By Guy Rigby, author of From Vision to Exit and head of entrepreneurs at Smith & Williamson
The following interview with Russ Malkin, film producer, director and founder of Big Earth Productions, is part of the wider Entrepreneur Interview series by Guy Rigby, Head of Entrepreneurs at Smith & Williamson.
Guy: I’d like to start with a question about your childhood and your academic career. Lots of entrepreneurs don’t have glittering academic careers, what about you?
Russ: One of the turning points when I was growing up was that I happened to pass my 11+. I remember having talked all the way through the exam but somehow I got through. So, I went to a fairly good school.
But, I think the moment for me that led me to have a relatively academic moment was when I was going down the stairs of my school,when I was leaving because I wanted to continue racing motorbikes, and I just bumped into the Deputy Headmaster who said ‘Malkin what are you planning on doing?’. I responded ‘Well, I’m going to leave school sir’ and he said ‘Oh, why don’t you go on and do a degree? They’re doing sponsored degrees at this place’. I happened to phone this person up and they said they were paying people to do a degree, so I ended up doing a degree in Civil Engineering.
I took that on and became a Chartered Civil Engineer. So, in one sense, I have an academic background because I decided to continue with my education.But, what the degree allowed me to do was continue racing as I was getting paid. I also took up photography and that’s when I started my first business.
So, in a rather serendipitous moment I did get a qualification degree and I did start my own business, because I had spare time during the degree course.
Guy: Tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey because you’ve been at it for a while now. How many businesses have you run? What have they all been doing? Or, has it actually been one long journey with effectively one business, with lots of episodes or scenes in it?
Russ: Well, I think the word entrepreneur is a sort of casual phrase because I don’t think anyone can say ‘I’m an entrepreneur’, because it’s not a job. It may be something which we are, but I never thought ‘I’m going to be an entrepreneur’ when I was 17. I just wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to get up in the morning and do what I wanted to do, whatever that happened to be. And that’s still the same now.
So, I did photography. I ran a water-filter business because I thought the water in London was rubbish. I did quite well out of it funnily enough because I was doing that when I was doing my degree. I did earn some good money, but to me the other point is it’s not about how much money you want to earn out of something, it’s actually do you enjoy it. If you get up and actually do something that you fundamentally enjoy doing then that’s success, and if you can earn some good money out of it, even better.
Guy: When did the filming and production come around?
Russ: When I was a photographer (I used to be a fashion and beauty photographer) I bumped into somebody at the BBC who said ‘would you be interested into coming onto television to teach people how to take better photographs?’ So, it was another one of those serendipitous moments where you bump into somebody who gives you an opportunity to do something.
I used to go on live Saturday morning TV, CBBC and all that sort of stuff, telling people how to take better photographs and I was exposed to the world of TV. That pushed me in the direction of media. The biggest moment was when I sat down one night with a friend of mine and a bottle of red wine, which is always dangerous, and he wanted to make a feature film, so I said ‘why don’t we do one?’ To which he responded ‘it’s never that easy’ and I said ‘well, why don’t we make it a world record [for the fastest produced feature film]and get everybody excited about setting a world record and see if people will do it for free or low money’.
The next morning he woke up and phoned me and said ‘OK I’ve managed to get all the lighting for free’ so I thought ‘wow, somebody’s done something’, which is normally my territory but a good start. So, I phoned Technicolor and Kodak and we got all the film for free, and all the processing for free, and we ended up making the world’s fastest produced feature film.
We contacted Dame Edna, Richard Harris and a whole bunch of other British actors and actresses. We still hold the world record for the fastest produced feature film. We were the first people to shoot on video and film, and edit on video at the same time, so it was quite a landmark moment for me. I suddenly thought I have 450 people working on it; it was a very ambitious idea. I got excited about the audacious nature of it and also the complexity of all the problems that we had to solve, which were myriad.
Guy: How did the film do?
Russ: It’s not a very good film! I should dig it out at some point and re-edit it.
Guy: How fast was fast?
Russ: We did it in thirteen days, but that included shooting on 35mm and writing the script. Two or three other people have tried to beat the record but they haven’t met the same criteria. Now, with modern cameras it would technically be very easy to beat it, but if you’re writing a script and had to shoot on 35mm it’s not so easy.
Guy: So have you ever had any near death experiences? I mean, in the business sense?
Russ: There have definitely been some of those moments.When bank statements fall on the hall mat and you know it’s going to be bad news, and you’re like‘I’m not opening that!’ I’ve definitely had several of those moments!
My attitude when that happens is, ‘I’m not going to open that up, because I KNOW it’s going to be bad news, and I KNOW it will crush me.’ But then I sort of go into this battle mode, which is like, ‘I don’t even want to look at it! I don’t even want to know how bad it is. I’m just going to fight my way out somehow.’I don’t want to analyse, ‘how could I scrimp or save to do this?’ It’s like, ‘I need to get out!’ And in that situation you have to go out and earn some money, or create a situation to bring some money in.
Guy: What are the next steps? Where does the journey go from here?
Russ: Well the future for me - I think I always like the idea of a clean sheet. So, next year I don’t know what I want to do, whereas a lot of people maybe have it mapped out.
I would certainly like to continue what we are doing, and probably can continue what we are doing, but this is one of my weaknesses. I like new things. So, if you were trying to build up a business, you’d really want to be doing the same things over and over again to make your business better and better. Therefore, I am looking for some people that could possibly take parts of the business and solidify it in areas. Yes I’m looking at that. But I think we’ll continue in adventures of travel. I’ve been having some meetings in Los Angeles with some quite interesting people and if that were to come off, that would be quite ‘wow.’ So there’s a lot of excitement in the future.
Guy: What’s the Russ Malkin legacy? Do you have any driving ambition so that when people look back one day they say, ‘that bloke Russ Malkin, look what he achieved! Look what he did!’?
Russ: Well my number one legacy, probably my only one, is that I want to be a great dad.
However, I think from a business point of view we have inspired a lot of people to go travelling. I know that because people contact us. A guy phoned me yesterday and said, ‘I watched Long Way Round and I’m now doing my own expedition through Asia, recreating the journey of a previous British explorer.’ And it’s like, ‘OK wow! That’s really cool!’ And he was only fourteen when he saw the show, it was like, ‘time’s gone by!’
I think we could inspire people to go travelling, enjoy the world and do some good at the same time. We do a lot of work with UNICEF, or have done, and if we said to people, ‘go out and have a look at the world, not as a package holiday, actually go and look at other people’s cultures, go and listen to them, understand their religions, understand their morality and their ethics and do some good at the same time,’ then perhaps over many, many years, perhaps not in our lifetime, there would be a much more sympathetic view to everybody else’s cultures. At the moment, with the western world and the third world, and the rich and the poor, there are a lot of stark differences. If in some shape or form we can do some amount to soften the edges, because people will go off and travel with an open eye, then that would be a legacy.
Guy: It would. Thank you very much for coming in. We look forward to seeing future creative productions from Russ Malkin and Co.
For further information, to put forward candidates for an entrepreneur interview or to discuss any aspect of your business, call Guy Rigby on 020 7131 8213 or email email@example.com.
By necessity this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Article correct at time of writing.
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