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Client Spotlight: Jon Milavec and Jim Threlkeld, Mixed Bag Media

by | May 3, 2023

Jon Milavec and Jim Threlkeld are the media production team you dream about finding. With a love of curiosity, people, and the craft, Mixed Bag Media brings a full toolbox to your media project to tell your compelling story. In our interview, Jon and Jim share their perspectives on bringing together the right talent and keeping the right mindset on running your business.

how DID you started your business and how you got the name Mixed Bag Media?

Jon: The name came about from when I was at my last full-time job. I have a very clear vision of sitting with a coworker and saying, “You know, if I ever have my own company someday, I want to call it Mixed Bag Media, because I like doing all kinds of things.” That was really the genesis of the name, and it still holds true to this day.

For me personally and for us as a company, we are focused on video and photo production and image creation, but we love working with a lot of different people and different clients on different subject matter and being able to utilize a lot of different techniques to do what we do.

Were you working independently and came together to form this organization?

Jon: I was laid off from two full-time jobs in 2001. I took that as a sign that full-time work was not for me. That’s when I went out on my own. For a number of years, I worked as a freelance camera operator and director of photography, working a lot of corporate jobs, but also I got into television production. While I was using the name Mixed Bag Media during that period, it was really me as a freelancer out in the world.

Around 2010 is when I really started taking on more full productions. As I ramped up my client base and what I was able to do, I needed help. I utilized hiring and a few other freelancers, but then Jim came on board in 2013. We’ve been together ever since.

Jim: My background is more in motion graphics and animation, but I’ve always been a producer. I thought I was going to be an animator, but because I knew the business and I loved it, I became a producer. I worked with a studio called Primal Scream for twelve years and then in 2009 came my lay-off moment.

I worked with Turner Studios and some other studios after that. At one point when I was looking for more work, I came across Mixed Bag Media’s website. I looked at it, really liked what I saw, set up a meeting with Jon, and we hit it off. I started working there.

It’s interesting because I wasn’t as much in the live-action world, and especially not the documentary-style videos that we do. That’s not all, but a lot of what we do is documentary style. It was fascinating just to learn a different aspect of the business, a different aspect of production. That was a lot of fun, enjoyable, and educational, so it’s been great.

In the production world, your career can end up changing a loT

Jim: It is what’s fun about it. I’ll say this, too. When I was working in more of the animation and motion graphics world, I was at the office every day. I was at my desk every day. Well, in this world, I might be on top of Arabia Mountain in Georgia one day.

Jon: Or in a factory another day.

Jim: At a factory, that’s right. You don’t know where you’re going to be, because you have to get there to film it. That’s really one of the best parts of the job. Who knows where you’re going to be and who you’re going to be talking to? Those are really two of the interesting things about it.

Jon: What Jim just described is exactly what I’ve told people for years. That is the best part and my favorite part of what we do. You end up going to interesting places and meeting interesting people who do an incredible variety of things.

One of the funny questions that we often get is: “What movie stars have you met?” or “What rockstars have you worked with?” or “What celebrities have you met?” And we tell people, the work Mixed Bag Media does doesn’t tend toward celebrity in the pop culture sense, but we’ve met rockstars in the scientific world. We’ve met rock stars in the manufacturing world. We’ve met people who are probably going to cure cancer someday. Those are the people who we hang with, interview, and learn from when we’re talking with them. It’s not a rockstar in a traditional sense, but it’s a blast meeting the people who we get to work with.

The values of Mixed Bag Media come across clearly— heart and soul, collaboration, and curiosity

Jon: I love that those came across clearly. That makes me feel great. I’ll start with curiosity. One of the things that Jim and I connected with very early on once we met, was the idea that we both are very curious people. I think that’s part of what he saw on the website and once we met, we realized we both are curious individuals who like to learn about the world. That’s kind of where the idea of curiosity comes from.

One of the things that we tell people all the time is that we’re good at what we do because we want to learn about what you do. We’re not here just to make a video; we’re here to learn why you need a video and how we can make the best video for what you need. Curiosity is a big part of our own personalities, but we also see it as part of our value proposition for any potential client.

Then, for heart and soul. We love what we do, genuinely. We enjoy the work because of those factors—we get to meet a lot of people, we get to go to different places, and we get to exercise our creativity. We both know a lot of creative people who don’t necessarily get to do that for their work and get paid to do creative work.

Of course, there are a lot of hard days. There are a lot of days when you’re stressed out and you don’t love it. But there are a lot of days when you do. We try very hard to always keep that in mind and bring true heart and soul to what we do, so that people know we care and are doing our best to do a good job for them. Jim, you take collaboration; you can talk about that all day.

Jim: Sure. Collaboration is something we really enjoy. It wraps up with the other two values because part of the collaboration is getting to know the client, getting to know their story, helping them figure out what story they want to tell, and helping them figure out how to tell it. We don’t want to come in and railroad over a client, not listen to them, or not take their input into account. We want to be true partners with them. That’s just part of the enjoyment of the job.

Not only do we collaborate with the client, but we also collaborate with our colleagues as well. When we collaborate with the person shooting this video, we talk about some cool angles and some neat techniques we can use. What’s a way to frame this interview that we haven’t seen before, or use of sound, or use of nat sound, (just the natural sounds that you record) what’s a neat way to use that?

We’re always looking for new ways of doing things, and we crowdsource for ideas on that. If you have an idea, let us know. We want to hear it. Don’t be shy, speak up, because if we like it, we’ll incorporate it. That’s another part of that collaborative process.

You have a lot of documentary work in your portfolio. Tell us about your projects in that field

Jon: I can tell you one that really sticks with me from those early days when I was starting to produce videos on my own. It was 2009 when I got started, and 2010 when I felt like, “OK, this is actually working. I can do this in terms of making videos, not being only a cameraperson.”

A project that in retrospect I was way underpaid for, but loved regardless, was making a promo for the Intercontinental Hotel Group. This was specifically for the Intercontinental Buckhead in Atlanta. They sponsored the Aston Martin racing team. The Aston Martin racing team just happened to be coming to Atlanta for a race out at Road Atlanta. The Intercontinental Buckhead concierge at the time was one of the very best on-camera talents I’ve ever worked with. He was awesome, and we became good friends from this experience. We got to shoot a video that extolled the experiences available through the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead, including getting behind-the-scenes access to the Aston Martin racing team at a big event like this.

We went up in a helicopter. We were in the pits at Road Atlanta. I shot an interview with the crew chief literally in pit lane. We were just all over the place. It was a few days, from morning to late at night. It was just me, and it was still awesome. It was one of those times where you think, “Oh, this is what I get to do? This is what I can do for a living?” It was so fun. I still go back to watch that piece, and it still holds up. I still feel good about that video. That’s one that really sticks out to me as a favorite.

Jim: Yes, and I mentioned finding yourself on the top of Arabia Mountain. That’s a good example. We do a good bit of Higher Education work. That was for Agnes Scott College in Decatur. For that, we shot at Arabia Mountain, Piedmont Park, Dr. Bombay’s Tea Room in Candler Park, down at Krog Street Tunnel in Cabbagetown, and the High Museum of Art. Just for that one project, we were able to shoot in a variety of settings. Plus, we had the budget to hire one of the best Directors of Photography in Atlanta. Shooting with him and seeing how he worked was fascinating. It was a combination of working with someone who is one of the top shooters around and getting to go to all these really interesting places. That was a lot of fun.

Jon: That’s definitely a big one for me, too. That was a highlight. We knew when we were shooting it that it was going to be really good. There was no doubt, no question. It was like this is going to be really, really good.

What is one thing you really love about your work?

Jim: You never know where you’re going to end up and who you’re going to talk to; that’s part of it. Also, from day to day, with Mixed Bag Media, Jon’s the owner, and I’m the one employee. We run the company. Andy Warhol said, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” And, it is. There are so many things that you’re balancing in terms of resources, people, money, schedules, and creativity. I really enjoy that.

Some days I don’t feel like being creative, and I can just look at the financials that day. I dig in and start doing some financial projections or whatever it might be. There’s enough variety of things that we’re doing in all aspects of the business. I really enjoy that kind of variety.

Jon: I would definitely echo that in terms of variety, but I’ll add the variety of people who we work with and who we meet. In our world, we have our freelance crew list, which is camera people, hair and makeup people, and editors. We have all the different roles that are needed to make a successful video production or photo production happen. We hire those people per project. We’re very specific about who we hire for the specific project and its intent.

To touch back on collaboration, who you meet, who you know, the variety of people you work with, the variety of ideas that you encounter—that’s a big part of the fun for me on a daily basis. Working with different people at different times to execute different ideas keeps me creative and on my toes in terms of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

One of the things we stress all the time is the team aspect of what we do. We make it clear to any and all freelancers we hire that we want to hear ideas. I will have ideas all day long, and I know that most of them will work, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best idea. I want to hear all their ideas so that we can choose the best option.

I brought this up to kind of blow our own horn a little bit. Truly, the comment we get back most from clients is, “You guys made that so easy. I was so stressed out going into this. We weren’t sure what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, but you guys made it really easy and fun.” We try very hard to foster good teams and good relationships so that we have a great vibe and personality as a team in front of and with clients when we’re collaborating. That helps them not be stressed out about, “Oh, the fancy film people.” Instead, we want them to know that “No, we’re just here to make a video with you. Don’t worry about it. We’ll all have fun together.”

What do you find challenging about your work?

Jim: My answer would be similar to what I liked about it.

Jon: That was going to be my answer, too.

Jim: Some days there are 50 plates spinning. They’re all different, and they all need a different solution. Your brain needs to be working differently for all of them. You get into one, and you feel like that plate is going to fall off the stick over there. It can be stressful having all kinds of things happening at once and that wide variety of different tasks that you need to do. While it can be fun, it can be challenging as well. I don’t know if I dislike it, because it’s the job, but it can be challenging, for sure.

Jon: I definitely second what Jim said. On the whole, there’s not any part I truly dislike. It’s just some days, it’s just plain hard.

What have you learned since you’ve been in business that you wish you had known when you started?

Jon: Tons! I’m going to bring VaVa into this one. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been doing this for myself since November 2001. It’s 2023. I’m still learning about how to be an entrepreneur, how to be a business person, how to run a business, and how to lead people all the time.

My personal work mantra is “Be Better” meaning be a better leader, be a better owner, be a better person. If there’s a better way to do it, if there’s a better way to ask a person a question, if there’s a better technique to use, I want to try to find it. The reason that we started working with VaVa is because of this learning curve that I’m on personally and that we’re on as a business.

Our goal is to not just stay in the same place, not to keep doing the same thing we’ve done for years, but to grow. With growth comes more opportunity and in my mind, more opportunity equals more opportunity to be creative.

There were things that were just bogging down our process, our day-to-day. Once we had some extra money in the bank, we realized we had the opportunity to get some extra help. We were referred to VaVa by a photographer friend of ours. Very quickly after onboarding our Social Media Manager with VaVa, we got back in touch with our Account Success Manager, Claudette, and asked her for a Bookkeeper. Our Bookkeeper now has our accounting in better shape than it has ever been in, period. With the goal in mind of running a better business, being a better business person, that’s why we hire VaVa.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an entrepreneur?

Jon: Jim mentioned earlier that we do a lot of higher ed work with colleges and universities. A lot of the places that we worked with truly provoked entrepreneurial thinking and entrepreneurship as a career possibility for their students. While I love my life, when you’re talking to a 22-year-old soon-to-be college graduate, that seems odd to me because the entrepreneurial life is not an easy life. You have to be okay with spinning a lot of plates. You have to be okay with the variety of tasks and skills that have to be learned. You don’t get the opportunity to decide you don’t want to do something. Too bad, it’s your business! You better do it, or you won’t be able to pay the bills.

The entrepreneurial life means you have to be mentally tough and able to enjoy the ups and weather the downs. There have been times when Jim and I have been really tight on money. We were late on payments and bills. It’s tough. It can be really hard when you’re waiting on a check so that you can pay the freelancers you hire. And then they’re waiting on a check, and they’re not happy about that or want to work with you anymore because you didn’t pay them on time.

It’s awful, but it’s the reality of the situation. You can’t just throw your hands up. You’ve got to deal with it, hang in there, and pay them as soon as you can. You have to keep going and look for that next opportunity to be happy, to be creative, and to make something great.

IS Your advice is to make sure you have some experience out in the real world first?

Jim: Yes. And I don’t know if this is applicable to someone wanting to be in video work, but I’ll start with this. One thing that Jon and I look for when we hire people is independence of thought and self-motivation. Jon and I live by our to-do list. I can sit here and come up with my own to-do list and do tasks all day long. Jon might add to my to-do list as well, but I’ve got plenty to do that I can dream up.

I think having that self-starter ability to think through what needs to be done is essential. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do. I figure out what the situation requires of me, or if not me, what is an item here that I need to get someone else to do for me. You need to figure out what you need to do for yourself. You need to figure out what other people need to do, and then get them on board. I think that kind of imagination of seeing the job holistically is crucial.

Jon: I totally agree. That’s a great point about being able to create your own to-do list. That’s huge and not always easy.

What advice would you give someone wanting to hire a Virtual Assistant?

Jon: Well, just last week, we were on a call with a client and told her about working with VaVa. We were singing the praises of Virtual Assistants. So what would we tell someone who was interested in a virtual assistant? I would say, number one, know what you want from that person, in terms of skills and capabilities. Number two, you should touch on what Jim just described. Be able to create a to-do list for that person. Number three, know how much you want to spend on that person.

Number four, and this is actually a big one, know how much time you can dedicate to helping and working with that Virtual Assistant because there’s ramp-up time. There’s time to ramp up the process of working with that person. There’s also time involved in checking their work, reviewing what they did, sharing ideas, explaining ideas, and working through new possibilities.

Try to be as clear as possible about why you want that person. If you definitely need that person, then great—go for it. For us, it’s been an excellent addition to our workflow and our general business processes.

Did you find the onboarding process with VaVa helpful?

Jim: Yes, I would definitely say that. Honestly, both the VaVa team members that we work with were very quick studies. They learned what we needed very quickly. The onboarding process helped, but it was them. They could take on the responsibilities, and they grasped pretty quickly what we did need. They knew what to do and even suggested ideas of their own. Again, that collaborative aspect. They’d say, “Oh, that’s what you need? So why don’t we try this?” The onboarding process was good, but then they were just good people that fit in with us.

I’ll add something to what Jon said earlier, too. One question to ask yourself when it comes to a Virtual Assistant I think is: what task are you having to do that causes you pain, that you’re not particularly good at, that keeps you from doing what you’d rather be doing, and what I really need to be doing?

For example, bookkeeping, to the degree that we’ve ever done any bookkeeping, was purely because we had to come up with a way to keep order. It wasn’t like either one of us had any kind of background in accounting or bookkeeping.

Jon: Or desire to.

Jim: Or desire to, that’s right.

Jon: We are classic creators. Money has to be dealt with, not enjoyed.

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