I met Greg at a crisis-response volunteer event – we worked side-by-side for over twelve straight hours helping get a media team off the ground. During slow hours, we got to talking about our backgrounds and careers. I was impressed with Greg’s story and invited Greg for coffee after the volunteer effort was over to learn more.
Our conversation left me inspired.
I’ve read dozens of books on entrepreneurship and career success, written by famous founders and CEOs. Yet as Greg and I spoke, his story and advice resonated much the same way, only through the lens of videography rather than finance, Internet technology, or some other “typical” entrepreneurial field. In the end, he was saying the same thing: be persistent and great opportunities will inevitably present themselves. Take smart risks and turn those opportunities into new skills. Find and follow your passion, then apply your skills in a way that gives your work purpose. Above all, work hard.
Greg was introduced to video in the 6th grade. His middle school would host live performances and use hired video crews to shoot, edit and produce recordings of these performances. When the school finally purchased its own equipment, students were allowed to learn the ropes of theater production, including live tape performances and linear editing, a manual and now-outdated editing process later replaced by video editing software. Greg jumped on the opportunity. “By 8th grade I was directing multiple-camera shoots, helping run theater productions, and grasping video production in the process.”
When Greg finally got to high school, he was already ahead of his peers. “As a freshman, I convinced the school to let me register for senior media classes and join the school’s morning news.”
College was more of a fine-tuning than a first-time learning experience. Greg enrolled in Montclair State University as a broadcasting major. The major, Greg explained, put him in situations that tested his street smarts and helped hone real-life skills. “My first memorable assignment was to get into the audience of the Daily Show. No further instructions were given. I was given the end-result that had to be achieved but had to figure out how to get there.”
Greg also worked on the university’s 60-Minutes style show, Carpe Diem. “It taught me every aspect of video production, from editing to pre-packaging video segments, which helped immensely in the long term,” Greg told me. “There’s no substitute for experience, and looking back, these opportunities were not much different from my work today. Except that now I’m focused on delivering within budget and keeping clients happy rather than getting an ‘A’.”
The summer going into senior year was when Greg finally put his skills and confidence to work. During an internship at Edison, NJ’s local news station, Greg was introduced to then-mayor of Newark, Cory Booker. Unaware of Mr. Booker’s position, Greg chatted with him politely. The Mayor asked him what he wanted to do with his degree and Greg responded “documentary filmmaking.”
Two days later, Greg got a call from the Mayor’s office.
“Please send us your resume,” the voice on the other side told him. “The Mayor would like you to come in for a job interview.”
The opportunity of a lifetime! Greg was elated. The day of the interview, he prepped his resume, put on his best college suit and went to a friend’s house to print some copies of his resume before heading over to the Mayor’s office.
He parked in front of his friend’s house, ran in, got his printouts, and returned to his car. When he went for the door, however, it wouldn’t open. He had locked the keys inside the car!
In all his excitement, Greg forgot to turn the car off and take his keys with him. He called AAA to unlock his car – they said they’d be there in 20 minutes, so nothing to worry about. He waited, and waited, and waited. Two hours later, still no AAA. He was going to miss his interview.
Greg called the Mayor’s office, explained his situation and apologized profusely. He was so excited for this opportunity, he told them, that in his excitement he locked himself out of his car. They had to understand! The Mayor’s office listened to his explanation and kindly told him they’d call him back in a few days to reschedule. Greg followed up a few times, but never heard from them again.
Devastated, Greg pressed on with his local news internship, trying to forget the mishap. A few months later, he was sent on a project at a Newark baseball game. When he got on site, he learned that the Mayor was throwing the game’s first pitch!
Slightly embarrassed yet determined, Greg snooped around and found the Mayor’s staff. He approached his communications director and said, “Hey, I‘m that guy who locked his keys in his car and missed an interview with the Mayor. I want a second shot.” The director knew exactly who Greg was and, despite the mishap, admired his persistence. Greg got a call from the Mayor’s office the following day for another interview.
“The Mayor asked me, ‘How should we approach media?’” Greg recalled. “He asked me, a college kid, what his media strategy should be. I told him that with about 400K Twitter followers, in 2009, he should leverage that following. I suggested publishing weekly content documenting his work as mayor of the biggest city in New Jersey. He loved it.”
Over the next two years, Greg followed the Mayor and his staff around all over Newark. When he started, Greg was a full-time student – he would get a call from the Mayor’s office, often during class and at times even during exams, with an address, a time and no context. Most of the time Greg would pack up his books, grab his gear, and run out.
Greg would arrive on location not knowing why he was there. He would immediately start rolling and ask, “Where are we right now and what are we doing here?” Unintentionally, this ended up creating great sound bites as he interviewed people, and this became a trick he used throughout his time with the Mayor. He made over 200 videos over the course of two years with the Mayor – everything from State of the City addresses and ribbon cuttings to shootings and press conferences – putting in 50-hour weeks while attending college, acting as president of his fraternity and playing rugby.
Greg was a one-man-band, controlling both audio and video and managing the entire production on his own. “No one was doing this at the time; we were inventing the wheel for real-time political transparency. The experience taught me how to quickly deliver quality work in very high-pressure, high-stress situations,” Greg explained.
Greg was a one-man-band, controlling both audio and video and managing the entire production on his own.
The social media-focused strategy worked. During Greg’s two-year tenure, the Mayor’s Twitter following shot up to 1.4 million.
And the footage was seriously good. Some of Greg’s shots were even featured in the documentary series Brick City, which was nominated for an Emmy for best non-fiction storytelling. “I was a one-man-band and [the Brick City documentary crew] had multiple crewmembers.” Greg noted, as he reached for his copy of the Season One DVD to show me. That spoke volumes.
After graduation, Greg continued working with the Mayor’s office on a full-time basis. “After two years with the Mayor, I felt that my learning had plateaued and I was running on autopilot. The second you stop learning at your job, it’s time to move on.”
So after two intense years of unwittingly showing up to crime scenes, sleepless nights spent editing footage, and riding in a blacked-out SUV with Newark’s famous Mayor, Greg moved on.
Staying apolitical while working with Cory Booker was one of Greg’s top priorities, but it was no easy task. He wanted to be known for his skills rather than his affiliations, so when an opportunity came up to help conservative radio and TV personality Glenn Beck launch a new network in New York City called The Blaze, Greg was initially wary to leave his job. He was comfortable at the mayor’s office and to pursue yet another politically driven opportunity on the other side of the political spectrum would heighten the difficulties of staying apolitical.
On the other hand, Greg considered the huge upside. “This was going to be a startup environment with potential to learn more and at a faster rate. This was about getting in on the ground floor of a news network.” Greg decided to go for the interview. He got the job, and hit the ground running.
In the beginning, Greg continued to be a one-man-band, traveling the country, shooting political interviews, editing and building up content for the network. He was constantly learning, meeting important people and feeling more and more confident.
And what good is confidence if you don’t test the waters with it?
Greg took his first big risk during one of his initial projects. It was an interview, set in the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in California. Conservative political commentator S.E. Cupp was set to interview talk show host and political commentator, Dennis Miller.
Throughout the day, the museum staff had been reminding Greg and the crew that they were not to say they were in the museum, probably for security reasons. Greg was behind the camera, and when they started rolling, the first thing the host said was along the lines of “We’re here at the Reagan museum with Dennis Miller…”
Greg hesitated and looked around at the rest of the crew as if to say, “we got that wrong, did anyone else catch that?” He interrupted the shoot.
Miller and Cupp immediately got silent and, along with everyone else on set, awkwardly turned to Greg. “Who the hell is this guy? Is he the producer?” Dennis Miller asked in a confused and slightly annoyed tone. “Oh, he’s only the cameraman, not even a producer?! That guy needs to know his place, ey?”
Greg’s stomach turned into a knot and sweat formed on his forehead. They had gotten the “ok” to mention the location but no one told him. After all, he was the new video guy who had been there for a mere few weeks. “My manager sat me down and gently told me to keep my mouth shut.”
The experience made him realize that he was now working with bigger names and more important people, and that he was no longer a “one-man-band.” He was now part of team, had a defined role, and had to stick to it. Ironically, however, this risky maneuver put Greg on the radar, and while it wasn’t the best way to do it, his knowledge, work ethic and work product overshadowed this bold move — the ballsy video guy who nearly got himself fired but ultimately got attention, and fast. In two short years, Greg was promoted to senior editor and oversaw a few junior editors as well as other team members.
Amidst this growth, conscious of the need to always continue learning, Greg befriended the network’s “EVS guy” who was responsible for live playback during our network shows. “It’s a niche skill set, one-half general video editing and one-half proprietary technology,” Greg told me. “The technology was tailor-made, the process was unique, and I was just interested in learning something new.”
One day, the EVS guy up and quit.
Given the unique skillset required for this position, The Blaze struggled to find a replacement, and the day the replacement they finally found was supposed to start, he didn’t show. They were shooting two live shows a day at that time and, as they say, the show must go on.
Greg was the only person on staff with any knowledge of EVS, so they asked him to step in. He very openly explained that he knew very little about EVS. “Very little,” they reasoned, was still better than “not at all,” so in the end Greg agreed. “Just make it work,” they told him. This was Greg’s second big risk.
Greg knew he could make it work, but what came out was even better than expected. They were blown away by the end result and asked him to take the position full-time.
As he was recalling this experience, Greg suddenly raised a finger in the air as a thought light bulb went off. “I’m realizing now that since the studio was non-union, the EVS job – typically a Union role in most productions – was also non-union, which was why I could dabble with the EVS equipment and gain skills unrelated to my official job. A union would never have allowed me to play with equipment I was not already being paid to operate.” The takeaway here, he told me, was that if you’re at a non-union studio, take advantage of gaining new skills that may be outside your regular duties. “You never know when seemingly unrelated skills might come in handy.”
A year went by and Greg was becoming an EVS pro in his new role, mastering his old role, and gaining more and more experience in a professional studio. Things seemed to be going well.
Then, one day Greg showed up to work to find out the studio was shutting down. The Blaze network would continue, but the studio in NYC was no more. He had been laid off.
Find your Passion
While working at The Blaze, Greg was living with a roommate who raced road bikes. Greg got into biking as well and naturally took his GoPro with him on rides and races. During down time at work, he started making bike videos.
Only these bike videos were different — no one at the time was racing using GoPros as body cameras, and Greg not only filmed races through a first-person perspective but also included the whole race day experience. His first "day in the life" video was a hit – he racked up tens of thousands of views, and viewers commented that they loved watching the race, his morning routine, his ride over to meet his team and other seemingly mundane parts of his day. Some even commented that the video inspired them to get into cycling.
Greg was racing with a New York cycling team called To Be Determined and was creating content for the team’s social networks. He even created videos on a freelance basis for other cycling-related companies in exchange for gear and some side cash. He had found a niche — first person, day-in-the-life racing videos — and applied his video skills to something he loved.
When The Blaze studio shut down, Greg was ready for it. While it came as a shock, Greg reflected on his situation and decided without hesitation to go back to being a one-man band. Except, this time he would start his own production company.
Greg had already made a handful of successful cycling videos and had experience doing everything on his own, so he felt confident he could create compelling videos. Now he just needed to find work.
“I reached out to my network via Facebook and shared my situation. People knew about my bike videos and knew that I could deliver quality content, which set the stage for friends eventually reaching out to me with potential projects.”
Documentary-style video was Greg’s bread-and-butter, so the first gig he got was a mini-documentary with Code.org, a non-profit organization bringing computer science to underserved communities. Serendipitously, the project followed a group of young school kids going to meet with none other than Cory Booker. By then he had become a senator, and they were pleasantly surprised to run into each other again and catch up.
The second gig was a commercial for the luxury car brand Lexus. A friend’s girlfriend was working at a digital ad agency and they wanted to make a branded doc-style video. Greg pitched his services and they loved his work — he got the project!
Except there was one major problem. The Ad agency required a certain level of insurance to shoot the commercial, and at $4,000, that was much more than Greg could afford.
Greg had to make a decision. He knew he couldn’t reasonably live off small projects like the one he did for Code.org and needed to get larger corporate clients to sustain himself. The $4,000 insurance policy would allow him to take on the Lexus shoot, give it everything he had and fight for recurring business.
“I reached out to my brother and asked him for a loan. It was a huge sum of money, especially since I wasn’t working.” Greg was rolling the dice yet again, but this time at stake was his own company. His brother agreed to loan him the money, so Greg purchased the insurance he needed, took the job, and gave it his all.
“The project ended up going really well. They loved the video and the whole one-man band model, and I established my legitimacy in their eyes through that project.” The digital ad agency became Greg’s steady client for over two years.
So, what started out as an abrupt and unexpected layoff turned into an opportunity for Greg to start his own company and make a name for himself. He had the freedom to work on the types of projects he loved, and that passion translated into high-quality results.
“But how did you do it? How did you actually do it?” I asked Greg as he was recounting the start of his entrepreneurial journey.
“Every time I started a new job, took on a new project or entered territory that wasn’t familiar to me, I took the same approach. I broke down the tasks, analyzed what the client wanted and assessed what I already knew versus what I needed to learn.”
Lexus, for example, wanted to advertise a new car in collaboration with actress Rosario Dawson. “So, I started to break down the tasks. The shoot location was inside of the car — this made it easy to film since the set was confined. Audio was easy too, I only needed to mic up Rosario Dawson,” Greg explained. “Instead of hiding the car logo, I knew that I had to bring some focus to it since this was a branded shoot. This informed the camera angles and lighting.”
Now that Greg had assessed what he was comfortable with, he started thinking about what he needed to learn. “It was a smaller space than I had worked with in the past, and on top of that the car would be in motion during parts of the shoot, so I had to come up with a way to capture the whole thing.” Here’s where Greg’s experience and creativity came into play. “I built a custom rig for the tight space – I got a Canon 5D Mark III and ran in a shotgun mic and wireless lav. I used a flash bracket to mount them and an XLR-to-one eighth inch audio splitter to run both inputs into the single one-eighth inch input. I basically turned that Canon into a poor man’s C100.”
Ultimately, Greg explained, “I broke down the shoot, aligned it with my skillset, and convinced myself I could do a great job.”
Over the next two years, Greg traveled the world shooting for the ad agency, continuing to build his technical skills and getting better at managing the business. It wasn’t easy, though. “They would call me on Wednesday evening and tell me I needed to be in LA for a week-long shoot starting Friday morning. And while I did some other work on the side, most of my eggs were in that basket, so I usually had to say yes.
Between last-minute trips, Greg did some work for other clients and continued cycling and making videos for his team. It felt like he was working around the clock, and while there was some flexibility there, ultimately it was not a scalable business model. He tried to hire a production assistant to help, but it took more of his time managing the PA than doing the work himself. And with the one-man-band model, where his flexibility to travel last minute was exactly what his clients valued, having team members made him less mobile and therefore less attractive to clients.
“It was a lot to handle.” Greg told me as we sat on the couch chatting. A soft whimper came from a one-way baby radio that was sitting beside his TV. He excused himself for a minute and went into his bedroom.
Two years into running his production company, Greg married and was looking to start a family. The sole proprietor lifestyle was already making it hard for him and his wife to see each other, so if they really wanted to have a baby, something had to change.
An industry friend who was working at Time, Inc., told Greg at a party that they were looking to hire a producer to help with branded content. Greg had now been specializing in branded content for over two years, and indeed was thinking about finding something a bit more stable. “Why not at least reach out and talk to them about the position?” His friend suggested.
The informal talk quickly turned into a formal job offer for the position of Senior Video producer. They loved Greg’s work, knew he worked hard and needed his experience in creating branded content.
But Greg was wary. While Time, Inc. had name recognition and would bring much-needed stability, accepting a full-time position would essentially mean getting bought out of his company, and he didn’t want to give up everything he had to become a “producer” again.
He reached out to one of his mentors, college professor Jeff Friedman, for guidance. Without even asking about the details of the job offer, Friedman simply asked him, “What quality of life are you looking for?” By this point, Greg had a child on the way, knew he couldn’t keep taking last minute trips and needed stability — the choice was clear.
Greg went back to Time, Inc. and expressed his interest in the job, but wanted to negotiate a more senior title and a salary that warranted closing his production company. In the end, he got the title and salary he wanted, and while he was initially hired just to be a producer, he ultimately proved that he could fulfill that role and also remain creative behind the camera. Greg turned a corporate position into his dream job.
He realized he had achieved this during one particular project – a partnership with IKEA.
The idea was to show four different arrangements of a bedroom, and Greg had a vision — use hyperlapse technology to show the four styles in super-speed while seemingly panning the room in slow motion using a Kessler CineDrive to pan the room multiple times precisely the same way.
But this was new technology and few people were using it. To use Kessler’s technology, Greg would need to hire a Kessler certified professional to set up the rig, which would cost more than the client was paying for the shoot. Renting the equipment and doing it himself, on the other hand, was a small fraction of the cost.
In typical Greg fashion, he incessantly pitched and ultimately convinced his boss to let him rent the equipment, learn to rig the system and give his vision a go.
Greg spent weeks reading the Kessler manuals and watching tutorials. He ended up getting two tracks, one 10 feet and another 16 feet in length, used a 5D Mark IV camera and then rented the CineDrive system.
The end result was a huge success. They were able to create IKEA branded content using a cutting edge technique that no one was using for commercial purposes. “This was so far the apex of my career in terms of learning new technology, using my negotiation skills to pitch an idea and digging endlessly to deliver results within budget,” Greg told me proudly.
Of course the corporate gig isn’t all boundary-pushing projects. Greg has client meetings, status updates, staff development and so on. “Some days it feels more corporate than others – working with sales teams and client reps remind me that I work for a big company. But the work is exciting and challenging, and my projects are always new enough that I can get my creative fix.”
At the end of the day
At the end of the day, reflecting on our afternoon together, Greg offered some key advice for achieving success.
Create a reputation for high-quality work. Greg, for instance, insisted that his biking videos were the basis of his reputation. “I started with racing videos since that was something I was personally excited about and willing to share on social media. I didn’t just post anything – I posted only content that I was proud of. It was quality over quantity.” If you have a good reputation, people will be more likely to come to you with work, especially if you decide to work for yourself.
Find your unique style. “You don’t need to be married to a style from the beginning – you will develop your own rhythm as you create more and more content,” Greg told me. He added, “my unique style is based on the documentary videos I was making during my time with Cory Booker that I translated into the racing world. Instead of editing down a 45-minute press conference into a 2-minute video, I was editing down 45 minutes of race footage much the same way.” If you don’t have a style yet, “keep at it and create more content to figure out what works best with your personality and creative desires.”
Surround yourself with supportive people. Greg had a strong support system along the way, including his family, friends, mentors and industry contacts. His brother believed in him and supported him with the funds he needed to start his own production company. His friends supported his entrepreneurial endeavor with freelance projects. His mentor offered advice at a time of need. His industry contacts connected him with job opportunities.
As I was packing up my things to make my way out of Greg’s apartment, he remembered something.
“Wait! I have one more piece of advice.”
I sat back onto the couch, hurriedly took out my laptop, and looked up at him in anticipation.
“If you’re showing up on set, always, always have gaff tape,” Greg exclaimed with a smile on his face. “Everything from fixing a mic to fixing a ripped pair of pants, gaff tape always comes in handy. I keep a foot of it rolled around my lip balm and two feet around one leg of my tripod.” He took out his lip balm and handed it to me.
“You have no idea how many times this saved me.”
Keep up with Greg at www.gregoryaddo.com.
Sidebar: What’s in Greg’s Personal Kit?
According to Greg, you can shoot absolutely any project with this kit.
- Canon C100 Mark II
- Canon 5D Mark IV
- Two Canon 24mm-105mm lenses
- One Canon 70-200mm lens
- One Canon 50mm prime lens
- Sennheiser G3 wireless mics
- RÃDE NTG3 shotgun mic
- 2 Westcott Flex Bi-Color LEDs (1 x 1’)
- Manfrotto monopod
- Oben carbon tripod with a Manfrotto fluid head
- GoPro Hero5
- Joby smartphone tripod
- Extra set of batteries
Roman Zelichenko, based in New York City, is a writer and entrepreneur. Follow him on Instagram: @rzelichenko