In this episode, Alex Kolodkin, CEO and Founder of Set Scouter, opens up about running North America's largest location scouting platform in the middle of a pandemic.
Set Scouter has become the go-to platform for production companies, agencies and scouts looking to streamline the process of finding and booking a production location. However, the spread of COVID-19 froze operations for many industries, including film and media production.
In our conversation, we cover operational challenges that are specific to service-based marketplaces, how COVID-19 has affected Set Scouter's fundraising strategy, as well as the launch of Safe Sets - a new initiative designed to get the production industry back in business - safely. Watch the full episode below, or keep reading for key highlights.
Alysha: Let's start off with a brief introduction! What is Set Scouter? What do you do, and what is your mission?
Alex: Set Scouter is a film locations marketplace. You can think of us as the "Airbnb for production". We simplify productions, starting with film locations. We make it easy for brands, content creators and film producers to find locations faster than ever before. What used to take a week and thousands of dollars, can now get distilled in less than a day.
Alysha: How did you come up with the idea?
Alex: The idea for Set Scouter came out of a personal pain point. As a producer myself, I found it was really difficult to book locations. I was using Facebook, Craigslist, Kijiji... I thought there must be a better way. At the time, Airbnb was really taking off, and I wanted to see if we could use a similar technology for the film and production space.
Alysha: Being a technology-enabled marketplace, how did you go about building both supply and demand in the early days?
Alex: We were able to on-board locations cheaper and faster than anyone else, and we're able to create a unique supply of locations, which makes our marketplace unique. We take a laddered approach to the way we on-board and grow. When we expand into a new city, we have a threshold of how many locations we need. When we reach that threshold, we stop on-boarding and find customers to try to sell the locations to. Once we see more traction, and collect feedback about what the community needs, then we start on-boarding more specific locations.
The last thing you want as a marketplace is to have all of this demand with no supply, or a lot of supply with no demand.
Our supply methodology is what excited 500 Startups. They were so impressed by the way we on-boarded supply that they took us through the program, which really enabled us to grow. Best of all, we were able to remain lean and grow smartly.
Alysha: Can you recall the moment that you realized COVID-19 was spreading exponentially? How have the past three months affected your business?
Alex: COVID-19 has not only impacted my business, it's impacted our entire industry. When you're filming on set, you need to be in close proximity with people, and you can't do that outside of the locations that you need to shoot. Some film crews have 100-200 people, and it's difficult to do that from home. It's very strange to see the global production industry shut down - and that of course translated to us.
When Trump made the national emergency announcement on March 13th, that's when we knew it was serious. That day, I closed down the Set Scouter office, and the following day was when almost all of our bookings were cancelled. All of our customers notified us to let us know they were on lockdown and unable to shoot.
The two weeks that followed that were the most difficult, stressful and wild days Set Scouter has ever experienced. You go from hundreds of bookings a month, to crickets. And what do you do?
In our case, we decided to focus on the product. We started making the UX better. Whether it was updating our customer success process or email flow, we spent time fixing all of the bugs and product requests we received from customers. But after three months, you're wondering what else is there to fix?
Alysha: What were some of the most critical decisions you had to make in those three months?
Alex: The most difficult decision I had to make was to decide the future operations of the company. Which sounds really big, but I think it had a lead up, and COVID-19 was the catalyst. I asked myself why we were spending all this money to continue growth if there might not be a VC fund at the end to help us get out of the hole. That's when I had to reposition and re-organize Set Scouter to be a sustainable company first and foremost, and grow second.
I've always gone through peaks and valleys of getting to profitability, then increasing burn in order to grow. That cycle always continues. This is the first time I thought let's get to profitability and stay there for a while to see how the world changes in the future. COVID-19 has really taught me that this all about our team, and we have to be able to rely on ourselves and be our own saviours.
Alysha: Let's talk about a new initiative you launched, Safe Sets, which is a collective of industry leaders who are advocating for health and safety on set. Can you tell me a little more about where this idea came from and what your goal is?
Alex: I'm really excited and proud of what Safe Sets has become, and it's really cool to see how it's growing. It started because we were seeing producers on Set Scouter trying to understand what protocols were in place for them. The guidelines exist, but they're not standardized or digestible. They vary by region. For example, the guidelines in LA are vastly different than the guidelines in Quebec.
We started writing guides for Set Scouter to help our users scout safely during COVID. Then I realized, if we only write this for Set Scouter, we're only going to impact Set Scouter users. However, if we collectively get our minds together and write guidelines together, we can truly impact the entire industry. Now, Safe Sets has resources and guidelines from all over the world. We have actual resources that producers can use on set, whether it's a COVID-19 questionnaire, or signage, as well as a certificate which you receive after you take our base level COVID-19 education. It's available for free to everyone in the industry.
People are realizing there's nothing else out there to help them understand basic protocols. So they're taking our course and feeling more confident being on set. The more educated their crew is, the less chance there is of an infection to occur.
Safe Sets is a call to action and commitment to saying we will not tolerate a second wave, and we won't be responsible for it.
Alysha: I love that you're trying to mitigate that risk, but also empower people who have been out of work to start producing again. It's been great to see how much Safe Sets has grown in such a short amount of time. I've seen a lot of activity online and a lot of people talking about it.
Alex: It's great that people are seeing value in it. Safe Sets launched two and a half weeks ago, and we've had tens of thousands of people go through our course. That distribution has been incredible. What's great is that we can continue to keep people updated as the situation changes.
For more great insights from Alex around what Canadian companies can do to mobilize their industries back into action, check out the full episode below.