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How Triggerfish is Putting SA on the Animation Map

The studio that brought you Khumba and Zambezia aren’t in it for the quick cash and fame. They’ve got a long-term goal, and that’s to have a No 1 US hit in the next two decades. Here’s how a small South African company is making international waves.

Nadine Todd

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Triggerfish animators

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Vital Stats:

  • Company: Triggerfish
  • Players: (Back left) Jean-Michel Koenig, Anthony Silverston and Mike Buckland (Middle) Stuart Forrest and (front) James Middleton
  • Bought: 2004
  • Contact: triggerfishstudios.com

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Sometimes growth happens quickly. The right market, idea and execution combine and the result is a high-impact, high-growth business. Other dreams take longer to fulfil. The strategy has a longer tail, and the entrepreneurs must practice painstaking patience. The goal might take longer, but the results will be worth it.

Stuart Forrest is living one of those long-term goals. He believes his company, Triggerfish, can produce a US bestselling animated film by 2030.

It sounds like a lifetime away, but when you’re competing with industry giants like Disney and Pixar, even two decades is pretty audacious. It’s going to take careful planning, unwavering focus, and continuously building on small victories, but Triggerfish is certainly up to the challenge.

Related: Why Not Start Your Business While You Study? This Entrepreneur Did

Forrest and his partners believe that success is a practice thing – the more you do something, the better you get at it, from developing stories and characters, to implementing and fine-tuning systems and processes.

Here’s how they’re planning on doing it.

An international reputation

When Forrest joined Triggerfish in 2002, it was a stop frame animation company whose biggest client was Sesame Workshop, the New York-based parent of Sesame Street and Takalani Sesame. Forrest and a colleague, James Middleton, bought minority shares in the company in 2004, but hit their first roadblock almost immediately.

“Stop frame was becoming a thing of the past, and we didn’t have the skills to produce computer generated animation,” says Forrest. It’s a problem many companies have. The market shifts dramatically, and the business can’t keep up.

“We were forced to sell all the equipment and the original owners moved on to new things, leaving us with full ownership of Triggerfish.”

It was tough times, and Forrest went into huge debt financing his living expenses. “There was significant international credibility in the fact that we’d been doing Sesame Street animation for ten years, but we’d also done enough work for them to last the next two years. Our biggest client didn’t need us.”

Add to this the fact that the stop frame market had disappeared, Triggerfish had no clients and no work in the pipeline. All they had was the Sesame Street reputation, which was the gold standard in the kids’ animation industry. It was the only leverage Triggerfish had.

Zambezia goes from passion project to realityZambezia-movie_Triggerfish

“We had scaled down, moved into my living room and sold all of our equipment.” And so the partners came up with an incredibly risky passion project: They would create a local, animated feature film based on a feature film pilot they had created for a US investor. It was a huge risk. They had no money, and even though they were living incredibly lean, they had no guarantee that the project would take off. If it didn’t work, the business would fail. But if it did, they were one step closer to creating a major local production house, with an eye on the international market.

Mike Buckland, who had worked with Forrest on the pilot for Zambezia, joined the team in 2006 as head of computer animation. At the same time, creative director Anthony Silverston joined as the fourth partner and began work on writing feature film scripts. The team was assembled, and focus turned to getting Zambezia off the ground.

“We spent a year writing the script, and then began pitching it to investors,” says Forrest. Which is where the studio’s great reputation started paying off, and where a key lesson is clear – always play to your strengths. “We secured funding and the project was green lit.”

This was in 2008. It took another year to close the legals, production began in 2009 and the film was released in 2012. With worldwide distribution and major releases in several big territories, the film went on to become one of the highest grossing African-owned films of all time. While the film did make money on its initial release, expenses and finance charges were high.

“Today we receive a cheque every three months, and this will continue indefinitely. That’s the beauty of digital; it doesn’t take up shelf space, so it will continue to be sold and screened.”

Khumba, the follow-upKhumba-movie-south-africa

Making Zambezia wasn’t about money. It was about creating and distributing a feature film, and learning enough lessons to make a second, better film. That film is Khumba.

“The local film industry is too obsessed with South Africa. We make films for South Africans, and ignore the international market. At Triggerfish we didn’t want to do this. Our eyes are on the international stage. It’s going to take us a long time to really compete in that space, but that’s why we have goals, and a path that we’ve worked out. We’re not going to rush it. We’ve got a lot to learn before we hit that 20-year goal, and we know it.”

Getting Khumba off the ground is certainly a step in the right direction though. This time, funding was easier to secure. Production began in 2010 and the film was released in 2013.

“We’re still bootstrapping the business while we focus on the bigger picture. We have writers in the US and South Africa, story board artists and a core development team, but the bulk of the talent we use are contractors who work on a project-by-project basis.”

Major representation in Hollywood

The business side of Triggerfish had now become all-important, as Forrest realised that operating as a collection of artists working on passion projects wasn’t paying the bills.

In 2012 the fifth partner was brought into the business – chief financial officer Jean-Michel Koenig. Koenig recognised that the keys to improving revenue lay in getting better deals with the distributors, and this could only be achieved by deeper networks and holding more market leverage.

In 2014 Triggerfish signed a deal with William Morris Endeavor (WME), the Beverly Hills super-agent operating at the heartbeat of Hollywood. The deal sees WME partnering with Triggerfish to raise financing, handle distribution and use their extensive networks to enable the young studio to grow into their vision.

“We understand that to reach our aims, we can’t put a ceiling on what we want to achieve. If you want to be big, you have to think big, but understand that it’s the small, careful, and above all, patient steps that get you there. It would be delusional to expect to compete with the major studios on our first films, but we know we can get there eventually if we don’t lose our focus.”

A third project, Sea Monster, has already been in development for three years, and a fourth, Seal Team, is hot on its heels.

Related: Why Testing Your Hypothesis Can Mean Business Success

Meanwhile, Triggerfish’s momentum is accelerating, and the company is racking up awards, including the Sanlam/Business Partners Innovator of the Year award in 2012, and a nomination for the South African Premier Business Awards for best Exporter, as well as many awards for their films from China to Brazil. The ultimate goal is still a long way off, but anything really worth achieving always is.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Start-up Advice

Put On Your Wellies: It’s Time To Wade Into Risk

Entrepreneurs aren’t all leaping into the unknown like lemmings off a cliff, but they do need to consider it…

Chris Ogden

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risk-management-rain-boots

You’ve had a great idea. You’ve looked into its development. You’ve recognised that it has potential beyond just what Auntie Mabel and Mike From The Grocer think. And you’ve clearly nailed a pain point that can make money. Now it is time to take the risk of running with it.

Every big idea comes with risk. You can’t step out into the world of entrepreneurial thinking and business development without it. Your idea may fail. It will also be time consuming, demanding, hungry for money, and hard work. It is unrealistic to expect that your project will leap out into the world and be an unmitigated success.

It is also unrealistic to assume that it isn’t worth taking this risk.

There are steps that you can follow to ensure that your risk is managed so you aren’t blindly leaping off that cliff…

Step 01: Do your research

No, canvassing your neighbours, friends and family is not doing research. You need to know that your idea will appeal to a broad market and that it will have significant legs. This may sound like daft advice, but you would be surprised how many people think an idea will take off just because Susan in Accounting said so.

Step 02: Understand the costs

Projects are hungry for money and investment. Realistically work out your budgets and how much it will cost to take your project off the ground and then stick to it.

A calculated risk is a far better bet than one that shoots from the hip and hopes for the best. You can also use this as an opportunity to draw a clear line under where you will stop investing and end the project. If it keeps eating money and isn’t getting anywhere with results you need to be able to walk away.

Step 03: Know when to walk away

As mentioned before, this can be defined by a line you’ve drawn in the proverbial sand (and budget) but no matter where you draw this line, you have to stick to it. Often, when time, money and energy have been poured into a project it can be incredibly hard to walk away.

You think ‘but I have put so much into this, just one more’ and then it gets to a point where the ‘just one more’ has taken you so far down the line that walking away feels impossible. Leave. Learn the lessons. Apply them to your next project.

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Start-up Advice

Mind The Gap

The entrepreneur’s guide to finding the gaps and building the right solutions.

Chris Ogden

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entrepreneurship-gap

Innovation may very well be the key to business success but finding the gap into which your innovative thinking can fit is often a lot harder than people realise. Some may be struck by inspiration in the shower, others by that moment of blinding insight in a meeting, however, for most people finding that big idea isn’t that simple. They want to be an entrepreneur and start their own high-growth business, but they need some ideas on how to find that big idea.

Here are five…

1. Network

It sounds trite but networking is actually an excellent way of picking up on patterns and trends in conversation and business problems. The trick is to note them down and pay attention. Soon, you will find patterns emerging and ideas forming.

2. Look for pain

Just as networking can reveal trends in the market, so can spending time reading. The latter will also help you find common business pain points. These are the touchpoints that frustrate people, annoy business owners, affect productivity, or impact employee engagement.

Be the Panado that fixes these pains.

3. Luck

luck

This is probably the most annoying of the ideas, but it is unfortunately (or fortunately) very true. Luck does play a role in helping you capture that big idea. However, luck isn’t just standing around and random people offering you opportunities. Luck is found at networking events, it is found in research and it is found in conversations with other entrepreneurs.

4. Luck needs courage

You may have found the big idea through your network, a pain point or pure blind luck, but if you don’t have the courage to take it and run with it, you will lose it to someone else.

Being bold in business is highly underrated because most people assume that everyone is bold and prepared to take big leaps into the unknown. However, not all brilliant entrepreneurs were ready to throw their family funds to the wind and leap into an idea – they were courageous enough to figure out a way of harnessing their ideas realistically.

5. Pay attention

This is probably one of the most vital ways of finding a gap in the market. Often, people are so busy that they don’t really pay attention to that niggling issue that always bothers them on a commute, or in a mall, or at a meeting. This niggling issue could very well be the next big business opportunity. Pay attention to it and find out if that issue can be solved with your innovative thinking.

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Start-up Advice

5 Things To Know About Your “Toddler” Business

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind.

Catherine Black

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small-business-start-up

Ah, toddlers. Those irresistible bundles of joy bring a huge amount of energy, curiosity and fun to any family – but there’s also frustration and worry that comes with their unpredictability, as they grow and start to become more independent. If you own a business and it’s successfully past its “infancy” of the first year or so, it’s likely it will also go through a toddler stage of its lifecycle.

Pete Hammond, founder of luxury safari company SafariScapes, agrees with this. “Our business is now three and a half years old, and we’ve found that we’re not yet big enough to justify employing a large team of people to handle the day-to-day admin tasks, yet we still need to grow the business as well,” he says. “As a result, our main challenge is finding the time to step back and see the bigger picture. Kind of like when you are raising a busy toddler and you spend most of your time running after them!”

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind:

1. This too shall pass

Everything in life is temporary – and that goes for both the good and the bad. It’s as helpful to remember this when you’re facing the might of a toddler temper tantrum, as it is when you’re facing throws of uncertainty in your business. If your new(ish) venture is going through a rough patch in its first few years, it can be easy to think about giving up – but don’t. As long as you have an overall big idea that you believe can add value to your customers, keep pushing through the rough parts until you come out the other side.

2. Appreciate what this phase brings

The toddler years mean that the initial newborn joy is officially behind you. But these small humans also bring their own kinds of joy, as you watch them learn new skills, say funny things, and give affection back to you. While your two-year-old business may not hold the same exhilaration for you as it did during those first few months, there are now different things to appreciate about it: Maybe you’re expanding your product range, or employing new people who can take the workload off you.

3. Establish boundaries

Toddlers thrive on boundary and routine – and your toddler business will too. As it grows into a new phase, try and establish limits in terms of the type of clients you want to work with and the type of work you’ll do. It’s also a good idea to make a decision about the hours you’ll work and when you’ll switch off, which will help you establish a good work-life balance.

4. Take a break

Every parent with a toddler needs a break every now and then, even if that means a walk around the block (on your own!), a dinner out with friends, or even a few days away. The same is true for a demanding small business: every so often, remember to take time out to rest properly, where you switch off your laptop and completely unplug. You’ll return much more inspired and resilient to deal with the everyday uncertainty that it brings.

5. Give it space to make mistakes

While the unpredictability of a young business can be stressful and tiring, it’s also a time for trying new things without the risk of huge consequences if they don’t quite work. After all, it’s much simpler to change your USP if you’re a small business employing a few people, rather than a big company where 50 people are relying on you for their salary, or where you’ve received a huge amount of investment capital. While you may fail in some of the things you try with your business (in fact, this is almost guaranteed), see it as a toddler that’s resilient enough to pick itself up, dust its knees and keep moving forward.

During this phase of business growth it’s also essential to have the right type of medical aid cover. There are medical schemes such as Fedhealth which has a number of medical aid options and value-added benefits to ensure that your health and wellness is taken care of too. After all, the healthier you and your staff are, the more productive your business will be – during the toddler (business) stage and beyond.

While this phase can be frustrating, it’s a sign that your business is growing and adapting, rather than remaining in its infancy, and that can only be a good thing! So embrace the difficulties, learn from them, and watch as your business strides forward confidently into the next exciting phase.

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