This interview is with Amy Montalvo, founder and producer at ONEPASS Productions, an independent video production company. The interview was conducted by Andrew Chen and summarized by J. del Fierro. (Download the full audio recording of this interview here.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I am 28 years old. I studied anthropology at Yale University, and right after school, I worked for three years in news reporting. I was basically a field reporter and fill-in anchor for a few different stations in Texas, in the Waco and Lubbock markets, the ABC and CBS stations there.
After about three years, I started my own company and now primarily work with non-profits, telling the stories of people trying to make a difference.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to your current role, and in particular what were the key thought processes you went through at critical moments along the way?
A. Okay, well, those are big questions. When I first started news reporting, it was a funny switch when people saw anthropology on my college degree. That often tends to mean you go on to do further studies, or you do something different, certainly, than broadcast journalism.
But during college, in the summers, I did internships at news stations and really solidified the idea that I wanted to do news. So I went into news. I started out in Waco, Texas, and did a few months there, and then transitioned to Lubbock, Texas, another small city. It’s sort of how you have to start when you’re doing news. You have to start in the small markets and work your way up the ladder.
I thought I wanted to do that forever. I mean, that was my dream. I wanted to work for CNN eventually. I wanted to do international news. It had been my dream for a really long time. So I thought I’m on the path to this, and I was really excited.
When I look back at starting my own company, I oftentimes think, “I really just winged it.” But there really is more to it than that, because I think about two years into my reporting, I started thinking, “I need to do something different with my life.” For me, I wasn’t making as significant of a difference as I had hoped I could through the medium of broadcast journalism.
And I thought for me to get to CNN and international news and talking about the things I care about is going to take a really, really long time. It’s going to take 10 or 15 years. And to be perfectly honest, for me, I wasn’t willing to wait.
So I thought, “I need to be doing something now where I feel like I’m giving back, where I feel like I’m making an impact.” And I loved this idea of telling visual stories, really speaking to people through the personal stories of others. So I really wanted to stay on that path.
When I started, I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. So for about a year, I really thought through things. How am I going to transition? Maybe I should just work for a non-profit. Maybe I should just be hands-on, be on the ground and helping people directly. But I couldn’t give up on this idea of telling stories through pictures.
Finally, in the end, I had some friends who were going to South Africa. They were taking university students to work on the ground with some non-profits there. I talked it through with my parents, and they said, “Why not give it a shot? Just go with them. Start by buying a camera. Go with them. Shoot what you can, and just start from there.”
It was a really scary process, but after three years in broadcast news, I decided, “I’m done.” I gave myself a deadline. I said, “I’m done with news. I’m just going to take the plunge and see what happens.”
Q. What were the specific tactical things you did to make that switch?
A. Sure. There was some overlap, specifically when I was planning out what I was going to do with the new company. So I would go into the newsroom everyday, get my story, go do interviews, put the story together, edit, and then go live on air.
And then when I would come home at night, I would write dozens of e-mails, start making contacts, research cameras, research tripods. What do I need to buy? How do I put this company together?
I would call mentors, saying, “Do you have any advice for me? What steps can I take to really make this happen?” What was important for me was really talking to people who had been in this same position before, and who had been invested in my career up to that point and wanted to see me succeed with the next step.
It’s amazing how much people are willing to help when they’ve been in the same position as you. I think that’s one of the biggest keys to transitioning — it’s just talking to people who’ve been there, who have been in the same position as you who can offer advice as to what you can do, because doing it all by yourself is insanely difficult. So it’s great to have some golden words of wisdom along the way.
But it was quite a hectic time for a few months. It was March 2009 when I really decided, “This is what I’m going to do.” It was probably toward the end of March when I formed the idea, “Okay, I’m going to go to South Africa with these friends.” I resigned from my news job at the end of May 2009.
So really, it was only a two-month overlap, and in that time, it was just so hectic. Everyday, it was news job, and then it was switching my mindset, “Okay, what can I do to make this company work?” So, yeah, it was really a tough process for a couple of months.
Q. During this time, were you still contemplating the decision itself, or had you already made up your mind and were simply in ”execution mode”?
A. I think by that point, I had already decided, because really, I’d given myself a deadline. I said, “End of May 2009, I’m out of news.” I don’t know if I’m going to have another job. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do, but for me, I had to have that very decisive deadline. Otherwise, I knew I could stay in this news job and not make the transition.
So for me, it was, “I’m done with news at this point.” And once I had decided in March to start my own company, it was like, “This is happening whether or not it was scary, whether or not I have a ton of money to do it. I have to give this a shot, and I have to start now.”
Q. What happened afterward? How did you start building a client base? How did you start building a reputation for your company?
A. That’s a good question. My first thought was that, because I had nothing, I had to put together a video portfolio. That was the best way to do it because how can you make a name for yourself if you have nothing to show, right?
So I said, “Well, I have to build up this video portfolio so I have to shoot as much as I possibly can in this limited amount of time.” So when I booked my ticket to Africa, I said, “I’m going to stay for three months.” So I stayed mid-June through mid-September 2009.
And I didn’t have everything planned when I went. It was partially a sort of “plan as I go” kind of thing. But building a client base was a lot about simply just networking — through e-mail, talking to friends who I knew had connections in South Africa.
Actually, one of my very good Yale friends had been working in Capetown for several years, with non-profits specifically. So of course, I e-mailed him. He was my first contact. I said, “Look, do you know of any non-profit who would like a video talking about what they do, promotional videos, something they could use to put on a website to raise funds? I will do it for free.” That was the key.
When I was starting, I had to do all this work for free because if you have nothing to show people, you can’t say, “Well, I’m going to charge you this much because here’s the work I can do.” You have nothing to offer at that point. So I said, “Look, this is going to be my sacrifice for three months. I’m going to work completely for free. I’m going to put my money into this because I think that it’ll pay off in the future.”
So I just did a lot of e-mailing to people, and once I got introduced to non-profits in South Africa, I said, “Do you know of any other non-profits that might need my help?” And they just passed along the word to each other.
Another connection was that my sister had friends that she went to grad school with who were starting a non-profit in South Africa and happened to be there at the same time I was.
And then one other connection, quite random, was that I’d interviewed a doctor when I was news reporting in Lubbock a year-and-a-half previously. He was going to Namibia with his wife for four years, and she was going to be the only full-time pediatrician in Namibia — quite staggering.
Namibia is just to the northwest of South Africa, and I thought, “Look, if I’m going to be in South Africa and I’ll be there for three months, why not take advantage of the proximity to Namibia and go interview this doctor.” So later on, I ended up doing a story with him.
So honestly, it’s about working your connections. It’s talking to people who are in your field and saying, “I’d like to provide you this service. Do you know of anybody else who would also like this?” And word of mouth got passed down and people told other people, and that’s how I ended up working for ten different groups while I was there in those three months.
Q. In those early days when you worked for free, what was your plan in terms of savings and cash flow?
A. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I had a very strategic plan at that point. It was sort of “go and do,” and then see what happens. And to be perfectly honest, I did not make enough money in news to save much, if any. So that was certainly tough when I started.
I really had no money saved up, and I have to say “thank you” to my family for being so hugely supportive, because they pitched in some cash to help me start my company. So I feel very lucky in that respect, that they were on board with that and they said, “Well, look, you want to do this. We want you to have a shot at it. So we’ll help you buy your camera.”
I also had to make sacrifices in terms of my personal life. When I started the company, once I got back from Africa, I actually moved back in with my folks. For me, that was a necessary thing because when you don’t have a lot of money saved up and you’re working from the ground up, starting from nothing, you don’t have money coming in right away, and I think you have to make the sacrifices necessary to make a business work. So I moved back in with them to save money.
And once I was done with those three months in Africa, I did one more shoot. My first shoot I got paid for was in November 2009, but after that I spent until April 2010 actually just editing all the work that I had done thus far. So that was another period of really not having a whole lot of money coming in, just scraping by and getting my product ready to be able to show, which I then hoped would start to bring in the business I really needed.
Q. Tell us what you do on a day-to-day basis as the founder of your own video production company.
A. I actually wear quite a few hats. In fact, at the moment, I’m the only employee of ONEPASS Productions, my company. So I do videography. I write the stories. I do the video editing. I’m my own marketing manager. I am my own producer. I’m constantly communicating with the client to make sure they’re happy. So there’s a lot of work to take on at once.
For a typical project, let me give you an idea of what I’m doing now. At the moment, I’m actually contracting for another company. It’s an education consultancy and media production company. They’re actually good friends of mine, and they asked me to come on and contract with them for our current project, which is a nine-month contract with a micro-finance organization.
In all of my projects before this, I’ve worked alone. I’ve gone to the client. I’ve shot with them for several days. Then I communicate with them, ask what they want. I sit down and spend anywhere from a week to two weeks editing the piece. And it’s all done myself.
With this current project, I’m working with people, and I do a lot of traveling actually. I’ve been pretty much on the road since February of this year. We’re telling the stories of the client. Since it’s a micro-finance organization, I’m very much trying to depict how they work globally. So I’ve been in West Africa, Latin America, China, and the Philippines. I just got back from East Africa, and I’m also going to Southern Africa in mid-September.
So it’s a lot of time on the road. And when I’m on the road, I’m shooting and sharing those duties with one other videographer. I just got back to Madrid, Spain, which is where my client is based. And for the next month, I’ll actually be working on editing the footage we’ve shot and turning this raw footage into these convergence of stories of the clients and how their lives have been transformed through this micro-finance organization.
And then, the videographer I’m working with is also editing video. So it’s nice, in this situation actually, to be able to share those duties and not everything is on my shoulders at once.
My other colleague, who runs the company I’m contracting for, actually takes care of all the contacts with the different global CEOs of these offices in the micro-finance organization. So he’s in touch with them. He books the flights. He plans out what he wants the stories to say. So this time, I’m in a less of an administrative role and more of a creative role, which is really nice.
Q. What do you find most exciting about your current role?
A. I think the fact that I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel around the world and meet these incredible people.
I’ve had the chance to work with educational organizations, medical organizations, micro-finance. I’ve worked with universities who are taking their kids over to work with non-profits. I’ve worked with businesses who are really making an investment in people worldwide.
Traveling and seeing all these things around the world is just incredible. I can’t even explain it completely. It’s just been life-changing for me, and I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity. And to meet the people I have — for me, the people are what make the countries I’ve been to — and seeing people who have come from nothing, seeing them succeed and seeing them be able to change their lives, it’s really been an amazing, amazing experience.
And to be able to show that through video and essentially use the skills I have to make a difference, to show people the changes being made, the people that are helping around the world, and really try to get them to act, to contribute, volunteer, give funds, any of that, I feel like, even if it’s small, I’m playing a little bit of a role in helping to keep that going and helping to assist people who are really making a difference worldwide.
And to be able to use my skills for that has been more than I could have ever hoped for or imagined in my career, to be honest.
Q. What is the most memorable or inspiring story you’ve encountered in your travels and work so far?
A. Well, one story involved someone I worked with named Emmanuel. I met him in Uganda. He came in the 1990s from his village to Kampala, the capital city, with 10,000 Ugandan shillings, which is the equivalent of $4. He literally had nothing, but he said, “I have to provide for my family. I have to do something.”
So he started just selling little goods and did what he could, finally stumbled across Opportunity International, which is this micro-finance organization I’ve been working for. They gave him a small loan, which he used to start a very small kiosk, selling these goods, but in his own little store.
After a few years, that actually grew, and he was able to start his own shop that’s now — and I was able to see all this — turned into a general store. He then started a hardware store. After years, he bought an electricity pole for his community, and he basically provides electricity to his entire community. And they pay for him to put electricity into their homes.
He did the same with the clean water pump. He also rents out one of his former homes. He rents out rooms to university students.
So this guy has like five or six businesses now, compared to when he came with, like, $5 in his pocket. And he’s been able to put his son through business school, and his daughter is about to start university as well.
I mean, it is staggering for me to see how somebody who had nothing and who could have totally given up and said, “I’m done. I have nothing more to give. How am I ever going to get through this?” And yet, he persevered. He tried, and look at where he is now.
To me, that is just incredible to see. To have interaction with those people is just amazing, and I feel really, really lucky.
Q. Do you proactively seek out work that takes you on international travels, or is documentary video for non-profits an inherently international type of project?
A. I think that is true, but I think there are also plenty of non-profits domestically as well, and I’ve actually done some work in the U.S. also. But as I mentioned before, even when I started in news, I always wanted to do international work. So that’s sort of what I’ve geared my company toward.
I’m perfectly happy to do work in the States. I think there are plenty of people doing really amazing things and trying to make a difference in the States as well, and I’m happy to work there too.
But right now, I’m trying to focus on being international and being able to travel, and maybe part of it is selfish. I love seeing the world. I love seeing what else is out there. My eyes were opened to that. And ever since I’ve been overseas, I can’t stop. I want to do more and see more.
So for now, I think what I’m really trying to do is keep it international as much as I can. And maybe in the meantime, between trips, do some work in the States because it is quite expensive to travel, and you can’t always get the organizations to pay for travel. So it’s nice to be able to do some work in the States, closer to home and make some money that way, which will hopefully fund other trips to go overseas.
Q. What do you most wish you could change about your current role?
A. I would love to be able to hire some employees, and I guess that would mean taking on bigger contracts. This contract I’m currently working on is definitely the biggest thing I’ve done so far, and I don’t know if I should be admitting this or not, but it’s the first time I’ve had a monthly income coming in since I quit news three years ago.
It’s always been working with an organization, and that’s a lump-sum payment, whereas this, I’m working on a contract, which means I get a monthly salary, which is fantastic. It feels great.
What I’d really like to be able to do is get more contracts where I could be paid monthly, maybe sign on with an organization to be their in-house video person, which I think would give me a stronger base. It would be a little less stressful month-to-month, trying to pay for things.
From that, I would really like to be grow the business more and hopefully hire, for instance, another videographer because that would cut down on the amount of work I personally have to do because, even though I can technically juggle it all, it would be nice to have other people on board as well, and different perspectives and people who have had more experience.
I’m always looking to better myself and my craft, and so it would be great to continue working with people who have had more experience and to even bring people on within my company who have been doing this for a long time and can really have that expertise.
Q. Where do you see yourself ideally going in the future as a small business entrepreneur, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. I would really love to continue doing exactly the same work I’m doing now, to continue telling these stories — inspiring stories, stories that will educate, inform, and cause people to act. I want to keep doing that, but I would like to see my company grow, not only in terms of employees, as I’ve mentioned before, but also in terms of the help we can offer to organizations.
I don’t know how long it will take, but my ultimate goal is to do a model like TOMS Shoes. For every pair of shoes you buy from TOMS, one pair gets donated to a kid that needs them overseas.
I’d love to do that one-to-one model. If I can get, for instance, a bigger contract or even a one-time shoot with an organization, I would love to be able to do that and then, in turn, provide the service for free to an organization that is doing amazing things but just maybe doesn’t have the money or the funds to pay for something like a video.
So I’d really love to continue giving back in that way. For every video I can get paid for, give away the service for free.
Q. What advice do you have for others who might be interested in transitioning someday into broadcast media or starting their own media business?
A. I would say, do what you love. I know it’s not always that easy, and it hasn’t been terribly easy for me, but I think if you’re doing what you love, if you find out what that is and can somehow make that happen, you’re going to be offering so much more to that career field, and to the world.
If you have the opportunity and the skills, if you’ve been given those opportunities to do what you love and you don’t, I just think it’s such a waste. It’s a waste of your time, your life, your talent.
You’ve got to figure out what makes you tick and what makes you happy, and find whatever way you can to do that. It’s not always an easy road, but it’s totally worth it in the end. That’s what I’ve really discovered.
For me, I couldn’t see myself doing news anymore. I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I had to figure out a way to follow my passion and pursue this dream I had. As far as practical advice for starting your own company, if you find out what you love, okay, that’s your start. But that’s not always practical. You’ve got to really take the steps to make it happen.
For me, it was all about using my network and my connections. I talked to everyone I could. I was on the phone constantly. I was on e-mail constantly, asking people, researching, doing all of these things, and taking those steps to see how to do it.
For instance, I really didn’t even know how to technically “start” a company, so my dad helped me with that. We researched that, and he was able to help me file as a limited liability company in Texas. That’s something I had no idea about when I started.
So you just have to find people who are willing to help you and willing to play a part, and I think, as I mentioned before, people are really willing to help if they’ve been in the same position.
So never underestimate the power of your network and connections. I think that’s definitely been a big thing for me because it’s also continued to help me get clients for the past three years.
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