Rising StarOEN Member Spotlight – James Allen, CEO of Visual Aid Inc.

Visual Aid, Inc. was founded in 2001 by James Allen and provides film production services and storytelling to clients nationwide.

James Allen, CEO of Visual Aid Inc.

Q: What does your business do?
A: We use film and video to help clients tell their stories in an impactful way. We’ve shot and edited videos for customers ranging from small businesses and non-profits to big corporations and studios, producing high-end vision videos for keynotes, animated sequences for iPad apps, commercial campaigns and even feature films and documentaries. What sets us apart is our ability to scale without compromising speed or quality.

Q: What problem does it solve?
A: Over the past ten years, video technology has become democratized, meaning that everyone has access to professional tools at affordable prices. However, this doesn’t guarantee quality results. We offer the right mix of experience, creativity and technical know-how to offer agency-size results without inflated budgets or slow response times.

Q: Do you have any news to share about your company’s evolution, new products or partnership?
A: Autodesk just launched their new product Fusion 360 at Autodesk University 2012 and we did the keynote video as our first project together. We interviewed local designers and engineers, asking them what their dream software would be. The catch? Everything they want in a product is being delivered with Autodesk’s new offering, Fusion 360. Things went so well that we’ve now been offered new opportunities for future projects.

We’ve also just been awarded full editorial for this year’s SXSW television / web coverage via the IFC Network. We’re looking forward to the trip and fun times in Austin! Although, we all know that Portland is truly the weirdest and best city.

Q: How did you come up with the business idea?
A: After switching majors in college from Anthropology to film, I knew there was much about this field that would hold my interest. Being able to convey an idea, tell a story or reach a hard to impress audience has always been a passion of mine. The process is conventional, even when the results are not. Early in my career I could see the need for this service; matching the right talent to the task, creating compelling content quickly and efficiently, with scale and repeatability.

Visual Aid is built around the idea that process matters. Although there are conventions and systems in place that will yield predictable results, it is our ability to break the mold and work outside of these constraints that lead to consistently happy clients.

Q: What do you like about your job?
A: I like that my job feels like a hobby. Every project is different and can draw inspiration from anywhere. I love that video and film is the perfect mix of arts & sciences, and is something that everyone can relate to and appreciate. Our projects have a definitive beginning and end, and success can be measured by viewer feedback and response. It is always a great feeling to see how many people like our work, or when clients see their projects becoming successful beyond original intent.

Q: What are your goals for the company?
A: We’ve done work for a lot of big nationwide companies, but haven’t done a lot of work for clients in the Portland area. I’d love to work with more local companies and organizations.

Our strategy is to create a turnkey creative agency that can operate on a shoestring, yet deliver on even the most demanding projects. Utilizing local talent and a systems-based process, we can meet the needs of small budgets while also turning out high-end products that hold up against the competition. We would like to then expand to new markets and offer the same experiences to clients worldwide.

Q: Are you looking for funding?
A: We pride ourselves on being an independent business, so it depends on the restrictions involved that come with funding. That said, Visual Aid Inc is a rapidly growing business, but we want to grow smartly. I wouldn’t rule it out.

The biggest obstacle for us has to do with payment terms and cash flow. We find ourselves covering huge expenses and having to pay contractors and employees well before we get payment from clients. It has taken some time to get the rhythm of our business figured out, and occasionally there are some surprises. Any funding or solutions to this would be well received.

Q: Have you been an entrepreneur before?
A: In college I created my own major – which is now officially offered by Oregon State University – and was also quickly promoted to running the local television station while producing several shows for TV and radio. I then worked for Hewlett-Packard as an independent video contractor followed by a few years working as senior editor with Fusion TV. Visual Aid is my first official business, but I’ve always worked my way into managerial or entrepreneurial roles within organizations.

Q: What brought you to OEN?
A: We were looking for a way to meet business-people locally. It was recommended to me from a colleague and member that I join and see what happens. We’ve had great experiences and fun so far!

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?
A: It hit me one morning early in my career, as I was editing from a laptop in my living room while ‘The Price is Right’ was blaring on the television in front of me. My friends were all working 9-5 jobs that they hated, and my phone rang. A very high profile client wished to stop by to sit in on an edit during his layover in Portland. I told the client that our ‘editing bays’ were all booked out for the day and was able to avoid an awkward meeting while still in my pajamas.

At that point I realized that I was able to offer the same service that much larger companies were known for, with technology that was only recently available at lower price points. The tides were turning, and talent and hard work were enough to set my work above the rest, directly competing with large budgets and old ways of doing business. It didn’t matter anymore about what tape-deck technology your facility owned, or what camera you had bought, it was all about the output. It didn’t make sense to own equipment other than what was necessary to perform the edit, all else could be rented at rock bottom pricing. I was good at putting things together, and this was enough to start a business and provide a service for a growing client base.

We have since grown to have a handful of edit bays, and even own a few cameras. But, the idea is the same; it really is all about the end result, and how you get there is up to you.

Q: What has been the best entrepreneurial advice you’ve ever received?
A: It’s all about relationships. I would have arrived at this conclusion myself after the many experiences I’ve had up to this point, but I was lucky enough to get this advice early on and have kept it in mind at all times. Whether meeting a new client, or talking informally about a colleague, impressions matter and relationships can make or break you. I strive to keep things positive and always follow up.

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