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August 1, 2016 Focus on Small Business & Entrepreneurs

From Skyscope's founding to acquisition, an entrepreneurial oral history

PHOTO/COURTESY (From left) Gabe Gerzon, Sam Shepler and Alex Dunn -- founders of Skyscope -- work with clients to provide edgy corporate videos. In four years, the trio went from starting the company to acquisition by a Boston-area firm.
PHOTO/COURTESY (From left) Gabe Gerzon, Sam Shepler and Alex Dunn in the early days of starting their company, which was founded in 2012.

GABE GERZON: Entrepreneurship grew on me as a necessity ... I didn't set out to be an entrepreneur, but I set out to do great things.

In 2012 three college students from Clark University took the plunge and formed their own company. With two cameras to their name and one cheap apartment in Worcester, the friends formed the media production company Skyscope. What played out over the next four years included an all-Ramen noodle diet, sweating over the next deal, selling the company and now an uncertain future. But in the early days it was three friends and a push to create something.

SAM SHEPLER (CEO): I've always found the idea of bringing something from nothing and solving challenges with a team is just really fun and really rewarding when you can add value to other people's lives … It's like a treasure hunt, but you don't necessarily have the map.

GERZON (creative director): I never, before starting Skyscope, considered myself an entrepreneur… But you have to remember it was 2011 and 2012, and a lot of our friends were graduating and freaking out.

ALEX DUNN (chief operating officer): Why don't we just try it? We had a place where we were each spending $300 on rent and we didn't have a ton of debt … It made a ton of sense. Even if it failed miserably after a year, we would just go get a job. There were very few consequences for trying.

That isn't to say that they dove in without doing their research. The trio looked around at the market and examined where there was a need that fit with their skills. The market made the decision for them on that, and they found their opening in humanizing corporate videos. The production company soon found a handhold in the growing Boston tech market producing testimonial videos for startups.

GERZON: There was this confluence of events that businesses need video, the cost of video was coming down, and the bandwidth and ability to play video online is going on. Plus, the existing video out there was generally pretty poorly produced and overly corporate and stuck in this inauthentic '80s, '90s used-car-dealer vibe … The more we did research, the more we became convinced … that we could crack the industry and disrupt what was going on.

SHEPLER: It isn't mystical… It's basically find the problem and solve the problem for a customer who has an ability to pay… You can solve a problem that doesn't actually exist. You can solve it well on a technical level, but if there are not enough people with problem, then it doesn't matter.

DUNN: If you have a website, you need a video. That is just common knowledge these days… We realized that people needed video, and we could serve a big market.

GERZON: We sensed an opportunity, and we all just really went with it ... We could come in a little bit higher than your cousin who has a camera, but lower than an agency. There wasn't, at the time, a whole lot of options in that medium-price range.

What followed from there was the toil and tribulations that accompany any startup.

DUNN: Being an entrepreneur isn't about choosing your own hours. It's about choosing the four hours you want to sleep every night… I literally ate Ramen noodles for six months straight. No joke. It was probably the worse thing I have ever done for my health, but I had $7 in my bank account for two months.

SHEPLER: We were doing a lot of hustling and a lot of going into Boston and a ton of networking events.

GERZON: Everything is a learning experience, and it is really sink or swim to be in those meetings. In some of the early ones, it feels like you fall flat on your face.

SHEPLER: Embracing constraints was big. We did not have a lot of equipment, so we embraced that and made videos edgier and energetic by shooting by hand … We were intentionally matching up our limitations and turning them into a strength

DUNN: There was a point where we frantically called everyone we knew and said we will make you a video for $500. We just needed to keep the lights on… They saved our business more or less, and then two weeks later we closed a $20,000 contract.

As things stabilized for the company, hires were made and the trio expanded their staff and their offices in Worcester, growing along with the company.

DUNN: We realized that the tech market worked really well [for us] and then we kept going bigger, bigger, bigger and now we are working on a project for Google… People just trust us now that we have video and have names under our belt.

SHEPLER: We all had been or became experts in our own areas, and we all shared a lot of the same values, which is so important to have.

GERZON: One thing they don't tell you when you start a business that becomes successful is there is this quiet transition from doing the work all the time to managing the work … It's really difficult because, automation is the wrong word, but you want your brain in everyone else's so the aesthetic is the same and the quality is there.

In December of 2015, the founders re-evaluated their position, realizing they were all open to selling the company. In April, they were acquired by Matter Communication out of Boston. It was an acquire-and-hire situation, with the trio and the vast majority of Skyscope's 10 employees transitioning over to Matter.

DUNN: The risk grows exponentially as the reward grows linearly in service-based businesses, for the most part… We didn't want to do it forever, and it's really hard to shut down a business you've started; and it's not good for your resume or your employees.

GERZON: I was looking for that mentor and that person with more experience than me that I could learn from. It was great being around all these talented creatives that are able to provide perspective on things.

SHEPLER: We moved from checkers, and now we are playing chess.

DUNN: I'm working for Matter now… It takes away the risk that keeps me up at night: Am I going to be able to pay my employees this month? Am I going to have an employee quit? I don't have to worry about that stuff as much as I used to.

The acquisition has opened a door to an uncertain future. While their roles at Matter afford them continued growth opportunities, both Shepler and Dunn have a further entrepreneurial itch to scratch, although the form it will take has yet to be determined. Gerzon appears enthusiastic about his future with video production.

SHEPLER: Matter is still a very entrepreneurial company, so to their credit, I don't feel like I am losing much of that at all because they are so entrepreneurial... [I'm] excited to do things I haven't been able to do with Skyscope in video production with the resources of a larger team and larger organization.

GERZON: I feel I have graduated into a role I didn't initially see myself interested in, which is finding clients and pitching clients. I see myself interested in that now… and finding companies across the country that want innovative video and making that happen as the producer.

DUNN: I have absolutely no game plan except working at Matter for now... One day I will hopefully start another business, with Sam ideally. We work really well together and have a yin-and-yang partnership.

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