Lee LeFever is one half of Common Craft, the other half being his wife Sachi. Their business is to explain things in a simple way using artwork cutouts and video. A couple’s labor of love has turned into the family business, and now LeFever has a book on the way too – The Art of Explanation. Lee was kind enough to share some insights into his work and life.
How did you come up with the idea of making simple videos to explain complex issues, and where did you find the courage to turn that into a business?
The idea for the videos came from a realization in 2006 that a big factor keeping technology from being adopted was related to communication. There were new tools like RSS, blogs and wikis that were often free, relatively easy to use and capable of creating positive change – and they weren’t being adopted because they were being poorly explained. The geeks were talking about the “how” and the mainstream needed to see the “why”. We call this an explanation problem and we set out to solve it with short animated videos. The “Common Craft Style” format we use today was my wife Sachi’s idea and is the only kind of video we make today.
We were lucky to have some viral success with the first videos, RSS in Plain English and Wikis in Plain English. These videos prompted companies to come to us, asking for videos for their products. It was a bit intimidating, as video production was still new to us, but we saw that it could become a big business for us, so the decision was an easy one. Our second custom video was for Google Docs in 2007 and that video is still going strong with over 4 million views. [editors note: see the Google Docs video at the end of this interview.]
How do you decide which to topics cover, and what does the pre-production of a video look like? How much time goes into producing a video from start to finish?
Last summer we switched gears and became a subscription service. Now professional educators become members of Common Craft to be able to download and embed the video library we’ve built over many years. An important membership feature is the ability to suggest and vote on video titles. This gives us a list of videos that are important to members and the last few titles we’ve produced were based on member suggestions. But we are always making videos that we feel are important as well. We call it “the zeitgeist” – what subjects need explanations most right now? This led us to videos that explain QR codes, for example.
Every video is different in timeline. Each one video starts with a script, which we consider the heart of any Common Craft video. I write the first versions and Sachi and I iterate from there. Some come out fully formed in the beginning, others can take weeks. We both have to feel that it’s ready and that feeling doesn’t come easy. From script we make a storyboard and iterate there too. Once the storyboard is final we can make the final video, including editing, over the course of 3-4 days. Sachi and I do everything in the process. Common Craft videos are 100% the product of Sachi and me alone.
The videos are made with lots of hand drawn illustrations and love. How conscious are you of the visual style, and how has it evolved since you started?
You know, it evolved naturally. I do the artwork and I never set out to establish a specific style. I just drew what I thought would work. Over time, it has developed into a part of our brand and I see it now as something that is unique in its own way. The drawings have become cleaner and a bit more consistent. Our process has evolved significantly. A couple of years ago I switched to drawing on a Wacom tablet and since then, all the images are digital. We now have a library of over 2000 digital images from the videos.
You started out sharing videos for free and now you have a membership based business model. What were your greatest concerns in making that transition, and how did you overcome them?
It’s been an a fun, interesting and educational transition. Sachi and I are business model geeks. We love trying to solve business problems and and Common Craft has been our laboratory. We got started on YouTube and some of our videos are still there, but a few years ago we realized that our business and content should be on our own platform and not YouTube. So we stopped using YouTube and published videos via commoncraft.com. This was one of our best moves because our videos get really good Google juice. Those links now come to us instead of YouTube.
We also realized that our videos are useful – they help educators do their jobs better. So we started to see our videos as products, products that could be optimized for and licensed to educators. This idea changed everything. We oriented Common Craft around licensing content we own and scaling back custom work. We’re dedicated to being a two person company and licensing is a model that scales the business without hiring a team to make more videos. It meant trading custom video revenue today for passive, scalable revenue in the future.
Now we use a stock photo model, where a watermark appears on videos that are free to watch on commoncraft.com. The idea is to make the content free to consumers for viewing and offer professionals a resource for using the non-watermarked videos in classrooms and on the Web.
You have a book coming out in the fall – The Art of Explanation. Could you tell us a bit more about the contents? What is the one thing you hope readers will take away from it?
Yes. We call our videos “explanations” and through making them for years and through having 10s of millions of views, we became students of explanation. We thought a lot about what it takes to make an idea easy to understand and realized that video is simply a medium. The lessons we learned about explanation apply to the everyday life of professionals. The big idea is that explanation is a skill that can be learned and improved. Our goal is to help professionals of all types build explanation skills and learn to apply them effectively. If you’re interested in following along, check out artofexplanation.com.
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