Derek Dienner, the owner and Creative Director of MAKE Films, where he specializes in telling stories through visual imagery. His life mission is to lead a team of creatives to produce films that inspire and motivate change. He has captured the lives and landscapes of his subjects from Cape Town, South Africa to San Francisco. Derek dreams of creating a creative space where his colleagues can collaborate with art and music and he believes in setting yourself up for serendipity. One way Derek sets himself up for serendipity is by trying to meet one new person each week, so reach out and say hi.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
In many ways, I was born an entrepreneur. As a kid, I always had a camera in my hand. I loved video and telling stories. I also loved to figure out how businesses work. When I was very young, I’d see shops that were boarded up and wonder why or what caused them to fail. I started thinking through those things in middle school; business was always intriguing to me. In high school, I did some entrepreneurial things, like building computers and selling them. I did some website work. I was trying to figure out if I could have a go at this.
Video production is similar to entrepreneurship because in both cases I’m creating something out of nothing every time, with every project. At MAKE, we have structure, but it’s a new adventure every time we make a film.
The day to day creative challenges of entrepreneurship are exciting. I really enjoy my mission, which is not just to create and produce films, but to cultivate creative teams. I look for people who are trying to express themselves creatively and collaboratively. We cultivate collaboration around a singular vision so that people have a place of purpose where they feel valued and where they are able to contribute. I know from a young age that I couldn’t do this on my own, so I have built a team that has skills sets that I don’t have.
I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. For me, it’s riskier not to build my life this way.
Four weeks ago today, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. For me, it was a reminder that this life is temporary. It’s not a terminal diagnosis, but I still have to fight.
I don’t think everyone is supposed to be an entrepreneur, but we all have something that we should be giving. Sometimes we are afraid - of failure, maybe - but for me, anything that scares me is something that I’ve walked towards. When you walk towards fear it takes away the sting of failure.
Every entrepreneur wishes they were further than where they are, but for me, I think that if I wouldn’t be taking these risks, I’d feel very bored and unfulfilled.
Wherever you can - whether it’s in relationships or entrepreneurship - we should take those risks. We have just one life to live.
And we all live in a holistic world. If you’re not feeling fulfilled in one area of your life, you won’t be as effective in your job, so I want to take care of the people who work here, with everything in their lives. We have a flexible vacation policy here (no cap) because I hire leaders that don’t take advantage of our policy. People should be free to excel in their jobs and to take care of their personal life. If they take care of the business, then the business will take care of them.
What is your vision for the future of your company? Of your community?
We do commercial and agency work now and my goal in the next 3-5 years is to be producing 80% of our own content. We are trying to build a small Pixar, a small content creation company. We write scripts and create content. It’s a huge endeavor, but we do it one step at a time.
I’m working to connect with show runners and grow my network to do pilots as we build our craft. Internally, we study scripts together, by studying movies and examining the story structure. It’s a tough business, but we are growing in this craft. Even people who have done it forever don’t always have success.
In terms of community, we are very Lancaster-focused. We do a lot of work with local small businesses. We are growing with the economy here and supporting national and local brands. Anything we can do to enrich lives through video and the medium of film, we are happy to. My passion is putting the stakes high by asking “how can we change the world with film?” I think globally but act locally.
Technology and social media break apart our face-to-face interactions with other people, but I wonder how film can bring people closer together. For me, I give strategic and creative direction towards those big-picture goals. What does it look like for the company and our community if we solve those big challenges?
What has been the biggest challenge to creating a new venture?
Letting go of more things so that the company can grow. It’s hard for entrepreneurs because we are so used to doing everything yourself. When you bring people on that are better than you sometimes there’s a tendency to keep struggling to do those things.
Letting go and letting people solve problems differently than I would has been the biggest challenge. I’ve learned to give the guidelines for the MAKE culture so that there’s a framework to make decisions. And then to let go.
For us, creativity trumps process, but we have to be efficient for our clients and our business. There’s a balance.
What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?
I would have told myself to focus better and to not be as easily distracted by things. Entrepreneurs tend to bounce around, but I would tell myself to hyper-focus so I’d be further along now. I would also have told myself to trust and to hire people earlier. The first couple hires are always the hardest, but I would have told myself to hire more people that I trust earlier.
But, I went through the things I went through for a reason. The hard times taught me the best lessons. I have six months of chemo ahead of me and then it should be behind me. And even with this experience, I feel like I’m better for it. It makes me more present. I work to keep my life in balance with my two young kids and my wife. So when I look back, it’s all been providential and serendipitous. Even the hard times, I’d go through them again.
Tell me about your biggest surprise or lesson learned as an entrepreneur?
It isn’t really a surprise or a lesson, but an early hope that has been fulfilled. I always hoped that if I invested in people that they would invest back into the company and back into me. And it’s always been true! The people in this crazy world are incredibly loyal; they are rich in character and diverse.
My hope was always to have a connected community of people in the office and studio space that are honest with each other, without fear or pain. In this world, honesty doesn’t scare us. I’m happy and surprised to see that every person I’m adding has plugged into that culture and community here. Even if someone doesn’t like your idea, it doesn’t affect your self-worth. We look for the best idea that we can come up with together. I’m happily surprised that we have been able to do that. It’s simple, but not easy.
Anything in life is sowing and reaping. We spend the time sowing and we love reaping the harvest. The biggest surprise has been to see how the sowing and reaping works.
What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?
The question I always ask myself is “why am I doing what I’m doing? What is the purpose?”
I think it changes day to day, but overall, I’m not just the creative director of a production company. I’m impacting the 8 team members here. I’m impacting our community because we have created space for people to become fulfilled. I have a strong sense of responsibility for everyone who comes through our doors, whether they are our clients or our colleagues.
It’s like the film Arrival - which questions whether you know that you will lose someone in 10 years, would you still continue to pursue a relationship with them? We are all going to die at some point. For this business, of course, I want to succeed, but the things that I value most are that I’m really contributing to the people around me and that they are contributing back. It’s creating momentum….and to do that, you have to let go.
So find people you trust, give them a vision, and then let those good people go.
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