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Bootstrap Fireside Chats – Russell Jones, Co-Founder, JonesMillbank

Russell Jones founded JonesMillbank twelve years ago. Fast forward to 2023 and they’re now one of the hottest media production agencies in the UK.

From their formative years as wedding videographers, to the news that they’ll soon be launching Bristol’s largest independent film studio out of a 9,500sq ft location, it’s been a serious story of success for this bootstrapped venture.

In today’s chat, Russell tells us why bootstrapping was a no brainer for him, and has given us all the insight into their story of growth.

Please introduce yourself and tell us about your business?

I’m Russell Jones, one of the Co-Founders of JonesMillbank, a full-service video production company.

We founded ourselves in 2011, and since then we’ve travelled the world and worked with a huge variety of clients from IDLES to University of Bristol, NHS England, VisitBritain, NatWest and Chase Distillery.

That content is equally varied, from social-first ads to TV commercials and brand-level campaigns.

One difference is we work exclusively in-house, so our current team of 13 includes producers, crew and editors; we don’t just farm briefs out to freelancers.

Why did you decide to bootstrap your venture, rather than opt to raise investment?

The simple answer is we didn’t need to.

I met my business partner Adam at film school and our first business was filming weddings. The start of this was the definition of bootstrapping; we hired cameras for free from our university, filmed our first couple of weddings for family, and got a website and trailer up.

Then the bookings started coming in, and equipment was hired on an ad-hoc basis. Within a few months we’d won a national award and bookings for 6, 12 and 18 months away came in, all with upfront deposits/payments which were used to invest in our own equipment.

Really, any service-based business can be bootstrapped like this – the only cost is your time.

Tell us about those first few years, how the business grew and some of the top challenges you faced getting the venture off the ground organically.

That first wedding film business ran for a good seven years from 2008. We filmed hundreds of weddings, to a peak of £75,000 turnover in about 2012. We didn’t want to cross the VAT threshold, else it meant increasing our rates for customers or having to do more weddings for the same profit.

Anyway, it did exactly what we intended – it allowed us to quit our jobs, work for ourselves, and bring in a guaranteed revenue stream that meant we could shift our focus to commercial work with little financial risk or insecurity.

We founded JonesMillbank in 2011, and gradually the revenue shifted from being weddings to commercial work, to the point where we stopped taking wedding bookings and wound up the business. Finally, we had our summer weekends back!

Challenge-wise, we had it easy, unless my memory is suppressing any horrors.

The only challenge we faced is a challenge we still face today, which is that prospective clients want to see that you’ve already done exactly the same thing they want, in their sector, with a similar service or product.

It’s a catch-22, and only through building a strong, diverse portfolio, surrounded by a talented and creative team, do you begin to overcome that.

But it’s still a challenge when entering a new sector, or when your most relevant film is a bit dated.

Looking back, are you happy you chose to build this way, and why?

Absolutely. We talk a lot about sustainability, and often this immediately conjures up images of trees and carbon offsetting, but for us it’s also about financial sustainability.

We’ve only ever hired roles when we’ve had the work and the cashflow, and – and touch wood – this has meant we haven’t grown faster than our boots or had to downsize or make redundancies. Even during COVID-19.

Sure, it’s not super-fast growth to rival a Fintech – we’ve added one person to the team a year – but we’re really proud of the team we’ve currently got and I think that’s mutual; three of our team have now been with us for over 5 years, and everyone joins us as a part of that journey.

It’s the classic hare and the tortoise.

If you were speaking with a potential founder who thinks bootstrapping is not an option for them, what would you say and what are the first steps?

I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t unless they were dealing with a product or bricks-and-mortar shop that has significant upfront costs.

Even still, “build it and they will come” still resonates strongly, and I love Squarespace’s strapline “a website makes it real”.

What was the most surprising advantage of bootstrapping that you didn’t know beforehand?

Freedom, probably. No creditor to ask questions of what you’re doing or your direction, and no monthly repayment commitments that would have put pressure on the peaks and troughs we have with cash flow.

Every pound you generate is yours to invest and grow, rather than a slice of everything going to the bank.

Is there something we haven’t asked you which we should, or any final advice you’d like to offer those who are deciding to make the leap?

No, I don’t think so!