00:05 Kurt Baker: Good morning, and welcome back to another edition of Master Your Finances, presented by Certified Wealth Management and Investment. I am Kurt Baker, a Certified Financial Planner professional located in Princeton, New Jersey. I can be reached through our website, which is www.cwmi.us. Or you can contact me directly at 609-716-4700. This week, very pleased to have with us Robert Blanda, who’s raised in Voorhees, New Jersey. After graduating from Triton Regional High School in 1990, Robert was an intern at Warner Bros., Geffen Records and PolyGram Records in New York City. And then attended Rutledge University, which is no longer in existence, on a 100% paid scholarship from the IBM, Novell owned and accredited school in Atlanta, Georgia, earning an accelerated certified Network Engineering degree in 1994. Robert continued to work with IBM EduQuest, and for nearly 11 years before setting out on a four-year consulting journey across the United States for companies such as Air Products, CoreStates Bank, and Merrill Lynch. Today, Robert and his corporate partner, Laurie Steidle, own and operate CaddisArt, a debt-free digital marketing and cinematic video production company in Florence, New Jersey.
01:37 Kurt Baker: Robert, appreciate you coming on today. I know we have a lot to talk about. I guess, we could start by maybe giving us a little bit of your background on how you got drawn into this business. It sounds like you weren’t on the farm. I’m gonna guess you didn’t do a lot of network engineering as a [chuckle] farmer’s son while growing up. I’m just gonna make a guess there.
01:58 Robert Blanda: No, but thanks for having me on, this is a great opportunity. And it’s nice to talk to you again, Kurt. Yeah, so yeah, growing up on a farm had nothing to do with my education, yeah. But it certainly formed a very solid work ethic, that’s for sure. Up at 4:00 AM and bed at 9 o’clock. And even during the school year, it was very difficult. So, it was a very, very hard childhood, working one-and-a-half jobs, I’ll say, and going to school and still trying to get straight As and so on and so forth. So that right there should teach you a little bit about how often my weekends even… I’m up at 4:00, you know?
02:39 Kurt Baker: Well, that’s good, yeah. Well, good work ethic’s great. Honestly, I think that’s a key thing just for all of us. The more that you do… The more habits we develop that are positive habits, and work ethic is a great one, it just becomes part of your routine. And so, you get up and you jump right in, you get it done, and it sounds like you were working a lot of hours. And I know on a farm, the things don’t wait for you, right? I mean, if you need to get the eggs, they’re not gonna wait… Right? [laughter] They’ll just keep coming whether you like it or not, you’re gonna have to go pick them up, right? Crops need to be taken care of. They have their own little schedule, so they don’t really… You can’t adjust. You gotta work through the schedule and it’s gotta get done.
03:17 Robert Blanda: Yeah.
03:18 Kurt Baker: And so, it’s obvious. And that’s one of the main things I think a lot of entrepreneurs have trouble learning initially is that, you have all this freedom, but then, you have all this freedom, so you have to set your own schedules and you have to really do all that. So, setting up a good worth ethic and getting good habits in place early, I’m sure, has been very helpful to you throughout the years. So, how did you transition from that? And being a restaurant owner, I’m assuming that a lot of stuff you grew on the farm, maybe did that go into the restaurant that your father had?
03:44 Robert Blanda: Yeah, yeah, some of it. Not all of it, of course.
03:47 Kurt Baker: Okay.
03:48 Robert Blanda: But… And again, I probably spent way more time at the restaurant than I did on the farm. In fact, there was people managing the farm at the same time, so I can’t take absolute credit for that. But yeah, once I was ready to graduate high school, I had to make a decision about what I was going to do. And I certainly didn’t wanna work in the restaurant business my whole life, because I know people that have, and while being a noble profession, it is hard work. And I didn’t see myself gaining any kind of super salary [chuckle] by working in a restaurant.
04:20 Kurt Baker: Right.
04:21 Robert Blanda: I give them all the credit, by the way, people that have owned them for 20 some odd years, and I don’t know how they do it, I don’t know how they do it.
04:30 Kurt Baker: I absolutely agree with that. I know a number of people who are in the restaurant business, they work very, very hard for what they do. I’m so glad they’re out there doing that every day, ’cause I enjoy going to the restaurants, that’s for sure, and I know it is a hard job. So, you grew up with it. So you pivoted at that point. So when you got out of high school, what drew to the tech side, it looks like? Kinda got drawn into that a little bit, right?
04:49 Robert Blanda: Well, I always loved the audio-video side of the world. And when I went to work for a local contractor who had contracts with these record companies in New York City, they decided that once I was able to, for the beginning of the summer, so to speak, they would shoot me off to New York City. And there was a shared apartment in New York City that the interns would use. So, the interesting part about that is that I actually got to work at not just Warner Bros., and not just Geffen, or not just PolyGram. And I think Atlantic Records just spewed in there somewhere, but it gave me the opportunity to meet all the people at all four companies, number one, and see what they were doing. So, excuse me, a lot of times, the [chuckle] Geffen would ask me what PolyGram was doing and, “What are they working on today?” Because they were competitors, but we were still contractors for all four companies. [laughter] It was interesting. But most of my days were spent splicing tape, which by today’s standards is pretty boring. It doesn’t even exist anymore.
05:51 Kurt Baker: Actual tape like the old days? You’d actually splice it together.
05:54 Robert Blanda: Yeah. Yeah, it was 32-track, two-inch tape.
05:56 Kurt Baker: Oh, my goodness.
05:57 Robert Blanda: Yeah, it was interesting.
05:58 Kurt Baker: That was a skill. I remember that, that’s a real skill.
06:02 Robert Blanda: I had razor cuts on my fingers, and yeah, after a full day. But it was oddly enough, we shared this apartment, which was above a deli on, I believe it was 8th Avenue. And every time you’d come home, it smelt like onions, you know?
06:15 Kurt Baker: Oh, my goodness.
06:17 Robert Blanda: Everything smelt like onions. [laughter] But, yeah. But it was a good background. It laid a really good foundation for all that. So, I had met a team from IBM that offered me some opportunities to get an education and to work for them and this was their EduQuest division, which was the direct competitor of Apple at the time to get into the K-12 market. So, in fact IBM EduQuest did really well for a long time. They were out selling Apple II products in the classroom and teamed up with Novell at the time. They were creating what’s called courseware, it’s a software for K-12. And we would have to go out and install the servers. And eventually I had a team of my own, and it was like 12 guys and me. I would set up the server, and they would do all the work-stations, the cabling for each classroom. And then we’d have to connect all the classrooms.
07:22 Robert Blanda: Now, this is way before Ethernet even existed. This was, it was called 10BASE2, which is… It was very antiquated BNC kind of telephone cable that we would have to literally get up in the ceilings and crawl from one classroom to the other and drop the cable down and run it from there. So it was very interesting, very back in the day. So yeah, I did that for a long time. And during the time that I worked for IBM they sent me down to Atlanta. And it wasn’t one long four-year stretch. It was back and forth. But they paid for my education and paid for me to get my CNE, which is the Certified Network Engineering program that they had which today really is kinda worthless, because the technology has changed so much. But yeah, they… But they paid all that and I made a salary, which was really nice, so.
08:14 Kurt Baker: No, that’s fantastic. Yeah, you’re bringing back memories. I remember when Novell was like the network, right?
08:20 Robert Blanda: Yeah.
08:21 Kurt Baker: I mean, it was like, that’s what everybody wanted set up. And nowadays, they send you the equipment, you plug-in and it seems to work pretty well, at least from a basic standpoint for most people. I know it gets more sophisticated than that, but we’ve come a long way from having to spend all that time setting these networks up. It was a real… You had to pay people to get it up and running. It wasn’t something you could just plug in and have it work.
08:43 Robert Blanda: Right. Right. That’s true.
08:43 Kurt Baker: Yes, I understand that. Yeah, so it’s great. So basically you had this great opportunity, you went to New York City as an intern and you met all these people and you found that that’s where you got the opportunities. So, I think a lot of times young people think, what do I do to get the next job? But you put yourself in a position to meet a lot of people, and I think that’s really key for young people in the networking. And ultimately that led to the EduQuest over at IBM and really started your whole career it sounds like, right?
09:09 Robert Blanda: Yeah. It was definitely a jump-off point, that’s for sure.
09:12 Kurt Baker: Yeah. So that’s amazing. So once you were with IBM, I don’t think you’re there anymore. So what happened after IBM?
09:18 Robert Blanda: After IBM I decided to go back to consulting a little bit with a company called CompuCom, and they still exist today. In fact, my brother worked for them for a short period of time. CompuCom was… They had dipped their toes in a lot of different companies and one of them was Merrill Lynch. And I remember being in the private portfolio group. It was two doors down from the trading desks. So it was always kinda noisy, the day traders. And I had some idle time. And really back in the time… This is when the Internet is fresh and brand new. And so, I started to really dislike IT support. It was taking a toll on me, it was extra hours, it was a lot of frustration especially when you’re dealing with financial people that need their computers up and running. So, at some point I had sat down at my desk and had some idle time and I learned about this new thing called HTML. And I was working in the first versions of Photoshop and I decided to maybe try to make my own website, ’cause maybe now I can crack out that creative side of what I was doing. ‘Cause let’s be honest, there’s not a whole lot of creative in IT. So… [chuckle] There really isn’t. Unless you figure out a great way to wrap a cable which is pretty boring, but…
10:45 Kurt Baker: Yeah. Normally when you get creative in IT, it doesn’t work out well.
10:49 Robert Blanda: Yeah. Well, the best part about having a creative side… Yeah, about having a creative side and having IT experience is there’s not many of us out there. It’s usually one or the other, you know?
11:02 Kurt Baker: That’s true.
11:03 Robert Blanda: You ask for a web designer and you’ll get a graphics person, you ask for a web developer, you got a programmer. So there’s two different people all together.
11:11 Kurt Baker: Well, originally to start up a website was not like it is now. You really had to be pretty technically savvy to build a website. That was not… Even today there’s a lot of tech side to it, but you could put up a basic site pretty easily now. But a lot of that’s template and people forget just how complicated these sites are behind the scenes. They’re actually pretty complicated.
11:30 Robert Blanda: Yeah. So, in fact, [chuckle] the only major corporations really had a public-facing website such as… Merrill had their own. In fact, they had an Internet and an Extranet. And then you had… You know, the major companies like AT&T. So, of course, I’m sitting at my desk while I’m learning this stuff. So there’s a protocol called FTP, which is just transfer file, transfer protocol. It’s a way to get your local files on your computer up to that web server so they can be served to the public. So, I looked at the AT&T website which back then was very, very rudimentary… It was just rudimentary… Oh, it was awful. It was just bad graphics and… But it served its purpose at the time. So I said, “Let me see what makes this thing tick.” And I found the file path to the server and [chuckle] I’m sad to say that I actually broke their website.
12:21 Kurt Baker: Uh-oh.
12:22 Robert Blanda: Yeah, yeah. But thankfully, there wasn’t… Well, there wasn’t much cyber security back then. In fact, there was actually a Unix server that was just left open for anybody to get in and that’s exactly what I did. I just wanted to poke around and see what made it tick. And incidentally I deleted some files and moved the directory by accident or something along those lines. And I went back to check the website on the public site again and it wasn’t there. It was producing a 404 error, which means it couldn’t be found.
12:50 Kurt Baker: Right.
12:55 Robert Blanda: So here I am…
12:56 Kurt Baker: Well…
12:56 Robert Blanda: Wait. Here I am at Merrill Lynch I’m looking over my shoulder going, “They know where this came from.” If they traced it back, they could figure that out.
13:05 Kurt Baker: Sure.
13:05 Robert Blanda: So the next three days I’m scared out of my wits, because now I’m gonna get arrested or something. Nothing ever happened, but…
13:12 Kurt Baker: Yeah. They probably fixed it. Once they figured it out, they probably fixed it as you know. But Rob, this is fantastic. Now you broke the site, we’ll figure out what you learned from that I guess and we’ll come back in just a few minutes. You’re listening to Master Your Finances. We’ll be right back.
13:35 Kurt Baker: Welcome back. You’re listening to Master Your Finances. I am Kurt Baker here with Rob Blanda, and we’re talking about your transition, I guess. At this point you went from tech into learning a little bit of HTML, and before the break, I guess, you accidentally brought down the AT&T website for a period of time.
13:55 Robert Blanda: Yeah, unfortunately.
13:56 Kurt Baker: But we learn, right? Unless you tinker, you don’t learn. A lot of people forget that that’s actually a key to learning, right, put your hands on stuff, play around a little, you figure out what works, what doesn’t work. Ultimately, that does make you a better web designer. [chuckle] Unfortunately for AT&T, you learned on their site, but… So once you kinda… It sounds like you really got into this. You’re using your tech side and creative side together, which… The web is excellent for that, right? You kinda get a blend of both of those. So, what did you do next after you started learning about web design and getting better at it?
14:26 Robert Blanda: Well, after… I think after I… Again, I’m still networking this whole time and meeting new people and trying to break into that creative business, which I knew off the bat would be less money than actually working in IT. ‘Cause I was really headed towards upper tier positions in different companies that I could have taken, I just wasn’t ready to do that. So, I had met some people that introduced me to other web developers and then… You go visit their offices and they… It’s like, not to use that same analogy again, but it was like Apple versus IBM, where you had the creative people and then you had the tech people, but they’re working in the same office. And let’s be honest with you, it’s apples and oranges, to be honest. Trying to get those people to get along and work together, that’s a whole different ballgame.
15:21 Robert Blanda: But recognize the fact that they are two separate entities trying to create one product. So, I really spent a lot of time with the creative people there, and eventually I took some part-time work with a company in Cherry Hill, they’re no longer around. But I was their… I ended up being their lead graphic designer, and I worked hand-in-hand with the development team to make products that they had customers for. So, I really dove hard into Adobe Photoshop in its infancy stages, back to Version… Oh, gee, this was before the CS line, before the Creative Cloud. It was like Version 2 or 3, I can’t even remember. That’s made quite a lot of changes over the years. But once I became an expert on that, I was able to share that and still understand the tech people and create standards for that company for file naming schemes and to keep things organized on the servers and so on and so forth. So, I became a pretty used asset. I’ll say “used,” because they just kept yanking me in different directions.
16:31 Robert Blanda: But after that, I said, I can really… Now I don’t need any of these people to be successful anymore. So I kinda branched off and left that job to start my own adventure. But prior to that, I had to build an e-commerce website. So, they were literally selling products on the website, and photography became a part of my everyday. So you go out and get yourself a good camera, and at the time it was switching between film and digital. It was just that crossover period. Went out and got some great camera gear, then later switched over to digital. Literally became a photographer. And you don’t just become a photographer. I did my homework, I did my research, I worked with great photographers doing everything from product photography to executive headshots, weddings… And Kurt, I’ll never do another wedding again if they paid me a million dollars.
17:29 Kurt Baker: I’ve heard that before.
17:34 Robert Blanda: So again, now we’re talking all this technology and mending it together, and I… Back it was 2004 at the time. And I said, “I’m gonna start my own company. That’s it. I’m gonna be in business for myself, and I’m gonna try this on my own.” And I had a little backup from IBM in the bank account just in case. So, long story short, it was pretty successful. When I say pretty successful, it was more than I expected. And back then, if you were earning $50,000, $60,000 and paying your bills and I was working from home, it was worth it. It was worth every penny.
18:09 Kurt Baker: Right.
18:10 Robert Blanda: So… Or every minute, I should say, ’cause I worked long hard hours. And my current wife at the time was also working from home. So, of course, we were at each other’s throats. So, we ended up buying an office, not buying, but renting an office in Sewell, New Jersey, which is down south Jersey. And I hired a couple of people to help me out, because we were starting to get busy.
18:35 Robert Blanda: Now, we actually shared that office with another company, which was an IT company and they were feeding us business. So now we’re starting to get really busy and I honestly was overwhelmed. I started hiring more people and then… You have to figure out the skill-set that you really are looking for, but you won’t know that until you get them in there. So we had… It was a young woman from Korea who barely spoke English but was one of my most valuable employees because she really knew code in and out. So she was my left hand. But my right hand was more of a project manager and she was great with the clients. And so she was my brick wall between having to talk to the clients and allowed me to do the production work. And oddly enough, she had left for a teaching gig sometime short after that. And now I think almost 15 years later she’s now back with CaddisArt working with us full time and she has a part ownership in the company. If anybody has called our office and talked to Laurie, she’s just something else. I could not do this job without her, hands down.
19:54 Kurt Baker: You brought up a lot of interesting things as far as starting up and transitioning from a concept to saying, “I’m gonna do this.” But I noticed a couple of pieces in there you put in that are really critical. One is IBM, you had a little bit of a back-up… You had a little bit of a cushion there.
20:09 Robert Blanda: Yeah.
20:09 Kurt Baker: Also it looks like you set up some kind of an affinity relationship with this IT company where they could help to feed you some business. So you, through your networking, it looks like that’s a really big part of this. One is you financially you had a little bit of a back-up just in case. There is a start-up phase, regardless of what you’re doing. When you transition from working for somebody into your own business, there’s always a little a bit of a dip until things really get rolling. Even if you start off immediately, ’cause you still gotta bill, you still gotta get paid, you still got to do the project. So sometimes people underestimate that, but it sounds like you planned for that. But you also were networking in order to… The IT… I think that was great. So how do you… And the other thing I saw is that it sounds like you found some appropriate talent right away. So you wanna touch on a little bit how you put all those pieces in place before you actually stepped off and said, “Okay, I’m on my own now.” You probably did some… It sounds like you did a little work ahead of time on that. Am I wrong?
21:02 Robert Blanda: Yeah. I was doing side work at night time. And that was great… It was a great opportunity to fail because I had that fall back. So if I didn’t know how to do something, it gave me time to learn it. If it didn’t exist, it gave me time to write it. And as I did that, I was reaching out onto these Bolton board systems and talking to people, and I kept it local to New Jersey. So I had the opportunity to meet people that were local. So after I started making money, I’m like, “Do you want some part-time work?” So I ended up with ultimately, I think we got five or six people once we were in Sewell. And some part-timers, some full-timers come and go. And with that type of business, since it’s new, you have a lot of turnover. You don’t know what their capabilities are until you really put them in that line. But that’s pretty much how we got there. The focus in the beginning was governmental contracts, mainly municipals and counties. And we did… And there’s 52 municipalities in New Jersey. And it was our goal to hit every single one of them. And we did hit every one of them, we didn’t bring them all home ’cause there was two other companies that were competing for that business. And I’ll never forget it.
22:19 Robert Blanda: You end up at a trade show like the New Jersey League of Municipalities. That was our biggie. We always brought home a lot from that because we would show off how to do… How to build websites for those clients, specifically, with the code book available and a registration process and then you broke it into all these different categories like pet registrations and bicycle thefts and all these little… And the police department. So they were all a part of this big umbrella of one package that we sell to these townships. And we sold quite a bit of them. To this day, I still have four or five of them and they’ve been with us since day one. But then we started getting the little mom and pops. They come in and they see that price tag and they wanna run. So we had to dumb it down and make a package that we could just easily deploy as a template for the little guys until they want something custom and then they grow with us. And again, there’s companies that started off as mom and pop and they’re bigger now that we still have to this day after 16 years of building websites.
23:29 Kurt Baker: One thing I thought was interesting is you started off with government. And any time I hear people talk about dealing with government agencies, they talk about bureaucracy, they talk about how long it takes, how difficult it is to deal with them. It sounds like you targeted them initially. Was there a specific reason that you thought that was… I know it sounds like you set up a template for everybody, which it sounds like that’s a great business plan. But was there a reason you said, “Let’s go after the municipalities?”
23:53 Robert Blanda: Actually, I don’t remember the decision to do that. But I knew that they were lacking in that area already, number one. And number two, it was a bigger business model that had the opportunity to attract county level and then state level and so on and so forth. So I thought there was an opportunity for growth within our company by showing what we could do.
24:15 Kurt Baker: Okay. So you saw a need and that often happens. The private entity starts to develop websites or whatever the case may be, new technology and the government agencies tend to lag. They don’t wanna be first in ’cause they don’t know what’s going on. They’re like, “I don’t wanna do that yet. I don’t know what’s gonna happen.” [laughter] Once it’s a proven thing, like, “Okay, we’re ready.” And people are complaining, “Hey, look, I can’t register my dog on your site. Why do I have to come down now? Everywhere else go, I can do it online.” And so they go, “Okay. I guess we’ll update and we’ll spend the money and we’ll do it.” But it sounds like it was very successful. And so how did you find that just as a business dealing with the municipalities. It sounds like… How did you find that to be?
24:52 Robert Blanda: It’s funny because a lot of, I’ll say… First of all, the whole voucher process was new to me, a purchase order voucher, back and forth before you got a check. But we wanted to get them off and running quickly. Excuse me. We could essentially build a website as long as we had their information and have it up and running within a week. And they’re rather large websites with a lot of different departments and… Yeah. And everybody was net 120, even though our invoices said net 30. [laughter] Sometimes it was tough getting paid. Again, some townships are better than others and some would pay right away and I never had a problem. Sprinkle a few schools in there that we did too. They tend to be the worst getting that cash flow to be steady.
25:44 Kurt Baker: That’s the bureaucracy. I guess that’s what I was alluding to is that some… It just takes a long time for some of the processes to take place.
25:51 Robert Blanda: Especially when you gotta make payroll.
25:53 Kurt Baker: Yeah. You just gotta plan for all that stuff ahead of time. But overall, it sounded like you set up a good template, you ran with it. And so excellent idea, great way to get started. We’ll take a little break here. You’ve been listening to Master Your Finances. We’ll be right back.
26:16 Kurt Baker: Welcome back. You’re listening to Master Your Finances. I’m Kurt Baker with Robert Blanda of CaddisArt and last segment, we’re talking a little bit about how you got started, how you focused on municipalities and instead of really a robust template for them, went out, sold to them, went to their actual association type meetings which I’m a huge believer in. We do that for a non-profit. Go to where your event… Go to where your clients are right? And find them and create something niche for them and you did that. So after you had a huge initial success, how did things go from there? I know every business seems to have ebbs in flow. You got that going. So what did you do next? Did you find any challenges after that?
26:54 Robert Blanda: Yeah of course. I think every business goes through this, this little dip. We found that the payroll was killing us a little bit. That was first. So as much as I absolutely hate to let good people go, you kinda have to at some point. So I think we ended up after taking a dip and we had problems getting payment from certain customers and of course I’m back to doing all the production works so I of course I’m not out there selling. So it was kind of a chain reaction as to why the business wasn’t doing well and now in hindsight I’m looking back and I know what I did wrong which was a great learning experience. So at one point, it was getting bad enough that I had to make sure that the company stayed on its feet and I didn’t have to let all of my employees go. So one of the important things that I think I did during that time was I said, “Okay, who’s the biggest liability here?” And that was me. That was me, I was the one that I was making most. I was…
27:58 Robert Blanda: So what I did was I said what happened if I took myself out of the equation? I put someone in charge to do the everyday administrative tasks. I put someone in charge of managing the project itself from a production standpoint and then I said let me go out, I’ll get a full-time job so I can take myself off the payroll entirely. So that freed up some of the finances to keep the company afloat without having to let the people go which was my biggest concern. So I did that. I got a full-time job and I was happy I had now I have benefits and everything through this other company and all that pressure was relieved from CaddisArt and now it started to run pretty well. It was self-sustaining with monthly fees coming in on a regular basis for hosting and all the domains, all the recurring fees and then put on top of that all the new production work coming in. It was starting to work well and I was still in touch probably not as much as I should have been. So when I got a full-time job and actually it was a couple in a row until I found what I really liked and that led us back to I guess February 2019 was when I officially came back on full time.
29:21 Robert Blanda: So I decided I needed to just go and make sure that everything was up and running the way it should be and to my surprise, it really wasn’t. There was a lot of accounting problems, there were… Certain jobs weren’t ensured properly and anyway long story short, there was issues that had to be fixed before I knew I could really make sure that this business was where it should be. And I did, I cracked down and what I did was I only… I had to let someone go. That particular person was running the day-to-day and not doing a very good job in my opinion. So after I let that person go all this administrative fell back on my lap once more and I said I need to A, get some retainer clients to keep that money flowing in which I did and hire a project manager to make sure that everything that was being requested of us got done. So that person was fulfilled by a very, very nice young lady that we hired before Laurie came back and she did a fantastic job.
30:30 Robert Blanda: But after that, Laurie started freeing up all of my time so I could do several things. A, develop new products, B, get some of the hardcore production work done that I just didn’t either trust anyone else to do or felt that no one else could do it. And so we started developing some new things and then we also started to change the focus of the business because again going back to my photography days, I love that creative side. I still wanted to do graphics and video editing and grab some good camera gear. So that’s exactly what we did. Now, we didn’t drop any specific function of our business. We just added.
31:12 Robert Blanda: So if you look at CaddisArt today, we’ve got a whole plethora of skillsets that are handled by either me or Laurie or someone else. We’ve got some contractors coming in that help us out on occasion and we try to keep that overhead low and now we’re hiring camera operators which unfortunately are come and go, they’re high turnover rate because it’s one of those jobs that pretty much… It’s almost like working at McDonalds where once you learn the job, you can just pick up and go somewhere else and do it whereas the production work and the graphics and the video editing and the style that I wanted which was cinematic and I’ll get in that in a minute, I wanted to maintain my level of creative process. So I had to really make sure I depended on specific people to do specific things. So we basically filtered out everything, let people go and we said we gotta start from scratch.
32:13 Kurt Baker: Yeah, you just pointed out a number of things that I think are important for entrepreneurs to understand or people starting a business. One is that you were able to set up the business. It may not have been a hundred percent in a fashion that you could step out and literally go get a full-time job. Although when you came back it wasn’t being run quite the way you wanted to which means you probably didn’t have the ideal person in place but that’s actually what they tell us as entrepreneurs is at some point you wanna get your business to the level where you could literally not have to be there and it would still run and the fact that you replaced your day-to-day person, brought in the project manager and now you have Laurie in there helping you out which now allows you to go out and focus on new products and doing projects that basically your highest and best use, things that you can do that maybe nobody else would be able to do and these are all lessons that you can talk about him all day long, but it’s really until you live it, I think you really understand it. In my opinion. I know that I’ve been through many of these cycles, and I understand that. What are your thoughts about that?
33:15 Robert Blanda: Yes, I think what you pointed out is exactly what I was trying to say, then you just said it better. [laughter] But this also prompted some conversations with our CPA who we’d had since the day we incorporated. And he said because I had all these accounting problems now. So of course, the whole QuickBooks thing is a mess. It’s not matching up with the bankers. I’m going crazy. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. And there was some problems that I’d care not to divulge in this conversation. But today, they’re all fixed. So once we got all those problems fixed, I sat down with my accountant and said, “What can we do to make sure that every single time we do something great, we can invest back in the company again so we can do more great stuff?”
34:05 Robert Blanda: And he gave me some great pointers, some great tips. And remember, we are… We’ve always been, almost always, 100% debt-free. And not a lot of companies can say that. The only thing we had at one point was a revolving line of credit for payroll when our payroll was high. So other than that, we’ve never taken a loan. We paid cash for everything. We made sure that we were very frugal in our spending and made sure that, for instance, our hosting firms, where we host all of our websites, we got the best deal on. We shopped around who had the best speeds, who had the best this, that and the other thing. So we were very frugal and we absolutely stayed and to this day 100% debt-free. We don’t owe anyone anything.
34:48 Kurt Baker: Another thing I think that you pointed out that I didn’t mention was that you started setting up people on retainers. And I preach this all the time to small business owners, including our nonprofits. Like, you have to develop, in my opinion, you have to find ways to develop a recurring stream of reliable income just for yourself or your business, something that’s pretty reliable. And I think retainers maybe helped you with that, I know. Subscriptions, there’s lots of things that most businesses can do to try to encourage their current client base to continue to engage with them in one way, shape, or form, ’cause they probably want to. If they like you and you’re doing a good job, they would love to continue that relationship. So I think that’s a really important recurring… Restaurants learn this. Most of the business comes from repeat clients, things like that. There’s a lot of businesses out there that you point to it and really until they get that recurring stream coming in, they’re struggling ’cause as soon as something dip, they’re in trouble because all of a sudden, “Wow, what’s going on?”
35:48 Robert Blanda: Yeah. So there’s two sides to that Kurt. There’s the hosting fees. And then some of our customers pay monthly and some pay yearly. The hosting fees were the smaller side of that. So if you take all of our hosting fees from one year, it probably would equal one month of one of our good retainer clients. So it was still nice. It was the butter on the bread, but it wasn’t the bread and butter. And by the way, kudos, and thanks to the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber for keeping me on. I literally wanted to get back to running my business and they’re like, “No, no, no. You can’t leave us.” So we figured out a way to make it work for both of us. So again, they’re one of our retainer clients, and they’re great folks over there and God bless everybody over there. And Peter Crowley especially. A very approachable guy, love him. I absolutely love Peter.
36:44 Kurt Baker: They’re amazing. I agree. I agree.
36:46 Robert Blanda: Jeez. And you know what? They run a neat ship over there. I think it’s very, very… It’s different than any other organisation that I’ve ever worked.
36:51 Kurt Baker: That place has exploded since I’ve been a member. I’ve been a member a little over 10 years, maybe 11 now. And it’s just been amazing. The development and the improvements over the years have just been incredible.
37:01 Robert Blanda: Yes, I agree.
37:01 Kurt Baker: And I know you’ve been part of that.
37:03 Robert Blanda: Well, thanks.
37:03 Kurt Baker: So kudos to you too ’cause I know you’ve been working the framework under there.
37:09 Robert Blanda: Well, yeah. I came in just as a communication specialist, and I ended up showing them like, “No, we could do this here. We don’t have to farm this out. I can do that. I can do this, I can do that.” So everywhere from the website to the graphics to the signage to the even the digital billboards, everything that they needed to do, I had that capability already. And so I think essentially I was saving them a ton of money in staying on board. So when I left, I didn’t leave for any bad blood or whatever. I left because I really wanted to go back and pursue and make sure CaddisArt was back on its feet. So when I left, we talked about it and we decided to make them a retainer client. Now, to this day… I struggled for a long time in the beginning there until Laurie came back.
37:57 Robert Blanda: And then I sat down with Laurie for days and taught her every single thing that I do for the chamber and now she’s doing 90… I’ll say 80-90% of that. And thanks for her because it would be too much for one person to handle, to be honest with you. But you take that, it allows me to go off and film these documentaries and these interviews with people that… By the way, we’re Amazon partners. Amazon says, “We have a filmmaker that’s building this film, but he’s out in California. Can you interview this person?” So I’ll just do that little snippet of work for them. I shoot it off and it ends up in some film. I don’t even know where it goes half the time.
38:37 Kurt Baker: Well, that’s amazing. Yeah. We gotta take a little quick break here. But when we come back, we’ll definitely talk about some things you’ve been doing since you basically went back full-time. And I know the company is expanding and you’re adding a lot of things. And we’ve got the thing, also, how you’ve been managing through a little bit of this disruption, let’s just say over the last few months and what you’ve seen, as far as your company goes and the overall environment. You’re listening to Master Your Finances, we’ll be right back.
39:12 Kurt Baker: Welcome back, you’re listening to Master Your Finances. I’m Kurt Baker here with Rob Blanda of CaddisArt. And before the break, we were talking a little bit about how you had a little bit of a difficult time, you decided to take on a full-time job. And when you came back, just a little while back, a year or so ago, the person you would work for for a little bit, they actually weren’t kind enough, you’d set up a retainer agreement. And so you started setting up different agreements to help you with a base income. And then that allowed you having the structure in place and you hired Laurie and you got some of the people in place that really fixed some of the things that were not operating ideally when you were away.
39:53 Kurt Baker: But that opened up your time to work on some new projects that basically your expertise was needed for those things. So what are some of those things that you found that you could actually do once you kinda got all the other things fixed and you could kinda move forward and all the pieces were where they needed to be.
40:10 Robert Blanda: Yeah, so one of the important things that I probably skipped over was I really have this deep love for video production and documentary storytelling and I had this love for video production in addition to photography and all the other skill sets that we had brought to the table, but I took a different approach to video production as… Than most companies do, and I wanted everything to be like a movie. I wanted it to be cinematic, I wanted it to be very, very visually appealing, it wasn’t just a news camera where you’re just… You’ve got footage and you’re slicing it together and handing it off to the customer. I wanted it to be great, I wanted to learn how to edit in 5.1 Dolby Digital DTS surround sound. I wanted to do it the right way, because I didn’t wanna become a full-time cinematographer, I wanted to mend this piece to what we were doing great already and make it even better and offer more value to what we were doing.
41:12 Robert Blanda: So during that time I had taken some of my own personal money that I had stacked away and I went out and I got some of the best gear that money could buy to accomplish that cinematic look and feel. And as I worked with this equipment, I understood that my existing computers were not up to spec to handle 4K, 6K, 8K cameras because they were just too slow and so there was a couple of things I had to do to make that work. Specifically, I had to invent a product that did not exist. Now, we don’t obviously shoot on film anymore, we don’t use tape anymore, everything’s digital. So we use these cartridges or magazines, we call them with SSD drives in them, they’re very, very fast hard drives without mechanical moving parts and they require very little power. Anyway, at the end of a shoot, if I was out two, three, four days at a shoot, I’d end up with this big pile of magazines now I’ve got to offload it to the server and I’m like, “This is a pain in the butt.” It’s wasting my time, I’m sitting here waiting for things to transcode into the right format that I can edit them in and so on and so forth.
42:22 Robert Blanda: So I went to this little warehouse that was selling a lot of these old computers and server racks, stuff that was really out of date and I mean, I was literally picking up full-blown HP production servers out of a hospital that… For 20 bucks a pop. I bought like five of ’em. So I brought ’em back, some of the parts, I took out and I built my own server, and I built this very interesting, what I call the Adamis 8-bay cage. So I called Adamis, which is the company that we used to record our… It’s the actual item that records our video. So, again, I’m back to holding all these… I’m like, “How I do this?” So I made a cage that you just take all the magazines plop ’em in and the computer says, “Okay, I see what you’re doing here,” and I wrote software that says, “Okay, let me transcode this” and then the next one I’ll do the next one and the next one, and then it puts it on another server transcodes it ready for editing and then when everything is verified that it’s sitting in the right space, it goes back to the cage, formats the drives, you can pull ’em out and you can put ’em right back in the camera again.
43:28 Robert Blanda: So this process literally saved days and days of time. That innovation right there freed me up a little bit more. So the servers would work at night as they’re chewing up the video files and I could just take the drive right back out and go back out and shoot the next day. So it was very important that that be put into place. Now, like I said, I talked to Adamis no product like that exists and they’re… They were very kinda interested in it, I don’t know where it went, I have to follow up, but it’s little things like that and automating the sales process… Not sales processes, production processes through Stream Deck and macros and I’m like king of macros by the way. So I literally…
44:07 Kurt Baker: Yeah, that’s what that sounded like. [laughter]
44:09 Robert Blanda: Yeah.
44:09 Kurt Baker: I don’t know if that’s what that was or not, but yeah, you took a repetitive task, right? You programmed it at once and now you don’t have to keep doing it every day, right? So that’s fantastic part.
44:17 Robert Blanda: Yeah, take the chamber for example, there’s a lot of the things that have to be done and they’re generally the same. It might be one little variable in there, but they’re all the same. So I created a process and literally it’s a button. I push a button and those things freed me up, again, to go out and meet with more people and create great video and learn and I really wanted to further my education in the cinematic world. So that’s pretty much where I’m at now. But again, it was a learning curve, it was a process. This is all new equipment. This is not… Again, it’s not something you just buy off the shelf, and so you have to take that time to learn it and then you have to teach somebody on your staff how to use it.
45:00 Kurt Baker: That’s incredible. Taking a process and automating it. Don’t we hear about that all the time and I mean, every business talks about that, but you actually did it and now you’ve saved yourself literally days of time. So you put in a little more effort upfront but over the long haul, you’re saving a huge amount of time, right?
45:14 Robert Blanda: That’s correct. Yeah.
45:15 Kurt Baker: So that’s amazing. So what have you noticed as far as some of the challenges we had back a few months, roughly, I guess, it would be March of this year, February, March, when we had some very big shifts due to this COVID-19 issue that’s going on. I mean, what did you notice there and what did you see personally as far as your business goes and things like that, what did you see?
45:36 Robert Blanda: Well, for one, we, because we were not a brick and mortar, all of our employees are remote and anything that we do, we’re shooting offsite. So really, we were already kind of prepared for this, what we weren’t prepared for is the fact that everybody needed help getting set up to work remotely. That was the one that was the first thing. They needed… Not your average CEO knows how to buy a web camera like a webcam or how to make sure your sound is right and hey, don’t use WiFi, you should plug it in and that kinda thing. A lot of people were not aware of these little tips and tricks. So these calls started funneling in and I was asked to do these remote webinars with the other companies that were having issues, they didn’t know what to do. So, I worked pretty closely with Tom McMenamin on one of these projects, and it really sparked a new idea, and I was very, very happy to take this on.
46:33 Robert Blanda: So, what we did was we call it Virtual Director. It may change. It’s a new concept. But instead of having a live webinar feed of three people, three talking heads talking, we decided that, “Hey, why don’t we interview each one of them? They can talk on the phone, but I’m gonna get three separate feeds from them. And let them go through their bullet points. And let them talk on the topic at the same time.” So now, what I’ve got is I got three computers, recording three different people. But because it’s live, I’m capturing it in time code and I can sync it up later because now I have a high quality video of each person. And now I can go back, edit it together, put in lower third graphics, make the sound great, put an audio bed there, put their slides in, and make it appear as though it’s actually live, and then re-broadcast it as a live event. So, this was very challenging because I would pop my head up on camera and say, “Alright. We gotta stop that right there. Can you say that again?” Or somebody’s kid came in the room, or something like that, which happens all the time. And if you look at the fails on YouTube, you look up Zoom fails, and you’ll see all these little nuances that happen during a web conversation. And they’re rather unfortunate.
47:51 Robert Blanda: So, I said, “Let’s keep it professional. Let’s do this the right way.” The quality was better. The audio was great. I worked with each person to make sure that the cameras were capturing their best. A couple of guys, I had to say, “You gotta turn your body around 180 degrees ’cause there’s a window behind you.”
48:10 Robert Blanda: And what kind of microphone do you have laying around? I had a old Radio Shack microphone. And we converted it with an adapter. And it improved the sound by 100%. I don’t know. There was a lot of little nuances there that we had to overcome. And once we put that first piece together, it was amazing when it went out live, because what the user’s seeing is pretty much a seamless webinar. And it didn’t need to be live. Didn’t need to be live. But you put it out there as a live thing, and it notifies people that this particular person or company is live, and it gets the same amount of attention.
48:43 Kurt Baker: Well that’s incredible. So, I know you’ve done some innovation and really kind of taken what is many people are viewing as a negative experience. And I think you’re showing some positive innovations that can come out of that. And I think, I’m hoping that that’s what a lot of us learn, right? None of us wanted this to happen, but I think there can be some positives come out of it. What do you think are some positives you could share that companies should start thinking more about that maybe they weren’t thinking about three or four months ago?
49:09 Robert Blanda: First, let me preface that by saying that I almost feel bad that there’s good friends of mine that are just out of work now. Some of them can’t even collect unemployment, and they’re struggling. And I recognize that. I certainly didn’t wanna capitalize it and rub it on somebody’s face. I just wanted to make sure our business was still up and running and trying to keep up with the trends. And fortunately, we’re in that business that we were needed. And business literally at March doubled or maybe close to tripling in revenue because of this. Now, where do I think it’s going? Let me give you an example. I think a lot of companies initially were very much against remote employees. Let me give you an example. The state, my better half works for the state. And trust me, she can’t wait to get back to work.
50:10 Robert Blanda: Now, the state, because they never offered this before, or they did and it was very limited, they’re looking at the cost savings at this point of remote employees. And they’re thinking, “First of all, it seems as though our employees are actually working more hours. They’re more productive for some reason, or at least some of them are. And we don’t have to pay that overhead to put them in a cubicle, and give them… Keep the coffee flowing, and the water cooler, and all the expenses that come with having an employee in the office.” So, they’re re-considering that business model to have remote employees. So, I think at some point, even companies that were completely against the idea, are completely revamping their business model saying, “We don’t need to have this person in the office. As long as we can trust them, we put in some good, solid policies in place, we can make sure that this happens. And that in turn is gonna help my business in the long run, because now I can help set them up with video servers, and their own ways of e-learning.” And by the way there’s another, one of our big, big skill sets here is e-learning. We’ve set up servers just for that. But consider all those little factors that are gonna save companies money. And I really do think that they’re gonna take that step. You’re gonna see a definite change.
51:25 Kurt Baker: Well, Rob, this has been amazing. I really appreciate you coming on and talking to us about all the different things you’ve been doing. And some of the forward-looking things that I think a lot of business I agree that are gonna look at incorporating, make themselves a little more efficiently. It’d be good for the company as well as for the employees when implemented correctly. You’ve been listening to Master Your Finances. You can listen to this podcast, as well as all of our podcasts by going to masteryourfinances.us. Remember together, we can master your finances so you can enjoy financial peace of mind.