We had the good fortune of connecting with Michael Graef and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michael, what is the most important factor behind your success?
There are two important factors.
First, and most importantly is my focus on team building and collaboration. You can be good at many things. You can be really good at a few. Building a team allows room for your collaborators to fill in gaps around your weak spots. Surrounding myself with talented friends allows my good ideas to shine and my bad ideas to be questioned.
By sharing the labor, creative process, and the credit, I’ve been able to work longer and smarter without burnout. Making money doing what you love is a really special thing. But doing it with your friends is even better.
The second greatest factor in my success has been skill cultivation. Building up a selection of specific and general skills has allowed me to better contextualize the business situations I find myself in and allows me to have a more marketable skillset. I believe that you’re always better off learning new things or refining what you know – so I’ve tried to make a habit out of it. That habit has certainly served me well.
Even if the skills you cultivate aren’t something you’d use (maybe someone on your team does), it at least gives you a birds eye view and helps you to better understand what your teammate needs to accomplish their goal or task.
The tweet version: Focus on team building and community with a heavy emphasis on personal skill cultivation.
What should our readers know about your business?
This story has two chapters.
Chapter 1: Unparalleled Movement
My introduction to the business world came from making a parkour gym in Missoula, Montana. During my senior year of high school in 2011, three of us chose to postpone a college education to pursue the movement industry. Without an inkling of business savvy, but with a head full of ideas and determinism, we slogged our way through a series of trials to make an established facility.
The first speed bumps were small, but they felt like mountains. At 17, I had no idea what an LLC was. I didn’t know that we needed insurance, or how difficult it might be to insure a facility that teaches a brand new sport.
After a while, us three broke boys had to figure out how to keep a business with a high overhead afloat. We didn’t have good enough numbers for a business loan and we didn’t know anyone with money to lend.
We had to learn how to find and operate client software. How to do construction – sketching up designs, welding, sourcing materials. How to ask the right questions to an attorney to draft a waiver. How to get up to code with the city – fire suppression, air exchange, ADA compliance. We had to learn how to lesson plan. How to communicate with our clients in a professional manner, especially because we were perceived as children ourselves.
Each of these lessons were hard earned, but learned quickly because we worked together. Kent Johns, Micah Marino, and myself worked ourselves to burnout, but we found that we could make something beautiful. We built our own community that gave kids a safe place for activity and mentorship. We saw world class athletes come up in the gym, and got to see others uproot their lives to move to Montana just to be apart of the community we made. We got to do what we loved.
This years-long, expensive alternative business school prepared me for what I’d pursue next. Because we were managing our own social media platforms, we had to learn how to create media. One of the specific skills I had to pick up was photography and video production. This really opened my eyes to something that would ultimately change the direction of my life.
Chapter 2: Video production and brand consulting.
I moved on from the parkour gym to pursue video production in 2016.
I didn’t feel intimidated by stepping into a new industry without knowing what I was doing – I had confidence that the skills and experiences I’d picked up from the parkour gym would carry over in some meaningful way. So I at least had some strategy.
The play was to direct, film, and edit inexpensive music videos for local artists. I’d be undercharging, but it would allow me to invest in acquiring better gear. The next phase was to charge more and hire a buddy. This would allow me to make better and better work that could pad out a portfolio. Phase three was to shop my portfolio around to larger and larger musicians. This allowed me to bring on more people as crew.
I started learning industry specific lessons. How to direct and communicate better. How successful independent musicians market themselves. Film crew terminology. Visual effects editing. If I was anything, I was a sponge, and everyone I came across had something for me to soak up.
This plan took an unexpected turn as I started working with Kent, my former partner from the parkour gym, and Lane Brown, a talented and ambitious cinematographer. We found that between the three of us, we could really make a splash in the commercial film and branding world. This turn of events led to the creation of a creative agency. We stood out from our competition by bringing youth, energy, and thought our perspective to our clients problems. Our clients and prospects are beginning to understand that our agency can make them money. We don’t just make cool looking videos. We help with long term strategy: marketing and advertising campaign direction, video and stills production, and branding.
This whole business ride has been hard, riddled with hard lessons, long hours, and a blurred work/life balance.
But I learned a lot. Here are few lessons I learned.
Lesson 1: You need a team. Sharing the labor and the creative process keeps you sharp. Having more than one brain on a problem lets the lessons be learned more quickly.
Lesson 2: Skill cultivation is how you can stand out. Learning your craft, industry, and core business concepts lets you charge more by being able to offer more. It gives you context to make better long term plays.
Lesson 3: Communication is key. You can go to school for communication, or you can learn it in the field. Either way, it’s imperative to always improve communication. I learned to communicate with parents of the children we taught at the parkour gym – it was a customer service + PR boot camp. Those lessons were fleshed out more in later years as a director, which let me better understand what clients need. Internal communication helps your team to be on the same page.
Lesson 4: Charge more. The insecurities and anxiety I once felt caused me to constantly leave money on the table. If someone is trying to hire you for creative work, it’s because they want what you uniquely bring to the table. Charge accordingly.
Lesson 5: This is a lesson in the works for me. I’ve always struggled with work/life balance. But I’ve also burned out several times because of it. Decide how many off-days you need per month and protect those dates.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I’m lucky to spend my time in several cities for work, but I’m still based in Missoula, Montana.
Missoula is a small city of 75,000 people. It’s a great place for the arts and for the outdoorsperson. If I was building a one-size-fits all itinerary, it would certainly include the following things:
Breakfast: Black Coffee Roasters, Veera Donuts, Catalyst, and Market on Front.
Lunch/Dinner: 5 On Black, Masala, and Top Hat.
Drinks: Gild, Top Hat, 3 In the Side (pool and beer), Plonk, the Union.
In-town Activities: Hiking Mount Sentinel, floating the Clark Fork River, the Farmers Market.
Just out of town: The Bitterroot Mountains, Mission Mountains, Glacier National Park.
And I’d tell anyone to probably hit me up to either hang out or better customize an itinerary.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’d like to dedicate this shoutout out to my team: Kent Johns and Lane Brown.
Since we were kids, Kent and I have worked on different businesses together. Together we’ve grown, and without that growth and support, I’d certainly not be where I am today.
Lane has been instrumental in my thinking differently. He is outstanding at his craft, and I’m grateful anytime his knowledge and attitude rubs off on me.
There isn’t anything I’ve done in life that I can take full credit for. Every venture and every project has been supported or built with the sweat and creativity of the people I surround myself with.