Founder of creative video technology company Blackmagic Design, Grant Petty, left his life as an engineer in the TV industry with one goal on his mind: To fix the “flawed” TV and film sector and hand power back to the creative people driving the it forward.
Launching in 2001, his company Blackmagic Design has grown significantly over the past 16 years with the help of seven acquisitions and some serious lessons learned. Today, Blackmagic Design boasts an annual revenue of nearly $300 million, and the company’s technology is used in 80% of modern day feature films, including award winners such as Moonlight and Game of Thrones.
Petty spoke to SmartCompany about creating a company he believes has had a “core role” in building the Australian TV industry, and why young businesses should be “blissfully happy” with naivety.
I founded Blackmagic Design in 2001 because I wanted to change the TV industry, which had some pretty big flaws in it.
Back then the equipment would cost over one million dollars, and businesses would buy devices and hire them out for thousands per hour. This meant really creative and artistic people were working incredibly hard in what was effectively an equipment hire business dressed up as the TV industry.
People who wanted to work in TV pretty much had to work for a really large company. Back then, it wasn’t a creative industry, but there were so many creative people in it.
I was an engineer in that industry working with the technology. They weren’t worth that amount of money, so I kept thinking “what’s going on?”
I knew the industry had to change in some ways, so that was the burning revelation: To change the TV industry.
I left college and went to work for television companies doing TV commercials and advertisements in local TV studios. I could do that because my high school in Shepparton got a government grant for a TV studio in the 80s.
We had two computers, and I put both of those computers to work.
For me, this is why coding programs for kids are so important these days. Knowing you could make [something] better gives you the confidence to change the future, and my knowledge of coding left me with enough skill to know I could make the TV industry better.
In the early days, the thing that struck me was that I had to do a lot of learning to work out what I had to do to make what I wanted to make. My job was to educate myself, so I was reading everything I could get my hands on.
I did learn quickly though, through trade shows and even from studying economic history from 200 years ago. Eventually, I got enough knowledge to put it all together.
We got it all up and running in a garage, and on the very day we got the product finished, a facility nearby burned down and smashed up the facility next door. When you think it could never get any harder, it does.
My outlook is that I always want to wind up with knowledge at the end of it. Even if the product doesn’t work, at the end of the day at least we learnt something.
Pretty much as soon as we launched our first product it began to sell, and in the first month, we sold 163 of our capture cards. That brought in much-needed money, as we were struggling to buy components, but we made it work.
I find that I’m in a constant race with my own mind, as once you release a product you have to start to hate it. You keep thinking about what new feature it doesn’t have, and then you worry that no one will buy the current product and you have to get the next one out.
That’s the big thing on my mind. Once you have a new idea, the old idea becomes obsolete.
Today, the business is both significantly different but also the same in terms of our fundamental philosophy.
There’s just such a large team of talented people here that if I’m running the business properly, I’m the dumbest guy here. Whenever I have a problem or something I don’t understand, I can just go ask someone who knows.
We’ve had a core role in helping the Australian TV industry grow.
When we started there were only one or two high-end production studios in Melbourne, and they were the only ones doing it at a professional level. Now you have a massive broadcasting landscape, it’s a much bigger industry and it’s available to everybody.
And we didn’t just affect the TV industry, we affected all high-end broadcasting. Eighty percent of feature films now use our products.
We have made seven acquisitions since 2001, and they’re always based on opportunities that come along. When the Global Financial Crisis hit, we were just following along, and it turned out we were the only ones in the industry who had any money.
We actually sold quite strongly during that time because people’s ambition never has a recession. Creative people use those events to show people what they can do.
We had money coming in, and we weren’t exposed to any serious problems, so when [image corrector software] DaVinci popped up we were able to acquire them.
All other acquisitions were a bit like that, where there were advantages on both sides. A lot of companies come to us and want us to acquire them, so then we have to pick the right ones, which is always a hard decision.
For the ones we do acquire it’s not always easy as sometimes people have to be let go. But at the end of it, we always have respect for what the original founders have done and how they’ve kept the brand alive.
People forget the founders of these companies have a vision as well, so we want to get them back to their original vision and get them feeling the excitement for the product and brand.
All of our acquisitions couldn’t be any more different, but after you’ve done a couple you get the hang of how it works. The only consistency is that there’s no consistency.
DaVinci lost almost one million dollars in the month before we acquired them, and it took the most amount of work out of all of our acquisitions. But in the end, what we did and the product we made changed people’s opinions of what we could do as a company.
All the films our products have been involved with have fantastic levels of workmanship, especially the ones that win Academy Awards, but the thing that always impresses me the most is when you see the 16-year-old kid who’s using your products to do a TV commercial with McDonald’s.
That’s the thing that really makes it worthwhile. It’s about making the pie bigger, not just fighting over it. The pie can always be bigger.
When I see that 16-year-old kid doing something wonderful that means our products are global and available to anyone. Two years later I bumped into [that kid] in LA, and he was working on a feature film.
As we grow, we want to culturally stay exactly the same, but at the same time, as we get bigger we have to manage to be bigger creatively. That can become tough.
What we want to do is make sure from a customer’s point of view we live up to their expectations and blow their minds. We have so many wonderful people here that if we don’t do something amazing with that then we’ve let ourselves down.
We have to learn from what we do and from that do more amazing things, and that will come with growth. We don’t look at the now, we only learn from the past and think about the future.
Make sure as a business owner, whatever you’re doing you’re striving to revolutionise things. It could be just running your local train station, but make sure from the customer’s point of view it’s a revolution, not just more revenue.
Let yourself try something revolutionary and screw it up, and then think about what you can learn from it.
When you’re hiring, hire people who are at the coalface, not MBAs. We have engineers running engineering, so get a group of people who have done the job and train them.
Don’t try and get a guy that looks good in a suit and has all his teeth. It’s the guy who staggers in in jeans who has the valuable knowledge.
Anyone can put on a suit, but the people with the skills should be in power. Typically people who have the power aren’t at the coalface, so don’t let business culture infiltrate you.
Be blissfully happy with naivety, because it’s awesome.