Lessons I’ve learned from founding a production company

September 2019

Steven Ellis

As it's coming up to the two-year anniversary of Storyman I've been reflecting on the past few years. 

As it’s coming up to the two-year anniversary of Storyman I’ve been reflecting on the past few years.

I’d always wanted to start my own business, but the time was never quite right. I’d worked for British and European broadcasters and large TV production companies for many years, which gave me a great foundation and understanding of the industry. I was working with talented, ambitious people on a lot of exciting and challenging projects, all of which I felt kept improving me as a TV producer.

That was until three years ago when I started to feel I’d stopped growing, projects became repetitive, essentially, I’d stagnated. I was treading water. It was time for a change but what that change would be and where it would take me I didn’t know. Then, out of the blue, I was hit with a bombshell. My younger brother became ill, at first, neither of us knew what it was.

He deteriorated by the day and then after three weeks, it was diagnosed. Cancer. Terminal cancer. Fuck. Two weeks? Two months? Two years? The doctors couldn’t say how much time he had left. He died 12 days later, just before his 31st birthday. The pain and sadness were unbearable. It still is.

After taking time off work, I wanted to get back on the horse. Keep myself busy, distract my mind. My first project back was producing this short film. It was exactly what I needed at that time, an uplifting and warm story. (it helped that it was my club as well).

Aldin and I are still in touch.

The joy of producing that project quickly passed and I soon found myself back to where I was before Michael died. My ten-mile cycle ride to work felt like Groundhog Day. Time suddenly felt very precious and I knew I had to make a change. I’ll never forget one-morning cycling to work and all I could think was “I’m ready”, repeatedly. Not so much a forced mantra, it was a strong belief that I was ready to go it alone and start the production company of my own. Storyman.

Fast forward several weeks and I’d got a contract to produce a campaign for a Chinese mobile brand and was introduced to a client with whom we’ve since done several fantastic projects. It was time to make the leap.

At first, it was difficult saying to no former employers offering freelance gigs, knowing I had the time to do them and a mortgage to pay. I was determined to focus solely on Storyman and not fall into the pattern of previous years of working so much that there wasn’t any mental space, or time, to do anything else.

It was a slow first few months, but business quickly picked up and by the third quarter of the first year we were at full capacity and had to move office to accommodate. We produce high quality sports, travel and lifestyle video and broadcast content. Our clients and projects have been hugely varied, from working with ad and marketing agencies, professional sports clubs, sports associations, transport companies and government agencies. Whatever the genre or client our focus is on creating strong narrative content for projects large and small. Stories that engage.


> Wear lots of hats. Previously I was part of large production teams, everyone had their role. Now I can find myself doing everything; logging, script writing, producing, directing, finance, health & safety, pitches, marketing, tea making.  Working in this way can be really challenging at times but the upside is that we’re a really tight team. No egos, no agendas, all with the same aim; producing the best content possible and always striving to improve.

> It can be lonely. Ideas, thoughts, solutions come to me when I’m exercising, walking, sleeping but I find that they only really come to life when I talk them through and write them down. I’m lucky that I have a team that are very good at their jobs and a partner at home, who’s incredibly supportive, but there are also many occasions when, as the business owner, only I can make the decision without anyone else’s input. My business coach helps a lot in this respect, I’ve found having someone completely neutral to talk to invaluable. That said, not much can change the fact that during the quiet periods it can feel very lonely.

Communication is king. Both with our team and clients. Don’t assume anything. We’ve found that it’s all too easy to assume that the client understands the creative process. I’ve learnt to make sure objectives are written in layman’s terms if needed, this will avoid any confusion and ensure a much smoother project further down the line.

> Always on. I’m constantly thinking about work; content ideas, ways to improve projects, how to win new pitches and meet new clients, and, occasionally, what I’d like to do to clients whose invoices are two months overdue! On holidays, I often have to do a couple of hours work at the crack of dawn, not that I mind as I genuinely love my work.

> Be agile. Projects can, and often do, change in size considerably from the original brief. We’ve had projects grow from one month to six months, two to fifteen films and we’ve been able to adapt each time. As we’ve grown organically, we’ve had to accomplish more with less, keeping overheads low whilst maximising efficiency. 

> Cancel out the noise. There’s so much negativity in today’s world, all news organisations are vying to out sell each other by creating the biggest noise, the biggest news stories… anxiety inducing tosh. Whilst it’s important to know what’s happening in the world I’m not interested in getting caught up in the noise. Three years ago, if I’d focussed too much on all the obstacles that lay in front of me I would still be in the same position now. I’ve learned to focus 100% on our current projects and make sure we deliver to the absolute best we can and ensure the client is delighted with our content. My head’s not in the sand and I do plan for the future, but I don’t waste time on wider negativity and fear mongering. We’d rather crack on and get it done.

> Call time quicker on time wasters. The clients who pay really late, ask us to pitch just to make up the numbers, the ones who book in projects only to cancel at the very last minute. I guess this will always happen, but it gets easier to spot the time wasters each time. I just have to be quicker at spotting these pricks.


Absolutely.  Turn the clock back three years and I’d have bitten your hand off to be where I am now. That said, it’s not all bells and whistles, it’s been really hard work, stressful and frustrating but more importantly, it’s been liberating, creatively challenging and I absolutely love working with the team and our brilliant clients.

I’m also now an extremely proud dad of a wonderful eight-month-old girl.  Along with my many roles at work, I’ve also added part-time children’s entertainer to my repertoire in my daily quest to make her laugh; nothing gives me more pleasure… although big thumbs up from a client is up there.

The only thing I’d change would be for my daughter to meet her uncle Michael.

Despite always wanting to achieve more and do more, the biggest lesson the past few years has taught me is to live and appreciate now.

If you want a chat about any projects or just pop in for a cuppa, drop me a line on steven.ellis@storyman.co (yes, it’s just .co – and yes, it’s because I couldn’t afford .co.uk when we started!)


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