demo video is the CEO who responds the email or the phone.

This brings me to the downside of being small. The fact that I am so involved in every aspect of the company makes it quite hard to scale the business. Ideally I would like to take many more jobs and make everyone happy but that is just physically impossible when there are only 24 hours on a day.

However, I already have plans to make Grumo run much more independently by automating and delegating many tasks.
This will mean that clients won’t deal as much with me directly but as long as I can guarantee a top notch end product I am sure that will not be a problem.

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12. How do you deal with competition from bigger, more established studios?

I love competition. It helps the market be more fair to the client and pushes everyone to improve their product.
However, I don’t think I am in direct competition with most of the bigger studios as they have to take on much bigger projects to cover their overhead.

Another thing I have learned is to not waste too much time worrying about competition and spend more time making sure your product provides the most value as possible instead
I truly believe that as long as you produce a good product there will be always people willing to pay money for it.

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13. Do you have any advice for animators / filmmakers who are thinking about starting their own animation company or making their own films / videos.

Make mistakes, many mistakes. Fail many times because every time you fail you are one step closer to succeeding.
In fact, I am almost sure that if you fail 9 times you will have a least one big win.
It is the 10% rule and it has always worked scientifically well for me.

Failing is not easy, but being able to cope with failure and actually welcome it as an strategy is extremely important to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Like Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter) says a good CEO is a good editor. You edit your team (fire the weak links), you edit your decisions (only do what is most important for your business), you edit your time (you ensure your time is spent doing useful things).

Learn to be a good editor, find great people to work with, and see failure as an opportunity for growth and you will be unstoppable! oh yeah!

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Enjoyed it? Here you have 7 more interviews with Miguel Hernandez:
The origins of Grumo Media: A story of trial and error – Miguel Hernandez
Running Grumo Media and Insights on the Demo Video Market
“Life is too short not to take risks” – Audio Interview with Grumo
How Grumo Overcame His Fear of English and Built a Successful Company
How To Create Videos That Get You Customers – Mixergy Interview
Explainer Videos Explained: Interview by The Local Method
Grumo Advice to First Time Entrepreneurs – Interview by Siosism

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9 thoughts on “Running an Animation Studio by Grumo Media – Interview by Animation Orbit

  1. Anonymous Reply

    Great piece! thanks for sharing so much. Totally inspiring. Much success!

  2. Anonymous Reply

    Great read! I love point 13, I’ve had to do exactly that for the past month, edit my time and my team to ensure the success of the company. Now I work with an amazing group of friends and never miss a deadline!

  3. Future Works Reply

    Working with media and animation is not easy. I like article mostly the 2,4,10 and 13 point really an inspiring article.

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