I recently visited Free Range Studios to meet with its talented co-founder Jonah Sachs in Berkeley, California, to talk about his startup story. Free Range began 10 years ago as two guys, one laptop, one apartment, and enough creativity and change-the-world-or-bust aspirations to eventually challenge agribusiness, and our consumer lifestyle, with The Story of Stuff, The Meatrix, and countless other films and stories. If you haven’t seen these incredible web videos, which have won countless awards, I genuinely suggest taking the time to so.
From Childhood Collaboration to Warrior Film-making
After graduating with a degree in journalism, Jonah moved to Washington D.C., where he interned for NPR, then did graphic design work for a local studio for a meager 8 bucks an hour. He didn’t last long. After getting offers for freelance work for $50 an hour, he was on his own before 6 months had passed.
Jonah teamed up with Louis Fox–a childhood friend with whom he worked on a remake of Return of the Jedi when they were both 7–to start Free Range. Louis brought to the team freehand drawing and movie-making skills that he’d honed since their early days as George Lucas wannabes. (In fact, Louis does much of the voiceover work in the Free Range films, including in The Meatrix, in which Moopheus guides Leo through the somewhat repulsive reality that is factory farming). While funny and creative in an outside-the-norm kind of way, Louis did not possess, according to Jonah, much in the way of computer skills. Clearly, their skills and creative outlets were well-matched.
It’s hard to appreciate today the modesty of their needs then, Jonah recalls, having begun their journey together with $3K investments each as they set off to leverage technology to help environmental and social justice organizations get heard. Their own first marketing effort proved to be their first mistake. They sent 200 postcards to non-profits with which they hoped they could work. No one responded. Before long, though, they were referred new clients from past ones, and taking on mountain top removal mining for Earthjustice and the human rights abuses in diamond mining for Amnesty International.
Taking Down Corporate Giants With Slingshots
Free Range Studios is likely best known for what Jonah calls its “deeply resonant, warrior pieces” in which the 23-person studio takes on entire industries at a time, as it did agribusiness in The Meatrix, and our consumer-based economy in The Story of Stuff. Today, the team works with its non-profit clients, which make up 75 percent of its business, and socially conscious businesses to turn the internet into discussion hotbeds.
Not all of their stories and projects, which cost clients between $25k and on into the six figure range to produce, go viral though. What’s critical, Jonah advises, is that a client benefits from the process of extracting and communicating a story around which the client’s employees and constituents can rally. They may be the Barry Bonds of cause-based viral movie-making, but even pros don’t hit home runs every time they step up to the plate.
The Future of Free Range Studios
In a world in which the landscape of social media and storytelling continues to evolve at light speed, Jonah and his team try not to worry, and to instead follow their curiosities and interests. They are artists first, who don’t hesitate to end a relationship with a client that enters into questionable territory, as one six-figure account did recently.
Jonah tries to impart their experiences in telling resonant stories to those with huge aspirations and limited resources by speaking at conferences, such as Opportunity Green this coming weekend. But he is too humble to assume that his recipe is ready to be shared in the form of a book, or a Free Range Studios do it yourself (DIY) website, as I suggested. Instead, he sees Free Range moving to San Francisco, where it can launch a lab full of young creatives, empowering the future generations of cause-driven storytellers and serving the clients that they can’t afford to serve today. They are also running a competition called Youtopia, which will grant $15k in Free Range services to one non-profit and one socially responsible business, based on the votes they receive (voting opens Nov 15th).
Meanwhile, Jonah’s co-founder, Louis is less involved in the day to day management of client campaigns. He now resides in Costa Rica, where he is building an eco-community, as Free Range continues to operate out of its DC and Berkeley offices.
As Free Range Studios continues to grow its socially conscious business client list by hiring its first business development team members who essentially attend conferences and write proposals, the team is far from putting down its slingshots. It will soon be taking on “the biggest crisis we have ever faced” in its upcoming Story of Stuff vignettes, beginning with the minefield that is the carbon cap and trade conversation. Their perspective: everyone wants a solution, but leaving Wall Street to figure things out for us is irresponsible. “We have an overtaxed planet, which needs an adult response,” describes Jonah. Go get ‘em, Free Range.
Ryan is a partner at Triple Pundit, and a social entrepreneur for social entrepreneurs. He is also the Founder of Companiesandme, which will launch for Bay Area residents in January. Today he is somewhat reluctantly celebrating the beginning of his last year in his twenties.